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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Monday, 19 July 2021

Sheffield closure confirmed


According to media coverage, the closure of the Sheffield  Univ Archaeology Dept has been confirmed.  It seems to have been very badly handled by the university, but nonetheless (and in spite of a huge petition of protest) the Dept appears to have had only ten offers to undergraduates for the next academic year — and there is no way that a full-blown university department can afford to stay open in the face of such student apathy.  

Plenty of other “famous” university departments have closed over the years, and the archaeology world cannot really claim that there was anything exceptional or uniquely valuable about Sheffield Archaeology — in spite of the fact that our friend MPP was once on the staff.  

We can link this with my last post, and ask whether archaeology really knows what it is or where it is going.  It’s sure as eggs not a scientific discipline, and I’m not sure whether it is a humanity either.  With its apparent disregard for the value of hard evidence it looks more and more like a story-telling subject — and modern undergraduates want more, I suspect, than myths and bedtime stories.

Saturday, 17 July 2021

Archaeology and interpretative inflation — who’s to blame?

There is an interesting editorial from the editors of the Archaeological Journal,  on the matter of interpretative inflation, as described by Gordon Barclay and Kenny Brophy and as attacked with much venom by Madgwick and his colleagues involved in the Stonehenge and Durrington isotope analyses.  

The editors make several interesting points, including this one:

Criticism of our work is never easy to read but is a necessary part of being a researcher and academic, and this debate has certainly made me reflect on the research process and how we interact with the media. We hope that this debate gives readers of the journal something to think about, not only for our understanding of the Neolithic of Britain, but the wider influence that archaeology can have in society.

I hope that point is read and understood by MPP, Rob Ixer and Richard Bevins, who refuse steadfastly to accept criticism or even to accept that it exists in the peer-reviewed literature.  Because they exist in a state of denial, they deserve little respect from the academic community.

Another very interesting feature of the article is that the Editors seem to think that the “spin” put on archaeological research by the media is the responsibility of the media alone — with researchers and article authors absolved of any involvement in the process, let alone any blame.  That is disingenuous in the extreme — indeed it is complete nonsense.  The authors of journal articles MUST take full responsibility for how they are represented in the media — they after all are the ones who write the abstracts, and who sign off the press releases.  

So get real, editors — rubbish in rubbish out. Archaeologists are not as innocent as you make out.   It’s about time that academic archaeologistrs — and their geologist colleagues — started to take their academic duties and responsibilities seriously by presenting hard evidence (and admitting to controversy where it exists) instead of peddling myths.



Lisa-Marie Shillito & Andrew Valdez-Tullett (2021) Editorial, Archaeological Journal,178:1, i-iii, DOI: 10.1080/00665983.2021.1934256

The final papers in issue two present an important debate that is of relevance to all of us working in archaeology, whatever time period. The first paper by Barclay and Brophy presents a critique of the way isotope and other data has been used in the construction of what they term the British ‘late Neolithic mythos’, emphasising a national role for Stonehenge and related monuments such as Durrington Walls. The paper questions the interpretation of isotope data from these sites, but also discusses extensively the way the research has been subsequently emphasised in the media, and how it has been linked to contemporary politics, including Brexit. They note a ‘trajectory of interpretative inflation’ regarding Stonehenge, going from possible to probable to certain, to sensational, which they trace through academic and media sources over the past decade.

One of the key papers that Barclay and Brophy discuss is Madgwick et al. (2019), the most recent in a series of scientific papers on isotope and related analyses from Stonehenge and Durrington Walls. In the final paper presented in this volume of the Archaeological Journal, Madgwick et al challenge some of the criticisms presented by Barclay and Brophy, and reaffirm their original interpretation of the isotope data. The paper focuses largely on this aspect of the criticism, and less so on the way the research has been presented in the media.

