The Sunday News
Cultural Heritage, with Pathisa Nyathi
UNDOUBTEDLY, revisiting the African Stonehenge, the Nabta Playa, has added new dimensions towards a better understanding of the former. Earlier forms of stone circles witnessed less developed ideas and with time, these became more developed and ideologically more advanced. From the first article what emerged clearly was spacing between stone uprights.
This was a practical consideration when we consider if the monument was indeed a celestial observatory and calendar. The sun, for example, had its light rays captured rhythmically or cyclically as pointers to equinoxes and the solstices (occurring twice every solar year), both summer and winter.
In essence, four upright stone pairs occur within that cycle which were accordingly calibrated and devoted to track down solar movement and thus herald coming of the seasons and associated agricultural, ritual, ceremonial and cultural activities and events.
The stone circle was thus some sort of celestial calendar with the circular stone uprights monitoring the more frequent cycles such as lunar and solar cycles. However, the longer cycles were captured by the central stone uprights which aligned with stellar constellations such as Osiris Orion and others. These had attended interpretations are solar-based.
The solar cycle is 365 days and the seasons change and occur within that period of time. It is important to note that celestial bodies had and still have different rhythms. These had their alignments with central stone uprights observed.
Radio-carbon dating from the fires made outside the Nabta Playa stone circle monument indicate that the ceremonies were held thousands of years ago, testifying to cycles that exhibit long term rhythms.
In addition, the Nabta Playa tracked stellar movements. There were six stone uprights which aligned with certain stellar constellations. This gives emphasis to the fact that several stellar constellations were monitored and had attached significance and meaning which saw the ancients celebrate the much-awaited events stellar occurrences.
This was possible on the assumption that the ancients possessed more knowledge of Astronomy and Physics than we imagine today. It is only now that Asro-Physicists, Archaeo-Astronomers are beginning to acknowledge the vast knowledge that the ancients possessed in these fields.
At the Nabta Playa the six central stone pillars were aligned to Arcturus, Sirius, and Alpha Centauri.
Nocturnal navigation is possible where positons of stellar bodies are known. Direction and orientation in the vast firmament can be figured out.
This was all the more important within a physically featureless Sahara Desert. Where terrestrial navigation was excluded, celestial navigation was the only available alternative.
Stellar cycles of important constellations were tracked through the celestial calendar, on both long-term, medium-term and short-term bases. Given the attached meanings to the various stars and planets their movements and relative positions were celebrated with pomp and ceremony where rituals were held, all calculated to ensure continuity of humanity and its associated life forms where there is mutual dependence.
What has emerged from observations of the Nabta Playa has been dependence of its inhabitants on land, agriculture, water, the stars, cattle and the spirits. This points to the utilitarian nature of the stone circles which sought to perpetuate the human species.
There were offerings, sacrifices and libations that were presented to spiritual characters whose existence depended on death and related tombs and graves.
Rituals, sacrifices, offerings, where these were presented were in recognition of the existence and presence of the divine and the sacred. There were always the spirits of the dear departed once-living human beings who transited to a new dimension of existence.
Where this is the case, one accordingly expects to find tombs which are markers of transition from ephemeral life to eternal life in another dimension-that of the characters who reside in a different realm, the spiritual realm.
As pointed out in some earlier article, the basis of this belief emanates from the Principle of Duality of Being where a given community posits that a human being has two components: material body (ephemeral and transient) and the spirit (enduring and eternal life in a different dimension).
Related to this is the recognition of the omnipresent and omnipotent attributes of spirits, hence the sacrifices and offerings as ways of seeking their favour, power and potency from them for continued life as expressed through the continued possession of land, water, agriculture and livestock. This renders another dimension to the stone circles-namely the existence of tombs.
Here we need to be circumspect and pinpoint the important aspect-enduring life in spirit form beyond the tombs. It is the living spirits that matter but only come into being after death and related burial rituals. Fred Wendorff, Eide Mariff and Romualdo Schild discovered the Nabta Playa with guidance from an Arab Bedeouin.
The desert people relied for their continued lives on the Nabta Playa which monitored life-giving events which were as a result of stellar movements. Life-giving cosmic movements were mirrored on the terrestrial front through the circular stone structures.
One of these men wrote, “I discovered that these stones were part of major tumulus (burial mound). A pile of these megaliths formed a covering of a tomb and it turns out that one of the megaliths that we found buried in sediment formed a line, like spokes in a wheel radiating out.”
Where sacrifices and offerings do take place there has to be the presence of spirits, deity and the sacred and the divine. Nabta Playa was no exception. We begin to wonder whether Stonehenge ever was.
The monument was not merely about navigation nocturnal navigation, but a celestial observatory that was central to both spirituality, the basic belief resident in the stone circles prevalent at the time. There were early efforts where humanity sought to link the heavens and the earth. “As above, so below.”
For cattle herders, livestock played an important role in the community’s life. Cattle burials were found encased within rock. Underlined and underpinned here are the concepts of spirituality and eternity as expressed through solidity of rock and eternity of spirit.
The link between death, spirit, eternity, and spirituality become obvious in addition to the utility functions relating to the celestial calendar. It all comes together as expressions of continuity, eternity, endlessness and perpetuity of humanity and the fertility of the physical environment.
One important association that becomes observable is that between Astronomy and African Spirituality. This certainly is not unique to Africa. Spiritually endowed individuals were the custodians of Astronomy and were involved it monitoring celestial body movements.
For example, among the Dogon people of Mali there was/is a “priest” role it was to keep track of the movement of the Dog Star with a cycle of 60 years. sustenance. Conservation was spiritually based and Spirituality was the guiding philosophy that steered the ancients towards eternity.
Let us conclude with what has been gleaned through revisiting the world’s oldest celestial calendar. Circular movement of celestial bodies is best tracked by circular structures. The ancients appreciated the link between terrestrial events and the movement of the various celestial bodies which in their view acquired godly significance
Through the broken stone circles and the central stone stone pillars several celestial bodies of varying cycles were monitored.
Astronomy and Spirituality were two sides of the same coin. Both had a bearing of the fate of humans on the terrestrial dimension. Spirituality never was for its intrinsic value. Utility was of the essence. Economic considerations were important and were expressed through both Astronomy and Spirituality both of which were characterised by eternity (of life), the desired attribute seen as being resident within the cosmic bodies.
Before we undertake the return journey to Stonehenge it might be worthwhile interrogation the basis beliefs of the Mayan people who, like the ancients at Stonehenge and Nabta Playa, built megalithic structures.