Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my book called "The Bluestone Enigma" -- available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
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Monday, 30 May 2016

The dead of Stonehenge -- more about bluestone use

Diagram from the article, showing the Aubrey Holes and (red dots) the location of cremated remains

Christie Willis, Peter Marshall, Jacqueline McKinley, Mike Pitts, Joshua Pollard, Colin Richards, Julian Richards, Julian Thomas, Tony Waldron, Kate Welham and Mike Parker Pearson (2016). The dead of Stonehenge. Antiquity, 90, pp 337-356


The assemblage of Neolithic cremated human remains from Stonehenge is the largest in Britain, and demonstrates that the monument was closely associated with the dead. New radiocarbon dates and Bayesian analysis indicate that cremated remains were deposited over a period of around five centuries from c. 3000–2500 BC. Earlier cremations were placed within or beside the Aubrey Holes that had held small bluestone standing stones during the first phase of the monument; later cremations were placed in the peripheral ditch, perhaps signifying the transition from a link between specific dead individuals and particular stones, to a more diffuse collectivity of increasingly long-dead ancestors.

Our research shows that Stonehenge was used as a cremation cemetery for mostly adult men and women for around five centuries, during and between its first two main stages of construction. In its first stage, many burials were placed within and beside the Aubrey Holes. As these are believed to have contained bluestones, there seems to have been a direct relationship between particular deceased individuals and standing stones.
Human remains continued to be buried during and after Stonehenge’s second stage, demonstrating its continuing association with the dead. Most of these later burials appear, however, to have been placed in the ditch around the monument’s periphery, leaving the stones, now grouped in the centre of the site, distant from the human remains.
Stonehenge changed from being a stone circle for specific dead individuals linked to particular stones, to one more diffusely associated with the collectivity of increasingly long- dead ancestors buried there. This is consistent with the interpretation of Stonehenge’s stage 2 as a domain of the eternal ancestors, metaphorically embodied in stone (Parker Pearson & Ramilisonina 1998; Parker Pearson 2012).

This is an interesting article which re-examines the cremated bone debris in some of the Aubrey Holes and which brings together the radiocarbon dating of many samples. The authors show a strong clustering of cremated bone samples over a five-hundred year period starting around 5,000 yrs BP, and they suggest that the practice of cremation may have come from Ireland, where cremations started somewhat earlier.  The authors repeat the thesis that the cremated remains were placed in the stone sockets of the Aubrey Holes which had previously been occupied by bluestones.  In other words, the old stone sockets were used as a cremation cemetery.  So clearly the authors are agreeing with the hypothesis that the bluestones were present in the Stonehenge landscape, and were being used in stone settings, before 5,000 yrs BP.

However, I cannot see any evidence in this paper to suggest that the 56 Aubrey Holes actually were used in association with an early  bluestone setting -- there is just an assumption that the holes are approximately the right size to have held small monoliths.........  That's not evidence -- it's supposition.

Also, I cannot see any evidence in this paper which supports this conclusion:  Stonehenge changed from being a stone circle for specific dead individuals linked to particular stones, to one more diffusely associated with the collectivity of increasingly long-dead ancestors buried there. This is consistent with the interpretation of Stonehenge’s stage 2 as a domain of the eternal ancestors, metaphorically embodied in stone (Parker Pearson & Ramilisonina 1998; Parker Pearson 2012). 

A stone circle for specific dead individuals linked to particular stones??  There is nothing here to support that contention.  In fact, it would be easier to argue that the bluestones had no significance whatsoever, if (as the authors contend) they were taken away so that the socket holes could be used for something else.  There is mention of Hawley's observations that some of the cremated bones seem to have been placed in smaller holes adjacent to certain Aubrey Holes (such as AH 7) while they still contained stones;  this is an interesting point, and it would have been interesting if the authors of this new paper had explored it further.

And as for the point about "the collectivity of increasingly long-dead ancestors" and "the domain of the eternal ancestors, metaphorically embodied in stone" --  that is all no less fanciful than the healing stone hypothesis of Darvill and Wainwright.

The point also needs to be made that this article tells us nothing at all about either bluestone transport or the picking up of bluestones in west Wales and elsewhere.  So there is no relevance for the glacial / human transport debate.  But MPP and his colleagues are clearly, in this article, seeking to promote the idea that the bluestones were highly revered -- and of course this feeds into their ideas about why Neolithic tribesmen would have gone to all that trouble in "quarrying" bluestones from their source areas in the far west.  That's the narrative, and they are sticking to it.......

Friday, 27 May 2016

Y-frame haulage mechanics

This latest stunt, designed specifically to grab media attention,  tells us nothing about long-distance stone transport that we didn't know already.  It also gave MPP and Barney Harris a chance to flag up, once again, their unshakeable conviction that they have Neolithic Quarries at Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog, whatever the evidence may show.   Clearly the view is that the juggernaut will not be diverted by some pipsqueak geomorphologists and geologists who fail to see the noble works of man when they look at them -- so the best tactic is completely ignore whatever inconvenient material may have appeared in print.

Anyway, there are a couple of interesting features of the new experiment.  First, the "rollers" are not rollers at all, but 2m lengths of timber cut lengthways in half with the aid of a circular saw.  So they have a flat face which rests on the ground, and a semi-circular upper surface which stays put when a heavy sledge is pulled across it.  Fair enough.  That means the point of contact is very small, and friction is reduced.  But could somebody please explain to me how vast supplies of logs 2m long would have been neatly sliced in half in the Neolithic?  And what sort of effort might have been necessary in order to strip off bark and remove all of the stumps of smaller branches, using just stone tools?

