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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Friday, 3 July 2020

Bluestones and Interpretative Inflation

Waun Mawn and Craig Rhosyfelein -- two sites where mythification and interpretative inflation have been unrestrained.  The former is promoted as the site of "proto-Stonehenge" and the latter as the site of  a bluestone quarry and "a prehistoric Pompeii".......

It's interesting to reflect further on the significance of the recent article by Gordon Barclay and Kenneth Brophy, not just because of the manner in which Neolithic archaeology in the UK has become dominated by the "British Neolithic Mythos" or mythical narrative, but also because of the diminished respect for evidence and the truth that we see in many so-called "academic" or "scholarly" publications.  At the same time we see the decline of the scientific method, ubiquitous assumptive research, the assignment of false significance, the refusal to set up control studies, and the obsessive use of ruling hypotheses leading to the twisting and manipulation (and also the invention) of evidence.  Some studies have become so distorted that they should probably be classified as scientific hoaxes. 

So scientific malpractice is more and more common.  And it can be no coincidence that this trend has become noticeable while phenomenology has become popular in academic archaeology -- the invention of "the story" is the thing, and facts and evidence are deemed to be rather boring..........  So the truth ceases to matter very much, if at all.

In a world dominated by phenomenology and narrative creation, interpretative inflation becomes inevitable. The four stages of interpretative inflation, according to Barclay and Brophy:

1.  presentation of data with relatively restrained preliminary interpretation in the first part of the original academic paper;

2.  less tentatively, in the later part of the paper (and in the Abstract) more far- reaching interpretation, with less support offered;

3.  even more ambitious claims in media releases prepared by the universities, incorporating direct quotations from the authors;

4.  creation of attention-grabbing headlines and soundbites in the media by journalists working from the press releases,  further amplified through interviews with the lead authors, and affected by the media outlet’s own political angle.

(I might add a phase 2 (b), in which authors of original "learned" papers follow them up with unreferenced and "sexed up" versions of their research in popular glossy archaeology or history magazines.)

We can see this process of inflation at work in almost all of the bluestone-related papers published in recent years by the Bevins / Ixer / Parker Pearson cooperative,  as I have pointed out over and again in my analyses of their work.  We can see it most recently in the many articles cited by Barclay and Brophy relating to Stonehenge, Durrington Walls, teeth, bones and isotopes. (Again, purely by chance, Prof MPP is often involved......)  And we can see it with startling clarity in the recent paper by Vince Gaffney and others on the "Durrington Shafts" which will no doubt have the same fate as the spectacular "line of massive standing stones" supposedly discovered a few years ago. 

Should we be worried?  Well, yes we should -- because when academic standards are lowered and when all that matters is "impact" public cynicism about academia is bound to increase.

So when Sue Greaney give a podcast incorporating a fantastical narrative (and almost a liturgy) relating to a Neolithic burial ceremony, at one level it's a bit of radio entertainment, but at another level it's a demonstration that storytelling and marketing have become more "respectable" than scientific evidence and the truth.

Some years ago I had a bit of a spat with  Bronwen Price about her fantastical interpretation of the Craig Rhosyfelin site on a popular Welsh tourism website called "Land of Legends".  On the site, many fascinating locations were included because of their mythological / literary associations.  The Craig Rhos-y-felin entry should not have been included at all, since there is no mythology attached to the site. (Or at least there wasn't until MPP started to create it.)  But for better or for worse, there it is, written by Bronwen Price of Literature Wales, who has an archaeology doctorate and who should therefore know what she is talking about.  But in almost every respect, this entry is at fault, portraying the assumptions and speculations of a few archaeologists as established fact.

With regard to the “site description”, these are some of the fundamental errors:

Some of the bluestones of Stonehenge were quarried here. There is no evidence to support this statement. Some small fragments of foliated rhyolite found in the soil at Stonehenge appear to have come from the Rhosyfelin area — that’s the best that can be said. They might have come from destroyed cutting or slicing tools. The use of the word “quarried” is entirely inappropriate.

First used for a local monument in about 3400 BC, they were moved to Salisbury Plain 500 years later where they stood in various settings before the giant inverted ‘U-shaped’ stones joined them in 2500 BC. There is no evidence for there ever being a “local monument” or photo-Stonehenge in the local area around 3400 BC or at any other date. That is a piece of unsupported speculation from Mike Parker-Pearson. There is no evidence that the stones were moved to Salisbury Plain by human agency c 2900 BC or at any other time. The smaller bluestones at Stonehenge were indeed moved about and used in various settings, but there is no proof that the sarsens were not used on the site until later. The expression “giant inverted U-shaped stones” is really rather strange — each of the trilithons consists of two uprights and a capstone.

This makes Stonehenge a truly Welsh site….. This is nonsense.