The idea of ‘interpretative inflation’ that Barclay and Brophy refer to is one which many of us will be familiar with. This type of media hype is not limited to Stonehenge, though that particular monument does seem prone to it. It seems almost inevitable that archaeological research ends up being sensationalised when it moves from the academic to popular sphere. What responsibility do we as archaeologists and researchers have in making sure that popular narratives of our research are accurate? In many cases these headlines are frustrating but harmless (archaeologists appear to be perpetually baffled by the latest discovery), nevertheless it is the popular headlines that are ultimately where a lay audience gets their information. Another question is, how much do these popular sensationalised versions of archaeology then start to influence our academic research? These are not questions that can be answered easily, but I hope that the debate presented here is an important starting point in making us all consider these issues in future.

As an editor this was a challenging set of papers to deal with. The high-profile nature of the case study, but also the range and complexity of the material under discussion necessitated an incredibly rigorous review process for both papers, from the perspective of British Neolithic archaeology, public engagement and archaeological isotope analysis. The topic was perhaps even more challenging, as I myself was involved in some of the earlier Stonehenge work, and indeed one of the papers that Barclay and Brophy critique was the main output from a postdoctoral research post I held from 2010 to 2012 (Craig et al. 2015). I worked specifically on analysing lipid residues in the Grooved Ware pottery from Durrington Walls. The press release for Craig et al. (2015) was my first encounter with the media as an early career academic, and I remember the sensationalism of the headlines. These headlines referred to ‘prehistoric barbecues’ and ‘food of the gods’ and were less controversial or political than ‘prehistoric Brexit’ but nevertheless presented the scientific research from a particular angle rather than opting to be more cautious. Criticism of our work is never easy to read but is a necessary part of being a researcher and academic, and this debate has certainly made me reflect on the research process and how we interact with the media. We hope that this debate gives readers of the journal something to think about, not only for our understanding of the Neolithic of Britain, but the wider influence that archaeology can have in society.

Lisa-Marie Shillito & Andrew Valdez-Tullett (2021) Editorial, Archaeological Journal,178:1, i-iii, DOI: 10.1080/00665983.2021.1934256

See also:

Friday, 2 July 2021

Last throw of the dice for the bluestone circle hunters?


There are assorted messages on the file concerning the forthcoing final (?) season of digging at Waun Mawn by MPP and his merry crew.  A dig is planned, for September, centred on Wun Mawn but not exclusive to that site — but at the moment there is no clear information about other locations due to be examined.  What is clear is that the dig will be on a much reduced scale because of the dependence on young volunteers from the student community — and of course that group is currently proving to be the most vulnerable to the Delta Covid variant.  So having ten or twenty of them working cheek by jowl in an archaeological dig, even on a windswept hillside, might not be a good idea……….

This has to be the last throw of the dice for MPP on this project, and I am frankly amazed that the funding organisations are still prepared to throw good money after bad, given that after two seasons of digging and much media hype (including that infamous Alice Roberts TV programme) NOTHING solid has been found at Waun Mawn.  The geophysics shows nothing, the ”evidence” of stone sockets is worthless, and there is not the slightest trace of any link with Stonehenge.  The radiocarbon and other dating ”evidence” is so confusing as to be meaningless — just like the dating evidence cited in the past for Craig Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog.  What is more, the local geology has been shamelessly misrepresented — and for this Richard Bevins and Rob Ixer must take a big share of the blame.  

So what are they hoping to find?  Presumably they will dig on a few more segments of the putative stone circle circumference, in the hope of finding more shallow and irregular pits that can be interpreted as stone sockets.  And they will hope for some miraculous appearance of a few bits of spotted dolerite or foliated rhyolite that might help them to argue that stones from Carn Goedog and Rhosyfelin were once placed here and then removed.

All that having been said, the fact that the diggers will be looking at other sites as well as Waun Mawn is a sign of progress — as I have been pointing out for years, the area around Waun Mawn, Banc Llwydlos and Tafarn Bwlch is inherently fascinating, and deserves concentrated attention from the archaeological community.

Monday, 21 June 2021

More on the Stonehenge dolerites — multiple sources and no quarries

One of the unspotted dolerite samples from Stonehenge probably came from near here. This is Cerrigmarchogion.  The other dolerites — spotted and unspotted — came from many different places.

