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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....
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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........

8 comments:

Kostas said...

Brian, recently I learned that some believe Stonehenge is older than commonly thought, well before 3100 BC (the carbon dating of the deer antlers found buried in the ditch at Stonehenge). Is there other evidence for the dating of Stonehenge? And what is the most persuasive reason given that Stonehenge cannot be dated much earlier than the Neolithic Period? Perhaps some references will do.

Brian said...

There must be hundreds of radiocarbon dates now, and although these are subject to corrections and re-calibrations they seem pretty consistent. Most of the archaeologists seem to agree that the earliest phase at Stonehenge was the digging of the ditch around 3,000 BC or 5,000 years ago. That puts it solidly into the Neolithic. But there are also signs of Mesolithic activity in the area -- some time ago there was a great discussion about a Mesolithic timber structure. I'm pretty sure that the bluestones and other foreign materials were on Salisbury Plain before 5,500 years ago -- see p 69 of my book.

Kostas said...

Don't you need straight timber like pine to make a timber structure or massive human stone transport possible? Where did the timber come from? Salisbury Plain does not support tree forests, then or now. Where is the nearest pine forest to Stonehenge?

Brian said...

According to the experts (who presumably have some pollen analyses to go on) Salisbury Plain was well wooded in the Neolithic, with clearings getting more and more extensive later on as a result of burning and then clearance with metal tools. I have no reason to disbelieve this....

Kostas said...

Brian, your glacier transport theory makes sense. But it still leaves unanswered how the 50 ton sarsens were moved and erected. What are your thoughts about that? What technology and material would be needed for such a task? What is the earliest that men could have acquired these skills and tools? And what happened to this ability after Stonehenge? No further evidence of any engineering skills until the Romans. Or am I wrong.

I just don't think that even Neolithic men had such ability, nor the tools to move these huge stones even for a few miles over uneven terrain (especially if the land was wooded) and erect them along a near perfect circle. The explanation that I am proposing does not depend on such massive manual labor, or engineering skills or tools to build Stonehenge. And it leaves open a wide time frame when Stonehenge may have been build.

(if you feel this thread is not appropriate for this discussion, please redirect me to where we can have a sustained dialog over Stonehenge)

Brian said...

Please do some reading, Kostas. Your theory needs to be underpinned by evidence from may disciplines -- and it isn't. You appear to have a theory, and are scrabbling around for evidence to support it.....

I'm trying to get a fix on the date for the last glacial ice that reached, or approached, Salisbury Plain. Probably that was 250,000 years ago. There is NO dispute about the dating of Stonehenge to the Neolithic - Bronze Age, starting about 5,000 BP and going through a number of phases after that. Whether you like it or not, the people at that time DID have the ability to do it..... and later moved away from building megalithic structures to other forms of cultural / religious / economic / social expression. Why did that happen? Well, why did the Egyptians stop building pyramids, and why did the Easter Islanders stop moving big stone heads about? A whole range of factors comes into play -- civilizations rise and fall.

Kostas said...

I appreciate your comment, Brian. It reminds me a little of your own experience with the “human transport” advocates. Of course you are right! It is true that I need scientific evidence to support my theory that when Stonehenge was made the land was covered with ice. But do you at least agree that were this so, it would explain Stonehenge and all the land features associated with henges and stone alignments?

Brian, don't take my healthy skepticism to “established facts” as not doing “some reading” on the subject or as blatantly disregarding scientific evidence. I value science and archeology even as I am skeptical of these. My true allegiance, however, is Truth and Reason. I think you feel the same way.

One think that puzzles me about your position. If you accept that the 50 ton sarsen stones were moved to Stonehenge from 20 miles away, wont you then also have to allow that by multiplying such effort ten-fold the bluestones could have been moved 200 miles?

I enjoy this intellectual exploration and am eager to see where it logically leads. Please sustain ...

Brian said...

No, I don't agree that an ice-covered land surface can explain the distributions and arrangements of henges and stone alignments. The timings are all wrong, and you can't just go on disregarding the hundreds if not thousands of radiocarbon dates and pollen analyses, and other age indicators, just for the sake of your theory. If you believe in truth and reason, you just can't go on dismissing vast bodies of evidence just because they are inconvenient.

My position is perfectly logical. The stones were not just magically located at Stonehenge from the beginning, although I reckon that one of the key siting factors might have been a handy concentration of stones in the vicinity, available for the builders to use. Some of the stones must have been moved some distance -- and I have always thought that the builders strayed further and further out across the Plain. They may have followed and gathered up a line of bluestone erratics, as suggested in the article by Lionel Jackson and myself in EARTH magazine. But eventually, having used up all of the handy and accessible stones, they just ran out of energy -- and the project ground to a halt. Gathering stones on this part of Salisbury Plain might have been rather straightforward, even if there were lots of trees about -- the terrain was relatively easy.

Now I'm going to end this discussion. Time to move on.