Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my new book called "The Stonehenge Bluestones" -- available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
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Saturday 2 March 2024

The Upton Lovell pebbles -- glacial erratics?

Source:  Wiltshire Museum, Devizes


I recall seeing this article before, but I did not pay much attention to it. Remiss of me.  It's about the Upton Lovell G2a burial on Salisbury Plain, in a circular mound first excavated by Cunnington in 1801 and later by Piggott.  The stones are of cobble size, up to 12 cms long.  They are all assumed to have been tools used for the working of gold -- and this is the emphasis of the article.

But what interests me is the fact that they are here on Salisbury Plain -- nice smoothed and rounded erratics including slate, quartzite, medium-grained sandstone, well-cemented sandstone, medium grained dolerite and greenstone.  It's just assumed in the article that these stones were carried around by somebody who might have been a shaman or a metal worker -- and carried in to this site from somewhere quite distant.  But people do not carry heavy stones around unless they have to, and it is perfectly possible that the stones were collected locally and used locally.  So here is a question:  might these stones have been discovered in a glacial deposit somewhere in the neighbourhood?


Crellin RJ, Tsoraki C, Standish CD, et al. Materials in movement: gold and stone in process in the Upton Lovell G2a burial. Antiquity. 2023;97(391):86-103.


Thursday 29 February 2024

The Battle of the Stonehenge Bluestones -- evening lecture


Fishguard & Goodwick Our History / Abergwaun ac Wdig Ein Hanes

Our March talk - booking open now. This should be one to interest everybody -and the speaker is our renowned local geomorphologist Brian John who himself lives on the slopes of the Mynydd Preseli.

"Over the last century there has been a vigorous debate involving earth scientists and archaeologists over the Stonehenge bluestones and their link with Pembrokeshire. How did they get from here to there?
In 1923, geologist H. H. Thomas claimed that glacial transport was impossible and that the bluestone monoliths must have been carried by humans. That modern myth has persisted to this day, and elaborated to include “bluestone quarries” and a “lost stone circle”. But does the evidence support the story? "


A few weeks ago the committee of the local history group at Theatr Gwaun in Fishguard invited me to give a talk on the dispute surrounding the bluestones -- and of course I agreed.   So here we go -- date fixed as 13th March, starting at 6 pm. I shall seek to be as balanced as possible in my presentation, and hope we will have a jolly discussion afterwards.

Everybody welcome!

Stonehenge photo used on the poster -- courtesy Simon Banton and the Stones of Stonehenge web site.

Archaeologists are their own worst enemies

Tony has drawn my attention to a strange article in the current edition of British Archaeology. It's an opinion piece on p 66, written by Dr Chloe Duckworth. It is entitled "Woke archaeology and culture wars" and while I am not entirely sure what its main point is, there is much in it that I agree with. She criticises equalities minister Kemi Badenoch for interfering in academia and for suggesting that a research article on the relationship between ethnicity and susceptibility to the bubonic plague was "sensationalist research" coming from "woke archaeology". Well, Badenoch is a very silly person who should keep her nose out of things she does not understand. She and her pet parliamentary rottweilers should know better than to interfere in the academic peer review and publication process. And to use the word "woke" as a term of abuse is calculated to appeal to the nasty people who lurk in the shadows at the far right of the political spectrum. In my experience, the great majority of academics of my acquaintance, across all disciplines, have liberal or social democratic tendencies and are rather good at empathising with those in society who are less well off than they are themselves. If that makes them "woke" that's fine by me. But it is a horrible and disgusting word that smacks of complacency, arrogance and intolerance, and I have an instant mistrust of anybody who uses it. So yes, go for it, Chloe, and flag up the general nastiness of Bedenoch and her ilk........ even in a sensitive and refined magazine like British Archaeology........

