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....
To order, click

Thursday 23 September 2010

Watch out -- there's a glacier stalking you

As part of my occasional series extolling the virtues of glaciers and the work of ice, I came across these pics. Wow! This is Fridtjofbreen in Svarlbard. The photos were taken in 1996, around the peak of a surge that caused the glacier to advance 2.8 km between 1991 and 1997. At the peak of the surge, the glacier ice was moving at 4.2m per day, or almost 30m per week or about 130m per month. The lower photo shows that the ice was moving so fast that the glacier surface was literally torn to shreds.....

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Experts gather for jolly debate

Thanks to PG for drawing attention to this. I wonder if it will be terribly polite, or whether there will be blood on the carpet afterwards?
Experts gather to gather for Stonehenge debate

LEADING experts on Stonehenge will be gathering in Salisbury to debate the monument’s purpose next weekend.

The event, called Solving Stonehenge, is part of Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum’s 150th anniversary conference on October 2 and 3.

The main speakers will be Professor Tim Darvill, Professor Mike Parker Pearson, Mike Pitts and Julian Richards.

The debate will be chaired by Andrew Lawson.

Museum director Adrian Green said: “This is the first time that all the leading Stonehenge archaeologists have been gathered together for a public debate in recent times.

“With all their conflicting opinions about the role of the monument, and the opportunity for the public to quiz the archaeologists, this promises to be a thought-provoking event.”

There will also be a paper about recent survey work at Stonehenge by English Heritage archaeologist David Field on Saturday afternoon and a tour of the Stonehenge landscape on Sunday afternoon.

Stonehenge has been a vital part of the history of Salisbury Museum. The first official guidebook to the stones was written by former curator and director Frank Stevens in 1916.

The museum’s collections contain finds from every major excavation at the site, and since Victorian times it has had permanent displays about the monument.

Tickets for the whole conference, including a buffet, are £60 for members and £75 for non-members. Separate tickets for the Stonehenge debate are £15.

For details phone 01722 332151 or email

Politics and Stonehenge Myth-making

I've been pondering a bit more on where the great Stonehenge myths came from, and why they were peddled by the myth-makers and believed by the rest of us (with few exceptions).

Strangely, the two great myth-makers were both Welshmen -- Geoffrey of Monmouth and Hebert Thomas. And they both had ulterior political motives.

When Geoffrey wrote his stirring novel "The History of the Kings of Britain" around 1136 he was certainly seeking to tell a stirring tale and to captivate his readers -- but there was also a strong political motive in what he was doing. He was intent upon flattering his own Celtic community, buttering up the Anglo-Normans who had taken over the country following the invasion of 1066 (and who were still gradually insinuating themselves into positions of civil and ecclesiastical power) and vilifying the hated Saxons. He tried to flag up "the west" -- ie Wales and Ireland -- as the places where an ancient and noble culture still resided. To invoke the magic of Merlin, and to pretend that the stones at Stonehenge has come from an ancient stone monument at Mount Killaraus (which does not exist and never did) suited his purpose very well. So if, in the telling of his tale, he managed to increase respect and even awe for the Celtic civilization that was then on the wane, all well and good. Good story; strong political motive.

Herbert Thomas, when he invented the myth of long-distance human transport in 1920, may also have wished to enhance the image of Wales by drawing attention to its ancient civilization, its old stone circles, and the supposed magical or mystical properties of its stones. Maybe he wanted British archaeology to pay more attention to Wales. Hmmmm -- I'm not sure about any of that, but it's a good debating point. What is much more likely, in my mind, was that Thomas was fully signed up to the post-WW1 obsession within the archaeological establishment for demonstrating that the British Neolithic tribes were cleverer than their German counterparts (who built their rather spectacular Neolithic monuments out of locally-sourced stone). Anything they can do, we can do better -- and our chaps went and fetched 82 bluestones all the way from the Preseli Hills, because those stones were greatly revered.

As I have said elsewhere, there must also have been a "feel-good" motive. Thomas, and everybody else at the time, wanted some proof of the supremacy of man, of the longevity and permanence of British culture, and of the extraordinary skills of our ancestors as compared with lesser mortals who lived on the European mainland. "So to hell," thought Thomas, "with all of the evidence from Hicks, Geikie, Judd and Jehu of extensive glacier ice affecting Pembrokeshire and the coasts of the Bristol Channel! Let's shove all of that to one side, and give them a story that will have legs....."

One novelist and one geologist, each intent upon creating a myth, for reasons that did not have a great deal to do with science or integrity.

