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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Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Yet more on the "quarries"-- scientific malpractice unrestrained

Here we go again......... more media coverage arising from the same old non-story.  The gullibility of the media knows no bounds. This "new" article was published on 18th February, and of course the "exciting" new idea of the A40 bluestone transport route is heavily featured in The Guardian and elsewhere. Free public access to the paper is here:

The most despicable thing about this paper -- and here I blame both the authors and the editor of "Antiquity"  -- is that there is no mention of the dispute about the origins of the "quarries" and no citation of the two "inconvenient" peer-reviewed papers by Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd, John Downes any myself that were published in 2015.  The authors know all about them.  They have never questioned the reliability of either our observations or our conclusions -- and yet they have wilfully ignored the research, in order to bolster the false premise that the quarrying ideas are unchallenged.  That is scientific malpractice, pure and simple -- and it is hardly credible that the community of academic archaeologists allows these people to get away with it.  Do they really think that their reputations are enhanced by such behaviour?   What do their own departmental colleagues and their students think?  What does English Heritage think?  What do the research funding bodies think?  I wonder.........  

This paper has been floating around for some time, and I have dealt with it in detail already:

As I said back in August:

So does this new paper move things forward, and give us the solid material we have been waiting for? Sadly, no. This is another flimsy piece of assumptive research, in which the central hypothesis (namely that there are Neolithic bluestone quarries in Pembs, used for the extraction of Stonehenge megaliths) is never questioned. It is simply taken as read by the authors (all 11 of them) that there are Neolithic quarries at Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog, and that there is no need to convince their readers of the correctness of their assumptions. This demonstrates extraordinary arrogance on the part of the authors, and it also demonstrates an almost complete lack of editorial scrutiny on the part of a serious academic journal. What does this tell us about the state of British archaeology? That's a question for another day.......

Please, dear God, when is this nonsense going to come to an end?

I also said this, and assume that somewhere there must be an archaeologist who took note of it:

This paper is so seriously defective, in almost every respect, that I find it bizarre that it ever found its way into an academic journal published by Cambridge University Press. It is not a research paper; it is piece of unabashed marketing. I have asked this before, and I ask it again -- where is the scrutiny from within the archaeological establishment? How is it that so many serious and senior archaeologists -- and two senior geologists -- have allowed their names to be attached to it as co-authors?

And the most serious issue of all. If I, as a local person with a detailed knowledge of this site and with an academic background, had not been around at this moment in history, and had not been able or willing to look at the excavation site and to scrutinise the research output from the MPP team, everything in this article would have been accepted as THE TRUTH. Just think about it..........

And think about this. If this is the level of non-scrutiny applied to Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog, how many other British archaeological sites are there which have been wildly misinterpreted and which have had nonsensical narratives attached to them?

Rhetorical questions, I know. But sometimes they are needed. Actually, rhetorical questions don't need answers. Maybe these questions do.

There are plenty of sensible archaeologists around. But when are they going to speak up? Quite seriously, if they do not, archaeology will become a standing joke.


Megalith quarries for Stonehenge's bluestones
Mike Parker Pearson , Josh Pollard , Colin Richards , Kate Welham , Chris Casswell, Charles French, Duncan Schlee, Dave Shaw, Ellen Simmons, Adam Stanford, Richard Bevins  and Rob Ixer
Antiquity, Volume 93, Issue 367
February 2019 , pp. 45-62

Geologists and archaeologists have long known that the bluestones of Stonehenge came from the Preseli Hills of west Wales, 230km away, but only recently have some of their exact geological sources been identified. Two of these quarries—Carn Goedog and Craig Rhos-y-felin—have now been excavated to reveal evidence of megalith quarrying around 3000 BC—the same period as the first stage of the construction of Stonehenge. The authors present evidence for the extraction of the stone pillars and consider how they were transported, including the possibility that they were erected in a temporary monument close to the quarries, before completing their journey to Stonehenge.