There’s a big new paper from Bevins, Pearce and Ixer. As with their other papers, the intention seems to be to find common sources for multiple samples from Stonehenge, and to identify the locations of “bluestone quarries” — but with every paper they publish they inadvertently demonstrate that almost all of the samples are unique and that they have come from different places.  This is exactly what we would expect of a collection of glacial erratics.  The idea of bluestone quarrying is dead, and it’s about time the geologists admitted it.

 Anyway, here are the details of the new publication.  It’s difficult to do a proper review right now because of the constraints of using an iPad in the wilds of Sweden, rather than my very versatile iMac at home. (Copying and pasting is difficult on an iPad.......). It’s a highly technical paper intended for specialists, and it continues the efforts by these three authors to study very intensively all the categories of rock found at Stonehenge and its environs, and to find provenances for all of the samples on the record. Unfortunately, there is no new fieldwork here — it appears that the sampled rock fragments and cores are the same ones that have popped up over and again in the literature from Bevins, Ixer and Pearce, mostly collected more than 30 years ago. Those samples have effectively been worked to death, and one has to wonder why there has been no new sampling around Mynydd Preseli which is more suited to the “bluestone debate” as it currently stands.

There are a couple of things that significantly detract from the value of this new study.

First, as mentioned above, the underlying assumption on the part of the authors that the bluestones at Stonehenge were quarried and transported by Neolithic tribesmen from the Preseli area to Stonehenge, rather than being collected up and used more or less where found. That forces them into other assumptions, including the assumption that two quarries have already been found, and the assumption that there are other quarries waiting to be found. This forces them, in their interpretations of the evidence, to assume a modest number of sources, whereas for any independent reader the evidence clearly points to multiple scattered sources, as one would expect of a collection of glacial erratics.

Second, the authors still refuse steadfastly to acknowledge that their ideas about quarrying and stone transport are hotly disputed in my book on the Stonehenge bluestones and in two peer-reviewed papers. I have said it before, and I will keep on saying it — this is reprehensible and is tantamount to scientific malpractice. I’m amazed that the referees and the editor responsible for the publication of this paper did not insist on proper careful citations of “inconvenient” papers and a consideration of pros and cons in the discussion and interpretation of the evidence.


The accurate identification of the sources of stones used in the construction of stone circles has the potential to play an important role in understanding the movements of people in ancient times, having a particular relevance and potential significance when long-distant transport has been involved. Tracing of sources to particular rock outcrops provides the opportunity for focussed archaeological excavations which might inform questions such as why particular stone sources were selected and exploited, as well as potentially revealing material evidence as to how the stones were extracted and subsequently transported from site. In the context of this paper, recent detailed provenancing of particular Stonehenge bluestones (see Ixer and Bevins, 2010, Ixer and Bevins, 2011, Bevins et al., 2011, Bevins et al., 2012, Bevins et al., 2014) has led to the discovery of two Neolithic quarry sites in the Mynydd Preseli area of north Pembrokeshire, at Craig Rhos-y-Felin (Parker Pearson et al., 2015b) and Carn Goedog (Parker Pearson et al., 2019). It has also recently been suggested that some of the bluestones may have been part of an earlier stone circle in the Mynydd Preseli area, at a location called Waun Mawn, which was partially dismantled, with some of the stones transported to Stonehenge (Parker Pearson et al., 2021).

So this article is hugely devalued by the ongoing adherence of the authors to a very silly ruling hypothesis which should have been abandoned years ago.  It’s also devalued by a lack of comparative sample analyses; I should like to have seen some analytical data from unspotted dolerites in other parts of the UK.    How similar, or how different, are they from the analyses presented in this paper?

All that having been said, it is of some interest in that it brings a new technique to the table — the analysis of rare earth elements.  It is suggested that one Stonehenge sample (SH45) probably comes from the Cerrigmarchogion area, but the other unspotted dolerite samples from the Stonehenge area are difficult to fix.  They are most likely to have come from eastern Preseli, around Carn Ddafad-las.  But the samples are different — they have not all come from the same place.  Sample SH44 is an anomaly — unlike anything else found at Stonehenge and different from all of the Preseli unspotted dolerites sampled.  