…..something supported by the Boscombe Bowmen: seven individuals re-buried in a mass grave near Stonehenge around 2300 BC. All were seemingly born and raised in south-west Wales, travelling to Wessex during their lifetime. This is wild speculation — I know of no evidence linking the Boscombe Bowmen to SW Wales. According to all the published analytical data, they are just as likely to have come from elsewhere in South Wales, Devon, Cornwall, or the Lake District or any other area of ancient rocks.

This connection and journeys from the west are recalled in folk legend - Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1100-1155) retells the ancient belief that Merlin brought Stonehenge from Ireland. The idea that Geoffrey of Monmouth was repeating some ancient “folk memory” has been around for a long time! But we now know that he invented many of his stories with political and PR considerations in mind — and he was indeed in the business of promoting Wales and its heroes. He was a fiction writer, and not an historian, and he invented the “ancient belief” himself.

The rock face retains the natural pillar formations which the stone-cutters exploited. This is incorrect. On the rock face there are many intersecting fractures, which explains why the most predominant shapes in the slope accumulations are slabs and blocks rather than elongated pillars. There were no “stone-cutters” at Rhosyfelin, in spite of what Mike Parker-Pearson may tell you. In the Neolithic there was no method which allowed the cutting of stone.

You can enjoy a picnic where they camped 5400 years ago. This at least is partly true! Radiocarbon dates show that there is a long history of intermittent occupation by hunting and gathering parties at Rhosyfelin, between the Mesolithic and the Middle Ages. None of the dates coincides with a supposed "quarrying phase". 

When all of this was pointed out to Bronwen Price and Literature Wales, they refused point blank to re-write this entry to more accurately represent the scientific consensus.  Stubborn mules and ostriches with heads in sand come to mind. 

 Neither Visit Wales nor Literature Wales should be in the business of inventing an "alternative truth" or promoting new myths based on dodgy science.  Nor should the archaeology departments of our universities, or the professional academies which supposedly exist to uphold standards.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

The mythification of absolutely everything

I suppose that duty compels me to flag up this BBC radio "essay" by Susan Greaney, probably recorded before the "Durrington Shafts" article by Gaffney et al appeared in print.  Listen to it, and be amazed!  It is a classic of its kind, suggesting to me that some of the key people in the EH hierarchy are so obsessed with narratives and storytelling as components of the marketing strategy (at Stonehenge and elsewhere) that they are completely out with the fairies.

Susan has a new title -- as a "New Generation Thinker" -- Susan Greaney is a New Generation Thinker who works for English Heritage at Stonehenge and who is studying for her PHD at Cardiff University. New Generation Thinkers is a scheme run by the BBC and the Arts and Humanities Research Council which selects ten academics each year to turn their research into radio.

Time, maybe, for an old generation thinker to put on record a few thoughts.....

In her recorded "essay" Susan spends virtually the whole of her allotted 15 mins mythologising, fantasising and allotting fake "significance" to virtually everything -- almost to the point of denying that anything done by prehistoric people was done for utilitarian purposes.  With abundant references to "the underworld" and to the reverential or pseudo-religious significance of almost every act involving a relationship between man and the earth or the rock, the broadcast was so obsessed with spiritual and ritual matters that it would  have been more appropriate on the BBCR4 "Sunday" programme, flanked by items on the Catholic church and the festivals of Islam. 

In the "essay" there were virtually no verifiable facts and certainly no assessments of things found at the sites mentioned -- just a string of assumptions and speculations driven by a very peculiar and esoteric vision of what the Neolithic world looked like and how it functioned.

If this is the direction of travel at Stonehenge and elsewhere, God help us all.  No wonder Gordon Barclay and Kenneth Brophy, in their recent paper on the "British late Neolithic Mythos" had a go at the 2017 Stonehenge "Feast!" exhibition as being all about impact and marketing at the expense of scientific reliability.  The exclamation mark says it all......

 Anyway, dear readers, listen to the broadcast and let me know what you think.......

Digging Deep - The Essay

There is fascinating evidence that 5,000 years ago, people living in Britain and Ireland had a deep and meaningful relationship with the underworld seen in the carved chalk, animal bones and human skeletons found at Cranborne Chase in Dorset in a large pit, at the base of which had been sunk a 7-metre-deep shaft. Other examples considered in this Essay include Carrowkeel in County Sligo, the passage tombs in the Boyne Valley in eastern Ireland and the Priddy Circles in the Mendip Hills in Somerset. If prehistoric people regarded the earth as a powerful, animate being that needed to be placated and honoured, perhaps there are lessons here for our own attitudes to the world beneath our feet.

Susan Greaney works for English Heritage at Stonehenge and is studying for her PHD at Cardiff University.

Listen here

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

The origins of the British Neolithic Mythos

One of the classic and heroic images that was used to cement the British Neolithic Mythos of bluestone transport to the sacred site now called Stonehenge

I've been thinking a bit more about the content of this ground-breaking paper from Gordon Barclay and Kenneth Brophy:

Gordon J. Barclay & Kenneth Brophy (2020): ‘A veritable chauvinism of prehistory’: nationalist prehistories and the ‘British’ late Neolithic mythos, Archaeological Journal,
DOI: 10.1080/00665983.2020.1769399

First, a definition:  A‘mythos’ is a set of beliefs or assumptions about something, with its supporting narrative.


