The site of standing stones at Wassu on the northern banks of the River Gambia is one of over 1000 such sites in The Gambia and Senegal which, collectively, were designated as a World Heritage Site in 2006. Wassu is the largest, best known (it features on the 50 Dalassi banknote), and most frequently visited of the Senegambian Stone Circle Sites, but, nevertheless, is off the usual tourist trail and requires some effort to visit. It is worth it, though, especially if combined with a visit to Georgetown or a cruise on the upper reaches of the River Gambia towards the border with Senegal.
There are 200 individual megaliths at Wassu arranged into eleven circles. The quarry where the stones were carved is close by and the remains of several megaliths which broke before they were finished, or whilst they were being transported to site, can be seen clearly.
As with Stonehenge, relatively little is known about the reasons for the construction of the stone circles, but it has been established that they were erected over 1000 years ago. Many skeletons have been unearthed below or near the circles, along with tools, pottery and ornaments, suggesting that these ancient monuments were originally put up as elaborate gravestones. However, this is unlikely as the human remains predate their headstones by a matter of centuries! Adding to the mystery, no similar memorials exist elsewhere in West Africa.
A visit to the site leaves you none the wiser! There is a small museum, but this only contains a few black and white photos depicting visiting archeologists, with no accompanying information as to what their conclusions were. All tourists are shown around the site by ‘the ‘Stone Man’, a colourful character who has acted as an unofficial ‘keeper of the stones’ for the past 20 years. He is unable to answer any questions about the history of the megaliths, but he will give you a photocopied A4 sheet of paper with patterns of unintelligible formulae, and baffling lists of numbers, written on both sides. He will also draw diagrams in the red earth with a stick which, equally, will leave you scratching your head and feeling rather bemused! He will point at random marks carved or weathered into the stones and try to get you to see that they are actually meaningful shapes and symbols from some extra-terrestrial source. All in all, it’s quite a surreal experience!