THE BOOK
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Saturday, 26 February 2011

At last -- something sensible about the Bluestones



This press release has been issued by the University of Leicester press office. This is a hugely important story -- although readers of this blog will know it all already -- and I hope it gets picked up by media all over the world.

How much coverage will it actually get? I wonder! The media have a natural preference for wacky nonsense and fairy tales -- and this might prove to be too cool and scientific for most of them to handle.

New Discovery ‘will rewrite Stonehenge’s history’
Feb 25, 2011 11:30 AM | Permalink

Geologists question ‘sacred hills’ origins of famous bluestones

Researchers from Leicester and Wales have shed new light on the origins of bluestones at Stonehenge- long believed to have come from ‘sacred hills’ in Wales.

Geologists from the National Museum Wales, University of Leicester and Aberystwyth University, have uncovered new evidence of its origins - which brings into question how the rocks were brought to the Salisbury Plain.

One type of bluestone at Stonehenge, the so-called ‘spotted dolerite’, was convincingly traced to the Mynydd Preseli area in north Pembrokeshire in the early 1920s. However, the sources of the other bluestones - chiefly rhyolites (a type of rock) and the rare sandstones remained, until recently, unknown.

Now the team of geologists have further identified the sources of one of the rhyolite types, which also provides the opportunity for new thoughts on how the stones might have been transported to the Stonehenge area.

Their findings are published in the March 2011 edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Dr Richard Bevins, Keeper of Geology at Amgueddfa Cymru, in partnership with Dr Rob Ixer, University of Leicester and Dr Nick Pearce of Aberystwyth University, have been working on the rhyolite component of the bluestones, which leads them to believe it is of Welsh origin.

Through standard petrographical techniques combined with sophisticated chemical analysis of samples from Stonehenge and north Pembrokeshire using laser ablation induction coupled mass spectrometry at Aberystwyth University, they have matched one particular rhyolite to an area north of the Mynydd Preseli range, in the vicinity of Pont Saeson.

The Bluestones are a distinctive set of stones that form the inner circle and inner horseshoe of Stonehenge. Much of the archaeology in recent years has been based upon the assumption that Neolithic Age man had a reason for transporting bluestones all the way from west Wales to Stonehenge and the technical capacity to do it.

Dr Ixer, who has been attached to the University of Leicester Department of Geology for two decades, said: “For almost 100 years the origins of the bluestones and how they got to Salisbury Plain from Southwest Wales has been matter of great debate but now due to a combination of expertise, abundant material and new techniques it is becoming possible to finally answer those questions.

“From the 8,000 samples of rock available, the exciting part was to match the Stonehenge rocks with rocks in the field in order to find their geographical source - this was initially done microscopically. However this is difficult as rocks from every outcrop have to be described and matched and that takes detailed long term knowledge- Dr Richard Bevins from National Museum Wales has 30 years experience of sampling and collecting just these rocks in southwest Wales and once the very unusual mineralogy of some of the debitage was recognised microscopically he was able to identify the source of a major group of volcanics to Pont Season north of the Preseli Hills.

“The important and quite unexpected result based on microscopical work needed to be confirmed and this has been done recently based on very detailed mineralogical analysis with Dr Nick Pearce from the University of Aberystwyth.

“The first result was the recognition that the huge sandstone Altar stone does not come from Milford Haven but from somewhere between West Wales and Herefordshire and has nothing to do with the Preseli Hills. This calls into question the proposed transport route for the Stonehenge bluestones.

“The second unexpected result was that much of the volcanic and sandstone Stonehenge debris does not match any standing stones (so far only 2 stones out of thousands from the debris match)- it may be the debris is all that is left of lost standing stones- it is difficult to see what else it could be.

“The third is that the geographical origins for many of the Stonehenge rocks are not from impressive outcrops high on the hilltops but in less obvious places, some deep in valleys.”

Dr Ixer said that work already undertaken and more in progress suggests that, unlike the belief of the last 80 years, namely that all of the Stonehenge bluestones were from taken from the top of ‘sacred’ Preseli hills and moved southwards to the Bristol Channel and then onto Stonehenge, most or all of the volcanic and sandstone standing stones and much of the debris at Stonehenge comes from rocks in the low-lying ground to the north and northwest of the Preseli Hills and, if, they were moved by man, then they travelled initially in the Irish sea before heading south and east.

“But as ever Stonehenge asks more questions than it answers. These Stonehenge surprises will continue for a few years to come and once again the history of Stonehenge will have to be re-written.”

