Megalithic Monumentality in Africa: From Graves to Stone Circles at Wanar, Senegal

By Laporte, L.; Bocoum, H. et al. | Antiquity, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Megalithic Monumentality in Africa: From Graves to Stone Circles at Wanar, Senegal


Laporte, L., Bocoum, H., Cros, J-P., Delvoye, A., Bernard, R., Diallo, M., Diop, M., Kane, A., Dartois, V., Lejay, M., Bertin, F., Quesnel, L., Antiquity


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Introduction

The megalithic phenomenon in Senegambia belongs to the protohistoric period, early second millennium AD, which is closely linked to the context of emerging states (Bocoum 2000). Megaliths were erected in association with the establishment of state structures in West Africa, first in the area delimited by the Niger and then as far as the Atlantic coast (Gallay 2011). Even today these monuments signal strong identity values, as the megaliths symbolise an ancient history that is specifically African.

The megaliths of the Senegambian area near the Atlantic coast are characterised by upright blocks or pillars of laterite, carefully worked to a smooth surface. Most are set in a circle, others are isolated, and yet others, dubbed frontal stones, were erected east of the stone circles, as single blocks or in one or more rows of parallel stones. Among the frontal stones, those that exhibit two upright parallel branches, sometimes held together by a tenon, have been called lyre-stones (see below); there are no parallels for them in the African megalithic tradition. All the stone formations seem to mark underlying burials.

In this region, some 29 000 upright stones making up close to 17 000 monuments are known from some 2000 sites (Martin & Becker 1974). Delimited in the south by the river Gambia and in the north by the Saloum, the complex occupies an area of c. 30 000[km.sup.2], from the Bao Bolon basin in the west to the Sandougou in the east; this corresponds to one site per 15[km.sup.2], and this density is even greater in the western part of the distribution area. The megaliths of Senegambia were drawn to the attention of the academic community from the end of the nineteenth century onwards (Todd & Wolbach 1911; Jouenne 1918). Old glass slides recently rediscovered in the archives of the Institut Fondamental d'Afrique Noire (IFAN) in Dakar show that the megalithic sites were once located in wooded areas, in a landscape very different from that of today, although not necessarily representing any earlier period (Figure 1). The phenomenon is generally ascribed to a period between the seventh and fifteenth century AD, but secure dating evidence has remained sparse.

In the 1970s, an accurate inventory of these monuments was prompted by increased agricultural activity that opened up the landscape and allowed greater access. The monuments, which have been compared, erroneously, to African mini-Stonehenges, are still largely unexplored; in Senegal, the work carried out by Thilmans and Descamps remains essential (Thilmans et al. 1980) as is that carried out around the same time by Main Gallay (Gallay et al. 1982, 2010). Four megalithic sites, Wassu and Kerbach in Gambia, and Sine Ngayen and Wanar in Senegal, were listed in 2006 as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. New excavations, directed by Holl and Bocoum, have been carried out since 2002 on the site of Sine Ngayen (Holl & Bocoum 2006; Holl et al. 2007).

Investigation of Wanar

The site of Wanar in the district of Kaffrine in Senegal (coordinates: 28 P/X-433 215/Y-1 531 930) has not been investigated previously (Figure 2). It contains some 20 megalithic monuments, including a double circle as well as another circle accompanied by two frontal lines, and is characterised by numerous lyre-stones. Following some exploratory sondages in 2005, a French-Senegalese cooperative project was started in 2008 to undertake research in advance of a mise en valeur of the monument (Laporte et al. 2009). The intervention required careful planning. During the dry season the clay sediments dry out, become uniform and have the consistency of powder, so that stratigraphic excavation is impeded. Excavation campaigns were therefore programmed at the end of the rainy season, with the dry season reserved for survey work.

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Our results are based on a detailed examination of the stratigraphy combined with open area excavation of the monumental structures which in the past have mainly been studied through the burial assemblages. …

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