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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Saturday, 10 April 2010

The Stonehenge stones -- cheap and local, or expensive and exotic?

Good old-fashioned opportunism -- the gravestones in Flimston Churchyard, south Pembrokeshire, are almost all made from glacial erratics carried from NW Pembrokeshire.

Back to the issue of recycled stones and boulders littering the landscape. I thought I should share this -- came across it when looking back through my records. What I particularly like is that Stephen stresses the importance of opportunism, utilitarianism and scavenging amongst prehistoric peoples -- of course they would use stones that just happened to be around them quite instinctively, simply in order to minimise effort. The romantic vision of all stones being invested with significance, AND THEREFORE WORTH TRAVELLING HUNDREDS OF MILES TO OBTAIN, is hogwash. It may have happened on extremely rare occasions, if a particular stone was particularly valuable for axe making, for example, but in general "economy of effort" must have been the guiding principle, both with respect to monoliths for building megalithic structures, and for the manufacture of small artifacts.

Stephen Briggs.

2007 Conference abstracts

Nineteenth-century Britain saw the birth of archaeology and geology. Both were rapidly subdivided; the idea of prehistory only being accepted after c 1860, while from the 1820s glaciation was a key problem for pre-Darwinian scientists to fathom. Once glaciation became fact, a popular movement developed to collect and identify erratics, in Britain from c 1870-1914. Vast numbers of erratics were also identified or collected throughout Europe, with particular interest paid to Scandinavian and Alpine rock-types. Current views on glacial direction and extent are still largely based on this work because collecting and identifying re-cycled stone long since ceased to be fashionable. Other earth processes can also re-cycle stone long distances in quantity. In Europe the Bunter pebble-beds at the base of the Triassic are a good example. Their content in Britain probably has a bearing on the origins of 'Cornish greenstone axes'.

Early artefact petrographic identifications studies drew heavily on the evidence of re-cycled stone, at a time when prehistoric peoples were seen as scavengers. With the establishment of routine implement petrography came the (more attractive) notion of trade, but because it was very difficult to interpret some distributions in commercial terms, more sophisticated theories of behaviour developed. And as theory expanded to include the social and spiritual motivation of primitive peoples, the potential value re-cycled stone was eventually lost sight of. Indeed, some prehistorians nowadays argue that prehistoric peoples ignored accessible usable materials in favour of those brought from distant sources because the carry different 'identities'. Thus, this aspect of prehistory has passed from an evidence-based empirical study to occupy a firm place in post-Modernist academe.

Whereas the petrographic identities of many implements are now known in great detail, no comparable quantitative or qualitative data exists for re-cycled stone such as glacial erratic. This inbalance in knowledge can only be addressed if the public is persuaded to attach greater value to collecting stray stones and museums are willing to identify them. There is no reason why the scientific skills brought to bear on artefact studies should not equally profit from studying re-cycled stone. Pursued in tandem, the two studies can only enhance both archaeological and geological knowledge and gain the confidence of a public keen to see the return of respectful debate to our branch of learning.

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