THE BOOK
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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Friday, 14 January 2011

Inside the Neolithic mind




I was looking recently at Rodney Castleden's very readable and entertaining -- and wonderfully fanciful -- tome called "The Making of Stonehenge" -- and marvelling at his attempts to see into the minds of the builders of Stonehenge.  In one place in the book he suggests that the bluestones were stolen from West Wales as a deliberate act of aggression, designed by the powerful tribes of Wessex as a snub (or a demonstration of political power and technical expertise) to the lesser tribes of West Wales and Ireland.  Elsewhere he suggests that the stones might have been taken as a diplomatic gift from these poorer tribes to the ruling elite on Salisbury Plain.  Then again, he thinks that the stones might have been part of a process (over quite a long period of time) of diplomatic exchanges of "prestige" gifts.  Herbert Thomas and Richard Atkinson speculated on similar line many years ago -- indeed they both found quite attractive the idea that there was once a bluestone circle on the slopes of Preseli, made of locally derived stone monoliths,  which was for some reason dismantled carefully and shipped off across the Bristol Channel regardless of the physical challenges that there might have been.  More recently, MPP, MP, TD and GW have all speculated on these lines, referring occasionally to "tribute stones" or totems brought eastwards from West Wales as part of some ceremony involving ancestor worship.  I have blogged about this before.  I almost feel a novel coming on..........

To come down to earth with a bump, one needs to take a look at Steve Burrow's book called "The Tomb Builders" which concentrates on Neolithic Wales between 6000BP and 5,000BP.  This is exactly the period during which the bluestones at Stonehenge must have been shipped, if you are into that style of thinking.  In Chapter 4, on the availability of materials for the erection of megaliths and the building of tombs, he says: "There are no instances in Wales where it can be demonstrated that megaliths were carried great distances to build a tomb at a specific location."  Again:  "..... construction involving megaliths was usually carried out near the source of raw materials."  Again: "... tombs are located within easy reach of a supply of boulders or quarry stone that could be used to form their large covered cairns." Then finally, having examined the evidence from all of the megalithic monuments in wales, he concludes: "..... the evidence suggests that they (the tomb builders) were keen to minimise the amount of effort their enterprises involved without compromising the ambition of tomb building.  Fortunately, in a land as rich in stone as Wales, this still allowed them many opportunities to site tombs at locations that would add both drama and significance to their enterprises."

So our Neolithic ancestors were pragmatic, opportunistic, focussed on economy of effort, and adaptable as far as building materials were involved.  They were also scavengers in the sense that they collected and used stones wherever it was most convenient to do so.  Stone availability was a prime consideration in determining where tombs were built and where they were not.  So much for ley lines, astronomical observations, earth energies and sacred geometry.....

The strange thing is that Steve, having talked so much good sense about Neolithic megaliths, cannot find the courage to part company with his peers in the archaeology establishment.  He talks of the supposed transportation of the Preseli bluestones from Wales to Wiltshire for the building of Stonehenge as "the remarkable exception."  Ah, the conservatism of the academic mind, and the importance of peer group pressure!  I wonder what the archaeology establishment would have done to Steve if he had had the courage of his convictions and concluded:

"All of the evidence from Neolithic Wales suggests that the tribal groups of the time had neither the technical resources nor the desire to carry large numbers of stones from Pembrokeshire to Wiltshire.  If there are lessons to be learned from Wales, we have to conclude that the builders of Stonehenge used whatever large stones they could find in the immediate vicinity of the monument."

11 comments:

TONY said...

I think it is inevitable that some in the broader "archaeological" fraternity who possess more creative imaginations, such as Rodney Castleden, may at times allow their cerebral creativity to get the better of them. I believe Rodney Castleden started out as a geomorphologist. He has subsequently written tomes on quite a few "popular" semi-archaeological subjects, ranging from Stonehenge to King Arthur and to the Mediterranean civilisations.

I suppose we all like a "good yarn" occasionally.I,for instance, recently found myself watching 15 minutes of Harrison Ford as "Doctor" Indiana Jones in a completely IMPOSSIBLE adventure - before switching off!!

TONY said...

Brian, on the subject of Preseli, what do you think of the ideas expressed by N.P. Figgis in "Prehistoric Preseli: a field guide", Atelier Productions, 2001, pages 47-51?
As someone who has looked at this study, but never walked in Preseli,I would be intrigued to hear your views on Figgis' often reflectively considered opinions.