- Ends -

Notes for the Editor:

The original press release can be accessed here:

http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/news/?article_id=642

The paper Stonehenge rhyolitic bluestone sources and the application of zircon chemistry as a new tool for provenancing rhyolitic lithics is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 38, Issue 3, March 2011, Pages 605-622.

http://www.elsevier.com/wps/find/journaldescription.cws_home/622854/description#description

------------------------------------------------

For comparison, this press release was the one issued by the National Museum and Aberystwyth University and picked up by the Western Mail and other papers. Note the differences, including the use of the MPP quote!!

News

New Discovery in Stonehenge Bluestone Mystery

The source of the bluestones at Stonehenge has long been a subject of fascination and considerable controversy. One type of bluestone, the so-called ‘spotted dolerite’, was convincingly traced to the Mynydd Preseli area in north Pembrokeshire in the early 1920s.

However, the sources of the other bluestones - chiefly rhyolites (a type of rock) and the rare sandstones remained, until recently, unknown. Now geologists at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales have further identified the sources of one of the rhyolite types, which also provides the opportunity for new thoughts on how the stones might have been transported to the Stonehenge area.

Their findings are published in the March 2011 edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Dr Richard Bevins, Keeper of Geology at Amgueddfa Cymru, in partnership with Dr Rob Ixer, University of Leicester and Dr Nick Pearce of Aberystwyth University, have been working on the rhyolite component of the bluestones, which leads them to believe it is of Welsh origin.

Through standard petrographical techniques combined with sophisticated chemical analysis of samples from Stonehenge and north Pembrokeshire using laser ablation induction coupled mass spectrometry at Aberystwyth University, they have matched one particular rhyolite to an area north of the Mynydd Preseli range, in the vicinity of Pont Saeson.

The Bluestones are a distinctive set of stones that form the inner circle and inner horseshoe of Stonehenge. Much of the archaeology in recent years has been based upon the assumption that Neolithic Age man had a reason for transporting bluestones all the way from west Wales to Stonehenge and the technical capacity to do it.

Richard Bevins said:

"This recent discovery is very significant as it potentially provides us with new clues for understanding how and possibly why the Welsh bluestones were transported to the Stonehenge area.

"It has been argued that humans transported the spotted dolerites from the high ground of Mynydd Preseli down to the coast at Milford Haven and then rafted them up the Bristol Channel and up the River Avon to the Stonehenge area. However, the outcome of our research questions that route, as it is unlikely that they would have transported the Pont Saeson stones up slope and over Mynydd Preseli to Milford Haven. If humans were responsible then an alternative route might need to be considered. However, some believe that the stones were transported by the actions of glacier sheets during the last glaciation and so the Pont Season discovery will need appraising in the context of this hypothesis.

"Matching up the rock from Stonehenge with a rock outcrop in Pembrokeshire has been a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack but I’ve looked at many if not most outcrops in the Mynydd Preseli area. We are however, confident that we have found the source of one of the rhyolites from Stonehenge because we’ve been able to make the match on a range of features not just a single characteristic. Now we are looking for the sources of the other Stonehenge volcanic and sandstone rocks".

Mike Parker Pearson, Professor of Archaeology at Sheffield University, added: "This is a hugely significant discovery which will fascinate everyone interested in Stonehenge. It forces us to re-think the route taken by the bluestones to Stonehenge and opens up the possibility of finding many of the quarries from which they came. It’s a further step towards revealing why these mysterious stones were so special to the people of the Neolithic."

Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales operates seven museums across Wales National Museum Cardiff, St Fagans: National History Museum, National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon, Big Pit: National Coal Museum, Blaenafon, National Wool Museum, Dre-fach Felindre, National Slate Museum, Llanberis and the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea.

Entry to each Museum is free, thanks to the support of the Welsh Assembly Government.

- Ends -

For more information, please contact Lleucu Cooke, Communications Officer, Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales on 029 2057 3175 or e-mail: lleucu.cooke@museumwales.ac.uk

Arthur Dafis, Communications and Public Affairs Officer, Aberystwyth University 01970 621763 / 07841 979 452 / aid@aber.ac.uk

Notes for the Editor:

The paper Stonehenge rhyolitic bluestone sources and the application of zircon chemistry as a new tool for provenancing rhyolitic lithics is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 38, Issue 3, March 2011, Pages 605-622.

http://www.elsevier.com/wps/find/journaldescription.cws_home/622854/description#description

Date: 22 February 2011

13 comments:

Oswald said...

This paper hardly adds to the transportation by glaciation theory, but perhaps we should reconsider the route proposed by Atkinson via the Britsol channel in favour of a more northerly land route for the transporation of the bluestones.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Come off it -- how convoluted do you want this to get? There now appear to be more than 30 foreign stone types at Stonehenge -- do you suggest a transport route that weaves about all over western Britain, followed by heroic argonauts who called in here, there and everywhere in their hunt for suitable (and unsuitable) stones?

TONY HINCHLIFFE said...