As for the rest of the article, I'm not so sure. Ostensibly it is about the Stonehenge road tunnel and ponders on whether it is woke (or not) to support it or oppose it. I have no particularly strong view on the matter of the tunnel, but I do think it's important for archaeologists to be respected by those who hold views that are not in tune with their own. And on this matter they are their own worst enemies. For example, members of the archaeology establishment have based many of their arguments against the tunnel on the emotional, spiritual or even mystical value of Stonehenge and its landscape. We have all heard about the "desecration" of the historic landscape -- and that arises, of course, from decades of myth creation. Gordon Barclay and Kenny Brophy are not alone in expressing concern about mythologisation and marketing of the Stonehenge landscape as something more religious than historic. That overblown view of the old ruin and its landscape, and the ground beneath, does not necessarily strike a chord with everybody, and especially with those who may be concerned with traffic safety and journey times!

At the end of the article Chloe seems to be arguing that archaeologists should be trusted by politicians and others because "scientific rigour" is built into their DNA. Yes, many archaeologists are scientifically rigorous in their work. But others are not, and they are the ones who blow their trumpets most loudly.  They may be technically competent, and indeed they use many high-powered tools in their investigative work -- so for them the term "technical rigour" might be more appropriate.  Some of them clearly have no idea what science is, or how it works.  On this blog, over the past 15 years, I have been highly critical of archaeologists who simply ignore inconvenient evidence, refuse to cite peer-reviewed articles that draw conclusions at odds with their own, and who appear more interested in developing exciting narratives than in finding out the truth.  We can blame "post-processualism" if we like, which at its core seems to demonstrate a profound mistrust of, and dislike for, academic or scientific rigour.  One of the leading journals, Antiquity, published from Cambridge University, seems to have abandoned scientific peer review and now routinely publishes papers that are so full of assumptions, speculations and confirmation bias that they should never have been published at all.  

If archaeology wants respect, on the matter of the Stonehenge tunnel or anything else, the academics need to sort out what they believe in and how they behave.

Wednesday 28 February 2024

Glacial Lake Nevern


Section from the definitive BRITICE-CHRONO map of the British Isles

I have done posts before on Glacial Lake Teifi and Glacial Lake Nevern.  The former did, I think, exist at one time -- and the evidence for it is quite strong.  But Lake Nevern? (That's the smaller lake to the west of Lake Teifi, shown in the Nevern Valley to the SE of Newport. Click on the map to enlarge....)  As far as I can see, it is figment of somebody's imagination.  I think it is a hangover from Charlesworth in 1929, based, as far as I can see, on no evidence whatsoever.

I live in the area that was supposedly submerged beneath this splendid lake, but in spite of enthusiastic searching, I have never seen any laminated silts or clays, or any other evidence (such as shorelines) that might encourage me to think of a large water body.  On the map two ice edge positions are marked in 
the Newport area -- and I can see no evidence in support of them either.

There is a big (and very thick) till sheet in the lower valley of the Clydach stream, but the sediments here do not appear to have laminations, and they are best interpreted as lodgement till.

There is a moraine, I think, in Cilgwyn, but that is not marked on the BRITICE map. The only features that might be construed as being associated with a large water body are as series of mounds of sands and gravels in the fields near Caersalem Chapel, at altitudes of 107m - 115m. Charlesworth originally proposed that water from this lake spilled over westwards through the Gwaun Channel. The channel has a humped long profile, with the hump at Llanerch, at 133m asl.   If there had been a meltwater lake here, that altitude would have set the water level.  But it is c 20m too high.  So there was no lake.

We talk often enough about myths and fantasies in archaeology.  But they exist in glacial geomorphology too...........

Beyond the Bluestones

Well, this looks interesting, but there is no way I am paying £16 for the privilege of reading it.  When I have something to go on, I will no doubt be tempted to comment..........

Bradley R. Beyond the bluestones: links between distant monuments in Late Neolithic Britain and Ireland. Antiquity. Published online 2024:1-8. 


