By Nigel Thorpe
Senior English Editor
Albawaba.com - Amman
Serendipity has often played a major role in great archeological discoveries. The most recent serendipitous discovery came as a group of archaeologists, wandering across the desolate landscape near Yemen’s Red Sea coast, stumbled across an important site that they dubbed “Yemen’s Stonehenge”.
A wrong turn at a date palm during a sand storm on the west coast of Yemen led Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) archaeologist Ed Keall to a Stonehenge-like circular enclosure
with a ring of granite and basalt monoliths each of which are over 3 meters (10 feet) tall and seven tons in weight.
Archaeologists believe that the stone used to fabricate the pillars was quarried in the Surat Mountains approximately 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the monument and transported to the ancient building site by floating them across the Red Sea on rafts. The bluestones forming the first circle of the Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, are also thought to have been transported approximately 300 kilometers by raft across the sea and up rivers from mountain quarries in south Wales to Wiltshire in the southwest of England. The smaller but similar “Stonehenge-style” Yemini monument was also erected approximately 4,000 years ago and bears witness to a complex, well organized early Bronze Age settlement that probably had trading contacts with similar cultures in mainland Europe, southern England and Ireland.
The remains of a male skeleton were discovered embedded in layers of charred earth beneath one of the splintered monoliths. The excavators suggested that the remains may be those of a chief who was cremated and then buried within the sacred monument. The presence of carbon at the burial site suggests that it may be possible to date the “Yemen Stonehenge” monument more accurately by radiocarbon dating. This technique provided dates of around 2950 BC for the Phase 1 (main ditch) and 2,500 – 2,000 BC for the Phase 2 (Sarsen and Bluestone Settings) of the Wiltshire Stonehenge monument. A cache of artifacts including copper dagger blades, razors, and javelin points arranged in a geometrical pattern around a large chunk of obsidian (a “holy stone”) suggests that religious (votive) offerings were made at the Yemeni Stonehenge site.
The exact functions of the Wiltshire Stonehenge are still shrouded in mystery, but is now widely accepted that, in addition to other cultural, and religious uses, the monument functioned as an astronomical observatory to fix important days such as longest day (summer solstice) and shortest day (winter solstice) of the farming calendar. The grand scale of the undertaking certainly made it the “moon walk” of its day. Using pickaxes and rakes formed from deer antlers, and shovels fashioned from cow/ox shoulder blades, the first “technicians” of the Bronze Age shifted hundreds of tons of top soil, and manhandled giant stones weighing up to 50 tons each during their “henge” civil engineering project
The “Yemen Stonehenge” and Wiltshire Stonehenge are both, however, predated by the 7,000 year-old complex of slabs and stones found in the Nabta region of the Sahara Desert in 1998. The “Saharan Stonehenge” is at present the oldest known monument built as an astronomical observatory or as a center for religious rituals. The monument’s stone circle with its “two lines of sight” seems to be astronomically related. In addition to the obvious north-south axis, a second axis matches what astronomers have calculated is the azimuth (sunrise position) of the summer solstice sun 6,000 years ago.
Sometime, around 2000 BC, the Yemeni Bronze Age “Stonehenge” culture disappeared leaving only cryptic symbols in the shifting sand. Archaeologists hope that further excavations at the site will shed new light on the unknown early civilizations of the Arabian Peninsula and their trading and cultural connections with fellow stone circle and monolith builders in other parts of the ancient world.