The mythos…. is that monuments in the Stonehenge area …. had a ‘national’, ‘unifying’ role for ‘Britain’ at a time when ‘Britain’ had a ‘unified culture’ and was isolated from continental Europe, and that as part of this process of unification, animals to be consumed in feasting were transported from as far as ‘Scotland’.......... 

That's fine, but it only refers to the latest incarnation of the mythos, arising from the recent studies of teeth and bones and linked to the discoveries at Durrington.  I reality, the mythos is much older, as the authors state:

The promotion of Stonehenge and the monuments associated with it as the location for the origin for British identity, for British character traits, and for British political unity is the explicit revival of the English origin myth of Stonehenge as ‘omphalos [navel] of Britain’ proposed by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth century (Parker Pearson 2012, 331; Tolstoy 2016).

Yes, but the origins of the "modern mythos" go back to HH Thomas, as we have stated many times on this blog, and as is outlined in my book "The Stonehenge Bluestones."  Thomas invented the human transport story, and for much of the last 100 years archaeologists (and some geologists, who should know better) have been obsessed with how and why Neolithic tribesmen supposedly went to all the trouble of picking up lumps of rock (mostly boulders rather than pillars) and carting them off to the chalklands of Southern England.  Senior archaeologists like Richard Atkinson have developed and promoted the mythos over the years, and in the last couple of decades the Darvill-Wainwright tribe and the Parker Pearson tribe have continued the process, with the narrative becoming more and more colourful with every passing year.  The quarrying component has been added, as has the proto-Stonehenge component, and sites like Carn Meini, Carn Goedog, Craig Rhosyfelin and Waun Mawn have been invested with almost sacred significance -- even though the evidence of Neolithic "Stonehenge-linked" activity at those sites does not withstand scrutiny.

A modern bluestone transport experiment -- again based on the assumption that the bluestone transport narrative was correct

Over and again -- "we know it was done, and why  -- now let's just work out HOW!"

So I would argue that the mythos referred to by Gordon and Kenneth started out like this:

Monuments in the Stonehenge area had a ‘national’, ‘unifying’ role for ‘Britain’ at a time when ‘Britain’ had a ‘unified culture’, and as part of this process of unification,  bluestone monoliths deemed to be “significant” were transported from “Wales.”

Then, when all of the high-tech results started to come in, relating to bones, teeth and isotopes, the mythos was developed into this:

Monuments in the Stonehenge area …. had a ‘national’, ‘unifying’ role for ‘Britain’ at a time when ‘Britain’ had a ‘unified culture’ and was isolated from continental Europe, and that as part of this process of unification, animals to be consumed in feasting were transported from as far as ‘Scotland".

Anyway, there are a few other interesting points from the article, with which I concur.

The continued promotion of Wessex-centred prehistory through the aggrandising ‘national’ role for the Stonehenge area, is not only a problem for those working in the archaeology of Scotland……

p 14

Features of media coverage:

• ● core/periphery issues – the persistence of an interpretative ‘grand narrative’ for late Neolithic Britain, based on interpretations of material relevant only to a limited area;

• ● the over-interpretation of limited evidence to reinforce grand narratives;

• ● subsequent promotion of these overstated interpretations by university media offices keen to demonstrate the ‘reach’, ‘relevance’ and ‘impact’ of externally funded, over- head-bearing research, particularly to funding bodies and mindful of the REF process;

• ● anachronistic and inappropriate references to modern politics, especially Brexit, actively promoted in press releases and interviews;

• ● a scientistic rewriting of thepast poorly related to existing models of the prehistory of Britain.

p 14-15

Interpretative inflation

The interpretative inflation we have already mentioned occurs in distinct stages in this uite of publications and promotions:

*the data and relatively restrained preliminary interpretation in the first part of the original academic paper;

*then, less tentatively, in the later part of the paper (and in the Abstract) more far- reaching interpretation, with less support offered;

*even more ambitious claims in media releases prepared by the universities, incorporating direct quotations from the authors;

*in the media, working from the press releases, to create attention-grabbing headlines and soundbites, further amplified through some interviews with the lead authors; and affected by the media outlet’s own political angle.

p 22

Discussion: prehistoric mythmaking, contemporary politics

We hope that we have demonstrated that the mythos has been developed on a sparse evidential base to reinforce what we would see as an outdated vision of a prehistory based on ‘luminous centres’, indeed a particular ‘luminous centre’ – the Stonehenge environs (Barclay 2001, 16, 2009, 3).


