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Saturday, 6 November 2010

Bothersome Bluestones



Time for a recap.  Below is a short article which I wrote for the Western Mail a few years ago.  Nothing has changed, except that the geologists have come up with a number of new sources or provenances for the "litter" of foreign stones in the Stonehenge district.  Some of the litter doesn't seem to have come from big stones at all, but from smaller fragments.  So glaciation looks more and more likely, and human transport less and less likely.

It strikes me as increasingly bizarre that the mere presence of foreign or erratic stones at Stonehenge is taken by most archaeologists as EVIDENCE of human transport and of some great purpose lying behind the use of the stones.  For me, as a geomorphologist, I take the physical presence of the stones as EVIDENCE (not PROOF -- that would be too strong a word) of glacial transport.  When people ask me where the hard evidence of glacial transport is, I say that it is right there, for them to look at -- in the assemblage of the things called "bluestones."  So then they say "No no, that's not evidence!  Find us some moraines and deposits of till, and erratics dotted all over the place!" 

Just be patient, you guys....... that's not how glaciers work.  I suspect we won't find loads of erratics or moraines, but we might well find very old till here and there, related to the ancient glacial deposits we already know about on the Somerset Levels and near Bath.

And the archaeologists, in their wild fantasies, conveniently forget that there is NO evidence of any kind in support of the human transport theory.  No quarries, no tracks, no rafts, no rollers, no boats, no lost stones.  Zilch.  Zero.  No precedents, no parallels or equivalents from anywhere else in Neolithic or Bronze Age history.  Just a blind faith in the supposedly powerful motivations and technical brilliance of our shadowy ancestors.  Oh dear oh dear.

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Those Bothersome Bluestones......

The strange link between Mynydd Preseli and Stonehenge has been discussed enthusiastically by archaeologists for exactly one hundred years.  It was in 1908 that the Welsh geologist Herbert Thomas first suggested that the bluestones of Stonehenge might have originated in the uplands of Pembrokeshire, and by 1921 he had completed the research that confirmed his earlier speculation. 

One might have expected that Thomas, as a geologist, would have found a natural explanation for the transport of the stones.  It was already known that the great Irish Sea Glacier had crossed Pembrokeshire during the Ice Age, and that it had flowed up the Bristol Channel from west to east.  One or two geologists had already suggested that the bluestones were glacial erratics.  But Thomas blithely dismissed the glacial transport theory as “untenable” and went on to develop an extraordinary tale of Neolithic tribesmen collecting the stones from Preseli  and transporting them by land all the way to Salisbury Plain for incorporation into the Stonehenge monument.

In spite of the fact that Thomas’s theory had no evidence to support it, it was not questioned by other scientists, and to this day it has gone largely unchallenged.  On the contrary, it has been accepted by generations of archaeologists as fact, even though there is still not a shred of evidence to show that the great “stone collecting expedition” ever happened.  Within recent decades one or two geologists have had the temerity to argue in favour of the glacial theory, but they have been immediately vilified by the archaeology establishment.

Because the theory of human transport has never had to cope with facts (convenient or inconvenient) it has been embellished to a ludicrous degree, most recently by Professors Wainwright and Darvill, who have proposed that the bluestones were revered in Preseli for their supposed healing properties, and that this explains why they were collected and carried off to a sort of Neolithic hospital at Stonehenge.  This idea has no facts to support it either, and fellow archaeologists have accused the two learned professors of being “out with the fairies.” 

It’s time to bring this increasingly bizarre debate down to earth. Let’s look at a few facts.  The two professors have claimed that all of the bluestones have come from a small area around a spotted dolerite crag called Carn Menyn, where there was a bluestone quarry.  There is no quarry there, and the stones are now known (from work by an OU geology team) to have come from around 20 different sources scattered all over West and South Wales.  It’s claimed that the Altar Stone at Stonehenge came from Cosheston  on the shore of Milford Haven; but it’s now known that it came from  somewhere in Carmarthenshire or Powys. It’s claimed that the spotted dolerite of Preseli was revered for its magical properties;  in fact, it was never used preferentially in cromlechs or standing stone settings in Pembrokeshire or anywhere else.  The professors say that there were abundant healing springs in the area around Carn Menyn, used by local people until quite recent times;  in fact, there are no local traditions  which tell of any “special properties” in the local water supply.  We could go on and on..........

And while the archaeologists have been seeking -- with singular lack of success -- to portray their human transport fantasy as the truth, the geologists have quietly been getting on with their work.  It is now known that the Irish Sea Glacier did not simply flow up the Bristol Channel, but that it reached as far east as Street in Somerset, the Mendips and the city of Bath.  The 43 bluestones at Stonehenge can only be an assemblage of glacial erratics, left by the wasting ice somewhere to the west of Stonehenge.  New computer modelling of the Irish Sea Glacier by Dr Alun Hubbard and colleagues at Aberystwyth University shows that  at the time of its greatest extent, it probably flowed across Salisbury Plain.

2 comments:

StonehengeGuy said...

If the 43 large bluestones at Stonehenge are only an assemblage of glacial erratics then I would expect to find a lot of smaller bluestones in the area. I would be greatly surprised to find that only these 43 man-size stones were deposited and nothing else to speak of either bigger or smaller in the area.

BRIAN JOHN said...

We just don't know what was there to start with. There aren't 43 man-sized stones -- that would be a supposition. They seem to me to have been all shapes and sizes -- and we have no way of knowing how big the original stones might have been in those localities where we just have stumps under the turf. There is plenty of litter around -- how many smaller bluestones have been broken up or taken away? We know about the Boles Barrow bluestone -- I see no reason to disbelieve the original interpretation that it was indeed a genuine bluestone boulder, in place long before the stone phases at Stonehenge were set in train. How many bluestone types are there? Twenty? Thirty? I describe the geology of the stones as best I can, in the book. Far too many provenances to be explained by a human transport theory. Sorry -- I still think they are all erratics.