The other factor, of course, in the creation of myths, is that there must be a favourable context. Myths have to fall upon fertile ground if they are to survive. And of course, like all great myth-makers, Geoffrey and Herbert judged things perfectly. The time, and the public mood, was just right for each of them. So they both got away with utter nonsense, because nobody was particularly inclined to subject their ideas to careful scrutiny. That's OK in the case of a novel -- but it's not OK in serious science. Sadly, about a century after Thomas invented his myth, it is still not being subjected to scrutiny by the senior archaeologists of the UK. They still see it as THE TRUTH, and all of their efforts are devoted not to dissembling the myth, but to elaborating and enlarging it to its current rather grotesque and ridiculous proportions.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Does Stonehenge matter?

In the process of working out my talk for the Do Lectures, I wondered why on earth I had been asked to talk about Stonehenge (about which I have thought a lot and DONE relatively little) rather than about energy conservation, or renewable energy, or anti-GM campaigning (about which I have both thought a lot and done a lot.) OK. I thought, something frivolous and frothy to finish off a sequence of great and thought-provoking lectures by a group of very inspiring people...... to help folks to come down gently from the heights? But then I thought "Hang on -- this may not be quite so mad after all. Maybe there is a cunning plan here, on the part of Andy, Dave and the other organizers...."

And the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. What was I talking about? At one level I was talking about myths and myth-making. When we are dealing with the Stonehenge myths (and there are several), we are discussing rather esoteric (and unimportant) things including the distance over which the stones were transported, the places of origin of the stones, the mode of stone transport (ice or men with rollers and rafts), the state of the building at the point of abandonment by the builders, and the purposes for which Stonehenge was built -- or partly built. But at another level this is all about authority, established wisdom, control, and even power.....

Now we get much closer to what the Do Lectures are all about. Nearly all of the 28 lecturers were innovators who have refused to take no for an answer, who have broken out of the mould, got out of the comfort zone, and have challenged themselves and the system by doing highly innovative and even inspired things. OK -- that sounds like an extended cliche, but in reality the achievers of this world have been those who have had new ideas, have turned their backs on the established way of doing things, and have gone their own way. In doing so, they have brought into their lives stress and even physical danger -- maybe they are all people who live close to one end of the stress / stimulus / security continuum?

Back to Stonehenge. It is really a wonderful parable or fable for our time. The myths about the iconic ruin (namely that it was once an immaculate and completed structure which caused wonderment and awe; and that it was built as a result of a gigantic long-distance stone collecting corporate enterprise) started off as tentative suggestions, but then became ruling hypotheses, and have now become THE TRUTH. For all sorts of reasons, THE TRUTH has to be upheld and maintained -- and woe betide anybody who threatens to undermine it, or who is foolish enough even to question it with a degree of persistence. In the bad old days we had the Inquisition, and the burning of heretics, and the Truth Commission. Nowadays people don't get burnt at the stake or stoned to death for their beliefs (or at least, we hope they don't) -- but they do get vilified, ridiculed, kept out of jobs, denied promotions, and prevented from publishing in peer-reviewed journals.

The problem is that once THE TRUTH has been established, there are huge numbers of vested interests, individuals and organizations whose status -- and maybe income -- will be threatened if it should be shown not to be TRUTH at all. So we have English Heritage and the English Tourist Board who use THE TRUTH in their marketing campaigns, and who refuse even to allow the slightest shadow of a doubt to appear in their promotions. They pull millions of visitors a year into the UK, and bring them to Stonehenge... why should they let another version of the truth get in the way of a good story and a good marketing angle? After all, Stonehenge is one of the greatest icons and brands in the world. Then there are the senior academics who have spent their careers demonstrating to generations of students -- and to the rest of us -- how truthful THE TRUTH actually is. Their reputations would be in tatters if it should be shown that they have been barking mad, or out with the fairies, for years if not decades. Then there are the editors, publishers, museums, TV companies, bus tour operators, web site managers, tourist guides and all the rest of them who use THE TRUTH in their everyday lives -- and make good money out of it. They don´t want anything to come along and disturb their equilibrium either.

Enough of this. You get the point. All I want to say is that this sort of paralysis, respect for authority, unquestioning obedience, and comfortable acceptance of the mythology of Stonehenge is both pathetic and intellectually lazy. It is also -- and I use this expression very carefully -- PROFOUNDLY DANGEROUS. I say that because those who live in this comfort zone have allowed a cosy myth which is quite unsupported by evidence in the field to become a ruling hypothesis into which all sorts of peripheral information is then pulled, in one attempt after another to elaborate and perpetuate THE TRUTH. But it is not the truth at all -- it is a modern and extremely flimsy myth which should have been slung out decades ago, on the basis of hard evidence which I have tried to enumerate in this blog.

