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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Thursday, 30 March 2023

New Altar Stone article

The labelled sample, purportedly from the underside of the Altar Stone.  
Source:  Salisbury Museum.

There is a new article from Richard Bevins et al about another old sample found in Salisbury Museum -- numbered Wilts 277 and 2010K 240.  It appears that the sample was taken in 1844.  According to the authors, this sample matches others examined in the past which were taken from fragments found in the vicinity of the Altar Stone but which could not be attributed to the stone with any degree of certainty.

Tim Daw has done a brief post on this, on his blog, with the usual throw-away lines -- for example "hopefully we are a bit closer to finding the outcrop it was dragged from" and  "the bluestones which were brought from west Wales in Neolithic time".  As ever, Tim sees himself as the chief apologist for the human transport theory, and cannot resist reminding us all of that fact whenever he gets the chance............  Anyway, moving swiftly on, here are the details:

Assessing the authenticity of a sample taken from the Altar Stone at Stonehenge in 1844 using portable XRF and automated SEM-EDS. 2023.  
Richard E. Bevins, Nick J.G. Pearce,Duncan Pirrie, Rob A. Ixer, Stephen Hillier, Peter Turner, Matthew Power.  Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Vol 49,  Elsevier, June 2023, 013973

I'm interested that the authors of this article refer to the bluestones as "a diverse range of lithologies exotic to the Wiltshire Landscape."  Well, there are 46 of them at the last count, in the full assemblage of standing stones, stumps and other rock debris at or near Stonehenge.  So is common sense breaking out at last?  That would be nice.....

Sadly, the article is stuck behind a paywall, so it is accessible to only a privileged few.......


Megalithic Stone 80 at Stonehenge, the so-called Altar Stone, is traditionally considered to be part of the bluestone assemblage, a diverse range of lithologies exotic to the Wiltshire Landscape. However, the Altar Stone, a grey-green micaceous sandstone, is anomalous when compared with the other (predominantly igneous) bluestones, in terms of its lithology, size and weight, and certainly in terms of its provenance. Recent investigations into the character of the Altar Stone have focussed on excavated fragments now attributed to be derived from the Altar Stone, as well as non-destructive portable XRF (pXRF) analysis on the Altar Stone itself (re-analysed as part of this investigation). In this study we have investigated a sample from the collections of Salisbury Museum, 2010K 240 (also referred to as Wilts 277), which bears a label recording that it was collected from the underside of the Altar Stone in 1844. We examined the sample petrographically and also by using pXRF and automated SEM-EDS techniques. Like the excavated fragments, this sample from the Altar Stone shows a distinctive mineralogy characterised by the presence of baryte and kaolinite along with abundant calcite cement. The presence of baryte leads to relatively high Ba being recorded during pXRF analysis (0.13 wt%). Combined, these results validate the history recorded on the specimen label and, as far as we know, makes this the only specimen taken purposely from that megalith. As such sample 2010K 240 provides a ‘go-to’ proxy for future studies of the Altar Stone as well as validating those samples recently assigned to the Altar Stone. In addition, this study demonstrates the vital importance of historic collection specimens and their preservation, conservation and documentation, as well as the role pXRF can play in the analysis of sensitive cultural artefacts and monuments that cannot be analysed using invasive or destructive techniques.

Tuesday, 28 March 2023

Boles Barrow 2023 Dig -- official photos

Some fantastic photography from Exercise Bluestone, under the auspices of Nightingale Archaeology, Wessex Archaeology and MOD.  The photographer was Harvey Mills.

Most of the photos -- with high definition and beautifully composed -- are of the dig, with Julian Richards slaving away manfully along with a small group of diggers. But these are the photos that took my eye.  We await further info on these finds and their surface characteristics.

The two above are recorded as sarsen and "burnt sarsen".

This is an image of a Roman coin found in the dig. Presumably front and back.

No doubt we will soon see further images of the egg-sized pebble reported on Twitter.......