One final point:  On p 10 the authors refer to “the demonstrable link between central- south England and south-west Wales….” BUT I have to say that the only demonstrable thing is the provenance of most of the Stonehenge bluestones in N Pembs. Nothing else has been demonstrated — no ethnic links, no cultural links. The supposed links are based upon the presumption that the mythos is correct. The research re quarrying, bluestone “sanctity”, bluestone haulage, the existence of proto-Stonehenge etc,  is all assumptive research unsupported by hard evidence.  But the media won't tell you that.

Monday, 29 June 2020

Isotope evidence -- not so spectacular after all.........

I missed this article last year, when it appeared.    There is some careful and convoluted phraseology in it, but the most interesting thing is that it represents a very substantial rowing-back from the pretty outrageous claims made by the same team -- and others -- in earlier publications.   I went after those claims on this blog, and there was clearly a big backlash from within archaeological and scientific circles as well.  Just read between the lines.  Is common sense reasserting itself at last?


Evans, J., Parker Pearson, M., Madgwick, R. et al. Strontium and oxygen isotope evidence for the origin and movement of cattle at Late Neolithic Durrington Walls, UK. Archaeol Anthropol Sci 11, 5181–5197 (2019).


The geographic origins of livestock found at the Late Neolithic site of Durrington Walls (Wiltshire, UK) is explored using strontium (87Sr/86Sr) and oxygen (δ18OcarbVSMOW) isotope analysis of tooth enamel as an archive of lifetime movement. The analysis of 49 cattle is augmented with data for small numbers of animals from the contemporaneous monumental centres of West Kennet Palisade Enclosures (4), Stonehenge (1), and Marden (1). Unburnt human remains are scarce at these sites and the suite of biomolecular analyses that can be undertaken on cremated remains is limited. Therefore, these animals provide the best proxy for the origins of the people who raised them and give key information on livestock management. This builds on the Sr isotope analysis of 12 animals previously published from Durrington Walls and complements recent research on pig remains from the same sites, providing further evidence for the scale of human and animal movement and the catchment of these sites. The strontium isotope signatures from the animals’ teeth range between values that are consistent with local chalkland grazing to radiogenic values typical of granites and older rock types. The oxygen isotope data, coupled with the strontium results, provide new geographic resolution and indicate that the majority of the animals come from southern and western areas of Britain.


These results have demonstrated the diversity of cattle origins at Late Neolithic Durrington Walls. The 87Sr/86Sr isotope data suggest that at least four distinct terrains are represented in the dataset. The majority of animals are consistent with an origin on the chalk and other Mesozoic deposits that dominate much of southern England and are common across Britain. Many of these animals must have been imported to the sites, though not necessarily over long distance. Two distinct groups of cattle are from more radiogenic terrains, probably characteristic of Palaeozoic areas, the closest of which are in southwest England and Wales. A final group has distinctive values of > 0.714 and must derive from areas of even more radiogenic geology. On the basis of current biosphere mapping data, origins in Scotland seem likely for at least some animals, but others may derive from radiogenic areas incompletely mapped in England or Wales. Oxygen isotope data indicate that the majority of the animals are likely to derive from western or southern areas of Britain. Highland areas in the north of England and northeast Scotland are probably not represented in the dataset, but depleted oxygen isotope compositions suggest that some animals came from eastern and/or central areas of England.

Cattle are an important component of animal bone assemblages from Late Neolithic Britain. Remains of cattle were second only to pigs in abundance at Durrington Walls, and the presence of large quantities of cattle remains, along with evidence of butchery and burning on many bones, indicates that they were included in feasting activities (Albarella and Serjeantson 2002). The zooarchaeological evidence is also consistent with an introduction of cattle to Durrington Walls, due to the almost complete absence of neonatal bones. Such remains are expected to occur in breeding areas, because of natural casualties—their absence therefore suggests that husbandry largely occurred off-site.

The movement of cattle over long distances is an example of their importance in Neolithic society. Not only were they a significant source of food, but their role in feasting was important enough to warrant a huge investment of time and energy in herding them over long distances. These animals clearly had a role to play in sustaining long-distance networks in Late Neolithic Britain. As a proxy for human movement, the cattle from Durrington Walls are representative of the human journeys that were undertaken during the period and suggest links between human groups in many different parts of the country, both close and distant. The few cattle teeth from other contemporary sites hint that this phenomenon was more widespread and, perhaps, that Durrington Walls was not unique, but part of a wider network of connections and livestock exchange.

The exogenous origin of the livestock is in contrast with the largely local nature of the material culture (Chan et al. 2016). Animals could be driven on the hoof, while large quantities of objects would have been very onerous to carry. Such practical concern meant, however, that the local and the imported both played a role in the make-up of the Durrington Walls ceremonies, and probably contributed substantially to define the character of the communities occupying—permanently or periodically—the Stonehenge landscape.

Saturday, 27 June 2020

New Altar Stone paper -- or is it?