So pseudo-science has taken the place of science. Don't get me wrong. There is some serious and excellent science being done on Salisbury Plain. But where researchers are sucked into wild fantasies and unjustifiable speculations (sometimes to bolster their own egos, or to satisfy the TV producers and programme sponsors) they stray into pseudo-science, pulling together all sorts of nonsensical and unconnected items and calling them "evidence." Even the senior academics themselves state that certain of their colleagues are out with the fairies, and that tells us something........

So shame on the archaeologists who simply go with the flow, out of some misplaced reverence for their peers or for "established beliefs." And long live those who question the status quo, who show that the Emperors wear no clothes, and who are prepared to follow their own paths and their own dreams! They may live dangerously, and some will fall by the wayside, but they are at least being honest.

Barrie's Blog

Some very interesting entries on Barrie's Blog -- not least relating to the History of History and the History of Archaeology. Click on the title above to have a look..... and there are some excellent links for further exploration.

Sunday 19 September 2010

Talk at the Do Lectures

Been to the Do Lectures for 4 days -- at Fforest, near Cilgerran in North Pembs. The talk seemed to go down well -- like all of the 28 lectures it will eventually be placed on the Do Lectures web site -- they are trying to get 5 million hits in the year ahead. Best of luck to them -- the whole 3 days was inspiring and empowering -- lots of great young people with wonderful ideas and a phenomenal capacity for innovation and for refusing to lie down and accept mediocrity or red tape. These excellent people will get things DONE -- and I'm sure the world will be a better place for it.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

The Emperor's Lack of Clothes

Did a nice piece (about 15 mins) for the Jamie and Louise Show on BBC Radio Wales this morning. It was quite a jolly chat, and they seemed quite entertained by the idea that Stonehenge might never have been finished. It confirmed my belief that the general public is blissfully ignorant of any doubts about the origins of Stonehenge or the mode of stone transport -- the myths about the old ruin are as strongly held as ever. The accepted English Heritage / archaeology establishment line that all is sorted, and that there is no room for any doubt, is profoundly worrying. It shows, at one level, that the "marketing" of the Stonehenge story is incredibly successful -- but it does get me thinking as to why the bulk of working archaeologists (who are honest hard-working academics with a reasonable respect for science) have not spoken up more vociferously on the nonsense about healing stones, neolithic hospitals, long-range stone collecting expeditions etc. These things have NO evidence worthy of the name in support of them.

The Emperor has no clothes -- but why are all those honest working archaeologists too timid to point that out? Are they all scared of stepping out of line, jeopardising their careers and having their papers blocked by senior academics whom they might upset? If so, that's a pretty depressing scenario, which does not augur well for the future of archaeology in the UK.

Monday 13 September 2010

Another lesson from nature.....


OK -- I am being very self-indulgent here, having got myself into a nostalgic frame of mind, and having looked back at all the maps and photos from East Greenland 1962. And I have been scanning over the incredible Google Earth images of East Greenland.

But I had to share these two images with whoever is interested. Click on the images to enlarge them. Two gigantic glacier collisions in the mountains south of Scoresbysund. They will have been very slow indeed, but the forces involved are enormous, with millions of tonnes of ice involved. The result? As always with collisions, chaos.....

Sunday 12 September 2010

Roslin Gletscher

That glacier which I showed a couple of posts ago is no longer named after that old missionary named Ivaar Bardarson. There was a big reorganization of Greenland names in the sixties and seventies, and my most recent map shows the glacier as Roslin Gletscher.
So there we are then -- all in the cause of accuracy!

On Ancestor Worship

Over the past few years I have participated in many online discussions, forums and blog debates (and even some twitters) relating to Stonehenge -- and it has been a deeply depressing experience. Not because one ends up being bombarded with incontrovertible evidence or challenged with brilliant deductions or analyses, or even because one loses arguments. That sort of thing happens, and occasionally one has to admit defeat and accept that what the opposition is saying sounds eminently reasonable..... so one modifies one's hypothesis and moves on.

No, my problem is that over and again the Stonehenge faithful simply refuse to engage or to address evidence-based points, and fall back on the intensely irritating line that "There may be no evidence that the Stonehenge builders did this or that, but we KNOW that they did what we say they did, because they were in possession of much greater skills and motivations than we modern people are prepared to recognize...."