The Y-shaped sledge is also something very peculiar.  How many trees are there in this world that have symmetrical  forks with two equally weighted or developed trunks gently spreading away from an initial single trunk? 

And then there is the interesting method of placing the stone with its long axis not in the direction of travel but perpendicular to it.   This may be OK for a stumpy stone up to 2 m long, but some of the Stonehenge bluestone pillars are longer than that, and to transport those in this fashion would have led to huge unstability, and everything would have deteriorated into chaos on rough or sloping terrain. Even more of a problem on a side slope.   You could overcome this problem to some degree by having TWO Y-frame sledges side by side, with a long pillar strapped across both of them -- but then you would also need split logs twice as long to rest on the bumpy ground beneath.

Now here's a nice idea.  Let's get all those jolly students and their logs and Y-frame away from their leafy London park and down to Pembrokeshire to re-do the whole experiment on the boggy moorland near Brynberian........ and I and some other hostile natives could turn up and throw stones at them, just for fun! (Is that allowed by the health and safety people?)

Gordon Pipes and stone rowing

This is from the Heritage Journal web site.  Hadn't covered this experiment from 2005 before.  All very nutty and jolly.  Keeps people out of mischief, I suppose. Nice flat lawn, as usual, carefully manicured and smoothed poles, good solid rectangular block of concrete, and beautifully shaped timber beams on the ground, presumably cut and planed at the local timber yard for maximum efficiency.  No expense spared.  Why don't these hearty experimental archaeology gangs ever try to replicate real world situations, with bogs and terrain littered with boulders, forests, steep slopes, fast-flowing streams, fierce wild animals and hostile natives throwing stones and spears?  Now THAT would really be fun........


How DID they move the bluestones?

26/05/2016 in Experimental Archaeology, Stonehenge

An experiment by University College London has just shown that mounting huge stones on a sycamore sleigh and dragging it along timbers required far less effort than was expected. According to Prof Mike Parker-Pearson: “It was a bit of a shock to see how easy it was to pull the stone.”

It reminded us of experiments starting in 2005 organised by Gordon Pipes, a carpenter from Derbyshire and a member of Heritage Action. He formed a group of interested amateur antiquarians, including mainly our members, called ‘the Stonehengineers’ and staged a demonstration (appropriately, at the National Tramway Museum) of a method he believed may have been used. He called it “stone rowing” and his idea was that lifting the stones on levers and moving them along in a series of short steps would involve less friction and therefore require less effort than hauling them on rollers – so far fewer people could have been involved.

Subsequently, joined in by many well-known archaeologists Gordon demonstrated both stone rowing and traditional hauling methods at the Channel 5 Stonehenge Live event. The spectacular feature was that about thirty people were easily able to pull a 14 ton block (equivalent to 3 or 4 blue stones) uphill.  As we wrote at the time …..

“It became clear that hauling could be made far more efficient than had previously been demonstrated, particularly by using far smaller rollers. In the end the consensus was that both methods might have been used – hauling for level, solid ground and rowing for when the ground was problematic or steeply sloping. It was certainly felt it would be difficult to imagine stones being manoeuvred around corners or over streams or lined up to precise positions without a degree of rowing being used.”

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Whatever happened to the great stone lift?

.......... so all those nice enthusiastic people at UCL decided not to lift a stone at all, but to pull it along on the lawn instead.......

Couldn't resist this pic when I saw it!

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Isles of Scilly -- where are the meltwater deposits?

These are interesting images of the Isles of Scilly.  The first is a NASA image, and the lower one shows the position of the coastline about 5,000 years ago.  The area shown green on the map was not inundated by the rising sea level until after this date -- and maybe this is where all the meltwater deposits are located.  No matter where the actual maximum extent of the Devensian ice might have been, the ice must have come in from the NW (ice flow is almost always broadly perpendicular to the broad alignment of the ice front).  Some of the other geomorphologists writing about the Scillies seem to have assumed that the ice must have flowed from the NE towards the SW, but that defies all the glaciological rules!

The actual ice edge, when seen in detail from a satellite, must have been crenellated or fingered, with lobes of ice flowing into the straits between the islands.  I have reconstructed this ice limit on an earlier post.  Because the ice was rather thin, when it wasted away almost all of the meltwater flow must have been within these lobes, and largely at the base of the ice.  So we have to assume that the meltwater deposits which must have been laid down as the ice melted away are all beneath present sea level, in the area shown green on the map.  They must also have been reworked and redeposited by wave action as the sea rose, and some of the material must have been incorporated into the modern sandy and gravelly beaches that fringe the islands.  I am not aware that any work has been done on this yet -- but some coring of the sediments within this area might yield interesting results.

Foel Drygarn

Wow -- what a fabulous image.  Courtesy Bluestone Coast and Country / Visit Pembrokeshire / Pembrokeshire CC.  It' a winter photo, with the sun casting long shadows on the northern flank of Mynydd Preseli.

Students move one-tonne stone!!

Breaking news!  Amazing.  And to prove that they really did it, it's on the BBC web site.

Strange how the world is endlessly fascinated with this sort of stuff.  Obviously nobody told them that Atkinson and his tame schoolboys did it all before, back in the 1950's.  It didn't prove anything then, and it proves nothing now either, especially since this was an extremely small stone on an extremely flat piece of lawn.

Ah well, one mustn't object to a few students having a pleasant afternoon out, in a London park, in the sunshine........ after all, I've done a bit of stone pulling myself, back in the good ol' days of the Millennium Stone Project......