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

Saturday, 4 September 2010

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?


Anonymous said...

I was at the Inst of Antiquaries of London meeting (probably the foremost Arch society in the world-its prestige has been hard won over 300 years)
and the audience was far from cosy for them. They did not talk about the Lourdes aspects at all but the straightforward arch of Stonehenge.
The Society did what it was set up to do it offered the chance for the excavators to critically and it was discuss their work.
GCU In Two Minds

BRIAN JOHN said...

Sounds a bit two-faced to me. Why does this august outfit examine and scrutinize new research carefully "in house" or behind closed doors, while allowing senior academics to pander to the insatiable appetite of the media (especially the wealthy media) for "fantasy archaeology" and fairy tales? I recall the photos posted up on the web of the two professors at the lecture venue -- all part of the high-profile media campaign for the "healing stones" nonsense.....

Anonymous said...

Most Inst of Ant. lectures are open to the public (the ones that are not are assoc with wine receptions and need to be paid for and are society jollies.)
The society is the premier forum probably in the world for archies to meet and discuss their work it does not regulate its members anymore than a municipal library would.
In my experience 'fantasy arch' in the Soc. gets very short schrift.
GCU. In two minds

BRIAN JOHN said...

You mean the Society of Antiquaries? Well, that's a very benign view of its activities -- I have heard other views that are somewhat less complimentary! My lips are sealed....