I have encountered this argument -- with very small variations -- so many times that I have become convinced that the Stonehenge Myth really has taken on a religious dimension. Religion, faith, dogma, unswerving allegiance to "the truth" as enunciated by the Prophet Thomas, the Prophet Atkinson and various others -- it's all in there. Even the members of the radical "alternative archaeology" community of internet debaters, all of whom use pseudonyms, and who claim to have no respect at all for the archaeology establishment, display (with very few exceptions) exactly the same degree of certainty about the amazing skills of our Neolithic ancestors.

And the modern high priests of archaeology? As I have said on this blog many times before, they have their fringe religions, some of which are fundamentalist, some of which are evangelical, some of which are radical and some of which are deeply conservative. Some go on about Neolithic hospitals and healing stones, some go on about elaborate ceremonials and rituals associated with reverence for the dead, and some go on about astronomical alignments, echo chambers and so forth. But while they argue about the belief systems of the ancient Stonehenge civilization, and compete with one another to make the biggest and best TV spectaculars, a naive sort of ancestor worship still underpins almost everything they say. They assume, like the "alternative archaeology" chattering classes, that the Stonehenge builders were indeed in possession of amazing technical and astronomical skills, had highly complex patters of social organization, and had the persistence and motivation to bring complex building projects to fruition.

They are, so I gather, not at all pleased when people like me come along and suggest that the Stonehenge builders had no need to collect 82 bluestones from far away since the stones were close at hand, they they did not in any case have the skills for vast long-distance stone transport expeditions, that they were indecisive as planners and technically rather incompetent as builders, and that the great stone monument was never finished.

"Sacrilege!" I hear them cry. "Who is this idiot who challenges all of our established truths? Ah yes, he isn't an archaeologist. That explains it. He obviously does not understand these things, and does not have the experience and the instinct of the true Stonehenge specialist......."

Well, my response to all of that is to suggest that a little less reverence might not be a bad thing. Let us respect our ancestors, by all means -- but can we please drop this absurd ancestor worship and this absurd belief in some "ancient wisdom"? Might it not be a bad thing to accept that the builders of Stonehenge might have had rather grand ambitions, but that they were just as likely to be incompetent as the rest of us?

Saturday 11 September 2010

How incompetent were the Stonehenge builders?

As an antidote to all this reverence directed towards ancient civilizations, it's good to read in "the Onion" that researchers have discovered what they think is the "lousiest civilization ever".

Archaeologists Unearth Lousiest Civilization Ever
'What A Bunch Of Losers,' Researchers Say
September 9, 2010 | the Onion, ISSUE 46•36

A few extracts:

MANAUS, BRAZIL— Archaeologists working in a remote section of the Amazon Rainforest announced Tuesday that they have discovered the ancient remnants of what they claimed may be the lousiest civilization in human history.

According to Dr. Ronald Farber, a professor from the University of Minnesota who is leading the excavation, the "half-assed" culture existed from about 450 B.C. until 220 B.C., when it abruptly disappeared—an event he said was "honestly no big loss" for our understanding of human culture.

"From what we've unearthed so far, it appears this pre-Columbian civilization was pretty much just copying what other, more superior groups nearby were doing—albeit to a much shittier degree," Farber said. "They sucked. You should see the useless mess of a calendar these dumbasses came up with."

.........Explaining that the site is of absolutely no consequence to archaeological scholarship, Farber told reporters the civilization's extensive aqueduct system was so hilariously inefficient its inhabitants were practically drinking mud.

"And look at these piece of shit pipes they played music on," said Farber, holding up several hollowed-out bones found at the site. "Flutes. Fucking flutes—not even one goddamn drum, by the way—and they make this god-awful, horribly shrill sound. Can you imagine how painful it must have been when a bunch of these dumb-dumbs were all going at it with their little pipes at the same time?"

The "Dipshits," as Farber and his team have named them in a forthcoming paper in the American Journal Of Archaeology, are believed to have descended from tribes migrating south from Mesoamerica

........"I don't think we're even going to waste our time deciphering the Dipshits' written language," Farber said. "What do we have to gain—a better understanding of their asinine agricultural methods or some insight into their boring-as-hell daily lives? Give me a break."

......... Anthropologist Emily Sturgess, an expert on ancient religious ceremonies, said the evidence discovered by Farber's team suggests a belief system far lamer and stupider than any she has ever come across.

...."they seem to have made a series of blunders while constructing their massive sun temple, because each summer solstice the solar rays miss the opening at the top of the structure by a good two feet. Just unbelievable jackasses, these people."

Though the team excavating the site is rapidly cataloging evidence of the civilization's humiliating shortcomings, sources said it remained uncertain exactly how this society of rejects met its end.

