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Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The Boles Barrow Bluestone Debate

Some letters from ancient history......

British Archaeology
Issue no 47, September 1999

Bluestone journey

From Dr Christopher Green

Sir: Glacial transport of the bluestones is less plausible than Aubrey Burl suggests (`Glaciers and the bluestones of Wales', June).
Although there is no other instance of people transporting megaliths over the distance from the Preselis to Stonehenge, many were transported over lesser distances. So the technical skills existed; the problem is the distance. Burl observes in his book, Great Stone Circles, when comparing the transportation of the bluestones and the Stonehenge sarsens, that the latter task was `much easier because the journey was all across dryland'. So why highlight the possible difficulties of a sea journey? Why not overland? It was technically possible - the question is why, not how.
Secondly, even if the bluestone in Salisbury Museum came from Boles Barrow, which remains unproven, where is the other glacial material on Salisbury Plain? It is inadequate to say, as Burl has, that `absence of evidence is not evidence of absence'. The rivers draining Salisbury Plain are flanked by terraces formed in the period when glaciers might have reached Salisbury Plain, and occupied by sediments derived from the surrounding landscape. If rocks were carried by glaciers to Salisbury Plain, they would occur in these sediments. In examining over 50,000 pebbles, I have found no glacially derived rocks. Burl must explain this, not dismiss it.
Thirdly, is the bluestone in Salisbury Museum from Boles Barrow? It is much larger (1,338lbs) than the stones recorded there by Cunnington (28-200lbs), and the ten stones taken by Cunnington to Heytesbury he described as sarsens. As Burl notes `Cunnington was . . . well able to distinguish between sarsen and dolerite'. There is no unequivocal evidence that the disputed bluestone was ever in Cunnington's possession. What we know is that it reached the grounds of Heytesbury House before 1860, supposedly from the nearby garden of Cunnington's house.
Yours sincerely,
Royal Holloway
University of London
14 June
From Prof Sean McGrail
Sir: Aubrey Burl argues that late Neolithic seamen (`kamikaze crews') would have been overwhelmed by natural hazards if they had attempted a coastal voyage with Stonehenge bluestones. The difficulties of such a passage should not be underestimated, but these seamen were descendants of people who had settled much of the British and Irish archipelago in some of the most difficult seas in the world, and there is every reason to think that they could have coped with the races, sands, rocks and shoals of the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary.
They would certainly have used the tidal flows to advantage - the tide would, in fact, have been their prime mover, paddles being used mainly to steer and to avoid hazards. Furthermore, they would have chosen a period of settled summer weather.
What sort of craft might have been used is a more difficult question. Logboats are the only type of water transport we have direct evidence for before the mid-2nd millennium BC. Although the evidence that logboats were being joined together by 2000BC is slim, my preferred hypothesis would be three logboats linked together side by side, with a bluestone on the central boat and paddlers in the others. Such a vessel would give the best combination of buoyancy, freeboard, stability, speed and manoeuvrability, together with a reasonably robust structure and some protection for the crew.
Yours sincerely,
4 July
From Mr Stan Rendell
Sir: Aubrey Burl refers to Preseli bluestone erratics on the Bristol Channel islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holme. As Archaeological Advisor to the Kenneth Allsop Memorial Trust which owns and manages Steep Holme, I have to say that the fragments of `bluestone' announced in 1996 by the Trust's (then) Warden were nothing to do with Preseli.
Aside from serious doubts about how the sharp-edged fragments actually reached Steep Holme, the former Warden's confident assertion that these were of the same type of rock as the bluestones of Stonehenge was very quickly shown to be incorrect following hand specimen and thin section petrography by Dr Robert Ixer of Birmingham University.
Regarding Flat Holm, neither the Flat Holm Project Director nor I are aware of any fragments of Preseli bluestone on that island, although many other erratics have been identified on its pebble beaches.
Yours sincerely,
22 June


Tony Hinchliffe said...

"A man hears what he wants to hear,
And disregards the rest........"
PAUL SIMON 'The Boxer'

BRIAN JOHN said...

Well, I suppose we are all guilty of being human, and of seeing what we want to see...... but actually I suppose we see what we are TRAINED to see. I quite accept that when I look at a landscape as a geomorphologist, I see different things than an archaeologist or a botanist. That's what makes it all so fascinating!!

Anonymous said...

My Chiropracter who sails reckons 4-6 knots per hour is possible on paddle-power alone on an incoming tide from Pembroke. Assuming this is done on the 4hrs of highest tidal flow thatgives 16-24 nautical miles per day.
If you do the stats there are many archaelogically accepted sites that COULD have been used as overnight anchorages.

Tony Hinchliffe said...

The 3rd letter form Stan Rendell talks about his differences of opinion with the (then) Warden of Steep Holme.
He was Rodney Legg, these days a well-known archaeological & historical writer. Many of his books appeal to active walkers, e.g. "Stonehenge & Avebury: the World Heritage Site"(2004); and a more recent pocket-sized book for walkers on Salisbury Plain. He became a member of the ruling council of the National Trust in the 1990s and has worked to reverse damage to the site of Stonehenge & its setting. His version of what happened on the island is:-

"He [Geoffrey Wainwright] came on the flagship 'Today' programme on Radio 4 in September 1996 to defend me from critics after I had picked up pieces of bluish rock, indistinguishable from Stonehenge bluestones, from the beach on Steep Holm in the middle of the Bristol Channel. As warden of the island,, for a quarter of a century, I had unique but short opportunities to scour acres of normally underwater pebbles exposed during the lowest tides we had ever seen. Unfortunately, although helped by island workers....and other visitors, we could gather only small specimens and the 3 pieces I sent for investigation turned out to be not quite right. Despite this, Geoff Wainwright said it was quite possible that a barge en route from Milford haven to the Avon Gorge had been shipwrecked in our treacherous tide-race. This kind of danger would have been present throughout the voyage and particularly possible in the vicinity of island obstacles. As well as being open to Atlantic gales, the Bristol Channel experiences the second largest rise & fall of tides in the world, and a close encounter with Steep Holm might well have been a one-way experience."

It would be interesting to have geologist Rob Ixer's take on the specimen examination he undertook.