So once again, as with the studies of spotted dolerites, sandstones, rhyolites and ashes, the conclusion is that there are no preferred and known sources which can be identified as quarries, but rather multiple scattered sources, not one of which has yet been “nailed down” by hard evidence.  I have made the point over and again over the last decade that there are around 30 different sources for the Stonehenge bluestones and the “bluestone debitage” — and every geological study published by Ixer, Bevins and their colleagues supports this contention.  They claim to have fixed some foliated rhyolites as having come from a quarry at Craig Rhosyfelin to “within a few square metres”, but the presented evidence does not support that claim.  They also claim that there was a spotted dolerite quarry at Carn Goedog, with “evidence” that is even more equivocal.  It is high time that they faced up to reality, as presented in their own papers.  


Revisiting the provenance of the Stonehenge bluestones: Refining the provenance of the Group 2 non-spotted dolerites using rare earth element geochemistry

Bevins, RE, Pearce, NJG and Ixer, RA

Jnl of Archaeological Science: Reports Vol 38, Aug 2021, No 103083.


The doleritic bluestones of Stonehenge, sourced from the Mynydd Preseli in west Wales, have been previously classified into three geochemical groups on the basis of compatible element geochemistry (Bevins et al., 2014). The majority of Group 1 (spotted) dolerites were identified as coming from the outcrop of Carn Goedog, Group 3 (spotted) dolerites were linked to the outcrops Carn Breseb, Carn Gyfrwy, outcrops in the vicinity of Carn Alw and an un-named outcrop west of Carn Ddafad-las and Group 2 (non-spotted) dolerites were identified as coming from either Cerrigmarchogion or Craig Talfynydd. A sub-set of the samples used by Bevins et al. (2014) have been re-analysed by solution nebulisation ICP-MS, including analyses of the rare earth elements (REE).

Analysis of the REE data reveals that Groups 1 and 3 dolerites from both Stonehenge and the Preseli have very similar REE patterns which strongly suggests that they are derived from a single intrusive body. Group 2 non-spotted dolerites are now divided, on the basis of their REE contents, into four Preseli and two Stonehenge sub-groups, (Groups 2i-2iv and Groups 2v-2vi, respectively) while Stonehenge orthostat sample SH44 plots apart from all other Stonehenge and Preseli samples in all discriminant diagrams used. The new data show that Preseli Group 2i dolerites have very distinct concave down “humped” patterns and bear no resemblance to any analysed Stonehenge dolerites. The source of Stonehenge Group 2v dolerites remains equivocal; they plot close to Preseli Group 2ii dolerites from Carn Ddafad-las and Garn Ddu Fach and have in common the presence of notable positive Eu anomalies, but they show minor differences, especially in relation to their Gdn/Ybn ratios. However, Stonehenge orthostat sample SH45 shows a near identical REE composition to Preseli Group 2iii dolerites from Cerrigmarchogion.

In terms of the interpretation of REE contents and chondrite-normalized patterns we found no differences whether using the ‘standard’ techniques used by geochemists, based on chondrite-normalized elemental ratios and values, or the quantitative approach using shape factors derived from polynomial curve fitting.

Saturday, 5 June 2021

Outwash gravel sheets in Central Pembrokeshire


Did a braided river like this once flow from the Trefgarn Gorge exit and then southwards across the site of Haverfordwest?

Extract from the geology map showing the main gravel occurrences in pink.  The present course of the Western Cleddau river can be picked out by the yellow band on the image, showing where the present flood plain is located.

I have long been intrigued by the extensive sheets of glaciofluvial gravel found in the Haverfordwest area, especially on the "plateau" incorporating Prendergast, on the NE edge of the town, and running up through the site of the Withybush Aerodrome (where of course they are massively disturbed) towards Rudbaxton and thence towards the southern exit of the Trefgarn Gorge.

There was an outcrop of these gravels on the bank that dropped away beneath Cherry Grove, where I lived as a child, and I was intrigued by them even at that tender age! 

But why does this "gravel sheet" not run along the present route of the Western Cleddau river and to the west of the A40 road?  Was there a braided outwash river to the east of the road?  That would have been a strange situation, since much of the land to the east of the road is above the 50m contour whereas much of the land to the west of the road is below 50m.  Or might the river have migrated westwards and removed vast quantities of glaciofluvial material in the process?