"Our best guess is that these boneheads just lost interest in their completely forgettable culture, wandered off, and accidentally fell into volcanoes or burned to death in one of their ridiculous fire-dance rituals," said research fellow David Reagan, smashing an asymmetrical clay bowl on a nearby rock. "Or maybe they all went blind staring at one of those precious solar eclipses they seemed to be so goddamn fond of predicting. Really, though, who cares?"

"I think we're probably just going to cover all of this back up," Reagan added.


So there we are then. Stirring stuff indeed, beside which my gentle comments about the Sonehenge builders not having the technical resources, the raw materials or the motivation to complete Stonehenge are mild and polite indeed. But even my tentative suggestions got a lot of stick from some quarters, and certain people were clearly outraged at the very thought of the Stonehenge supermen being incompetent at anything.

Not a bad idea to remind ourselves that some civilizations have lousy leaders and undertake projects that fail.

Mind you, you don't necessarily have to believe ANYTHING that goes onto The Onion web site......

Ivaar Bardarson's Glacier -- then and now

The recent comment on this blog about changes in the East Greenland glaciers prompted me to look at Ivaar Bardarson's Glacier, which flows down from the Staunings Alps and decants (or at least, it used to) into the valley of the Schuchert River. The terminal moraine complex was once so vast that it pushed the Schuchert River right over towards the eastern edge of the braided river plain. The black and white photo shows what the glacier was like when we walked across the snout in 1962. The colour photo, from Google Earth, shows just how much the glacier snout has retreated up into its trough over 50 years or so.

See the big lake just right of centre in the colour photo? You can see the same lake in the B/W photo. That's where the snout was around 1955-60.

Will it ever recover? Well, this is a surging glacier prone to erratic behaviour, but the signs are not good......

By the way, on the satellite image east is at the bottom and south is to the left.

Friday 10 September 2010

Ice and fire

If you only look at this blog because you are interested in that old ruin called Stonehenge, look away now! If, however, you are a normal human being you cannot, I'm sure, fail to be impressed by how similar flowing volcanic lava (under certain conditions) is to flowing glacier ice (under certain conditions). Quite amazing. Some lavas and glaciers do admittedly flow in different ways, depending on viscosity and other factors. Some lava is cooler and more brittle, and some is almost as runny as water if it is flowing at a very high temperature. Some ice is also much more "brittle" and flow characteristics will depend on temperature regime, gradient, bed lubrication etc .....

There now, isn't that interesting?

East Greenland 1962

In case anybody wonders where all this interest in ice came from, it started in Iceland in 1960, on one expedition from Oxford University, and then came this -- East Greenland 1962. A life-changing experience, if ever there was one.....

Tuesday 7 September 2010

What is Preselite?

I have banged on for years about the continued use of the term "Bluestone". OK -- I suppose I use the term as much as anybody else, but this is my definition: "Any stone on Salisbury Plain that is demonstrably not from the immediate neighbourhood." So I am talking about FOREIGN stones or erratics, sticking close to the dictionary definition of the word "erratic" -- but others use the word "bluestone" as if it is a learned geological term, which it most emphatically is not........ The word "bluestone" tells us nothing about petrography or lithology, colour or origin.

Now I'm getting equally confused about the use of the term "Preselite" -- it also tends to be used as if it is a geological term, which it is not. I would classify it as another pseudo-scientific term......

The term is used particularly with respect to polished axe-heads purportedly from the Preseli Hills area, but geologists also use the term. These are the axe lithologies / types normally referred to in the literature:

Group XIII Spotted dolerite or preselite. Source in the
Preselau Hills, Pembrokeshire (Dyfed). Rare, but
important as ‘Blue Stones’ of Stonehenge. Stone
and Wallis, PPS, 17 (1951), 128. See also Group

Group XXIII Ranges from graphic pyroxene granodiorite
(Group XXIIIa) to quartz dolerite (Group XXIIIb).
Source area between Preselau Hills and St David’s
Head, Pembrokeshire (Dyfed). Group XIII is an
individual rock type which falls within the petrological
and geographical range of Group XXIII. It
might have been classed as a subgroup of XXIII
but for its prior publication as a group in its own
right. Rare. Shotton in Prehistoric Man in Wales
and the West (eds Lynch & Burgess), (1972), 89.

Can anybody give me a precise definition of the word "Preselite", which will help us all to use it accurately?