TONY said...

Yet another angle for you to ponder, Brian: Julian C. Richards (he of the current - but outdated - 2005 edition of the official English Heritage Stonehenge Guide Book) has an interesting video of him "explaining (to a group of visitors) about the Stonehenge bluestones".

The video was submitted to YouTube by Debbie Flints and can be viewed at:-

www.youtube.com/watch?v=InoAhdtl-s0

JR says on camera that he "always found it difficult to work out why they brought such a mish-mash of (bluestone) rocks..........." Had "what they brought already some specialness?". So he is allying himself on this film (however I do not know how long ago this video was made and so whether he would today still have this firm viewpoint of human transportation of the stones) with the notions of diplomatic gifts or tribute you allude to.

Julian is these days not working for English Heritage but is freelance.

He also says on camera that, whilst he may show his audience examples of bluestones with mortice holes in fallen lintels, no stones with tenons of the same spacings as these lintels have been found, ie to match the mortice holes.

He goes on to speculate that, were the matching stones originally brought from a finished stone circle (complete with matching tenons and mortice holes) in Wales?

We all like a good yarn.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Yes, I quite like Figgis's book. Generally he writes in quite a considered and responsible way. But the section to which you refer is very out of date now -- it was written more than 10 years ago, Also, he accepts rather too easily for my liking the idea that there were 80 or more bluestones moved from A to B, and he is wrong on some of his assumptions re the origins of the stones. But it's interesting that he picks up on the fact that bluestone 'objects' found in Southern England are lithologically related to the Stonehenge bluestone assemblage -- the point made by Olwen Williams-Thorpe and colleagues some years ago. as you know, I have suggested that Stonehenge might have been a quarry and a site for the manufacture of bluestone ceremonial and utilitarian items (tools, weapons, axes, maces etc).

Interestingly, he mentions the similarity between Bedd Arthur and the Stonehenge horseshoe. Bedd Arthur is definitely an oval, and not a circle -- and I have always felt that it is a partially completed portal dolmen. The outline, the inward lean of the stones, and the flattened portal end all look remarkably familiar!! I wouldn't mind betting that there is a collapsed cromlech in the middle of it -- or maybe those big stones were stolen by some local farmer looking for gateposts....

TONY said...

The correct website address for the Julian C Richards' video on Stonehenge & the bluestones I have mentioned is:-

www.youtube.com/watch?v=1

This is sufficient to reveal the video via Google.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Neither of those URLs seems to take me to YouTube -- malformed link, so they say.......

BRIAN JOHN said...

Ah yes -- this is it!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1noAhdtl-s0

What he is doing here is articulating exactly what Herbert Thomas said, all those years ago. It's no more sensible now than it was then, now that we know that some of the stones have not come from the area of the Carn Meini outcrops. Julian Richards should know that, if he has been keeping an eye on the geological developments. And he also falls into the trap of simply assuming that there was a complete monument available to be moved from A to B.

TONY said...

The book, "The Tomb Builders", by Steve Burrow, you refer to as providing cautionary information on prehistoric stone building and collecting activity in Wales, is written by a Curator at The National Museum of Wales, and so his views should indeed be respected.

Perhaps it would be interesting to hear Steve's views on the alleged long-distance transportation of Preseli/ West Wales stones to Wessex. I suggest his views, if expressed privately, might well differ from what he has been prepared to put into print!

TONY said...

Julian C Richards' website (recently updated, unlike the 2005 English Heritage Guidebook on Stonehenge he wrote) is:-

www.archaemedia.net/

-and is a lively website to view.

I remember Tony Robinson, on one of the Stonehenge "Timeteam" specials, insisting that this Guidebook is well out-of-date following the Stonehenge Riverside Project's revelations.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Yes -- an informative site. I like his way of communicating -- but I'm not sure that I see any more openness when it comes to ideas -- and not much questioning of the religious orthodoxy relating to the bluestones .... or am I wrong?

TONY said...

I think your comments concerning Steve Burrow's book "The Tomb Builders" may also apply to the content - thus far - of Julian Richards' website.

I refer to your phrases "the conservatism of the academic mind" and "the importance of peer group pressure".

Perhaps we will just have to patiently wait and see if Julian will be more forthcoming on his website, particularly in relation to the bluestone question, in view of the gathering geological evidence which will eventually be revealed comprehensively in the Stonehenge Riverside Project's final reports.