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Monday, 28 February 2011

Herbert Thomas and the Bluestone Heresy



Some of the points made in our recent discussions on this site got me thinking today (as I took a pleasant walk on Carningli in bright spring sunshine) about the nature and origins of the Bluestone Heresy. 

This is from a post dating from 27 march 2010:

"So what about HH Thomas and the bluestones? Well, I have suspected for some time that Thomas might have been guilty of simplification and selective citation of his samples and his rock identifications, in order to flag up the Carn Meini area as the source of the bluestones. I have also expressed my amazement in earlier posts that he "got away with murder" in that NOBODY seems to have seriously examined his evidence or questioned his wacky idea that the stones had been hauled by tribesmen all the way from Presely to Stonehenge in a totally unique feat of Stone Age long-distance transport. And why did people not scrutinize his theory more closely? Why, because there had been great discoveries about megalithic structures in Germany, and because British archaeologists were desperate to show that in these islands we had even more advanced prehistoric civilisations and even cleverer engineers and technicians.

Sounds absurd? I don't think so -- and a number of other authors have suggested that Thomas's idea was carefully put together around the time of the First World War as part of a national "feel good" strategy, and that the whole nation (and not just the archaeologists) just loved the idea when he announced it, and were disinclined to examine it carefully.

So Thomas became famous, then the bluestones became famous, and the "bluestone transport story" entered the mythology of Britain. It is still trotted out ad infinitum, even though there is even less evidence for it now than there was in 1920. And anybody who dares to question it, or to undermine our cosy assumptions about the extraordinary skills of our Neolithic ancestors, is likely to get short shrift from the archaeology establishment. Look at what happened to poor Geoffrey Kellaway......."


I was arguing at the time that Thomas might have been involved in a hoax which has fooled the archaeology establishment (and the British public) for about 90 years.  I'm not sure any longer that he deliberately conned his gullible audience or fabricated his petrography -- but we should certainly ask ourselves about the nature of the Bluestone Heresy.  The people who are currently treated as heretics are Geoffrey Kellaway, Olwen Williams-Thorpe and others (and, I suppose, myself!) who have dared to argue the case for glacial transport and who have questioned some of the assumptions underpinning the human transport hypothesis.

But hang on a moment.  Isn't this a grotesque distortion of something that should be amenable to scientific testing and debate? 

Let's imagine for a moment that Herbert Thomas had never existed.  (That is not to belittle him in any way.  He was probably a very pleasant fellow, and he was certainly a very good geologist who played a crucial role in the geological mapping of South Wales, and in other areas of geology as well).  But if he had not existed, and written that famous paper of 1923, it is perfectly likely that nobody, to this day, would be giving a moment's thought to the idea that Neolithic tribesmen went all the way to Wales to collect 80 bluestone monoliths of various shapes and sizes for use in the monument at Stonehenge.  How would we then be interpreting the current evidence that we have in the public domain? 

Well, we would be aware that there are about 30 different rock types represented in the "foreign stone assemblage" at Stonehenge.  We would also be aware that many of the rhyolites, and maybe all of the spotted dolerites, come from the eastern end of the Preseli Hills and from the outcrops of Fishguard Volcanics between there and the north Pembrokeshire coast.  We would also be aware (from abundant evidence from many different disciplines) that during the Ice Age the great Irish Sea Glacier flowed across Pembrokeshire approximately from NW towards SE, and that on at least one occasion the ice pressed all the way up the Bristol Channel to the coasts of Devon and Cornwall and into the low-lying depression of the Somerset Levels.  We would also be aware that the bluestone assemblage at Stonehenge seems to have come for the most part (with the great exception of the Altar Stone) from a very narrow band of countryside, where glaciological theory tells us that entrainment of erratics should have occurred, maybe between parallel-flowing streams of Irish sea and Welsh ice. 

The inevitable conclusion from all of that would have to be that the Stonehenge bluestone assemblage is an assemblage of glacial erratics, maybe deposited in conjunction with other glacial deposits, and maybe not.  Again, if one uses the principle of Occam's Razor, there is simply no need for any other theory, and geologists, glaciologists and geomorphologists simply need to concentrate on finding the solutions to two crucial questions: exactly when did this event occur?  and exactly where was the ice edge located when the erratics were dumped? (There are other questions as well, relating to glacial dynamics and sedimentation processes, but don't let's complicate the issue.....)

Seen in this context, and given the recent geological findings by Rob Ixer, Richard Bevins and their colleagues, if anybody was to come along today and suggest what HH Thomas suggested in 1923, he or she would simply be laughed out of court.

Back to the Bluestone Heresy.  The real heretics are not Geoffrey Kellaway and Olwen Williams-Thorpe, but Herbert Thomas, Richard Atkinson, Tim Darvill, Geoffrey Wainwright and a myriad of others who have led the world off on a wild goose chase, based upon the entirely false premise that glacial transport of the bluestones was and is impossible.  This heresy has even been perpetrated by geomorphologists including James Scourse, Chris Green and David Bowen, who should have known better. 

The real heresy is the story of the human transport of the bluestones, as a result of which the scientific community has wasted 90 years of research effort and dressed up a crazy myth as an article of faith.

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