Various attempts have been made to recognize river terraces in the Haverfordwest area, but they have never been very successful, partly because of the extent of the built-up area and partly because terrace remnants are small and difficult to identify.  Traditionally, the gravels in the Haverfordwest area have been interpreted either as pre-glacial river gravels laid down at a time of higher sea-level, or as glaciofluvial gravels associated with one of the earlier glaciations (Anglian?).  This would make sense, if the Gwaun-Jordanston channels are assumed to have been formed by vast torrents of meltwater flowing under the ice and flowing first westwards and then southwards, through Trefgarn Gorge and towards Milford Haven.  This too makes sense, with an ice surface gradient sloping down from NW towards SE.   If the gravels are stained and even rotten -- and hence very old -- this would support the Anglian glacial hypothesis........ and the assumption that Devensian or LGM ice could not have affected central Pembrokeshire.

On the other hand, I have been thinking for some time that Devensian ice did not simply skid to a halt along the coast of St Bride's Bay, but pushed well inland.  To his credit, Prof Dai Bowen was the only person to have suggested this in his Devensian / Weichselian ice limits maps:

Recently some big exposures have been opened up in association with the building of a new Haverfordwest High School on the site of the old Sir Thomas Picton School.  Near Prendergast Cemetery and the County Archives building there is a huge mound of excavated gravels, incorporating large boulders which suggest to me either a very powerful meltwater torrent or the close proximity of glacier ice.  Sadly, I have not been able to examine any in situ gravels which might indicate the direction of meltwater flow.........

Another braided river plain (sandur), showing the complexity of anastomosing channels and suggesting the frequent lateral displacement of the dominant water routes.  We should not strictly refer to this as a "flood plain" since the "flooding" is going on for much of the time during the melting season, here, there and almost everywhere........  Multi-channel rivers like this are a nightmare to cross on foot with a heavy pack!

Kaldalon braided river and sandur in NW Iceland.  We crossed this one many times in 1960, usually in the middle of the "night" when the water level was low.

When I examined the apparently fresh glaciofluvial gravels at Picton Point, I became convinced that they were Devensian in age, and that they were laid down nor far from an ice edge:

It would be logical for the gravel sheet north of Haverfordwest to be the same age, and to have formed in similar circumstances.

If we look at the topographic map of north Pembrokeshire we can see where the main drainage routes are.  The Gwaun-Jordanston meltwater channel system has flummoxed researchers for well over a hundred years, but most people nowadays accept that they are very old, having been cut (and then modified) by sublgacial meltwater during several glacial episodes.  But they must have been used by huge torrents of meltwater at the end of the Devensian (LGM) glaciation as well.  If Lake Teifi and the other features in the Teifi Valley were created in the WAXING phase of the LGM ice advance, that makes it quite likely that meltwater escaped westwards through Cwm Gwaun and the other big rock-cut channels prior to the LGM and after it as well.  All very confusing.  That means a complex history of meltwater flow and landform development, between 30,000 and 20,000 years ago.

Main meltwater routes used during the Late Devensian.  It is assumed that meltwater flowed westwards and then southwards through Trefgarn Gorge when the ice was far advanced, and then escaped northwards into Cardigan Bay once the ice edge had retreated to the north of the present coastline.

So where should we draw the Devensian ice edge at the time of the LGM?  I am inclined to think we are talking of retreat phases here, rather than a terminal of "end moraine" position.  Watch this space.......

Rock avalanche

A fabulous image.  A rock avalanche onto the surface of Scud Glacier, British Columbia, June 2020.


Sunday, 23 May 2021

The isotope analysis debate gets vicious


Thanks to Jon for drawing attention to this, published just a few days ago.  

