THE BOOK
Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my book called "The Bluestone Enigma" -- available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
To order, click
HERE

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.

9 comments:

Kostas said...

This is shocking Brian! It is especially shocking that it should be happening at a country like the UK renowned for intellectual honesty, truth and historical traditions. Such dangers threaten the re-writing of History (even scientific research) for political/national/economic interests. We see this now more and more, with bogus pharmaceutical studies, planting of archeological artifacts and usurping of ethnic identities (eg the claim that Alexander the Great was a Slav). Can laws be enacted to at least make such activity illegal, if not impossible to stop?

Brian said...

There has always been scientific fraud, and always will be -- Some scientists (in all disciplines) will always be prepared to distort their evidence and maybe "invent" evidence in pursuit of fame or fortune. I'm not that worried about "non-commercial" or pure science, and a fraud might actually stimulate new research. Truth will out in the end. Experimental results or observations that are not replicable will always -- eventually -- be exposed as fraudulent. What is more worrying is the CONTEXT within which dodgy research is accepted and even lauded for reasons of national pride etc. The media carries a big responsibility here.

I agree that fraud in commercial science is far more worrying -- eg in the area of GM foods, or pharmaceuticals. I'm very involved in the anti-GM campaign, and I have seen over and over again examples of fraudulent science (based on non-replicable animal feeding studies etc) being accepted by government regulatory committees as indicators of GM food "safety". Now THAT is seriously scary......

By comparison, some silly science associated with the "bluestone enigma" doesn't actually matter that much!

Ann said...

Hey, at least they eventually unmasked Shaun Greenhalgh? ;)

Brian said...

Well, they all get rumbled in the end. But that ace art forger was at least cocking a snoop at the rich and powerful, and demonstrating that all those art buffs weren't half as smart as they made out. There is always a certain sympathy for Robin Hood characters who rob the rich -- but maybe Greenhalgh wasn't such a nice fellow after all, since as far as I know he didn't pass on the proceeds of his art forgeries to the poor and needy.........

Anonymous said...

i read somewhere that there's no mention of stonehenge in roman records or, more significantly, in the Domesday Book. What's the official explanation of this? Could stonehenge have been built only 1000 years ago but on an ancient site, hence misleading carbon dating?

John, Oxford

BRIAN JOHN said...

You may be right, John, that there are no Roman records of Stonehenge, and no Domesday Book record. But there are records from around 1130, and then of course we have the famous tale by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Are you suggesting that the stone monument was built about the same time? I would doubt that very much -- the medieval writers were speculating about the origins of a rather strange old ruin. There are anomalies in the radiocarbon dates, but that is always the case -- and the overall picture is pretty consistent.

Personally I have no problems with the dates given for the various phases of Stonehenge. Where I differ with the archaeologists is in saying that the stones were on Salisbury Plain long before anybody dreamt about using them, and that they are an assemblage of glacial erratics.

john, oxford said...

must say i was just following up on the dating of cerne abbass & long man and the skeptic in me got me thinking! Eratics sound more likely but less romantic!! Will hunt your book down. Great blog
John

OBJOYFUL1HBM said...

I am really curious as to the whole idea of a hoax. What real evidence is there that Stonehenge was not put together in the 18th century from stone that was laying around since the ice age? How can they tell considering so much excavation had gone on to the stones that was unrecorded?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Well, there is no evidence to show that Stonehenge wasn't put together from stones lying around in the immediate vicinity. But the idea of an 18th century hoax can be forgotten about. There are, after all, records of the existence of Stonehenge from far earlier than the 18th century......

Where the hoax might come in is in the fabrication of "evidence" for the "bluestone quarry" and the healing springs in the Carn Meini area. There is, as far as I can see, no quarry, and the idea that there is a long tradition of healing springs in eastern Preseli is pure fabrication on the part of certain well-known professors.....