Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my book called "The Bluestone Enigma" -- available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
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Friday, 25 February 2011

New review of the book

The Bluestone Enigma. Stonehenge, Preseli and the Ice Age.
by Brian John   Greencroft Books Nov 3 2008
£9.95 pp160 pb  ISBN 9780905559896.
published in Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine, "Wiltshire Studies" 2011

Here is a review by Rob Ixer  -- needless to say, I have a few ripostes!  Watch this space...

I have always believed that everyone should have a little Stonehenge paper (pace Jean Muir) and this is Dr John’s contribution and, like Ms Muir’s dress, the intention here is to draw attention, cause comment and, perhaps, be provocative. 
Dr John is a glaciologist by profession, Pembrokeshire native by persuasion and a passionate –sometimes strident - advocate of his main cause namely that Stonehenge is an incomplete monument erected from locally/regionally available stones.
Few, if any, dispute the regional (defined here as more than a day but less than week’s walk) nature of the large, sandstone sarsens used in the Stonehenge Sarsen Circle and Sarsen Horseshoe, but most workers suggest that their origin is 30km or so to the north on Marlborough Downs and that Stonehenge itself sits in an area that was originally devoid of sarsens. Dr John, however, suggests this dearth of sarsens in Salisbury Plain around Stonehenge is due to their incorporation into the monument as “a truly motley collection of all shapes and sizes” or as ”simply a collection of stones from the neighbourhood.”
Whatever the truth, it is clear that the sarsens remain in the role of Cinders in Stonehenge lithic studies (unlike the bluestone lavas and ashes) and that all aspects of them should be re-examined.
However, as the book title suggests, it is the eponymous rocks and their mode/modes of transport to Stonehenge that mainly exercise the author. He totally rejects the idea that the bluestones (here, defined as any non-sarsen, Stonehenge-related rock), whose ultimate origins are, with the exception of the Altar Stone, southwest Wales, were trans-shipped 230kms from the Preseli Hills by man and so uses chapter 3 ‘The Bluestone Myth’ to some effect. Rather, he suggests that an Irish Sea glacier moving eastwards along the Bristol Channel moved the varied bluestones to Somerset and perhaps even closer, to Stonehenge. Hence the Welsh Preseli bluestones were collected by the monument makers from no further than Somerset. This suggestion, that nature is largely responsible for the movement of the bluestones, historically favoured by geologists rather than archaeologists and geomorphologists is, of course, not new. Dr John gives full credit to the Open University (and colleagues) team who closely argued this position in 1991. What is new and what demands serious attention is the author’s discussion given in chapter 7 ‘The Irish Sea Glacier’, on the possible natural mechanisms of rock selection, rock movement and finally deposition, by glaciers. It appears that nature can be as careful or as capricious as mankind in selecting rock for transport.
Both his expertise and experience in this very specialised field (that has very little to do with geomorphology!) means that this chapter deserves careful reading. It is easily the author’s most successful and is, and should remain, a significant contribution to Stonehenge studies. A visit to Dr John’s blog, where he continues his campaign, shows that recent Pleistocene studies confirm his views rather than counter them- still, as ever, it is early days.
But, but, but, this independently-produced and excellently-illustrated little book has problems. There is too much 19th century-style political tract and not enough nice Victorian scholarship.
The author has a sub-theme namely that the (archaeological) establishment has deliberately suppressed the truth partly for national and personal aggrandisement, partly out of inertia and, I wonder, even plain naughtiness. This is wearing, well before the end of the first quarter of the book, progressively becoming predictable, tedious and counter productive. The book without this might have been less enjoyable and cathartic to write but would have been far, far more persuasive. Being partisan does not mean taking pot shots at the enemy; Profs. Darvill and Wainwright especially, must feel peppered, and this is a dis-service to them and to Dr John. It is a great pity when the lasting impression of this book is not its salutary nod to the power of glaciers but its grimace at archaeologists. A second edition and I really hope and feel there should be one, can soften this so easily.
