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, 21 July 2017

Yet more BBC nonsense on Stonehenge

No sooner have I finished one gripe about the BBC  than along comes another absurd non-story from the corporation, and yet another piece of Stonehenge mythologisation.  Will it never end?

This time, in addition to the usual guff about Stonehenge breakthroughs and new exciting discoveries, Vince Gaffney and Mike Parker Pearson are the featured archaeologists. There is nothing new -- this is just old info, regurgitated for no particular reason.  Somebody presumably needed to make a programme about Stonehenge.   In the midst of all the purple prose, Vince Gaffney makes one rather nice statement arising out of the fiasco surrounding the stones that never were, at Durrington Walls:  “Following this survey, we know not only where things are but where they aren’t as well.”  Quite so.

MPP's standard bluestone story is repeated here yet again.  Quote:  Parker Pearson suggests that the Welsh bluestones were the first to be put in place at Stonehenge, and that it was the monument that they came from that was important. The stones would have been considered to be ancestral symbols of western Britons, he said, and “bringing them to Salisbury Plain was an act of unification of the two main Neolithic peoples of southern Britain.”  Even today, the Preseli hills are dotted with dolmens (ancient tombs). “The density of dolmens reveals that this was an important region (both politically and spiritually) some 700 years before Stonehenge,” Parker Pearson said, making it “possibly a leading territory within western Britain in the centuries before 3000 BC.”  But even if we agree with the theory that bringing the stones from Wales was a symbolic and even political, act, it presents another mystery: how did prehistoric Britons move those huge stones?
Some suggest that people didn’t move the stones at all, and that instead, glaciers transported the stones across southern Britain. But the finding of two ancient stone quarries in Preseli ended that debate for the most part.  Scientists also have experimented with ideas of how to transport the large stones 160 miles (260km) from Wales. According to Parker Pearson, they discovered that moving small megaliths like the bluestones, which mostly weighed 2 tons or less, was not actually that difficult – even with just dragging the stone on a sledge."

Leaving aside the "ancient stone quarries" for the moment, I wonder why MPP needs to mislead gullible reporters (and a gullible TV public) by giving false information about the density of dolmens in the Preseli Hills?  It is quite clear from the maps of prehistoric features in West Wales (see the Darvill /Wainwright chapter in the Pembs County History) that dolmens are NOT that abundant in the Preseli Hills, and that the density of these and related features is much greater in other parts of Pembrokeshire.   What the hell -- when there is a good story to tell, who cares about the truth?

And moving bluestone monoliths is not that difficult?   Sure it's not, in a London Park on a sunny day with lots of willing students to pull a sledge across a nice flat lawn......

Everything is twisted -- and these senior archaeologists will continue to twist things for as long as they are allowed to get away with it.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

More on Stonehenge mental health healing project

I hadn't realised it, but there was a BBC Radio 4 "Open Country" broadcast back in April, which can still be listened to here:

One has to feel positive about the effects of the experience on the participants who needed help.  And it is great to hear the views of those who previously felt isolated and fearful of social contacts.  Parts of the 24 min programme are genuinely moving, and the "bonding" of those who took part in the 10 week courses in the Stonehenge landscape was clearly quite substantial.  The programme concentrated on the last day of the course as experienced by one of the groups -- in which the participants were granted access to the centre of the stone circle, where they shouted, sang, cheered and played musical instruments.

Tim Darvill was clearly involved in the course at intervals, and good for him for giving his time so enthusiastically.

And yet ... and yet..... having listened to the programme and having quite positive personal views about the project itself, I still have this rather deep sense of unease.  Tim, when interviewed, gave his familiar version of the Stonehenge bluestone transport story, and talked of Stonehenge as a centre of healing. No ifs, buts or maybes -- this, he said, was the way it was, and because he is such a senior academic we can be pretty sure that those who took part in the course were deeply grateful for being told "the truth" by an experienced academic.  Did Tim explain that his theory about "the healing stones" is actually hotly disputed, and that there are other theories too, some of which have rather more substance to them?  One doubts it....... that would probably have made life too complex for the vulnerable participants to cope with.

So I am now even more convinced that this is yet another episode in the long history of Stonehenge mythologisation.  It's also a nice opportunity for Prof TD to develop the strength of his own "bluestone hospital" theory by saying "Just look what happened to all those unfortunate people who needed help when they came into contact with the stones!  They all felt as if they were healed by the experience!"  I just hope he will never say that -- and my feeling about the BBC interviews is that they showed the immense value of social interaction and "bonding" within a group of vulnerable people brought together regularly over a 10-week period in an ancient landscape, in all weathers, with very careful and sensitive guidance from the project leaders.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

The Bristol Channel Glaciations

There's a very interesting new publication by Gibbard, Hughes and Rolfe which provides fascinating new material on the glaciations of the Bristol Channel - Severn Estuary region.  The authors refer to at least three glacial phases, at least one of which involved a substantial ice incursion into Somerset. Archaeologists, please take note........