There is a reference to the "Millennium Stone" fiasco, no doubt designed to discredit the "sea transport" hypothesis and bolster the A40 hypothesis:


These are the two 2015 articles -- both carefully edited, peer-reviewed and revised in line with referees' comments -- which Parker Pearson and his colleagues apparently cannot bring themselves to read, let alone cite or discuss in print.
Brian John, Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd and John Downes (2015a) "Quaternary Events at Craig Rhosyfelin, Pembrokeshire." Quaternary Newsletter, October 2015 (No 137), pp 16-32.

Brian John, Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd and John Downes (2015b)  "OBSERVATIONS ON THE SUPPOSED “NEOLITHIC BLUESTONE QUARRY” AT CRAIG RHOSYFELIN, PEMBROKESHIRE". Archaeology in Wales 54, pp 139-148. (Publication 14th December 2015)

Sunday, 17 February 2019

The Devil's Stone at Shebbear

I just came across this wonderful photo by James Ravilious of the turning of the Devil's Stone at Shebbear in Devon. A little reminder that there are erratic boulders in the strangest of places.......

Flights of fantasy re the Stonehenge stones

Katy Whitaker:

Many thanks to Katy Whitaker for sending me, on request, her paper recently published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology.  She knows I'm going to criticise it rather energetically -- so all credit to her!

Anyway, as I expected, it's a rather strange piece of work, and it's difficult to know whether it is
serious in its intent, and whether Katy actually believes what is now in print. It was intended to challenge accepted theory, and in her Acknowledgements she describes how the gauntlet was thrown down:

In 2016, the conveners of the third Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Research Students’ Symposium threw down a gauntlet. The provocation, ‘Anarchy in the UK?’, challenged speakers to construct alternative pasts diverging from, disrupting, or inverting, linear narratives of social evolution in the period c.4000 cal BC–c.1500 cal BC. This paper resulted from that challenge. This work was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (grant number AH\L503939\1) through the South, West, and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership.

All that having been said, this is now a paper in a learned journal, and it should have been  subject to proper review.  Frankly, I'm amazed that it has found its way into print, and that the Editor and referees have not insisted on much tighter writing and much more careful consideration of a wide range of points.  Throughout the text there are unsupported assertions and an apparent lack of appreciation of what exists in the literature.  Perhaps I should not be too surprised -- I have complained before that for some journals the practice of peer review seems to have been abandoned.

I'll refer to the paper in more detail in another post, but  on an initial reading I'm struck by the following:

1.  In following up her argument that the Stonehenge stones -- of all sorts -- were "chosen" or "selected" because of their special properties (colour, size, shape, texture) or because they were from special localities, Katy seems to lump all bluestones together as "igneous", and does not  adequately consider the wide variety of rock types (including soft and flaky "rubbish stones") that come under the "bluestone" label.

2.  She does not consider why the "special" bluestones brought to Stonehenge are not supplemented by other "special" stones from  all other compass directions -- for example Old Red Sandstone megaliths from the Brecon Beacons or igneous monoliths from the Welsh Borders, or granite monoliths from Cornwall, or sandstone blocks from the east.

3.  She completely ignores (I think we can probably say "wilfully ignores") the work of Kellaway, Williams-Thorpe,  and others of us who have argued that the glacial transport of monoliths and smaller rock fragments eastwards from Pembrokeshire by the Irish Glacier is not just possible but probable. There is not a single citation of any work that happens to be "inconvenient" to the central hypothesis; that is extraordinary, and I am amazed that the Editor and the referees of this paper allowed the author to get away with it.  Quote: Possible glacial explanations for the presence of bluestone in Wiltshire have been firmly contradicted on a number of grounds (Darrah 1993; Green 1973, 1997; Pitts 2000; Bevins et al. 2016).  This is the full extent of the discussion of the possible role of glacier ice......

4.  The author ignores, as far as I can see, the increasingly commonplace view (expressed by David Field and others) that the collection of stones of all types was a rather utilitarian matter with no great mystical or spiritual component attached.  In other words, the builders of Stonehenge used whatever stones they could gather, from close at hand wherever possible.