Recent research has considered the relationship between Stonehenge and sites in south-west Wales, raising questions about whether the first monument at Stonehenge copied the form of an earlier stone circle at Waun Mawn and how the relationship between these sites was connected with the transport of bluestones between the different regions. But Stonehenge and Waun Mawn are not the only prehistoric sites in Britain and Ireland that share architectural elements and hint at social connections across vast distances of land and sea. This debate article explains how the questions raised about these Late Neolithic monuments can and should be applied to other monumental complexes to explore this insular phenomenon.

Antiquity , First View , pp. 1 - 8

Was there a Late Devensian ice-free corridor in Pembrokeshire? Update

Some of the sites cited in the QN paper.

The revised LGM map showing ice streams and directions of flow

I have noticed that the link used on my previous post about this article, about a year ago, does not work any longer.  That is because the QRA website has been redesigned, and because the archive of past issues of the journal has been made open access.  So (I think) the articles from all past issues are now readily available for anybody to view. Here is the correct link to my paper:

John, B.S. 2023. Was there a Late Devensian ice-free corridor in Pembrokeshire? Quaternary Newsletter 158, pp 5-16.

An ice-free enclave or corridor covering most of Pembrokeshire has featured in many of the recent reconstructions of glacial activity in western Britain during the LGM. This appears to be a hangover from the days when the terms “Older Drift” and “Newer Drift” were frequently used in the literature. However, the supposed ice- free corridor is not well supported in published studies, and it causes difficulty for those involved in ice-sheet modelling. With the aid of new field observations from scores of sites across West Wales, it is suggested that there is no convincing evidence in support of the ice-free hypothesis. The regional Quaternary stratigraphy in Central and South Pembrokeshire matches that of North Pembrokeshire and the St Brides Bay coast, and it is suggested that the whole of the peninsula was inundated by the ice of the Irish Sea Ice Stream travelling broadly NW to SE at the time of peak glaciation, around 26,000 years ago.

The paper incorporates a pretty radical re-interpretation of the field evidence from West Wales, and I'm pleased to say I have had many kind comments about it.  Nobody, thus far, has disagreed with any of it.........

Tuesday 27 February 2024

Was Salisbury Plain glaciated?


This is an  interesting "pseudo satellite"image created by Olav Odé, based on research by Kim Cohen and Marc Hijma, representing the situation in western Europe during the Elsterian glacial episode, around 470,000 - 420,000 years ago.  It's on page 38 of the Doggerland book published by Sidestone Press, and freely available for web viewing.

Forget about the artistic license employed in the portrayal of the surface morphology of the glaciated area!  The shadowed hilly areas bear no relation to reality or even glaciology.  There are some bits of the map that do not make much sense. But you have to enjoy the great slabs of broken ice shelf shown floating about off the south coast of Cornwall........

But what matters is the overall position of the ice edge, which is remarkably similar to that which Geoff Kellaway proposed many moons ago, and which I also proposed for the Anglian / Elsterian / MIS 12 glacial episode around 450,000 years ago:

This also coincides with some of the "outlier" models generated by the glaciology group from Aberystwyth University more than a decade ago.

On the Cohen / Hijma map we can see that the local ice caps on Exmoor and Dartmoor are incorporated into the "glaciated area"; that glacier ice is shown transgressing the northern coasts of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset; that the Somerset Levels are shown as glaciated; that there is an ice cover over the Mendips and the Cotswolds; and that Salisbury Plain is glaciated. 

Another interesting feature of the map is the portrayal of France as being largely covered by polar desert, with abundant small ice caps over many upland areas including the Massif central.

Yet another interesting feature --  the presence of a very substantial land bridge linking southern England to the continent.  This was important not just as a land bridge used by migrating human beings, but as a feature which must have affected local climate and precipitation patterns.  We must be careful about assuming that SW Britain was an area of temperate maritime climate characterised by relatively warm temperatures and abundant rainfall;  during this glacial episode (and maybe others) this was more likely an area of very cold and dry climate, as no doubt already identified by the new generation of ice sheet computer modellers.


PS.  I hasten to add that when I did my 2022 post about Southern England, I had no knowledge at all of the Dutch work on ice limits that found its way into print at about the same time.......