There are minor errors, some trivial like references incorrectly cited in the text, others
suggest that some of the text is moulded from secondary/tertiary sources and so perpetuates archaeo-urban myths (Stonehenge is as cursed by as many of these as the Egyptian Pyramids). ‘Facts’ from a web-site, however Pagan, are not and
cannot be treated as the equal to peer-reviewed data from Antiquity. A few examples:-
Thomas (who first realised the ultimate origin of the spotted dolerites from Stonehenge was the Preseli Hills) was not ‘distasteful of Judd’s (petrographical) work of 1902’ indeed he called the work  ‘excellent’. The recent history of the Boles Barrow spotted dolerite, an important dolerite found in Wessex outside of Stonehenge and its environs and a cornerstone in the man versus ice argument is not as Dr John’s (p140) and almost all the post 1980 literature suggest, secure in its Boles Barrow provenance-the primary literature is ambiguous. Despite web-based assertions, Drs Ixer and Turner have not suggested the Altar Stone came from the Brecon Beacons, they merely state it is not from Milford Haven. Almost every sentence about the Great Cursus and its associated lithics (pp 68, 69, 77, 103, 108) is incorrect-once again these errors, missing from the original papers, are found on-line. A second edition can correct these simply and the missed Pitts-Howard lithological contribution of the early 1980s can be incorporated alongside more recent petrographical work (often published in Wiltshire Studies).
Then there is emphasis; “the sheer number of rock types (at Stonehenge) is a grave inconvenience to many who write about Stonehenge; and so they conveniently fail to mention it” (p8), for Dr John the dozens of rock types are important as they show the haphazard collection/deposition-strategy of ice, for some archaeologists they suggest the number of collectives contributing to the manufacture of the monument and for others, Dr John is probably correct, they have failed to find/understand their import. The reasons for the large number of Stonehenge-associated rock types are as varied and numerous as its summer visitors, for there are dozens of different rock-types recorded, granite, gabbro, slate and limestone; brick, cement and burned coal and these days sacred crystals and ‘magnetic haematite’ (look anytime beneath the Altar Stone to see a selection of these) but have they any (non-sociological) significance? To the question how were the bluestone orthostats moved to Stonehenge, probably not. The meaning of ‘bluestone’ already endlessly argued over should be re-defined once more as ‘any non-sarsen lithology employed as a Stonehenge orthostat’. This would reduce the origin/transport problem to a few lithologies and their geological provenances. If, as seems likely, these lithologies have multiple sources then speculation can recommence but with much of the rock clutter removed.
Enough, now for a final verdict on the book - set aside the polemics, forgive the factual errors and unsafe excursions into TAG-territory and enjoy the splendid photographs, for this is a cheap but valuable book that should sit alongside (even, forgive the ironic pun) complement the many recent Stonehenge books written by archaeologists. Dismissing/ignoring its central theme, that glaciers have a role in Stonehenge stone transport studies might just turn out to be a Michael Fish hurricane/what hurricane? moment.

Dr Rob Ixer FSA 27th August 2010.


Oswald said...


BRIAN JOHN said...

Oh, I can take it. It's all good knockabout stuff anyway -- and it would be dishonest of me just to publish the NICE reviews!

welshlass said...

I suppose when you decide to research and present material to one of the "sacred cows" such as Stonhenge, it creates a whole can of worms. There are those who are thinking you are attacking the earlier findings and not willing to see or learn that there may be more to the "rest of the story".

BRIAN JOHN said...

Oh yes -- it is a hazardous business attacking something that has become akin to a religious orthodoxy -- after many decades of repetition and elaboration by people like Profs Darvill and Wainwright.

But orthodoxies are dangerous if they stifle independent and intelligent thought -- think of the flat Earth, and Noah's Flood, etc etc.

I'm interested in "the rest of the story" and what that means. If you mean the religious / mystical / social context of Stonehenge, what we see is a host of assumptions which get turned into articles of faith and which people then protect very fiercely. Some parts of "the rest of the story" may be reliable -- and verifiable by reference to field discoveries, but some of it is utterly fanciful, as I have argued quite often!