5.  The author does not mention the other view, which is gaining currency,  that the builders of Stonehenge ran out of stones (or energy, or motivation) and that the monument was never finished.

6.  In arguing that the re-use of some stones at Stonehenge indicates that such stones were specially revered (having come from older sacred monuments) the author fails to consider the much stronger likelihood that stones were re-used simply because there was a stone shortage.

7.  Interestingly, Katy gives quite detailed consideration to the packing stones, mauls and hammer stones found at Stonehenge, and suggests that these too were carefully selected because they held "significance".   There is some very useful material here, to which I shall return. But again she fails to consider what natural processes might have  led to the introduction of these materials into the neighbourhood.

8.  The author accepts without question that the "identification" of a bluestone quarry at Rhosyfelin by MPP et al is correct -- without any recognition that the quarrying hypothesis is hotly disputed in the peer-reviewed literature.

The final sentence of the paper summarises the central hypothesis:
If none of Stonehenge’s building stones came from Wiltshire, but were contributed over time in a series of collaborative undertakings by varied groups of people from far and wide, then the monument might typify social differentiation as the outcome of, rather than the precursor to, prehistoric monument building.

This is of course extremely fanciful -- and maybe a little tongue-in-cheek -- but the paper gives us an insight into the fantasy world inhabited by many modern academic archaeologists who apparently have no appreciation whatsoever of natural processes, and who apparently have no wish to find out more.  There seem to be rather a lot of people out there who have no particular wish to disturb, let alone abandon, what the infamous Dr Kurding called "the ignorance of a lifetime".

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Drangajökull and Kaldalon, NW Iceland

Ever since Dave Sugden and I worked in the valley of Kaldalon in NW Iceland in 1960, I have been fascinated by Drangajökull, the ice cap that dominates the plateau to the NE of the valley.  For very many years the ice cap has been shrinking, and is destined to go the way of Glamajokull, which used to exist on another segment of high plateau on the western side of Isafjardardjup.

In recent years there has been more work on the ice cap, and I culled a few images from the new papers.  The ongoing shrinkage is inexorable, and all down to climate change -- and the glacier snouts (three of them) are just the most obvious places to look at what is happening.  Up on the plateau, the ice edge is retreating year on year, and the above map shows how the old "subglacial surface" is gradually being exposed.

A recent satellite image of the ice cap, with the Kaldalon trough visible top right.  To the left of centre are the small outlet lobes and glaciers of the Reykjafjördur - Leirufjördur area.

The nunataks on the skyline are on the NE side of the ice divide.  This photo was taken in the Reykjafjördur valley.

Another reconstruction of the ice cap as it appears today.

It's interesting that a small and vulnerable ice cap like this one has outlet glaciers that are liable to surging behaviour.  The 1750 position of the ice front in Kaldalon appears to have been located not far from the massive terminal moraine that almost blocks the valley. That big moraine has now been dated to the Younger Dryas.  The 1750 position was possibly the outermost glacier position of the "Little Ice Age".  Fragments of a smaller moraine (which we mapped in 1960 and which is referred to as Moraine 1 by Brynjolfsson et al, 2015) may have been constructed during the stillstand following a powerful surge, during which the ice flowed across fertile land that had been previously farmed.   At any rate, since 1760 the glacier has retreated several kilometres as far as the trough head, which is nowadays partially exposed, with the overall retreat disturbed by several recorded short-lived advances which must be interpreted as surges.   This has coincided with a halving of the extent of Drangajöll, down to 262 sq km.

Glacier snout positions in the Kaldalon trough, as reconstructed by Brynjolfssson et al, 2015.  The snout position coincides with a substantial "valley-side esker" and a ridge of lateral moraine;  inside the snout position is an extensive area which we referred to in 1960 as "The Trout Pools" -- essentially a wide expanse of pitted outwash, representing the meltout of detached ice masses during a period of rapid ice edge retreat.

