Picture: Speaking Stones of Namoratunga Pillar Site, Turkana, Kenya
Speaking Stones of Namoratunga are one of East Africa’s most intriguing archaeological sites. The site, consisting of a small cluster of cylindrical stones beside the road from Lodwar to Kalokol, near the western shore of Lake Turkana, is believed by some to have functioned as an ancient kind of stellar observatory.
A barren, rolling landscape and a ring of stones. Evidence of mysterious ritual feasts and astrological signs. The true purpose of the site long forgotten.
It’s an image that conjures up ancient Celtic druids on the English heath, but ring sites aren’t unique to the early cultures of the English Isles.
The Namoratunga standing stones near Kalokol, an ancient site from about 2,000 years ago that is still revered as an important ceremonial site by the local Turkana people today.
The site is visible are about ten one-metre-high stones, almost perfectly cylindrical, some tilted over, others fallen completely. There appears to be a vaguely east-west direction in their alignment, though that’s not at all clear.
Like a miniature Stonehenge, the pillars are a spiritual focus and the scene, usually in December, of a major gathering of Turkana clans.
The stones pre-date the arrival of the Turkana, however, and the Turkana themselves know nothing about their original purpose (the word namoratunga is used by them to describe any standing stone site).
One theory, that the stones were aligned with the positions of important stars in Eastern Cushitic astronomy and were therefore used to determine the dates of ritual ceremonies, appears to have been discounted, albeit not conclusively.
Some of the larger upright and tilted stones and small rocks placed on top of them. Traces of several circles of small stones are also evident. Around the site (within a radius of fifty to two hundred metres) are a number of very clearly defined rock mounds or cairns overgrown with yellow grass, some of them clearly delineated by a girdle of larger stones – as otherwise the dead would have had to have been carried for great distances to be buried here.
The sacred nature of the site – both in the past and to the present-day Turkana – may be explained by the nature of the rocks hereabouts: a mixture of volcanic and apparently rich haematite and copper ore (some rocks are quite positively rusty, others are covered in green verdigree).
This suggests that the site’s importance may be linked to iron- or copper-smelting or smithying – an art that has always had a magical aspect, both in Africa and elsewhere, including Europe where blacksmiths had alchemical connections.
The same rationale still applies to some Kenyan societies, where blacksmiths are both respected and feared for their powers: the magical process of turning stone to blade, and the association of blades and weapons with food and survival, and therefore life. For example, the Embu of central Kenya – wholly unrelated to the Turkana – had distinct periods in their calendar when smelting could take place. The amount smelted had then to last the whole year, as smelting was not permitted any other time.
The site is above but near a seasonal (flood) river (though December is apparently a dry month), and overlooks the lake some 20km distant. In the past, the lake shore may well have come right up to Namoratunga, presumably endowing it with more life than the baking hot and dusty climate of the present-day allows.
What was the origin of “Speaking Stones” to the site? Well, Turkana legend has it that once upon a time, there were no stones here at all. One fateful day, a small tribe of people were dancing on the site. Perhaps they looked strange, or had an unusual way of dancing, for when a group of strangers happened upon them (presumably the first Turkana to arrive here), the dancers pleaded with them not to laugh. The strangers, however, were unable to do so, and burst out laughing, upon which the dancers were turned to stone.
It’s all very mysterious and fascinating, though if your head starts spinning, you’ve probably caught sunstroke – it’s one of the hottest places in Kenya.