When I spoke to Mike Parker Pearson a year or two ago, at least he admitted to me he was personally coming around against the sea transportation view AND the single-source/ 'holy mountain source' view, albeit at that stage he was thinking of human land transportation. I think he will eventually at least come round to Rob Ixer's line of thinking: after all, Rob Ixer is a (very important) part of MPP's Stonehenge Riverside Project team, being the Geological specialist and analyst.And, interestingly, as I have mentioned before, the SRP team includes Dr Charly French, a geomorphologist from a Cambridge-University based
research institution. He was involved with the striations which co-exist with the Stonehenge Avenue line leading away from the circle beyond the Heel Stone, for example.

The truth is out there for all these specialists to eventually see, when they collectively put their heads together for a set of overall conclusions on the Stonehenge Riverside Project's work over many years. And the 'received wisdom' from previous generations will be challenged and placed in proper perspective.

Oswald said...

Why not? You seem obsessed with the concept that during the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age the people were thick savages incapable of such a feat. May I suggest you research preshistoric trade routes in a little more detail before making such negative assumptions.

BRIAN JOHN said...

I have never denied the intelligence or the ambition -- or technical skill -- of the Neolithic tribes on Salisbury Plain or elsewhere. If you read the book, or the posts on this blog, you will see that I accord them due respect. It's simply that I do not see any evidence that they were as clever as you think they were.

BRIAN JOHN said...

In reply to Tony, I suspect we will all meet eventually somewhere in the middle, with the archaeologists accepting that the stones were carried part of the way by ice and me accepting that they were carried part of the way by humans!!

On the matter of the striations I am still puzzled by those. I devoted a few posts to the problem a while back....

Oswald said...

I have read the book and I fInd it comes across very negative towards our Neolithic ancestors and their abilities generally. You don't seem particularly impressed with Stonehenge either, calling it "gerry built".
I gather you are not a fan of megalithic monuments?

BRIAN JOHN said...

I just LOVE megalithic monuments -- one of the best in Britain (Pentre Ifan) is just down the road from where I live.

That doesn't oblige me to offer vast respect to our Neolithic ancestors, or to imagine them capable of extraordinary powers. And yes, I do think Stonehenge is a gerry-built old ruin which was never finished. And I'm not the only one who thinks that.

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Brian,

Great post! Very exciting news. The plot thickens. We may be near solving the Stonehenge mystery!

You write, “On the matter of the striations [of the Avenue] I am still puzzled by those. “

Would you be equally puzzled if these striations were found at Stonehenge Bottom? Is it that Stonehenge sits along a hill side and The Avenue extends from it in a straight line for some 500 m that troubles you?

You write, “I suspect we will all meet eventually somewhere in the middle, with the archaeologists accepting that the stones were carried part of the way by ice and me accepting that they were carried part of the way by humans!!”

If the evidence calls that we meet at Stonehenge, Brian, will you be there? I'll bring a bottle of ouzo!

Kostas

TONY HINCHLIFFE said...

Oswald, Brian will probably admit to playing "Devil's Advocate" over Stonehenge issues quite a lot, just to stimulate thought & debate. However, I suspect that, had Stonehenge been built to the west of Offa's Dyke in, say, Monmouthshire, he would have used less offensive language in "Enigma" rather than describing Stonehenge as a 'gerry-built ruin'.
I feel sure there is a hefty chunk of good old-fashioned Celtic envy involved in some of Brian's language in this FIRST edition. And I'm not particularly pro-Stonehenge even though I live in Wiltshire: you see, I was born in Yorkshire, God's own country. To some of us of a certain age, 'gerry-built' has unpleasant war-time Teutonic connotations.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Kostas -- it's the details of those deep grooves that I find puzzling. I would like to see the details when all the relevant work is written up. See my post for 16 December 2010.

Tony -- yes of course I'm being Devil's advocate part of the time. Mind you, not ALL of the time....!! Celtic envy? Heaven forbid -- I would have been just as disrespectful of Stonehenge even if it had been on my own doorstep! Sorry if the term "jerry-built" causes offence -- but I was by no means the first to use that term with respect to Stonehenge. And the term has nothing at all to do with Germany -- the term "jerry-built" is simply an old dialect term meaning "of defective quality or inferior workmanship."

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Thanks, Brian, for re-directing me to your Dec. 16 post.

I have examined these photos of The Avenue grooves and share with your puzzlement!

Considering their general downward direction and round etching into the chalk bedrock, are these channels consistent with water streaming? I agree they don't look like permafrost stripes.

Kostas

BRIAN JOHN said...

There could be a permafrost origin -- but the stripes would have to run directly downslope, and I'm not sure what the topography is in the places where they have been recorded. Dr Charles French is the person who might know......as Tony has pointed out.

Yes, there might be a role for water trickling along in rills or slight depressions during the melting season.