The most substantial surge occurred in 1994-99, when the snout advanced by 1 km -- with a similar surge recorded in the Leirufjördur valley.  That's an advance of 200m per year.

The surging behaviour of these glaciers ins intriguing, given the overall poor state of health of the ice cap itself.

Below are some Kaldalon images culled from the web, with thanks to the photographers.  A magical place -- and it was even more magical in 1960, before the building of the road and the bridge.

A bit of fun from 1983........

Geomorphologists are (in public, anyway) quite a serious lot, and it's not often that they let their hair down and poke fun at each other -- so it was an opportunity not to be missed when the then Editor of GEOPHEMERA (the Newsletter of the British Geomorphological Research Group) agreed to publish this in 1983, in Vol 29 (July 1983, pp 28-31).  In the piece, I take affectionate digs at a great many of the famous geomorphologists of the day, and most of them (not all!) were quite amused when they read it.  Geomorphologists will get most of the jokes, and it will all be nonsense to everybody else........

Click to enlarge.

Raised beach cobbles contained in till

The till exposure at Popplestones on the Isle of Bryher.  Well-rounded raised beach cobbles are incorporated in the till.

Clifftop till near Flimston in Pembrokeshire.  Here the till incorporates vast numbers of white quartz pebbles which are well rounded.  They come in this case from ancient unconsolidated Oligocene clays and pebble beds that were once widespread on the Flimston coastal platform.

One of the interesting features of the glacial sequence in the Isles of Scilly is the occurrence of raised beach cobbles in Devensian till.  This feature is especially notable on the island of St Agnes (which of course lies to the south of the Devensian ice limit according to other authors), where the till is thin and patchy and confined to the west coast.  The till at Popplestones on Bryher also contains many rounded and striated cobbles that must have been incorporated into till by ice that rode over pre-existing raised beaches or storm beaches.

Is this so unusual as to cause a problem?  Well, if you look into the older literature on the Quaternary deposits of Devon, Cornwall and the Scilly Islands there is much discussion about "redeposited till" and "till in a secondary position"  -- and one gets a feeling that researchers have in some cases been reluctant to  accept that ice picks up, rather indiscriminately, loose materials from any deposits that it happens to pass over.  So till containing rounded pebbles is sometimes interpreted as very ancient, disaggregated and then reconstituted downslope after incorporating raised beach pebbles as a consequence of periglacial downslope movement under gravity.  That line of reasoning can become very convoluted and very arid -- ignoring the fact that the simplest explanations for things are often the correct ones.

If you find a till containing raised beach cobbles the simplest explanation is that the raised beach was there first (somewhere upglacier) and that the till came later.  In the case of the Isles of Scilly, the reasonable interpretation is that the raised beach is Ipswchian and that the till is Devensian.

In 1965 - 66 David Sugden and I were initially quite mystified by the occurrence of striated and rounded raised beach cobbles in till at multiple locations in the South Shetland Islands. We found fresh marine cobbles in till in 19 different locations, on six different islands in an area where there was still much lying snow across the landscape;  so there must be many more undiscovered locations also.   The till exposures were found at many different altitudes, up to an altitude of 275m.  One of the interesting things about the pebbles and cobbles contained within the till was that a large proportion were "fresh" and unaffected by frost shattering -- unlike many of the pebbles in the higher raised beaches on the ice-free peninsulas.

Detail of residual raised beach materials found in an area of fresh till.  The survival of these cobbles and pebbles suggests that the affected raised beach was not exposed to intense periglacial weathering (or frost shattering) conditions for very long before being overriden by glacier ice. Barton Peninsula, King George Island, at 150m above sea level.

On Barton Peninsula we observed this patch of more or less undisturbed raised beach at an altitude of c 150m, surrounded by fresh till and frost-shattered slope breccia.

In our interpretations of the cobbles in the till we had no problems at all with our basic interpretations of processes and relative ages -- but we were initially quite concerned about finding raised beach traces at 275m (902 ft) -- far higher than any other raised beaches ever found in Antarctica.  At last our conclusion was that the extraordinary high altitude had something to do with the isostatic forebulge effect, with the sites around the South Shetlands lifted by a considerable amount as the ice mass over the Antarctic Peninsula and West Antarctica  expanded and depressed the crust further south.