Saturday 4 September 2010

Another Stonehenge folly

From the Hidden History web site:

At Ilton (Yorks), there stands Druids Circle, an ancient and mysterious stone circle to rival Stonehenge itself. Or so must have thought one William Danby of Swinton Hall, who built the circle in the early 19th Century. Druid’s Circle is one of many entirely bogus, counterfeit Stonehenges that sprang up in England at this time due to a fashionable fascination with Druid culture. Local unemployed men were apparently paid a shilling a day to work on this megalithic folly. The site comprises an avenue of standing stones leading to a circle containing a rather fanciful monolith on a three-tiered base. Legend has it that Danby, who one surmises was not entirely compos mentis, offered food and an annuity to any person who could live in silence on the site for 7 years. One poor chap managed four and a half years before giving it up as a rather dumb idea.

Old Danby was a noble inheritor of a grand tradition. With due deference to that famous Eddie Izzard video, I wonder what inducements were offered to the work-force during the original Stonehenge building project?

More on the Stonehenge Folly

Following my stream of consciousness, I'm led to a further thought. Many of the follies in the UK (we are much better folly builders here than they are elsewhere in the world) were actually built as "artificial ruins." We do seem to like our ruins. So the Victorians built ruinous medieval castles and tumbledown towers -- it appealed to their sense of grotesque grandeur, and in a weird way paid homage to their ancestors.

Might it not be that our Neolithic ancestors were the initiators of this grand tradition of building ruined follies? In other words, maybe the builders of Stonehenge NEVER INTENDED TO FINISH IT? If that was the case, then they completed their plans to perfection, and eventually moved on to other things, leaving behind them a job well done?

Was Stonehenge a Folly?

Been engaging in a good debate on the Modern Antiquarian Forum, and thought I might share this post:

I have tried not to enter the discussion on WHAT STONEHENGE WAS FOR, but it's appealing to think of it as a puzzle, or an enigma, or a riddle, or even a folly. Maybe the builders themselves didn't know what it was for -- and there was just a powerful ruling clan who wanted to build something wacky as part of its attempt to establish its power base and to try out building techniques? Maybe they were VERY clever and knew that once it was built or partly built, for thousands of years thereafter people would expend vast amounts of energy and brain power trying to work out what the hell was going on...... and in the process invest the builders with spiritual, mathematical, astronomical and organizational skills that they never actually had. Brilliant!

Well, follies are generally built by eccentric people as a means of self-glorification. They have to have the cash and labour resources to do the job, and some handy land available, but otherwise (apart from the planning system) there's nothing much to prevent them from giving expression to their fantasies. Another feature about follies is that they are often not finished, because cash runs out, or the locals get upset about all this self-aggrandizement, and refuse to cooperate by withdrawing their labour or in other forms of sabotage. Stonehenge fits the bill precisely!

British Archaeology and Junk Science

A piece of ancient history -- I wrote this article following that absurd Timewatch programme in 2008.......


As an outsider looking in at the world of British Archaeology, I admit to having but a partial view of its terrain. But I see things a good deal more clearly following the broadcast of the BBC Timewatch programme on the "healing bluestones" of Stonehenge, which has attracted massive criticism across the world from normal viewers and on archaeology forums, blogs and podcasts. That reaction has occurred in spite of complacent and trite media coverage on a huge scale, fed enthusiastically by Professors Darvill and Wainwright, and by the BBC media machine working flat out.

At one level there is a lot of very jolly knockabout stuff in the threads about the Timewatch programme. But at another level there is something very serious going on here. I'm referring to scientific integrity. In 1991 Olwen Williams-Thorpe and various colleagues from the OU published a careful reassessment of the Stonehenge bluestones, using the most up-to-date petrographic and geochemical techniques. They did this with the full backing of the Open University (OU) and English Heritage. At intervals between then and now they have published careful updates, again using the most modern techniques. Having worked in Wales and at Stonehenge, they have shown, together with other geologists like Dr Rob Ixer and Dr Peter Turner, that the bluestones have come from at least 15 different sources -- including two near the North Pembrokeshire coast, at least one in Carmarthenshire or Powys, and at least two currently unidentified. Together, they have shown conclusively that Carn Meini (Carn Menyn) may have been a bluestone source, but that it was one of many. Carngoedog is now thought to be the major source of the spotted dolerite monoliths at Stonehenge. The geological work has not been challenged.

In the Timewatch programme Profs Darvill and Wainwright did not mention the geology work at all, and maintained the pretence throughout that Carn Meini was where THE bluestone quarry was located, and that there was a tradition of both healing stones and healing springs in the area. The latter claims are nonsensical, and are unsupported by any evidence on the ground or in local folklore. Maybe that doesn't matter too much, But the Darvill / Wainwright attitude towards a group of very careful and competent geologists has been truly appalling. They have wilfully disregarded all the evidence placed by the geologists in the peer-reviewed literature (which is disrespectful, to put it mildly). Much more seriously, in persisting with the line that Carn Meini is the site of "the" quarry and the centre of some great healing area, they are willfully misrepresenting the evidence which has been brought to their attention many times. What more do they have to do, I wonder, to enter the territory of scientific misconduct?