Here is the citation:

New insights into the Quaternary evolution of the Bristol Channel, UK
ISSN 0267-8179.
DOI: 10.1002/jqs.2951

A synthesis of new publically available borehole and bathymetric data, combined with a wealth of
other existing disparate data sources, reveals new insights into the Quaternary history of the Bristol Channel area.  Sediment boreholes throughout the Bristol Channel confirm the area was glaciated in the Pleistocene. Till is present below marine deposits and, in some areas, is visible morphologically as submerged moraines. In the central and eastern Bristol Channel the submerged valley course of the palaeo-Severn is very clear in new high-resolution bathymetric surveys. This former river course and associated tributaries cross-cut through glacial sediments in the Bristol Channel. At least three phases of glaciation are recorded in the Bristol Channel, one related to the southern limits of a Late Devensian Substage ( Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 2) Welsh Ice Cap which reached into Swansea
Bay, an earlier Devensian (MIS 4–3) glaciation associated with Irish Sea ice, and another older glaciation that is associated with ice that filled the entire outer and central Bristol Channel. The age of the older Bristol Channel glaciation is still open, although it pre-dates the Devensian (Late Pleistocene) and must date to the Middle Pleistocene. It is therefore evident that Pleistocene glacial and fluvial activity, combined with subsequent postglacia sea transgression, directly account for current morphometries of the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary, and the current geography of the SW British Isles.


I recommend a reading of this article -- it's written in good plain English, mercifully free of convoluted techno-speak.  Its key findings are interesting, and the authors agree that there was a substantial early glaciation (which has to the the Anglian Glaciation, around 450,000 yrs BP) during which Irish Sea Ice filled the Bristol Channel and the Severn Estuary and flowed into Somerset.  How far the ice travelled to the east is a matter of debate, and so a dashed line is used on their key interpretive map:

 I think the authors could have been a bit braver with this "early glaciation" line, and as suggested many times on this blog, I think the ice at the time of the GBG pressed against the coasts of Devon and Cornwall and pushed south of the Isles of Scilly.

The lobe of ice pushing in over Lundy Island in the early / middle Devensian is to my mind not all that well supported, and is too dependent for comfort upon some cosmogenic dates that might well need correcting. 

I'm also not very keen on the Late Devensian line, shown running south from Milford Haven to the Scilly Isles.  I don't think this is well supported sedimentologically, and it doesn't make glaciological sense either.  I think Late Devensian ice pressed well into the Bristol Channel embayment, and I remain convinced that some of the "pre-Devensian sediments" shown on the map may well prove to be Late Devensian too.

All good fun.  The debate will continue -- but this paper is a welcome addition to the literature.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

The first use of exotic stones on Salisbury Plain

When were bluestones (ie exotic or erratic stones) first used in the Stonehenge landscape?  I asked this question a couple of years ago, and we had a useful discussion following the post.  It can be found here:

This is actually one of the most important questions if we are ever to sort out the question of bluestone transport and use.  The question is still not adequately answered, even though there are now abundant radiocarbon dates associated with stone settings.

As I understand it, there are currently two schools of thought among archaeologists:

1.  According to Mike Parker Pearson bluestones were first placed in the Aubrey Holes at Stonehenge, which means that they were present in the Stonehenge landscape around 3,000 BC or 5,000 BP.  This "early date" might be supported by the presence of fragments of bluestone at the western end of the Cursus -- which was by all accounts earlier than the main phase of building at Stonehenge.

2.  According to Tim Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright, the bluestones were imported from Wales around 2,500 BC -- 500 years later than the MPP proposal.  That late date is presumably supported if one is sceptical about bluestones in the Aubrey Holes -- and it must be agreed that the evidence of "crushed chalk" at the bottom of one Aubrey Hole is not exactly convincing evidence for a bluestone circle.  Some versions of the story have it that the bluestones were not used until 2,300 BC --  when there was a "new bluestone setting" using stones freshly imported, or else used again following a period of storage in the local bluestone depot.

As I have suggested on this blog, Prof MPP appears to be pushing the "first use" date back and back towards the Early Neolithic, partly in order to accommodate those very inconvenient radiocarbon dates from Rhosyfelin, and partly to tie things in with the "megalithic" phase in West Wales.  This would also of course be supported if the Boles Barrow bluestone really did come from a long barrow that appears to have been constructed around 3,500 BC. (The long barrow building phase on Salisbury Plain is assumed to have been at around the same time as the cromlech / dolmen phase in West Wales.) Also, spotted dolerite ("Preselite") axes apparently dating from the period 4,000 BC - 3,000 BC appear (not very often) in the Stonehenge landscape, and one explanation by Olwen Williams-Thorpe is that they were made close to Stonehenge from in situ erratic material.  That is in my view more likely than the "trading" hypothesis.......

