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Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The bluestone argonauts -- why would they bother?

 A still from the BBC programme "The Story of Wales"

Last night we saw the first episode (number 1 of 6) of the BBC Wales / OU blockbuster series called "The Story of Wales" -- which dealt with prehistory.  In the section dealing with the Neolithic / Bronze Age some time was given to Prof John Koch, who made the point that the old idea of eastern tribal supremacy and conquest spreading westwards from the east and into the Celtic Fringe or Atlantic Seaboard was now discredited to be replaced by a view of the world in which the land was the least favoured option for moving about, with the early tribes (the Celts and their precursors) spreading gradually along the western coasts.  Then tribal trading contacts were maintained by sea rather than overland.  The view is now (according to Prof Koch) that trade, rather than invasion and conquest, was the driving force in the creation of what would later be "the Celtic World" of western Britain.

I have always thought that the idea of the human transport of the bluestones from West Wales to Stonehenge is underpinned by a presupposition that there was a dominant society in Wessex and a subservient tribal society in West Wales.  In other words, the Wessex tribes were more advanced and more powerful, leading to a situation in which they could collect stones from the far west with impunity, or on a whim, and that they had the manpower and technical expertise to do it -- or else that the western tribes might wish to carry the stones to their eastern neighbours as a form of tribute or homage. 

Might this version of events now need to be fundamentally revised?  If the Wessex tribes were not necessarily any more advanced or powerful than those of Pembrokeshire, and if the people of the latter area were perfectly happy, thank you very much, why would they bother to cart lots of very heavy stones all the way to Stonehenge?

It all gets very convoluted, and indeed MPP and his colleagues have explored this issue before, at the famous lecture in Newport last summer.  There, they argued for two very powerful tribal groups who came together in a great social and economic alliance -- in the first great political "unification."  The moving of the stones was the great symbolic act that cemented the union.   All highly fanciful -- see my posts here:

http://brian-mountainman.blogspot.com/2011/09/are-you-sitting-comfortably.html


http://brian-mountainman.blogspot.com/2011/10/stuff-of-nightmares.html

http://brian-mountainman.blogspot.com/2011/09/hq-of-nevern-valley-tribe.html

My problem with at least some of this is that I don't know how widely accepted this "revisionist" view of prehistory actually is.  As Wales and Scotland assert their identities and grab political control back from England, bit by bit, there is of course a tendency (encouraged by Welsh universities and research institutions) to flag up the "uniqueness" of the prehistoric heritage -- in exactly the same way as HHT used the bluestone transport debate to bolster English self-esteem after the First World War.    Sadly, we are never all that far away from political motives, even in what seems to be a rather esoteric debate about cultural assimilation, dispersal, parallel development and so forth........


13 comments:

chris johnson said...

I did not see the TV program, hopefully it will be repeated in my area.

According to what I know of chronology Wessex was on the late side. Brittany seems earliest, then Orkney, and the Boyne Valley is probably earlier than, say, Stonehenge. This would seem to indicate a West first model, perhaps extending back to the Mesolithic and confirmed by the genetics so far.

The evidence in Wales is scarce and perhaps crucial in deciding for a West to East cultural model. Brittany - Cornwall is also a clear possibility and then along the South Coast of England.

There is definitely a cultural bias at play - but this is an East to West bias. England has seen itself as the civilizing force and as we know the Romans and likely the Celts also came from the East. It is nice to see some balance entering the equation at last.

I am puzzled by your conviction that "the Wessex tribes were more advanced and more powerful, leading to a situation in which they could collect stones from the far west with impunity, or on a whim, and that they had the manpower and technical expertise to do it -- or else that the western tribes might wish to carry the stones to their eastern neighbours as a form of tribute or homage".

Did you suddenly convert to human transport as a possibility? Or was this a slip of the pen?

Part of the answer lies in Prescelli which is doubtless why so many famous names are taking an interest.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thanks Chris -- "I am puzzled by your conviction that "the Wessex tribes were more advanced and more powerful...."