Monday, 27 March 2023

The Boles Barrow pebble


It's a pity to see the shallow dig at Boles Barrow coming to an end after just four or five days -- it looks as if the dig was quite literally just scraping the surface, without examining the interior of the long barrow.  So we are not going to be any the wiser about the famous Boles Barrow bluestone boulder (or half boulder)..........

It looks as if the dig has turned up lots of chalk debris and bits of flint, and a few small flint artefacts.  But from the material published on Twitter, this looks to be the most interesting find -- a very well rounded pebble that is currently being interpreted as either a rounded flint nodule (vanishingly unlikely, I should have thought), or else a deliberately rounded worked nodule (also very unlikely).  Richard Osgood speculates that it might be a hammerstone, and that might of course be confirmed if percussion scare are found on it after it has had a good wash.

But to me, if it looks like a rounded pebble, it probably is a rounded pebble -- and that means it comes from a sedimentary deposit, probably in the neighbourhood.   But before we get too excited, let's hear more about its context  -- and I hope that photos showing the pebble in situ will shortly become available........

It was press day today at the dig site, with the Defence Minister being shown around -- and also a visit from our old friend Mike Pitts......

PS  29.3.23

Tin Daw has put a piece on his blog about this pebble.  Let's see whether it's flint or not. I see that he has pulled a certain geologist in for his opinion -- and that he thinks it might be a flint nodule or an echinoid fossil.  Without having seen and handled the pebble, I have my doubts on both suggestions.  Flint nodules are notoriously lumpy and irregular -- and if it is flint it must have been subjected to a considerable amount of abrasion in a suitable environment.

Flint nodules -- anything but smooth and egg-shaped

 If this is an echinoid fossil, then there will be fossil characteristics that are unmistakeable. The other suggested origin is that it is a river pebble "brought in" by our worthy ancestors as a hammer stone.  I don't see how a 5 cm pebble could be used as a hammer stone, except maybe by a Neolithic jeweller making delicate ornaments for his darling wife.........  But as usual with our old friends, they studiously devalue natural processes and choose to ignore the possibility that this pebble is a rounded clast derived from a local degraded sedimentary layer -- for example a local till deposit. 

But don't let's get too excited -- let's see first of all what it is made of.

Friday, 24 March 2023

Boles Barrow bluestone briefing


This is a nice pic which was put onto Twitter -- showing Julian Richards on the briefing at the beginning of the dig, showing volunteers the difference between "bluestone" and flint and sarsen.   There is a substantial chunk of spotted dolerite at the far end of the table.  I assume that is what the diggers are hoping to find, or not find, as the case may be......

The other bits and pieces on the table, might, I suppose, include bits of foliated rhyolite, unspotted dolerite, volcanic ash and Lower Palaeozoic sandstone.

 Given that there are around 46 types of bluestone known from Salisbury Plain, I hope the diggers are being briefed to recognize that anything which is not sarsen or flint might have considerable importance.  They should also be keeping an eye open for rounded pebbles, rather than sharp-edged fragments or shards, which could tell us a lot about any Quaternary or Holocene sediments at this site. 

Anyway, may they have an enjoyable 10 days or so!!

Thursday, 23 March 2023

Stonehenge -- the calendar sceptics

Tim Darvill's calendar.  Magli and Belmonte don't believe a word of it........

This is a direct attack on Tim Darvill's recent article about the Stonehenge "calendar" -- also published in Antiquity journal.  But the article is behind a paywall -- so there is no way that we can check it out unless we belong to the privileged few.........  but we do have a press release that tells us what the article is all about.  It is mercifully free of purple prose -- but nonetheless, this is a perfect illustration of the point I made the other day in proposing another Razor designed to uphold academic standards.