Of course, the earlier the first established use of bluestones can be shown to be, the greater the likelihood that the bluestone erratics were simply used more or less where they were found.  No need for human transport; glacial transport is the obvious and simple explanation.  That's because:

(a) the technology for bluestone transport would simply not have been available before 3,000 BC;
(b) if bluestones were used right at the beginning of the "stone phase" at Stonehenge, that suggests they were collected indiscriminately along with sarsens in the immediate vicinity;
(c) it is vanishingly unlikely that "the bluestone expeditions" would have occurred before the Salisbury Plain tribes had accumulated any skill in the setting of stones into the ground.

As I have said many times before, in the period 3,800 - 3,000 BC, in West Wales, where stones were being used in megalithic structures, those stones were ALWAYS used where found.  No matter what fantasising our archaeological brothers may indulge in, there is no reason why a different set of rules should have applied in the Stonehenge landscape.  Avebury seems to confirm that -- only sarsens were available, and only sarsens were used.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Healing at Stonehenge

Thanks to a Current Archaeology reader for drawing my attention to this.  In an article called "A healing journey through the Stonehenge landscape",  in issue 17, Carly Hilts describes an innovative scheme for helping people with mental health issues or emotional problems.  A charity called the Restoration Trust brings people together in a caring environment in the "ancient landscape" of Stonehenge and Salisbury Plain -- with performances, craft activities and mutual support mechanisms designed to provide a sort of "heritage therapy."  The project is dubbed "Human Henge".  So far so good, and of course we wish the organizers ad the participants well.

Bournemouth University is one of many institutions involved, and Tim Darvill is apparently running a complementary research programme.  I wonder what that's all about?  According to the article, TD's ideas about Stonehenge as a "prehistoric Lourdes" are being used -- and the article unquestioningly trots out the usual stuff about the bluestones being quarried in the Preseli Hills, about the proximity of healing springs close to the rock sources,  and "long oral traditions of healing properties." The so-called concentrations of cairns around the springs, and the presence of rock art, are deemed to demonstrate the "special" quality of the local waters -- a quality then transferred to Stonehenge through the transport of monoliths to be used in the construction of Stonehenge.  It's all nonsense, of course, and there is no oral tradition of healing associated with these springs, no greater concentration of cairns than elsewhere, and no greater incidence of rock art. 

Sadly, somebody is inventing evidence here, promoting it through a rather dubious channel (namely the Human Henge project), and misleading some very vulnerable people into the bargain...........

Should one laugh or cry?

Stone's stones and the Cursus connection

I'm very confused about Stone's stones and the Cursus connection. I have been taking another look at this article:

“The petrography, affinity and provenance of lithics from the Cursus Field, Stonehenge”, by RA Ixer & RE Bevins, Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine 103 (2010) 1–15

It was published seven years ago, and that's a long time in the great scheme of things relating to Stonehenge. But in it, the authors say that new analyses of rock samples from Stonehenge, the Stonehenge Cursus Field and Pembrokeshire have shown that some of the rhyolite and ash fragments on Salisbury Plain have probably come from innocuous locations between Preseli and the north Pembrokeshire coast, but that others are from unknown locations maybe outside Wales. So far so good.......

Then there is another article by Rob Ixer, :

Digging into Stonehenge’s past
Mineral Planning, issue 143 / October 2012, p 13

In it, he says that the cause (of much new debate) "is a recent re-examination of the contents of a little box of stones collected by JF Stone in 1947 from plough soil close to the Stonehenge Greater Cursus and donated to the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum. Many of the ten or so stones – none of which are bigger than a fist – were found to be texturally and mineralogically distinctive.
Initial investigations showed none of these matched any of the standing bluestones......" But Ixer then went on to say that some of them matched the rhyolites from Craig Rhosyfelin, and continued:  "So the contents of a 60-year-old box led to the discovery of the first secure Stonehenge-related quarry site, confirming that man moved the bluestones. But the initial assessment of Stone’s stones was wrong, because in June 2012, one of the rocks was recognised as coming from bluestone SH48, making it only the fourth piece of debitage from thousands investigated that could be matched to a specific bluestone orthostat."

Let's forget the wild speculation about quarries and concentrate on the fragments. Presumably the rocks identified originally as "acid volcanics and tuffs" are now referred to as foliated rhyolites? Is there any spotted dolerite in the collection? And exactly how many different exotic rock types are there in the Stone collection and in other collections from more recent digs at Durrington Walls, Windmill Hill and the Cursus? Did Richard Atkinson really find a lump of spotted dolerite on Silbury Hill, and are there really at least 1300 "bluestone fragments" inside the hill itself?