No, not my conviction at all. I am singularly unconvinced! I was simply trying to express the viewpoint that I have picked up on over the years -- the archaeological orthodoxy, if you like......

chris johnson said...

Ah yes. I thought this is what you were meaning and glad you make it clear.

I suspect the wessex bands saw a connection with Presecelli, even when glaciers were responsible for a substantial part of the transport. I understand the learned professors speculate that there might even have been a colonizing expedition. We need more archaeological input from Wales - remnants north of Swansea, in the Brecon Beacons, but nothing really spectacular.

BRIAN JOHN said...

On what basis, Chris,do you think there were connections between Wessex and Preseli? It's difficult to know what spatial awareness there might have been -- there were no maps, and probably only very hazy mental maps held in the heads of a few people who might have been "navigators"......

And in which direction might the "colonizing expedition" have travelled? East to west, or the other way round? I agree it would be nice to know if there are other cultural associations dating from the time -- but as I have argued before, tomb types and burial traditions don't seem to reinforce the idea there there was any close association between Pembs and Wessex.

chris johnson said...

I think it difficult to find another explanation for the many similarities around these islands for building with stone and earth. It seems likely that camps like Windmill Hill were built as meeting places and this tradition continued into Stonehenge and Avebury days - meeting places mean bands of people moving around.

There is increasing evidence from DNA studies for the migration of bands from the early mesolithic, maybe earlier. I don't see why people would have lost the habit for a couple of thousand years in the Neolithic.

Your point on navigation and navigators is a good one and while we don't know how they did it we do know they had stars to follow, rivers and coastlines, and overland trackways dating back a long time. I don't suppose you yourself need a compass and a map to find your way in Prescelli through some fairly rough and featureless terrain. In my youth I did a lot of long distance walking in the Cheviots and we hardly needed a map even on unfamiliar ground - there is often someone to trust for their sense of direction - walking west to east along the Severn Estuary would not have been rocket science. At some point you would have turned South. One day I will get my maps out and try and figure where that might have been.

Your point on architectural detail is valid, there are differences, while on another level a stone circle is a stone circles. I live in Holland, close to the Belgian border and fairly close to Germany. I can tell immediately when I have crossed the border because the architecture is different - yes, we all live in houses but you can see the difference immediately. Having close contact with another community does NOT mean copying each other in every detail.

BRIAN JOHN said...

I wouldn't doubt that people wandered and even migrated -- after all, prior to the Neolithic there wasn't a great deal of permanent settlement, although maybe family groups and small tribes felt that they "owned" certain areas and maybe tried to exclude foreigners. Territoral instincts probably go back a long way. What interests me is the mental maps -- I suspect that they were rather vague: "towards the setting sun there are big mountains", or "five days walk to the south there is much sea, with good fishing".......

chris johnson said...

On mental maps I have a very different view. I suspect mesolithic and neolithic semi-nomads had a very detailed memory for geography - after all it was a very important skill to be able to find your way around without GPS.

We know today that the brain is a "massively plastic" instrument and changes physical characteristics as a result of cultural influences - so the brain of a musician is recognizably different to that of a non-musician. The basic raw material of a new neolithic brain was likely identical to a new born baby today, but what happened next is hugely different. They were not filling their brains with 20 years of schooling, reading, writing, and mental arithmetic - but it does NOT follow that large parts of their brains remained empty and unused.

The notion of land ownership and territory is another interesting point. In the neolithic I prefer to think that the deeply embedded traditions of hospitality for travelers and strangers had the upper hand - I see no evidence to the contrary and plenty of evidence to support such a narrative. This too would have facilitated the wanderer.

chris johnson said...

On mental maps I have a very different view. I suspect mesolithic and neolithic semi-nomads had a very detailed memory for geography - after all it was a very important skill to be able to find your way around without GPS.

We know today that the brain is a "massively plastic" instrument and changes physical characteristics as a result of cultural influences - so the brain of a musician is recognizably different to that of a non-musician. The basic raw material of a new neolithic brain was likely identical to a new born baby today, but what happened next is hugely different. They were not filling their brains with 20 years of schooling, reading, writing, and mental arithmetic - but it does NOT follow that large parts of their brains remained empty and unused.

