Archeologists uncover a Russian ‘Stonehenge’

Russia now has a Stonehenge of its own. In the summer, a 4,000-year-old megalithic structure was uncovered at a Spasskaya Luka site, in the central Russian region of Ryazan. This structure, which, archeologists believe, was built as a sanctuary, sits on a hill overlooking the confluence of the Oka and the Pron rivers. The surrounding area has always been seen as an "archeological encyclopedia," a kaleidoscope of cultures ranging from the Upper Paleolithic to the Dark Ages.

"If we look at this archeological site as represented on a map, it will be a circle seven meters in diameter, marked with pillars, half a meter thick and the same distance apart from each other," says the expedition leader Ilya Akhmedov, who works in the Moscow Historical Museum's Archeological Monuments Department. "Here's a large rectangular hole and a pillar in the center of the circle. The wooden pillars have not survived, of course, but the large holes from which they once stuck out can be seen pretty clearly. Along the edges of the site there are two more holes. Originally, there may have been four of them, but the bank over here is being destroyed by a ravine, so the temple has caved in partially."

Another hole with a pillar has been unearthed several meters east of the site. And there is also one to the south, which was discovered three years ago. "In all probability, there's a second row of pillars surrounding the shrine, a dozen meters away," Mr. Akhmedov says.

The two pillar pairs form a gateway, which, if looked through from the center, will provide a spectacular sunset view in the summertime. Another pillar, behind the circular fence, points to where the sun rises. The monument's structure has prompted scholars to advance a hypothesis about its astronomical purpose. The objects found here must have been designed with religious ritual in mind.

The size of the holes varies from 44x46cm to 75x56cm. A small ceramic vessel has been found in the central hole. It is finely decorated with zigzags, resembling sunrays, and with curly lines, which symbolize water. Archeologists specializing in the Bronze Period have recognized the artifact as dating back to "their age." Visually, it is reminiscent of objects produced by southern Eurasian tribes.

Fragments of long bones and teeth have been extracted from one of the holes outside the sanctuary. These are believed to be the remains of a sacrifice. But neither can we disregard the fact that the large holes were used for burial. A layer of organic decay has been discovered on the bottom of the central hole-archeologists put the decomposition of bones down to some peculiar properties of the local soils. The remains found here may well have belonged to a posthumously sanctified tribal chief.

Old sanctuaries are often located beside burial sites. This is attributable to pagans' view of death as the point of transition to the afterlife. In ancient folklore, not only the life of nature was seen as a cycle, but human life was, too. The solar and the lunar cults were related to the cult of fertility and to the mythological link between life and death. There are numerous tombs at Stonehenge and Avebury - Europe's most famous circular-shaped sanctuaries. The very idea of a circular structure goes back to ancient legends about the Creation. The circle - a magic geometrical shape with no beginning or end - was regarded as a symbol of eternity and infinity.

There is more than one cemetery at the Spassakya Luka site. Finno-Ugric tribes arrived here at some point during the period known as the Great Resettlement. Interestingly enough, not a single one of their tombs encroached upon the ancient observatory, a fact suggesting that they must have known about the structure's sacral significance.

The old Ryazan sanctuary is, indeed, a unique monument. Similar monuments have been found in southern Russian steppes and in the trans-Urals tundra, but these are not as representative and have few artifacts.

Sanctuaries with pillars began spreading across Europe at the end of the 1st millennium AD. Some examples have been excavated in the modern-day Czech Republic and Slovakia. "There can be no blood kinship between the ethnic groups who erected Stonehenge and the Ryazan observatory," Mr. Akhmedov contends. "The latter obviously points to some influence by migrant groups from the southeast of the Eurasian steppe."