Magli, G., & Belmonte, J. (2023). Archaeoastronomy and the alleged ‘Stonehenge calendar’. Antiquity, 1-7. doi:10.15184/aqy.2023.33


In a recent Antiquity article, Darvill (2022) proposed that the mid third-millennium BC Stage 2 sarsen settings of Stonehenge (comprising the Trilithon Horseshoe, Sarsen Circle and the Station Stone Rectangle) were conceived in order to represent a calendar year of 365.25 days—that is, a calendar identical in duration to the Julian calendar. In the present article, the authors argue that this proposal is unsubstantiated, being based as it is on a combination of numerology, astronomical error and unsupported analogy.

Here is the Press Release:

PRESS RELEASE - 23 MARCH 2023 15:52
Stonehenge: a new study by Politecnico di Milano unveils one of the mysteries surrounding the archaeological site

Stonehenge is still attracting the attention of scholars and researchers more than four millennia after its building. An academic study by Politecnico di Milano has proposed a scientific explanation of Stonehenge's original function - debunking some current theories about the mysterious monument from the Neolithic period.

One of the most recent theories to be debunked is that Stonehenge is a giant calendar based on a numerological interpretation of Egyptian and Julian calendars with 365 days and 12 months of the year. According to professors Giulio Magli of Politecnico di Milano and Professor Juan Antonio Belmonte of Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias and Universidad de La Laguna in Tenerife, this assertion is incorrect.

In their article, published in Antiquity, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in archaeology, the authors demonstrate that the theory is based on a series of forced interpretations of the monument's connections to astronomy.

Firstly, Magli and Belmonte analysed the astronomical element. Although the solstice alignment is accurate, the authors show that the slow movement of the sun on the horizon on days close to the solstices makes it impossible to ascertain the correct functioning of the supposed calendar, as the structure, made up of huge stones, should be able to distinguish very precise positions, less than 1/10 of a degree.

Secondly, they analysed the numerology. Attributing meanings to numbers on a monument is always a risky procedure. In this case, a key number of the supposed calendar, namely 12, can not be found in any element of Stonehenge, nor can any means of accounting for the additional intercalary day every four years. While other numbers are not taken into account - the Stonehenge portal, for example, was made of two stones.

Finally, they looked at the cultural patterns. An early elaboration of the 365-day plus one calendar is documented in Egypt only two millennia after Stonehenge (and came into use centuries later). Therefore, although the people who built it took the calendar from Egypt, they perfected it themselves. Furthermore, they also invented a structure to keep track of time, as nothing similar ever existed in ancient Egypt. Finally, a transfer and elaboration of notions with Egypt that took place around 2600 BC have no archaeological basis.

"All in all, the supposed Stonehenge Neolithic solar calendar is a purely modern construct, with a poor archaeoastronomical and calendrical basis. As repeatedly happened in the past. For example, with the claims (proven untenable by modern research) that Stonehenge was used to predict eclipses, the monument reverts to its role as a mute witness to the sacred landscape of its builders, a role which - Magli and Belmonte stress - in no way detracts from its extraordinary fascination".

More on cattle traction

This is and interesting new open access article,  about the use of cattle to do "work" in the Neolithic period -- based upon the damage done to their bones as compared to the lack of damage on comparable animals that have not had working lives.  I enjoyed reading this; it's based largely on studies of bones found in a Neolithic context at Kilshane, County Dublin in Ireland. 

First evidence for cattle traction in Middle Neolithic Ireland: A pivotal element for resource exploitation
Fabienne Pigière, and Jessica Smyth

Plos One: January 26, 2023

The power harnessed by cattle traction was undeniably a valuable asset to Neolithic communities. However, data are still lacking on the timing, purposes, and intensity of exploitation of draught animals. This paper sheds new light on a region of Europe–Neolithic Ireland–for which our knowledge is particularly restricted as evidence from both Ireland and Britain in this period has been so far patchy and inconclusive. Using a suite of methods and refined criteria for traction identification, we present new and robust data on a large faunal assemblage from Kilshane, Co. Dublin that strongly support cattle traction in the middle 4th millennium BC in Ireland. Bone pathology data combined with osteometric analysis highlight specialised husbandry practices, producing large males, possibly oxen, for the purpose of cattle traction. This new technology has important implications for early agriculture in the region since it provides a key support for more extensive land management practices as well as for megalithic construction, which increased considerably in scale during this period. We argue that access to draught animals and the exploitation of associated resources were at the heart of wider changes that took place in Neolithic Ireland in the second half of the 4th millennium BC.

