A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Conversation: Sacred Stones
Volume 63 Number 1, January/February 2010
Exploring the connection between Stonehenge and Madagascar's modern-day megaliths
One of Madagascar's first native-born archaeologists, Ramilisonina's ethnological research on modern Malagasy traditions informs his study of ancient sites on the island. Together with Mike Parker Pearson of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, he also developed a new interpretation of the ritual landscape around Stonehenge and the nearby timber-post site known as Woodhenge. He spoke with journalist Richard Covington about the recent discovery of "Bluestonehenge", a site near Woodhenge and Stonehenge, and the similarities between Madagascar's living traditions and the burial rituals of Neolithic England.
What exactly did the team find at "Bluestonehenge"?
We discovered a circular ditch, inside of which were fragments of bluestones, large megaliths brought from Wales. Artifacts from the site date to around 2500 to 3000 B.C., the same era as Stonehenge.
How does Bluestonehenge relate to Stonehenge?
Bluestonehenge was a stone circle on the Avon River, and burial ceremonies could have begun there. The bodies might have been cremated at the site and then taken to Stonehenge for burial. We see the same sort of practice today in Madagascar.
What do you think was the purpose of Stonehenge?
It was a sacred place where people came to make contact with the creator gods and the spirits of their ancestors.
What similarities do you see between Stonehenge and megaliths in Madagascar?
In Madagascar, stone belongs to the world of the ancestors and is used to construct tombs and monuments. So stone in Madagascar is really for sacred purposes, for the dead. Wood is for the living. Houses here are made of wood or earth.
Before the 18th century, no one in Madagascar built a house in stone. Stone was reserved for the dead or to commemorate an important event. Stonehenge also seems to have been a monument to the dead.
Is ancestor worship still practiced in Madagascar?
Yes, there's still ancestor worship. In the capital, Antananarivo, you can say that people are civilized, Christianized. But it's here where you still find the greatest number of ancestor shrines.
Why is that?
In spite of Christianity, we still honor our ancestors. For example, on sacred hills with tombs, where people come regularly to pray to their ancestors, there is often a church just nearby. So, the Malagasy in Antananarivo go to church on Sunday and to the tombs of their ancestors on Monday.
How did you come to see a connection between the modern monuments in Madagascar and the ancient megaliths of Stonehenge?
Mike and I have worked together in Madagascar since 1991. We had many discussions about standing stones, and he invited me to come see Stonehenge. Even though the stones in Madagascar are smaller, I could see there was still a similar element of magic at Stonehenge.
Do you also see parallels with Woodhenge?
Yes. In Madagascar, people also create shrines in wood circles. The wooden monuments are placed in the middle of villages or alongside fields. Memorial stones for the dead are placed beside paths or roads.
Are there other ritual elements to the surrounding landscape?
There are sacred forests. But deforestation is a serious problem. I just returned from my village in the Bezanozano region and there were fires everywhere. My brothers were dejected because fires had burned down many trees. Archaeologists fight very hard for the protection of forests, which have very concrete evidence of our ancient culture.
Do people still erect stones in Bezanozano?
There are standing stones all over Madagascar, not just in Bezanozano. The way they are erected varies, but they are always connected to the dead, our ancestors, and invisible spirits, just as at Stonehenge.
Have you ever erected one?
Oh yes. After my father died 10 years ago, we erected a commemorative stone on the side of a road. We visit it to say our prayers and ask his help.Share