Wednesday, 9 October 2013
The Rhosyfelin Myth Machine
I went to a talk last night given by Phil Bennett, the Archaeological Heritage Manager for the Pembs Coast National Park. It was on the preservation of heritage sites within the National Park, and while I was quite happy with most of what he said, he was seriously astray when it came to talking about Rhosyfelin. I like and respect Phil, and have known him for many years (he has had responsibility for the Castell Henllys "Iron Age Village" for a long time now, and has done a fine job there) but he and I have argued about things before, and probably will again in the future.......
I wrote to Phil today about his talk, and thought it worth sharing my letter. I do this on the basis that when any one of us stands in front of an audience, and holds forth on something which we know something about, we have a duty to be accurate and balanced in what we say. We should also be prepared to defend EVERYTHING which we put forward as established fact or as "consensus scientific opinion". I think that Phil has been seriously misled, and I have to admit to getting very irritated when people like him, with gravitas and authority, are used to mislead and misinform -- and to perpetrate the myth that Rhosyfelin is indubitably a Neolithic Quarry.
By and large, people who sit in audiences in public lectures are ill-informed and gullible, and tend to believe or accept what "authority figures" tell them. They also love a good story, and of course they are for the most part predisposed to believe tales of heroic feats performed by our distant ancestors. That is why the "human transport" theory has survived for so long, and why it has become a "national myth." Everybody knows it, and audiences feel affronted when somebody like me stands up in front of them and tells them that it has no factual basis to it at all........ In such circumstances charlatans and opportunists thrive by giving people what they want in exchange for their £3 entrance ticket, and fantasy is dressed up as science, and hardly anybody notices what is happening. People seem to leave their brains at home when they go out for the evening. Probably they want entertainment, not enlightenment.......... As Tony has just reminded us, the Piltdown Hoax is not so far away.
Every time somebody like Phil stands up and gives a talk, and repeats the bits of comfortable misinformation they have heard from the Rhosyfelin digging team, the myth is reinforced. As I have said before, story telling, public relations and marketing appear to have entirely replaced the scientific method. And is the archaeological establishment (if there is such a thing) fast asleep in its open grave, waiting to die, while all of this is going on?
Thank you very much for your talk to PTA last night. It was a pity it was curtailed by those technical glitsches -- I was similarly afflicted when I spoke to the PTA about Rhosyfelin etc in a quite different venue, over a year ago. The Rhosyfelin goblins at work again........
I enjoyed most of what you said, and would like to have raised a number of issues with you if you had stayed a bit longer! So I'll do it now. My points relate to Rhosyfelin.
1. You are really rather careless in referring to the site with 100% confidence as a Neolithic Quarry. If I may say so, that's not good practice for an experienced archaeologist -- because no matter what MPP may say about his discoveries, what he seems to have discovered is a camp site used over a long period of time, with a pile of broken scree in the vicinity. I have seen NO convincing evidence that this is a Neolithic quarry site, let alone one that has something to do with Stonehenge, and at the very least you should reflect this uncertainty and ongoing debate in what you say to uninformed (and often very gullible) audiences.......
2. You said that two of the standing stones at Stonehenge had been provenanced back to Rhosyfelin by the geological detective work of Richard Bevins and Rob Ixer. NOT TRUE. None of the Stonehenge orthostats has been traced to Rhosyfelin. What the two geologists have done is trace some of the rhyolite debris in the Stonehenge Layer to localities in and around Craig Rhosyfelin.
3. You referred to the big "orthostat" as being self-evidently quarried because of the position in which it is lying. NOT TRUE. It is not aligned parallel with the rock face, and it is simply a large stone that has fallen from the face just like all the others above it, beside it and below it.
4. You mentioned the fact that the orthostat had been broken and had therefore been abandoned by the quarrymen. That's an unsupportable speculation -- ALL of the stones that have come from the rock face and from the crags above it are broken, to a greater or lesser degree! You could probably put many of them back together again if you were determined enough........... There's nothing unusual about the big one.
5. You referred to the big stone as being supported or underpinned by other stones, deliberately placed there by the quarrymen. That again is an unsupported assertion. As far as I can see, the stones beneath the big "orthostat" are lying in perfectly natural -- almost random -- positions, exactly where they fell. They appear prominent today because the archaeologists have taken away all the debris surrounding them -- in other words, what we see now is an "archaeological artifice."
6. You referred to the scratches or striations on that stone near the lower end of the "orthostat" -- and asserted that they were not natural, but were caused by big stones being dragged across them. NOT TRUE. Those apparent "striations" are in my view nothing more complicated or significant than outcropping foliations, just like the ones we see on the surfaces of many other stones in the bank of scree and rock debris. Those "striations" run in all sorts of different directions, right round the compass, as you would expect in a jumble of fallen rocks.
I could go on, but will resist. I know you mean well, and that you have picked up on most of the things you have said directly from MPP and the other archaeologists involved in this dig, but it really does nobody any good when mythology is perpetrated in this way. I appreciate that you are trying to encourage people to take an interest in archaeology and to value Pembrokeshire's rich heritage, and that's entirely laudable -- but when myth is turned into "fact" with the willing assistance of you and many other professionals, it does a profound disservice to archaeology -- which comes over as being unscientific and driven by fantasies and ruling hypotheses. Archaeology should be accessible and popular, but it should also be truthful -- and it should accord due respect to the views of people from other disciplines including glacial geomorphology. What is going on at Rhosyfelin is much too incestuous for anybody's comfort....... I get the impression that everybody who turns up there has come to worship at the shrine, and not to ask hard questions.
So please, when you have your sold-out big archaeology day in November, will you please encourage MPP to be rather more nuanced in his presentation than he has been in the past, and to allow for a degree of uncertainty in this business of the "Neolithic Quarry"?
All good wishes