In other areas there are also signs that these two professors are so obsessed with their fanciful theories that they have knowingly disregarded or misrepresented "inconvenient" evidence. For example, I attended a lecture by Prof Wainwright in August at which he said that there was no evidence of glacier ice ever having reached the counties of SW England. That statement is totally untrue, as I have pointed out to Prof Wainwright on more than one occasion. The evidence is in the literature. It has been there for many years -- and I have provided him with chapter and verse. In a recent (2008) issue of "Current Archaeology" Wainwright is reported as saying that "there are no known glacial movements from the last 1 million years that could have moved rocks in an easterly direction." This repeats something he said in 2006 in the Society of Antiquaries Newsletter: " glacial system has ever been recorded in the British Isles that travelled in an easterly direction." That again is totally untrue, as attested over and again in the geomorphological and geological literature. Again, I have pointed this out to the professor and given him the literature sources, but my messages have apparently been disregarded.

If this is anything to go by, it seems to me that British archaeology (or at least an influential and high-profile part of it) has totally lost its way, and has become so preoccupied with fantasies and media coverage that it has forgotten what the scientific method actually is. Sadly, archaeology is now attracting scorn and ridicule on a scale that I have not seen before -- and if the OU forum is anything to go by, much of the criticism is coming from people who are devoted to the subject and deeply interested in all aspects of prehistory.

It is high time that archaeology in the UK put its house in order, before it becomes a laughing stock. We are not just talking about maverick professors with a penchant for fairy tales. We are talking about the archaeology "establishment" itself. The Society of Antiquaries of London recently provided space for the Darvill / Wainwright press conference at which they announced to the world (in spite of a great deal of prior leakage to thunderous fanfares) that Stonehenge was a healing centre. On 9th October the Society organized a lecture at which the two professors presented their findings from the April dig to a friendly and no doubt respectful audience. The society is probably an amiable club, and it doesn't really matter to the world in general what it gets up to. But we should all be much more concerned about English Heritage, which is charged with looking after our archaeological treasures and supporting serious research. That organization clearly gave its backing to the April dig and to the fantasy-filled Timewatch programme which has been the subject of ridicule ever since it was broadcast last week. But EH also supported the work of Olwen Williams-Thorpe and her colleagues, and was fully aware of the importance of their findings. Why did the EH top brass not insist on some recognition of the geological work in the Timewatch programme and seek to influence or restrain the programme makers (and the two professors) who seemed to be intent on a piece of garbled pseudo-science? I have been in touch with EH myself about the manner in which its publications trot out the "human transport myth" in a form which has been virtually unchanged since the days of Richard Atkinson. They are not minded either to take on board recent geological findings, or to do or say anything that might upset Profs Darvill and Wainwright. All very cosy. Anyway, they seem to think, why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

Finally there is the problem of the Open University itself. The 1991 research was conducted by an OU team, with OU research grant funding. One would have thought that the OU would have valued and promoted the very significant findings that came out of the work. Instead, it now supports BBC Timewatch and the Darvill / Wainwright dig, and facilitates an utterly bland and self-congratulatory podcast about the programme -- without anybody apparently being aware that the findings of Darvill and Wainwright are undermined if not falsified by research published in the 1990's and which the OU itself supported.

Will the two professors, the BBC, English Heritage and the OU now give an apology to the six or seven experienced research workers whose ground-breaking work has been dismissed out of hand during the formulation of the fantastical "healing stones" theory, during the making of the Timewatch documentary, and during the media feeding frenzy associated with it?

Whatever happened to scientific integrity?

Thursday 2 September 2010

Pseudoarchaeology at Stonehenge

Found this interesting page on Wikipedia. I think, having read it, that I would classify the Bluestone Human Transport Myth as "Nationalistic Pseudoarchaeology" since in this case an a priori conclusion was established by Thomas and Atkinson, for reasons largely to do with national pride and personal ego, since when fieldwork on a considerable scale has been undertaken with a view to corroborating or supporting the "theory". Bad -- very bad -- science, as I have pointed out over and again. Perhaps certain senior academic posts in the UK should be renamed "Chair of Prehistoric Pseudoarchaeology" and such like?

Quotes from the article:

Pseudoarchaeology (also called fantastic archaeology, cult archaeology, and cryptoarchaeology)[1] is pseudoscientific archaeology, the unscientific interpretation of material remains and sites, which may or may not represent genuine archeological data. Archaeological theories, site excavations and publications which do not conform to standard accepted archaeological methodology are generally considered to fall under the category of pseudoarchaeology.


