Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my new book called "The Stonehenge Bluestones" -- available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
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Tuesday 30 March 2010

Was Atkinson the real villain?

The "bluestone that got away" -- this pillar in the centre of the "bluestone quarry" at Carn Meini is often assumed to be a pillar that was intended for Stonehenge, but was for some reason left behind. Less romantically, we might think of it as a designated gatepost which Mr Jones of Mynachlogddu planned to take down to his farm in 1850, but never quite got round to it.

Maybe I have been a bit unkind to HH Thomas -- on looking back over the literature I'm still pretty convinced that he "aggregated and simplified" his geological samples so as to "demonstrate" that they all came from the eastern end of the Preseli Hills -- but to his credit he did at least realize that they were variable enough to have come from a number of different sources in the area, including outcrops of spotted and unspotted dolerite, rhyolite and volcanic ash. He did believe in the long-distance human transport theory (indeed he was the original proposer of it) but he thought that the bluestones were aggregated together in a sort of "proto-Stonehenge" in the parish of Cilymaenllwyd, and that that monument was later dismantled and transported off to Stonehenge for some "ritual" reason. He thought that the bluestones might have been short-travelled glacial erratics, carried downhill from their sources in the mountains by an upland glacier, and assembled together in one neighbourhood by some freaks of glacial transport.

So the bluestone quarry came later. The man whom we can blame for that was Richard Atkinson, who became the leading Stonehenge archaeologist and propagandist in the years after the Second World War. His book on Stonehenge, published in 1956 and reprinted many times since, became the source of all wisdom..... and in it he emphasised that the bluestones, of various kinds, had come from a very restricted area around Carn Meini, and that they had been CHOSEN by tribesmen who were very determined and who had the great technical skills needed to transport the stones over very rough terrain and across the sea. In Chapter 2 of the book he emphasised that the bluestones at Stonehenge are almost all in their natural state, matching very closely in size, shape and appearance the "columnar and slab-like" boulders to be found today on the jagged outcrops of Carn Meini. I don't think he used the word "quarry", but it was inevitable that others would use it after reading his text and having encountered his very forcefully expressed ideas.

Atkinson (referred to sometimes nowadays as "that old fraud") was a very powerful and forceful character, and in the decades after 1956 his ideas about Stonehenge became "the orthodoxy." Although he originally flagged up the diversity of the bluestones, it suited him well to concentrate on Carn Meini and the "very restricted area" from which the majority of the stones had come. And of course, if the worthy neolithic tribesmen were capable of extraordinary engineering skills in the stone transport department, it would have been no trouble at all for them to do a little simple quarrying at the source. So in 1956 Atkinson paved the way for Profs Wainwright and Darvill, more than half a century later........

Monday 29 March 2010

Herbert Thomas and Charles Dawson

I wonder if those two great men knew each other? Dawson lived from 1864 to 1916 -- so he died during the First World War, before Thomas gave his famous lecture about the Preseli connection with Stonehenge. That lecture was in 1921, two years before his much-cited paper was published. But Thomas first mooted the idea of a Preseli connection in 1908, ie when Dawson was still alive. Dawson's hoax based on the Piltdown "skull" was perpetrated in 1912 -- but that was just the culmination of his life's work. In all, he seems to have perpetrated no less than 38 archaeological hoaxes -- in his career he faked one thing after another -- artifacts, teeth, bones, tools, statues, and goodness knows what else. He was clever too -- none of the fakes was exposed as such until well after his death. In 1908-1911 Dawson was dreaming of (in public) and planning for (in private) what he called "the big one" -- ie the discovery of the Missing Link.

I'm pretty convinced that Thomas -- just like Dawson -- was motivated by the desire to announce to the world something seriously spectacular, just to prove to the world that Britain was still Great, in spite of the traumas of the First World War and the inexorable decline of the British Empire.........

Saturday 27 March 2010

Two great hoaxes: Piltdown Skull and Bluestone Quarry?

Some see a bluestone quarry -- others don't.
Some see a Missing Link -- others see a hoax.

There was a piece on the telly the other day about the Piltdown Man hoax of 1912. One thing struck me in the commentary -- namely the "fertile ground" which existed in Britain at the time, providing perfect conditions for the hoax to take root, to flourish and eventually (in spite of the reservations of some experts) to become part of mainstream thinking. This is what one web site says about the hoax:

"Perhaps the most famous hoax was Piltdown man. In 1912, at a time when Darwin's evolutionary theory was new, and people were looking for missing links between humans and apes, someone planted two fake skulls which came to be known as Piltdown Man.
The part medieval man, part Orang-utang fossil was found, in the very English village of Piltdown in Sussex. Piltdown man's scientific name, Eoanthropus dawsoni, reflected its finder's name Dawson. To get a flavour of those times, the British Empire was still riding high, and Germany had their Heidelberg man fossil, Britain was desperate for a more important ' missing link' between man and monkey."

The key to this is national pride, and a desire in Britain to demonstrate that whatever important discoveries there were in Germany, Britain had even better ones, showing the world what wonderful ancient civilizations we had here, and what brilliant archaeologists we had to uncover them and to expound new theories of evolution to the world...... OK, petty, nationalistic, xenophobic and even absurd, but that was the world around the time of the First World War. Germany had Neanderthal Man, and now Britain had the "Missing Link" -- even more important.

So what about HH Thomas and the bluestones? Well, I have suspected for some time that Thomas might have been guilty of simplification and selective citation of his samples and his rock identifications, in order to flag up the Carn Meini area as the source of the bluestones. I have also expressed my amazement in earlier posts that he "got away with murder" in that NOBODY seems to have seriously examined his evidence or questioned his wacky idea that the stones had been hauled by tribesmen all the way from Presely to Stonehenge in a totally unique feat of Stone Age long-distance transport. And why did people not scrutinize his theory more closely? Why, because there had been great discoveries about megalithic structures in Germany, and because British archaeologists were desperate to show that in these islands we had even more advanced prehistoric civilisations and even cleverer engineers and technicians.

Sounds absurd? I don't think so -- and a number of other authors have suggested that Thomas's idea was carefully put together around the time of the First World War as part of a national "feel good" strategy, and that the whole nation (and not just the archaeologists) just loved the idea when he announced it, and were disinclined to examine it carefully.

So Thomas became famous, then the bluestones became famous, and the "bluestone transport story" entered the mythology of Britain. It is still trotted out ad infinitum, even though there is even less evidence for it now than there was in 1920. And anybody who dares to question it, or to undermine our cosy assumptions about the extraordinary skills of our Neolithic ancestors, is likely to get short shrift from the archaeology establishment. Look at what happened to poor Geoffrey Kellaway.......

So was the Carn Meini / bluestone quarry / human transport story all a hoax? I think it's a distinct possibility. How much longer will it be before the whole mad idea about human transport is finally consigned to the scrapheap? Not long, I suspect, since the new geology being done by Rob Ixer and colleagues in the Stonehenge area is revealing so many new sources for the stones and fragments at Stonehenge that we are going to have to talk about 20 quarries all over western Britain, rather than one. And that would be to stretch things to a rather extraordinary degree......

All hoaxes have their day, and eventually bite the dust, leaving senior academics looking very foolish.