Already there are some speculations on social media about draught animals being used for the transport of the bluestones from West Wales to Stonehenge.  That idea is of course not new -- but what is new is this piece of research, which shows that there were draught animals in Neolithic Ireland, and that they seem to havge worked hard before they were killed and eaten.  But to go any further than that, without any further evidence, is rather dangerous.  The authors speculate about the use of draught animals fopr megalith construction, but they provide no evidence.

Here are the relevant parts of the article:

Wheeled transport

Elements from wheeled vehicles have been identified in several places in the Middle East and Europe in the second half of the 4th millennium BC, with recent chronological refinement as well as typological dissimilarities suggesting wheeled vehicles appear simultaneously in both areas [53]. In western continental Europe, wooden wheels and axles from vehicles have been recovered in wetland environments from Switzerland (Vinelz, Zurich), Germany (Waldsee/Aulendorf, Moorweg, Lengener Moor, Profen), and the Netherlands (Eese) [7, 15, 54]. In Britain, a Bronze Age wheel was recovered at Flag Fen [55]. To date, the earliest evidence for wheeled transport in Ireland is an alder block wheel fragment recovered from a Late Bronze Age trackway in Edercloon Bog, Co. Roscommon [56] (c. 1200–970 cal. BC). Prior to this find, the earliest known wheels were a pair of Early Iron Age block wheels recovered from a bog in Doogarymore, also in Roscommon [57, 58] (c. 520–390 cal. BC). With a gap of more than two millennia between the Edercloon wheel fragment and the Kilshane evidence for cattle traction there seems no link to the appearance of wheeled transport in Ireland, at least based on current evidence.

Construction of megalithic monuments—Enabling passage tomb architecture?

Ireland, like several northwest European regions in the 4th and 3rd millennia BC, is characterised by its megalithic architecture, and the link between megalith construction and the use of cattle for traction deserves consideration. In the Funnel Beaker (TRB) culture of northern Europe, evidence includes wheel tracks associated with the megalithic tomb at Flintbek [59, 60], engravings of cattle teams yoked to two-wheeled vehicles at the Züschen I megalithic tomb [61, 62], and the four-wheeled wagons with drawbars and yokes depicted on the pottery vessel from Bronocice [63]. In the later TRB, c. 3500 cal. BC onwards, it has been argued that land clearance for cultivation with the cattle-driven ard went hand in hand with the use of the retrieved material–mostly small and medium-sized glacial erratics—for megalith construction [64]. In 4th millennium BC Ireland, the picture is somewhat different and certainly more fragmented. As outlined above, based on the current state of knowledge, ard cultivation, wheeled transport and cattle traction seem not to appear simultaneously, and the size ranges of stones utilised in the construction of megalithic monuments frequently exceed those in TRB tombs.