There's a new article from Bevins, Ixer, Parker Pearson and co, relating to the Altar Stone and the debate about its origins. We have seen all the arguments before, so there is not much here that is new, apart from more sophisticated and automated measurements of the mineralogies of samples. Rob anticipated that I would not like this new article very much, and he is quite correct. Anyway, here are the details:

Constraining the provenance of the Stonehenge ‘Altar Stone’: Evidence from automated mineralogy and U–Pb zircon age dating.
Richard E. Bevins, Duncan Pirrie, Rob A. Ixer, Hugh O’Brien, Mike Parker Pearson, Matthew R. Power, Robin K. Shail
Journal of Archaeological Science 120 (2020), 105188---------------------------

Thanks to Rob Ixer for sharing this link providing 50 days' free access to the article. Anyone clicking on this link before August 16, 2020 will be taken directly to the final version of the article on ScienceDirect, which they are welcome to read or download.  No sign up, registration or fees are required.


The Altar Stone at Stonehenge is a greenish sandstone thought to be of Late Silurian-Devonian (‘Old Red Sandstone’) age. It is classed as one of the bluestone lithologies which are considered to be exotic to the Salisbury Plain environ, most of which are derived from the Mynydd Preseli, in west Wales. However, no Old Red Sandstone rocks crop out in the Preseli; instead a source in the Lower Old Red Sandstone Cosheston Subgroup at Mill Bay to the south of the Preseli, has been proposed. More recently, on the basis of detailed petrography, a source for the Altar Stone much further to the east, towards the Wales-England border, has been suggested. Quantitative analyses presented here compare mineralogical data from proposed Stonehenge Altar Stone debris with samples from Milford Haven at Mill Bay, as well as with a second sandstone type found at Stonehenge which is Lower Palaeozoic in age. The Altar Stone samples have contrasting modal mineralogies to the other two sandstone types, especially in relation to the percentages of its calcite, kaolinite and barite cements. Further differences between the Altar Stone sandstone and the Cosheston Subgroup sandstone are seen when their contained zircons are compared, showing differing morphologies and U-Pb age dates having contrasting pop- ulations. These data confirm that Mill Bay is not the source of the Altar Stone with the abundance of kaolinite in the Altar Stone sample suggesting a source further east, towards the Wales-England border. The disassociation of the Altar Stone and Milford Haven undermines the hypothesis that the bluestones, including the Altar Stone, were transported from west Wales by sea up the Bristol Channel and adds further credence to a totally land-based route, possibly along a natural routeway leading from west Wales to the Severn estuary and beyond. This route may well have been significant in prehistory, raising the possibility that the Altar Stone was added en route to the assemblage of Preseli bluestones taken to Stonehenge around or shortly before 3000 BC. Recent strontium isotope analysis of human and animal bones from Stonehenge, dating to the beginning of its first construction stage around 3000 BC, are consistent with the suggestion of connectivity between this western region of Britain and Salisbury Plain.This study appears to be the first application of quantitative automated mineralogy in the provenancing of archaeological lithic material and highlights the potential value of automated mineralogy in archaeological provenancing investigations, especially when combined with complementary techniques, in the present case zircon age dating.

We have considered some of the research information in previous posts:

The Altar Stone is the one left of centre, just visible through the turf and largely hidden beneath two sarsens.  Have any of the "Altar Stone"samples really come from it?

As in the case of earlier papers by the same authors (with various other colleagues), I have no arguments with the reliability of the scientific analyses.  I am sure that the sample studies will have been done very carefully, with acceptable results.  The studies can, of course, be replicated by others if they so wish.  My gripe is that this is yet another piece of assumptive research, based upon two very questionable assumptions:

1.  The assumption that the six "Altar Stone" samples analysed (namely FN573, HM13, SH08, MS-1, MS-2 and MS0-3) did indeed come from the Altar Stone.  That is not demonstrated anywhere in the paper, and because of that, this whole thing might be just another wild goose chase. (As readers of this blog will know, there is great doubt as to the provenance of all of these samples.)

2.  The assumption that the Altar Stone -- and the other bluestones at Stonehenge -- were transported from Wales to Stonehenge by Neolithic tribesmen underpins this whole article.  Indeed, the bolstering of this hypothesis appears to be the main reason why this paper has been written.  However, there is no more evidence today for the human transport of the bluestones than there was a century ago,  and I am mystified as to why there was any necessity here to mention the bluestone transport controversy at all. Even the fantastical "bluestone quarries" get a mention, for no particular reason.   If the authors had stuck to the geology, this would have been a rather interesting and useful paper -- but as it is, it is spoiled by its descent into a fantasy-driven archaeological argument which is really rather peripheral.   A potentially good paper is transformed into a very bad one.

In the later part of the text, the authors concentrate on the case for sea transport versus the case for land transport of the bluestones -- an entirely futile argument and a waste of space for those of us who are looking for hard evidence rather than vague speculations.