Pseudoarchaeology can be practised intentionally or unintentionally. Archaeological frauds and hoaxes are considered intentional pseudoarchaeology. Genuine archaeological finds may be unintentionally converted to pseudoarchaeology through unscientific interpretation. (cf. Confirmation bias)

Pseudoarchaelogy is frequently motivated by nationalism or a desire to prove a particular religious (cf. Intelligent design), pseudohistorical, political, or anthropological theory. In many cases, an a priori conclusion is established, and fieldwork is undertaken explicitly to corroborate the theory in detail.

Practitioners of pseudoarchaeology often rail against academic archaeologists and established scientific methods, claiming that conventional science has overlooked critical evidence. Conspiracy theories may be invoked, in which "the Establishment" colludes in suppressing evidence...........

Countering the misleading "discoveries" of pseudoarchaeology binds academic archaeologists in a quandary, described by Cornelius Holtorf [5] as whether to strive to disprove alternative approaches in a "crusading" approach or to concentrate on better public understanding of the sciences involved; Holtorf suggested a third, relativist and contextualised [6] approach, in identifying the social and cultural needs that both scientific and alternative archaeologies address and in identifying the engagement with the material remains of the past in the present in terms of critical understanding and dialogue with "multiple pasts", such as Barbara Bender explored for Stonehenge.[7] .........

"Archaeological readings of the landscape enrich the experience of inhabiting or visiting a place," Holtorf asserted. "Those readings may well be based on science but even non-scientific research contributes to enriching our landscapes."[8] The question for opponents of folk archaeology is whether such enrichment is delusional.

Oh dear -- another blockbuster.....

Came across this on a website called "INSide Nova".....

Publicist Note: An enduring question about Stonehenge remains: how did Stone Age people --without the wheel or the use of metal--move and raise its stones? NOVA's "Secrets of Stonehenge" airing November 16, 2010... features exclusive coverage of an ingenious new experiment, based on an unusual prehistoric artifact.

The Stonehenge Blau Stones

I posted this on "Eternal Idol" last year. Worth sharing again....

The Stonehenge Blau Stones

Just been in correspondence with Geoff Kellaway, the first man to bravely stick his head above the parapet on the glacial transport theory for the bluestones.

He sent a paper in which he argues that the bluestones were never described as BLUE stones by the early visitors to Stonehenge, but that in the Middle Ages (ie around the time of Geoffrey of Monmouth and later) they might have been referred to in Ango-Saxon as BLAU stones — with the word “blau” meaning striking, different, or of unusual or striking appearance. This is interesting — I hadn’t come across this idea before!! Is anybody else familiar with it?

Of course, this would make sense, since the stones are not actually blue at all — they are not that different in colour from the sarsens. But it’s intriguing to think that from an early stage people might have recognized them as simply DIFFERENT.

Wednesday 1 September 2010

New review of the book

Just discovered a new Amazon review of "The Bluestone Enigma" -- posted last month. Here it is:

5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling and Convincing, 17 Aug 2010
By Flakes - See all my reviews

This review is from: The Bluestone Enigma: Stonehenge, Preseli and the Ice Age (Paperback)

This is a compelling and convincing debunking of the 'bluestone myth' - the idea, repeated again and again in literature about Stonehenge, that prehistoric people travelled hundreds of miles in order to drag back gigantic stones over challenging terrain and treacherous waters, to Salisbury Plain. In the author's own words, 'We are talking here about one of the great red herrings of history ....... We have endless speculation but no evidence for any motive that might have driven our Neolithic adventurers to want to go and fetch a large number of bluestones from West Wales, and we have no evidence that they had the technical skills to do it'. One of the pleasures of the book is that reading it does not diminish the mystery of the stones nor the extraordinary feat of arranging them as they are - it just emphasizes that we have to be careful of falling into seductive fantasies about our mysterious ancestors.

Western Mail feature on Bluestones

There was a full-page feature in the Western Mail today, purporting to be in my words, but actually written by one of the paper's journalists following a long chat on the phone. Not surprisingly, I am made to say all sorts of things I didn't say -- and there are lots of half-truths and misunderstandings as well. There you go -- that is the nature of journalism, I suppose......

The website title ("Stonehenge was not made from Preseli bluestones") was singularly unfortunate, since nobody has ever made that claim -- so there was nothing to disprove. In the printed paper, the headline was "Time to let the sun set on Preseli bluestone myth" -- which is much more like it!

Anyway, the publicity will be good for the "Do" Lectures -- which is great.