Recent programmes of radiocarbon dating and mathematical modelling have also resulted in considerable blurring of traditional tomb typo-chronologies [6569], with early passage tombs, court tombs and portal tombs all conceivably contemporary with one another and the Kilshane cattle. Nevertheless, the small amount of pottery from the Kilshane enclosure ditch, comprising a Middle Neolithic broad-rimmed globular bowl and a single sherd from a second globular bowl [22], links our traction data more closely to passage tomb horizons. The absence of evidence for cattle traction (and oxen) in the Irish Neolithic has created an understandable reluctance to speculate on the construction methods of passage tombs and megalithic monuments in general [7074]. In the light of the Kilshane data, some well-recognised aspects of passage tombs as a monument class can be re-evaluated, namely their tendency to be sited at higher elevations than earlier monuments [75, 76] and with a high degree of inter-visibility, argued to reflect more extensively networked Middle Neolithic communities [75]. The earliest passage tomb activity recorded to date, at Carrowmore, Co. Sligo and Baltinglass, Co. Wicklow [67, 69], at c. 3700/3600 cal. BC, is in upland landscapes, with the Baltinglass tomb at an altitude of nearly 400 metres above sea level. So-called ‘developed’ passage tombs c. 3300–3000 cal. BC, such as those found 25 km to the north of Kilshane in the Boyne Valley, have long been recognised as incorporating kerbstones, orthostats and other stone elements sourced from long distances, up to 75 km in the case of quartz and granite cobbles from Newgrange [75, 7780]. In these scenarios, cattle may have been used and even enabled the transport of both large and small stones over long distances and to higher terrain, as well as considerably easing efforts at a more local scale. Once on site, manoeuvring large structural stones into position would presumably have been easier with animal traction.


The strong evidence of the exploitation of cattle for labour in the Middle Neolithic in Ireland fills a gap in our knowledge of the adoption of cattle traction in the northwest Atlantic islands and supports the revision of the Sherratt’s Secondary Products Revolution model by emphasizing the importance of local socio-economic contexts in the adoption of specific secondary products. The exploitation of draught cattle in Ireland appears to drive specialised herding practices producing large males, possibly oxen. Based on the current evidence, we argue that only a few selected individuals were used as draught animals. The acquisition of this technology has important implications for agriculture since it provides a key support for more extensive practices as well as for megalithic construction, which increases considerably in scale during this period. The presence of bones from draught cattle among the refuse of feasting events also raises the question of their status and whether the ownership of working animals was communal or in the hands of a privileged few. Regardless, it seems highly likely that access to draught animals and the exploitation of associated resources is at the heart of wider changes that took place in Neolithic society in the second half of the 4th millennium BC.


I'm not very convinced by the suggestion that draught animals might have been used for the transport of stones to the passage tombs of the area, which are found at a slightly higher altitude than other tombs.  (Is that altitude association real, or just apparent, having something to do with tomb survival rather than tomb creation?)

As far as this is concerned, I am not at all convinced.  "So-called ‘developed’ passage tombs c. 3300–3000 cal. BC, such as those found 25 km to the north of Kilshane in the Boyne Valley, have long been recognised as incorporating kerbstones, orthostats and other stone elements sourced from long distances, up to 75 km in the case of quartz and granite cobbles from Newgrange [757780]. In these scenarios, cattle may have been used and even enabled the transport of both large and small stones over long distances and to higher terrain, as well as considerably easing efforts at a more local scale. Once on site, manoeuvring large structural stones into position would presumably have been easier with animal traction."  For a start, the authors completely ignore glacial transport, although elsewhere in the article they do acknowledge that in the bulk of cases glacial erratics were the basic raw materials for tomb building.  They provide no evidence for the long-distance transport of monoliths over long distances and to higher terrain by human beings, with or without the aid of draught animals.

But in spite of a measure of over-interpretation, an interesting article........

Tuesday, 21 March 2023

Boles Barrow bluestone hunt


Well, this looks like fun.  I have mentioned it before.  A small group of volunteers -- mostly military veterans -- from Operation Nightingale has got permission for ten days of digging at Boles Barrow.  Not the best time of year for digging -- it could get very messy.  But I suppose they have to stay well clear of the peak season for MOD operational manoevres on Salisbury Plain, with tanks and explosives and God knows what else.......

I suppose the prime objective of the work is to try and establish whether the Boles Barrow bluestone really did come from here, given the arguments about provenance and "archaeological context" that have raged over the years.  And they are also clearly looking for other bits of bluestone inside the barrow, with our old friends Ixer and Bevins waiting in the wings to examine whatever bits and pieces they come up with.  All good fun.  Watch this space.......