One of the few positives to come out of this paper is the fact that the 2015 Rhosyfelin paper by Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd, John Downes and me is at least cited -- about time too, since up until now (for five years) this particular research team has existed in a state of denial about its very existence.  Well, they get there in the end.  At least, they have now acknowledged that, like more than 1,600 other people, they have actually read it.

Finally, there's this from the abstract:
"Recent strontium isotope analysis (analyses?) of human and animal bones from Stonehenge, dating to the beginning of its first construction stage around 3000 BC, are consistent with the suggestion of connectivity between this western region of Britain and Salisbury Plain."

I dispute that 100%.  The analyses do nothing of the sort, for reasons already enunciated in earlier posts.

Oh dear -- if only the geologists would stick to the geology........

One end of the Altar Stone, as revealed in the Atkinson excavation in 1958.

Sink holes and solution hollows

A solution pit or hollow exposed in the face of the Quidhampton Quarry at SU 11403151.  Like most others, it is more or less circular, with steeply sloping sides (not vertical) and an infill of sediments, with virtually no surface expression.

Having examined the published data again, I'm increasingly convinced that there is no reason at all for the seven "Larkhill" hollows called "Durrington Shafts" by Gaffney et al to be referred to as man-made features. In fact, the authors admit this themselves. They demonstrate in the text that the seven features (numbered iii, iv, 10D, 11D, 12D, 13D and v) are almost certainly natural solution features, being aligned along a shallow natural depression or dry valley running down towards a bend in the Avon Valley. They say this:

"That general presumption that the group of features north of Durrington Walls were natural in origin and, probably, solution features gains some support in the geological literature. Such features are relatively common on the chalk and the available mapping is likely to provide an underestimate of their actual distribution (Hopson et al. 2006, 215). Some of the features recorded north of Durrington are set within a slight valley trending west-east towards the Avon. While such a topographic situation can provide the conditions that can lead to the development of solution features, the southern group of anomalies does not align with any similar topographic feature, and actually crosses higher ground above dry valleys. Consequently, the origins of the southern group of anomalies as solution features or doline is less likely."

So they are not arguing against a natural origin for these seven northern features. And yet suddenly, in the next part of the paper, they are treated as essential or integral parts of the "Durrington Shafts" arc or circuit, and it is assumed from this point on that the seven pits are man-made.........

This is illogical and inconsistent, and seems to signal a switch from straightforward description and interpretation to a process of fitting evidence into a ruling hypothesis.


Here are some relevant extracts from a Geological Survey Report:

Geology of the Salisbury Sheet Area

Report on the Geology of Sheet 298 Salisbury
and its adjacent area.
A compilation of the results of the survey in Spring and Autumn 2003 and from the River Bourne survey of 1999
Internal Report IR/06/011

P M Hopson, A R Farrant, A J Newell, R J Marks, K A Booth,
L B Bateson, M A Woods, I P Wilkinson, J Brayson and D J Evans


A wide variety of solution features occur but only two, ‘buried’ and ‘subsidence’ sinkholes are common on the Chalk. The term sinkhole is interchangeable with the term doline, and can also be applied to surface features where a stream wholly or partially disappears underground. Buried sinkholes (as defined by Culshaw and Waltham, 1987) are typified by ‘pipe’ or cone-like cavities within the chalk (Plates 44 and 45), infilled by the overlying deposits that have subsided into the cavity as a result of dissolution. Most are circular or oval in plan and can be many metres deep, often bifurcating into several smaller ‘pipes’ at depth. They often have no surface expression and are commonly infilled with flinty gravelly clay derived from the superficial cover, usually clay-with-flints.

Subsidence sinkholes are closed surface depressions, usually either bowl, pipe or cone-like in shape. They can occur as isolated examples or as groups, often coalescing into large composite dolines. They can form rapidly as a dropout failure following the washing out of pre-existing infilled pipes. Most occur in covers of unconsolidated sediment between 1-10 m thick, such as the clay-with-flints and older head.

However, the main control on near surface solution features is the geomorphic setting and the presence/absence of an impermeable cover. An area of impermeable strata either adjacent or overlying the Chalk serves to concentrate recharge and hence dissolution at the contact between the two rock types. The highest density of sinkholes occurs around the margin of the overlying Palaeogene strata or around the clay-with-flints outcrop. Topography and drainage patterns affect the distribution of solution features. Dissolution is enhanced where underground drainage routes are concentrated such as along valley floors and at spring lines. Typically the chalk is far more weathered under valley floors than under interfluves. Topography also influences whether drainage from the Palaeogene outcrop flows onto or away from the chalk and thus influences the location of water recharge via stream sinks.

An understanding of the geomorphic evolution of an area is vital to identify potential areas of karst development that have little no surface expression today. This is especially the case for karst features formed under differing climatic conditions or relict karst formed prior to present topography. Where the present land surface is close to the sub-Palaeogene peneplane, solution features inherited from the former Palaeogene cover may still exist. For example, solution pipes may still exist below ground level in areas where a former clay-with flint or Palaeogene cover has now been eroded. Elsewhere, erosion and dissection has removed these relict solution features.