A veritable confusion: use and abuse of isotope analysis in archaeology
Richard Madgwick, Angela Lamb, Hilary Sloane, Alexandra Nederbragt, Umberto Albarella, Mike Parker Pearson & Jane Evans

Archaeological Journal, 18 May 2021

The expansion of isotope analyses has transformed the study of past migration and mobility, sometimes providing unexpected and intriguing results. This has, in turn, led to media attention (and concomitant misrepresentation) and scepticism from some archaeologists. Such scepticism is healthy and not always without foundation. Isotope analysis is yet to reach full maturity and challenging issues remain, concerning diagenesis, biosphere mapping resolution and knowledge of the drivers of variation. Bold and over-simplistic interpretations have been presented, especially when relying on single isotope proxies, and researchers have at times been accused of following specific agendas. It is therefore vital to integrate archaeological and environmental evidence to support interpretation. Most importantly, the use of multiple isotope proxies is key: isotope analysis is an exclusive approach and therefore single analyses provide only limited resolution. The growth in isotope research has led to a growth in rebuttals and counter-narratives. Such rebuttals warrant the same critical appraisal that is applied to original research, both of evidence for their assertions and the potential for underlying agendas. This paper takes a case study-based approach focusing on pig movements to Neolithic henge complexes to explore the dangers encountered in secondary use of isotope data.

The abstract looks innocuous enough, since it does not mention anybody by name, but it is actually a full-on and rather vicious attack on the authors of this paper:
Barclay, G. J., and K. Brophy. 2020. “‘A Veritable Chauvinism of Prehistory’: Nationalist Prehistories and the ‘British’ Late Neolithic Mythos.” Archaeological Journal 1–31. doi:10.1080/00665983.2020.1769399.

.... and a forthright defence of this one:
Madgwick, R., A. L. Lamb, H. Sloane, A. J. Nederbragt, U. Albarella, M. Parker Pearson, and J. A. Evans. 2019a. “Multi-isotope Analysis Reveals that Feasts in the Stonehenge Environs and across Wessex Drew People and Animals from Throughout Britain.” Science Advances 5 (3)

I have read through the new article, and am intrigued.  I guess a "robust defence" of the isotope analysis research was inevitable — and Barclay and Brophy would have expected it.  MPP, Madgwick and Co have clearly worked long and hard on this — but it's far nastier than I anticipated! On a quick reading, it's a classic defence based on a lot of selective citations and much nit-picking on the minor details of phraseology.  It sometimes assumes meanings or intentions that were not necessarily there. It pulls in a lot of additional isotope analytical detail, claiming that it supports the points originally made by Madgwick, Evans and others (and then questioned by Barclay and Brophy) but it is difficult here to see the wood for the trees, and does not invalidate the point made by the Scottish duo that the presented evidence of "feasting connections" did not support the 2019 conclusions.

It is clearly the intention of the authors of this new article to demonstrate that Barclay and Brophy have "abused" the isotope analyses done by Madgwick, Evans, Lamb and others.  In other words, they are accused of not really understanding it.  Well, that's a bit rich, since in my view the actual evidence presented in the "isotope analyses" papers was abused by the researchers themselves when they over-interpreted and misrepresented what it was showing.  They claim that they simply "used" the evidence --  but that's not the way I saw it!

The whole article seems to me rather disingenuous, and fails to properly address the central point of Barclay and Brophy’s paper, which was that the isotope dating specialists have been seeing everything through a Stonehenge-centred lens instead of seeing the island of Great Britain as one with a high-density traffic map, with multiple centres generating and accepting traffic from elsewhere. And I think it’s a bit rich for Madgwick et al to now claim that the media has “inflated” or misinterpreted their ideas and their press releases. One’s heart bleeds for them! They need to get real. They are the ones who write the press releases, designed for maximum media impact and coverage. They manipulate the media and manufacture myths, and know exactly what they are doing…….

Richard Madgwick, the lead author of the new article

As readers of this blog will know, I have had a go at Richard Madgwick and his friends a few years ago,  2017 - 2019:

I found most of the isotope analysis work deeply unsatisfactory and unconvincing, and I was not alone in saying this. I also thought that the points made by Barclay and Brophy (with reference to Scotland) were eminently sensible -- although I was more concerned about some of the dodgy things being said about the "Welsh connection" by the isotope analysis team.  See here:

This one will run and run….