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Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Sacred Stones and Madagascar


Last night I had an interesting conversation with a good friend who was for a time a missionary in Madagascar.  We got to talking about sacred stones, and he told me about the "ancestor stones" of the tribal community in which he spent ten years.  He also described the "domain of the dead" which was inhabited by the spirits of the ancestors who were left there, not cremated but slowly rotting away.  He described how the ancestors were occasionally carried back to the village from the "domain of the dead" and given food to sustain them.  Then they were taken back to the domain again, by a complicated and tortuous route designed to make them lose their sense of direction.  This was so that they would remain in their domain and not be tempted to come back to the village -- thus allowing the living to get on with their lives.  Each family had standing stones in or near the village which were greatly revered, since they "held" the spirits of the ancestors.

Clearly it is incredibly difficult to transpose or import a belief system from Madagascar into a UK-based neolithic community, but this appears to be what Mike Parker Pearson has done, in conjunction with Ramilisonina.  Over the last couple of years this theory has been expounded in a number of articles, and on the telly -- but not by any means to universal acclaim.  As many others have pointed out, the traditions and beliefs of the Madagascar tribes are not actually more than a few centuries old, and to claim that there is some sort of universality to the belief system involving "ancestor stones" would be a grave mistake.  Most of the tribal groups of the world do NOT have this belief.  It seems to me that MPP has invented the Stonehenge "domain of the dead" as an explanation for what he has found (or imagined) at Bluestonehenge, and as a counterbalance he has then imagined that there must have been another area (around Woodhenge) which must have been the domain of the living.

An anthropological leap too far?  Is MPP looking for a reason to label the bluestones as sacred or special,  and then by extension to justify the imagined stone-collecting expeditions to West Wales? I think so.

There is also a problem over designating the burial area as "the domain of the dead" -- maybe that is to put a "western" construction on it.  My friend told me last night that the belief in his village was that the ancestors simply passed on, and were really still alive but in a different world of their own.  So they were still present, and could be communicated with.  So you had to revere and respect the ancestor stones -- to do otherwise might well bring bad things down upon your family.  In that village they did not practice cremation, since maybe they felt that that would somehow destroy the spirits of the ancestors.  It all goes to show how hard it is for us to see inside the heads and the hearts of people living in totally different traditions and in other lands.

Anyway, for what it is worth, here is an interview I came across with Ramilisonina.

This is from the Archaeological Institute of America web site:
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.
Never stone?
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.


Anonymous said...

Hi Brian,
By highlighting the fact the Malagasy 'ancestor stones' belief system is only a few centuries old (and therefore of no use in interpreting Stonehenge) you are in fact demonstrating your failure to understand what a relational analogy is.

Well done.


BRIAN JOHN said...

Leaving your heavy sarcasm to one side, B, I think I know what a relational analogy is. I know next to nothing about this field of ethnography, but I tried to report honestly on the things my friend told me. We both know that analogies prove nothing -- and no matter how the Madagascar analogy might be, I still think MPP and his colleagues (of whom you are one?) have made wild and rather irresponsible leaps of faith in their explanations of the "purposes" behind some of the features in the Stonehenge landscape.

BRIAN JOHN said...

... sorry, I intended to put this: "...... how attractive the Madagascar analogy might be..."

B said...

Hi Brian,
Excuse the sarcasm - though I do find it to be a recurrent feature of your posts.

You're right in pointing out that analogies prove nothing, however I fear your going to be sorely disappointed if your waiting for anyone to prove anything about the meaning or purpose of Stonehenge and its surroundings.

Is it ever possible to definitively prove anything about purpose or meaning of prehistoric monuments? In short no, because as Sahlins famously commented - "The people, they're dead". Archaeologists might as well pack they're bags and go home, or perhaps retire and start a blog.

Alternatively they could opt to provide strictly evidence based interpretations of the past and I would be interested to know your opinions on this. Empirical analysis and scientific enquiry can, and must, be used to make solid, factual (for you perhaps 'proven') statements about ancient environments and material culture, but how far does this actually get us?

Up to around the late 1970s as it happens - after which processual archaeology was thankfully abandoned. Again, I would find your opinion on this interesting.

I think it's important to understand what archaeologists like MPP are attempting to achieve when using analogies like the above. Strictly speaking his interpretation is not much different from your rather nice suggestion that Stonehenge, like the henge at Achill, might have been built as a symbol of protest. Your suggestion used the intentions of a 21st century western property developer as analogous whilst MPPs used the beliefs of a modern tribal community from Madagascar who use stone to venerate the ancestors.

Importantly, both are interpretations are valid and neither one can either prove nor disprove the other. My suspicion is that your trashing of MPPs theories is because you feel it is somehow unjust for one interpretation to be valued more highly than another, especially when people are making good careers out of it.

Yet, if you think it's possible to say anything interesting about the meaning or purpose of millennia old monuments without being wild or irresponsible then i'd have to question your grip on reality or, if you'd rather people refrained from saying anything about these things which can't be proven we'd be faced with an archaeology of statistics which would be to deny the meaning that we invest in the material world on a day to day basis (plus, your Achill theory would be breaking the rules).

BRIAN JOHN said...

Mr B -- or whoever you are (I hate this Anonymous stuff, and offer much greater respect to those who are honest enough to use their own names)-- many points here.

Let's make it clear -- I have nothing against analogies. We all use them in our interpretations, in all fields of science. this particular blog is full of them, some more tongue-in-cheek than others. I really respect archaeologists who investigate carefully in the field, lay out their evidence honestly and accurately, examine alternative explanations for what they have found, and then (using analogies from elesewhere) suggest working hypotheses for what they think has been going on in the area of investigation. then, all being well, and with due respect for science, they and others test the working hypothesis to destruction and modify it if necessary. (It always is necessary...)

What I object to is crap science, in which archaeologists (some of them very senior figures)invent evidence, tell lies, and impose a ruling hypothesis which cannot possibly be supported by the evidence which they have placed in the public domain.

Why do they do this? God knows. You tell me. But it does archaeology no good at all.