Karstic features are also known in the Purbeck strata in the Vale of Wardour, both in the Salisbury district and to the west on the Wincanton sheet. Many stream sinks have been noted around Tisbury and Sutton Mandeville, (Sparrow, 1975, 1976; and Clark and Waters, 2002), as well as a few small phreatic caves and resurgences. None of these have been traced to any resurgence (see above for details of sinks and resurgences observed during the survey).

9.4 Distribution of Solution Features

The distribution of observed solution features is shown on the 1:10 000 scale geological maps and on a small scale Figure 78 below. Many sinkholes have been ploughed in or landscaped so the distribution of solution features marked on the updated geological maps is certain to be an underestimate of the true density. Others have been worked as chalk pits and some ‘dolines’ may simply be small, degraded marl pits. Furthermore, many solution features such as the infilled ‘pipes’ often have no surface expression and cannot be identified by surface mapping.

The Chalk outcrop with the highest density of solution features is in the extreme south of the district, close to the Palaeogene outcrop, and through the central part of the district around the extensive clay- with-flints cover of the Great Ridge. Many of the dolines here have been landscaped or worked as pits. Some minor stream sinks occur along the margin of the overlying Palaeogene strata, but these are only intermittently active during wet weather. Areas of clay-with-flints exhibit high densities of solution features, notably the crest of Great Ridge, on the interfluve between the Lower Avon and the River Wylye, north of the Palaeogene outcrop east of Salisbury and on the interfluves to the north and south of the River Ebble. Here the present land surface is close to the sub-Palaeogene peneplane and both recent active and relict solution hollows derived from a former Palaeogene cover occur. Other outcrops of clay-with-flints are associated with dolines but elsewhere, the land surface has undergone greater dissection and these relict solution hollows have been eroded.

Minor solution features occur widely throughout the area, especially where there is a thin superficial cover, although many of these are likely to have been ploughed in and obliterated or worked as pits. Solution features (‘bourne holes’) can be expected to occur along the middle and upper reaches of the Bourne, Till and Chitterne Brook where significant recharge into the aquifer occurs. These may act as either sinks or springs depending on relative groundwater levels.


The presence of these solution features is dependent on several variables including rock lithology, fracture style, geomorphic setting, geological structure and even anthropomorphic factors. The wide variety in chalk lithology (discussed above), fracture style, geological structure, flint content, porosity and fissure permeability significantly affects the style and degree of karst weathering, both at surface and underground.

Here are two previous posts:

Dissolution pipes on a buried chalk surface in the Chiltern Hills (Peter Worsley)

I'm also interested in the link between sarsen stones and chalk solution.

A section showing a solution pit beneath a large embedded sarsen on Fyfield Down -- from a booklet written by Mike Clark and published by NCC in 1976.

The diagram above shows a section cut alongside one of the recumbent large sarsens found in Clatford Bottom. It shows that the sarsen is embedded in a layer of brown flinty loam which extends for about a metre beneath the stone base, with combe rock beneath that, and then with almost a metre of strongly weathered chalk above largely unaltered chalk bedrock. The brown loam is presumably the periglacial material that has moved downslope, maybe carrying or rafting the sarsen along as it accumulated. But what interested Clark and his colleague was the evidence that in ten pits examined under and adjacent to recumbent sarsens, there was increased soil acidity as compared with soils where no sarsens were present. There was also a tendency for solution pipes to occur beneath sarsens of various sizes in the combe rock, penetrating into the weathered chalk beneath. One of these pipes can be seen in the illustration above. Conclusion: the presence of sarsens in one position for many thousands of years leads to enhanced solution in the regolith and rotten chalk beneath. This rotten chalk mat well be exploited for residual flint nodules or indeed for chalk debris if that is required for the building of embankments etc.

With evidence like this in the literature, it is surprising that Gaffney et al, in their new paper, have not considered the possibility that some at least of the pits they have examined in the vicinity of Durrington may actually be extraction pits from which sarsen stones have been taken.

See also:
Locating dissolution features in the Chalk
Matthews, M. C. et al.
Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology(2000),33(2):125

A summary of terminology and the locations / origins of key features

The logical conclusion has to be that the "Larkhill group" of hollows or anomalies must be interpreted as natural features related to those shown above, unless powerful evidence to the contrary is provided. There is no such evidence.


Here is another interesting article, on the collection of sarsens in the Avebury landscape.

There are extraction pits and hollows all over the place in the Avebury district, most of them still identifiable but others infilled and maybe nowadays only traceable through detailed ground surveys.  Interestingly, the authors suggest that large recumbent sarsens, in their "original" positions, may have protected the underlying chalk from solution processes, leacing them perched of slight platforms or pedestals -- but that around the edges of the sarsen stones solution processes may have been enhanced.  This is a fertile field for somebody looking for a project.......