The lesson from all of this?  If you find raised beach cobbles contained within a till, the standard rules of stratigraphy apply.   If the till looks fresh and undisturbed, it is probably in its original condition and position. The raised beach that provided the cobbles to the overriding ice must be older, and must lie either in the immediate vicinity or an unknown distance up-glacier. That should not be a problem for anybody.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Maritime diffusion route for European megalithic structures

This is an interesting paper which claims to replace the old theories of cultural diffusion with a new one.   There seems to be good evidence that the oldest structures were put up in Brittany, around Carnac, but for later phases the picture is very confused, apparently demonstrating coastal diffusion -- as already claimed by lots of other people -- and I cannot see any great justification for the red, green, yellow and brown phase.  It all looks rather scrappy to me, involving a degree of academic wishful thinking.

In the British Isles, classified as a "green phase" region, the earliest structures seem to have been erected in Scotland, followed by the south of  England, and then by Ireland and Wales.   That does not seem to make much sense if the "duffusion centre" really was in Brittany. 

In a press article about this paper, the author claims that this thesis supports the idea of bluestone transport from Pembrokeshire to Stonehenge -- presumably by the maritime route.  However, I cannot see that at all in the new evidence -- and if anything we might claim that the diffusion was westwards from southern England towards Wales, rather than the other way round..........

This is another interesting diagram that does not appear in the original article.  It is included in some of the press coverage -- so was presumably included in the author's press release.  It shows England, Scotland and Ireland clustered together (whatever happened to Wales?) as having a phase of pit burials around 6000 yrs BP,  followed shortly thereafter by  a phase of passage grave building.  Presumably the author assumes that stone circles, alignments and other bit megalithic arrangements (including Stonehenge) came along even later. 

In the press coverage, there appears to be a degree of scepticism among archaeologists about this new work, partly on the grounds that it does not factor in the likelihood that stone-using traditions could well have developed quite independently in various widely-separated geographical locations.  Diffusion models do have that as a major flaw -- for example, is it likely that the wheel developed in just one place and then spread out from there, or could many individuals in different parts of the world have developed their own prototype wheels in isolation? 


Radiocarbon dates and Bayesian modeling support maritime diffusion model for megaliths in Europe

B. Schulz Paulsson
PNAS published ahead of print February 11, 2019
approved January 3, 2019


For thousands of years, prehistoric societies built monumental grave architecture and erected standing stones in the coastal regions of Europe (4500–2500 calibrated years BC). Our understanding of the rise of these megalithic societies is contentious and patchy; the origin for the emergence of megalithic architecture in various regions has been controversial and debated for over 100 y. The result presented here, based on analyses of 2,410 radiocarbon dates and highly precise chronologies for megalithic sites and related contexts, suggests maritime mobility and intercultural exchange. We argue for the transfer of the megalithic concept over sea routes emanating from northwest France, and for advanced maritime technology and seafaring in the megalithic Age.


There are two competing hypotheses for the origin of megaliths in Europe. The conventional view from the late 19th and early 20th centuries was of a single-source diffusion of megaliths in Europe from the Near East through the Mediterranean and along the Atlantic coast. Following early radiocarbon dating in the 1970s, an alternative hypothesis arose of regional independent developments in Europe. This model has dominated megalith research until today. We applied a Bayesian statistical approach to 2,410 currently available radiocarbon results from megalithic, partly premegalithic, and contemporaneous nonmegalithic contexts in Europe to resolve this long-standing debate. The radiocarbon results suggest that megalithic graves emerged within a brief time interval of 200 y to 300 y in the second half of the fifth millennium calibrated years BC in northwest France, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic coast of Iberia. We found decisive support for the spread of megaliths along the sea route in three main phases. Thus, a maritime diffusion model is the most likely explanation of their expansion.