Moving megaliths: the Stonehenge-Asia link

I recently gave a talk at the Society of Antiquaries in London about how observers in British colonial Asia – mostly civil servants during the years of the Raj, when the Crown claimed the right to rule India between 1858 and 1947 – recorded their impressions of people creating megaliths. In diaries, talks, books, or articles scattered across titles such as Antiquity, Folklore and the Empire Forestry Journal, colonial personnel described people working stone and moving and raising megaliths and other large objects, and – which is how I was drawn into the topic – made explicit comparisons to the great monuments at Avebury and Stonehenge.

The observers I picked out range from a school inspector across 19th-century India, who was briefly superintendent of the Calcutta Botanical Garden and later worked at the gardens in Kew, to a forester in the Malayan Forest Service, who escaped to Sumatra in 1941 before Japan invaded and joined the Royal Indian Naval Reserve. The people they saw taught them ideas about engineering, ritual and social practices, that heavily influenced 20th-century notions of ancient Stonehenge (up to a point – watch the talk). A handful of Asian people unwittingly came to influence public perceptions in Britain of how Stonehenge was built, and now offer critical material to help us think about Neolithic Britain – distant societies linked by a shared interest in large stones, reaching across millennia, with much potential for future research and collaboration.

I called the talk “Stonehenge & the British Empire: an overlooked debt”, and you can watch it here:

What you can’t see there (and no one in the audience could see at the time because I seem unable to master that particular technology!) was an extraordinary short video. So I’m describing it here, where you can watch it. With added bonus.

The sequences were shot by Ursula Graham Bower. She was dubbed the Jungle Queen or Naga Queen for helping to organise men against Japanese soldiers in the Second World War (much of the stuff you can read about her is, shall we say, very colonial). Born in 1914, she spent nearly a decade in the far north-east of India among Naga people in the late 1930s and early 1940s. When she died in 1988, she left an extraordinary record: an autobiography and a mass of archival material, part of which is now in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. And she recorded, and filmed, megaliths being moved.

As well as thousands of photos, her archive includes significant colour film shot on a Bell & Howell camera. Some of it was digitised in a pioneering project at the University of Cambridge in the 1980s led by Alan Macfarlane – who was born in Assam, and whose parents worked on tea plantations by the Naga Hills.

Because of the early date of this digitisation project, memory and costs were big issues. Only 30 minutes of more than six hours of film were scanned, and the online images are very low resolution. Some short clips, mostly just seconds long, can be found on The Digital Himalaya project website. It’s quite difficult to find things, and I joined together a few of these clips to make a little movie.

The original film (which I haven’t seen) is said to be in the Pitt Rivers Museum Archive, Oxford. It shows a number of Zemi people moving a grave stone at Laisong ahead of a Hgangi festival in 1941. People are carrying a megalith. This was not an experiment for TV, it’s real. The stone looks similar in size to a typical Stonehenge bluestone – weighing perhaps one or two tons. We knew people carried stones in this region as we’d been told so, notably in the 1920s by John Hutton (who joined the Indian Civil Service in 1909, and as Commissioner for the Census of India encouraged officials “to produce descriptive accounts of the tribes and backward communities with which they were familiar”, before becoming professor of anthropology at the University of Cambridge). Hutton wrote several articles about megaliths in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Society, but one in particular was aimed at archaeologists, in Antiquity (Hutton 1929, below), and featured a photo of men about to lift a stone into the air:

Nonetheless, the practice of carrying stones seems to have been overlooked by archaeologists until recently, when Barney Harris drew attention to it (adding, “The vast majority of documented megalith-building groups, however, transported large stones by securing them to timber sledges”, Harris 2018, 277). Graham Bower’s film shows the practical reality of what might feel like a most unlikely thing to do. Here’s my clip, about a minute long. It did really happen:

I discovered Graham Bower’s work when I was researching my book, How to Build Stonehenge. I wrote about it there, and we reproduced one of her photos from the Pitt Rivers Collection:

Here’s another photo, with the description “the headman on the right has the special cloth of a man who has performed a ‘stone-dragging’ ceremony” among the Mao Naga in Manipur, dated 1937–39. The Pitt Rivers photo collections are very special.

I found these film clips as my book was going to press, and got very excited. People actually carrying a megalith! And now, as I write, I’ve just found this, below: 24 minutes of Graham Bower’s film put on YouTube by Macfarlane in 2014. It’s better resolution than my little clips, and it includes them with a little bit more. You can see the stone moving sequence from 8.55 minutes in; it lasts about three and a half minutes. There’s also a captivating sequence of men carrying some very large timbers out of the forest starting at 7.22 minutes. But really the entire 24 minutes is stunning, even without sound or commentary. A comment by sammmael dee (“3 years ago”) reads, “I’m a Zeme and am truly thankful for her book, her photos and videos”.

In my book I also write about megalith moving (on a much larger scale) on Sumba, an island in Indonesia, and refer to a video in a footnote. You can watch it below, it’s about 14 minutes long. It was made by the island tourist board and has Indonesian commentary, and even if (like me) you can’t understand a word it’s utterly compelling; seeing this contributed to my belief that tracks must have been laid to move the sarsens to Stonehenge. The video concludes with some rather brutal animal sacrifices, which you can avoid seeing if you wish by stopping at around 11 minutes.

Archaeologists can learn from these extraordinary scenes. Creating megaliths is not as challenging as you might think, and there is much more to it than engineering. And these archives are especially precious, I think, to the people who appear in them, and their descendants and compatriots. They deserve to be better known and further researched.

Harris, B, 2018. Roll me a great stone: a brief historiography of megalithic construction and the genesis of the roller hypothesis. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 37, 267–81.

Hutton, JH, 1929. Assam megaliths. Antiquity 3, 324–38.

One thought on “Moving megaliths: the Stonehenge-Asia link

  1. Mike – The film clips are fascinating, not just the technique but the associated faffing about, geeing up, music and so on – and sacrifices to thank the Gods for job well done. Gives a real idea of how this might have worked.

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