In an article by Tim Darvill published in 2012, he says:

"A review of samples from the Altar Stone confirmed that it was a fine-to-medium
grained calcareous sandstone of the kind found in the Senni Beds of south Wales.
Four other pieces of sandstone from the Stonehenge Cursus, Stonehenge, Aubrey
Hole 1 and Aubrey Hole 5 share a common lithology as low-grade metasediments
and derive from a different source area, possibly from Lower Palaeozoic sandstone
beds (Ixer & Turner 2006).
"An examination of finds from the Cursus Field collected in 1947 and from
excavations by the SRP in 2006 and 2008 confirmed that much of the material could
be matched with samples from Stonehenge (identified as Groups A–D: Ixer & Bevins
2011a; 2011b) but that some rhyolites could not be matched amongst existing
samples (Ixer & Bevins 2010; Ixer et al. forthcoming)."

(Research activity in the Stonehenge Landscape 2005–2012 Timothy Darvill
Stonehenge and Avebury Revised Research Framework
6 July 2012)

In the recent Darvill / Wainwright chapter in the Pembrokeshire County History (Vol 1), they refer to "widely recognized" rhyolite fragments (some of unknown provenance) in the debitage from the 2008 Stonehenge dig, from the Heelstone area, from some Aubrey Holes, from the Avenue and the Cursus.........

I am rather confused by all of this, because Rob Ixer, in his review of my 2008 book called "The Bluestone Enigma", criticised me for the inaccuracy of my reporting on the finds associated with the Cursus. He said: "Almost every sentence about the Great Cursus and its associated lithics (pp 68, 69, 77, 103, 108) is incorrect -- once again these errors, missing from the original papers, are found on-line." He never did say what those errors were, and I still think that I was reporting accurately on those pages the situation as it was in 2008.

So is there abundant bluestone erratic material in the Stonehenge landscape, or is there not?

Stonehenge and TV garbage

 Image:  BBC / Daily Mail
Mike Pitts has been having a go at the latest Stonehenge offering from the Science Channel, which apparently sets new standards in its complete disregard for the facts and its obsession with telling a wacky tale.  I can't bring myself to watch it, but apparently it tries to make the case that executions or murders were conducted at Stonehenge -- and also at other iconic prehistoric sites across Britain -- on the basis that mutilated skeletons are found here and there, at locations that may or may not have anything to do with Stonehenge.  The work cites osteoarchaeologist Jo Buckberry, who must have agreed to be filmed but who clearly had no input into the making of the broadcast programme. 

Jo has commented as follows:

"Ok, so I’ve not seen the to programme. But I gather the editing was, erm, done with artistic licence. These skeletons are from East Yorkshire, not Stonehenge. There is a single burial from Stonehenge of the same date, with very similar injuries. These skeletons were from the 7-10th Century (later Anglo-Saxon), and had evidence of decapitation, but no other injuries. The location and mode of burial, long period of use for the site and evidence of decapitation is suggestive of judicial execution. No idea where they got sacrifices or murders from. How do I know? I analysed and have written 4 papers about them. I was filmed (that’s me in the photo). I talked about a photograph of the Stonehenge skeleton, on a laptop. I’ve never seen the skeleton from Stonehenge…”

Mike Pitts complains about the "stupefying nonsense" trotted out by TV Channels that should know better, and asks: "What is wrong with TV? People are fascinated by Stonehenge. There are extraordinary stories to tell. Why make up such idiocies, insulting your specialists to boot?"

I'll go along with Mike on all of this, but I'll go a great deal further.  He refers to "extraordinary stories" but fails to mention that many of them, accepted gleefully by the archaeology establishment, bear little relation to hard evidence on the ground.  Where is the evidence for bluestone quarrying, or for bluestone transport, or for the use of bluestones at "Bluestonehenge"? 

When last did anybody see a Stonehenge programme which took a properly scientific approach and which laid out theories as working hypotheses instead of "facts"?  When last did any of us see a programme in which the programme makers subjected the archaeologists to proper interrogation or scrutiny?  Over and again on this blog  I have made the point that TV programme makers are partly to blame, in their ongoing obsession with spectacular visuals and narratives that "rewrite prehistory."   But most of the blame for this stream of garbage rests with the archaeologists themselves, some of whom appear to have no respect for the scientific method, and who think that every now and then they have to "solve Stonehenge".  The obsession with the narrative is everywhere, and the more spectacular and fantastical it is, the better.  They are all at it -- MPP, TD and the rest of them -- measuring their reputations not by the reliability of their research but by the ratings obtained by their TV programmes and the impact made by their ideas in the media.  The more column inches the better, since that measurement clearly has an impact on research grant allocations.  Garbage in, garbage out.  And as I keep on saying, they are the ones who write the nonsensical press releases.