Thursday, 25 June 2020

The politicisation of the Neolithic

Not only does the Emperor have no clothes, but the Empire itself is just a figment 
of somebody's over-fertile imagination..........

At long last, a pair of archaeologists who are prepared to tell it like it is, and a journal prepared to publish their paper.  Gordon Barclay and Kenneth Brophy have published this devastating survey of much that is wrong with British Neolithic archaeology.  So certain eminent academics will not be best pleased.  And it's gratifying that they are saying exactly what I have been saying about the high-tech isotope research which tells us far less about the Neolithic that certain people like to claim.......

The authors examine in some detail the complex interactions between senior academics and researchers and the media, on which they are increasingly dependent for the "marketing" of their ideas and the promotion of their careers.  For many years I have argued that the relationship is unhealthy and indeed dangerous, since university press offices always try to "sex up" press releases about new research, and academics themselves are tempted to place greater stress on column inches than on academic rigour and scientific integrity.

Anyway, thanks to Jon for drawing this to my attention, and thanks to Gordon for letting me see the whole article, which is unfortunately behind a paywall.

The details:

Gordon J. Barclay & Kenneth Brophy (2020) ‘A veritable chauvinism of prehistory’: nationalist prehistories and the ‘British’ late Neolithic mythos, Archaeological Journal,
DOI: 10.1080/00665983.2020.1769399

This article examines the interpretation and public presentation of a particular view of the supposedly ‘national’ role of monuments in a geographically restricted part of southern England – what we have termed the British late Neolithic mythos: that monuments in the Stonehenge area had a ‘national’, ‘unifying’ role for ‘Britain’ at a time when ‘Britain’ had a ‘unified culture’ and was isolated from continental Europe, and that as part of that process, animals for feasting were transported from as far as ‘Scotland’. We explore the trajectory of interpretative inflation, ‘possible’ > ‘probable’ > ‘certain’ > ‘sensational’ through academic and popular accounts, media releases, social media, newspaper articles, TV programmes, Research Excellence Framework impact reports, and the publications of the Arts & Humanities Research Council. We critically examine the evidence claimed to underpin this far-reaching re-interpretation of British prehistory. We examine the extent to which a priori assumptions can shape the interpretation of complex datasets and how unacknowledged nationalist and neo-colonialist thinking underpin its interpretation. We consider the way in which researchers have linked their work with contemporary politics – Brexit, a ‘united Britain’ isolated from Europe, perhaps to demonstrate ‘relevance, ‘impact’ and ‘reach’ to funding bodies. We conclude with some suggestions on ways forward including further research, and mitigating strategies.


The article is long, and quite dense, with a mass of references.  It has been carefully researched, and it is a proper "academic" paper (very polite!) while at the same time pulling no punches.  One of the main targets is what we might call the Parker Pearson School of Archaeological Thought, and the authors say many of the things I have been saying for years.  They don't mention the bluestone debate at all, because there are plenty of other things to talk about -- but their analysis slots in very easily to what I have been saying about the decline of the scientific method, assumptive research, the assignment of false significance, and the obsessive use of ruling hypotheses leading to the twisting and manipulation (and also the invention) of evidence.  At its worst, we are actually dealing with scientific hoaxes, perpetrated in pursuit of the desire to prove and demonstrate the reality of the "British Neolithic mythos".

Here are some of the posts I have done in the past few years, tackling these very issues:

Maps like this have been used to flag up imaginary links between Stonehenge and Preseli

It's also interesting that Gordon Barclay and Kenneth Brophy spend some time, in the article,  on a careful scrutiny of the isotope analyses of teeth and bones which have been used in quite outrageous fashion by Madgwick and various others (including Parker Pearson) to promote the politicisation of the British Neolithic.  It's good to know that I am not alone in thinking that much of that research is seriously flawed, and that it has done serious damage to the credibility of archaeology.  Some of my posts on this:

As far as I can see, the only reference in this new paper to the bluestone controversy is in this statement:

Critically examining these data in this way, we must ask again why the authors of the books and articles referenced have chosen to emphasise more distant areas as potential, likely or even certain sources for these animals, especially given the existing links with Wales, demonstrated by the origin of the Stonehenge bluestones in the Preseli Hills (e.g. Darvill and Wainwright 2014; Parker Pearson et al. 2015).

What the authors are suggesting here is that there is no need to postulate long-distance travel of people, pigs and teeth from northern Scotland to the Stonehenge area when it is much more likely that areas much closer to hand (eg Preseli) will fit the bill.  Well, yes and no.  There is the "bluestone link".   But you still need evidence of some cultural or ethnic link between Preseli and Stonehenge, and in spite of what Darvill, Wainwright and Parker Pearson may have claimed in the past, the evidence is just not there.  The quarrying hypothesis is yet another example of something dug up to demonstrate a fanciful supposition which has been around for almost a century, initiated by HH Thomas.