The notion of land ownership and territory is another interesting point. In the neolithic I prefer to think that the deeply embedded traditions of hospitality for travelers and strangers had the upper hand - I see no evidence to the contrary and plenty of evidence to support such a narrative. This too would have facilitated the wanderer.

Tony H said...

Mike Parker Pearson is constantly saying (or was, up to, say, 18 months ago) that he suspects the folk who were eventually to conceive of, and construct, Stonehenge, had their origins in West Wales or western Britain. He finds it significant, dimension-wise, that an early Henge in NW Wales, at Llandegai near Anglesea, had very similar dimensions to the first bank and ditch at Stonehenge.And he wants the bones of the occupants of Neolithic Boles Barrow to be D.N.A.'d, to establish if any had Western British origins. If they haven't, it will be 'back to the drawing board', theory-wise.

Prof Koch, who you report, has similar views on the pre-eminence of trading contacts rather than aggression all along the Western Seaboard, as Professor Barrie Cunliffe's, a prehistorian of great repute and a Welshman.

Folk who today live in Wales, if they have proud Welsh ancestory, are themselves fascinated by what their Celtic origins could involve in terms of effects of invasion and so forth. But I doubt that they nowadays worry about outmoded notions that peoples beyond the Celtic Fringe (e.g. what we now call England) might have lorded above them as long ago as prehistoric times.

chris johnson said...

Tony, I think most welsh people today are as interested in their heritage as most other Brits - no more and no less. With a welsh heritage myself, I do not feel any special interest in what happened 5000 years ago in order to feel more welsh.

Brian says, probably correctly, that the new Welsh institutions have a bias towards emphasizing the importance of Wales, I note that English institutions, including the archaeological establishment, have an ancient and historic bias towards all things English.

When I was educated in an English school I was taught virtually nothing about Wales - the Welsh were good fighters who served in the English armies and in later days dug coal and slate. Oh yes, and we are good at singing.

I think the current generation of archaeologists are sufficiently objective in their pursuit of the truth.

Whether this ancient cultural contact was West-East or vice versa is not important to me. I would simply like to know. We should be aware of the cultural bias that still exists in the institutional worlds and take this into account..

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thinking of Wales (as one does, especially when there is a big rugby match going on) I was quite entertained the other day when the singer Donald Maxwell referred to St David as "the patron saint of leeks and male voice choirs"........ and of course the Welsh audience roared with laughter...

Tony H said...

What I said was most Welsh people with some Welsh ancestory are inevitably proud and interested in the land's ancient Celtic connections in just the same way as the Scots or indigenous Irish are. Quite understandable and natural. And I did in fact say that Welsh people are NOT bothered about outmoded ideas of a few esoterically-interested intellectuals back in the early 20th Century, suggesting those living further East may have tried to rule the roost over those in what is now SW Wales in prehistoric times.

I lived in Wales for nigh on 9 years and my son was born there. I married in Aberystwyth, and both my wife & I obtained career qualifications there. I helped the economy of SE Wales indirectly in my role in Environmental Planning. Moreover, I have close family connections with Pembrokeshire as my brother has loved and observed its landscape for over 30 years and has lived there for half of that time.

chris johnson said...

Tony, hope you don't feel I was arguing with your point of view or questioning your welsh credentials.

My own view - maybe yours - is that understanding context is vital to understanding history. Part of this is understanding the historical context, and part is understanding the context in which historians make their narratives.

When we look at the stone age, where there are very few solid facts, the cultural bias of historians become disproportionately important. Many aspects of ancient culture are assumed - so in the 20th century it was natural to look for invasions of Beaker folk, Celts, etc. After Hitler, research into racial differences was discouraged - Cro Magnon became "modern man". In 21st century, the internet age, we may place too much emphasis on communication and trade because that is our bias.

Looking forward to swapping ideas with you as this blog develops.