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Wednesday 2 March 2011

Carn Meini -- the manufacturing of a magic mountain

I have lost count of the number of times on which I have come across references to the "magic" or "sacred" mountain of Carn Meini (Carn Menyn) at the eastern end of Mynydd Preseli.  Authorities including Herbert Thomas, Richard Atkinson, Geoffrey Wainwright and Tim Darvill have simply assumed that its sanctity in ancient times is beyond question, and that this is what underpinned the decision by Neolithic tribesmen to quarry the spotted dolerite monoliths from these craggy tors and to drag them all the way to Stonehenge.  One of the theses is that the spotted dolerite reminded them of the night sky, full of glittering stars.  Another is that the rock outcrops were prominent on a jagged upland ridge close to a trading route, looking like a cock's comb against the evening sky.  Some writers have speculated that the crags of Carn Meini were the first features seen from the sea by incoming sailors crossing over from SE Ireland -- and that this too helped to invest Preseli with an aura of sanctity.  Profs W and T have of course insisted that since Neolithic times there has been a tradition that the spotted dolerites have healing qualities, and that the "sacred springs" of the area are proof of the thesis.

The roots of this tradition that Carn Meini may be magical or sacred probably go back no further than Rev Done Bushell, Prof WF Grimes and Sir Cyril Fox -- but even they were more concerned to promote the idea of eastern Preseli being in some way "a prehistoric Holy Land",  rather than homing in on Carn Meini itself.

Time for a reality check.  In Neolithic and Bronze Age times the tors of Carn Meini may well have been less prominent than they are today, since they would have been surrounded by scrub woodland.  Carningli, Frenni Fawr and Foeldrygarn are far more prominent as landmarks.  Bronze Age sites are no more frequent around Carn Meini than they are anywhere else in upland Pembrokeshire, and examinations of cromlechs and standing stones by Stephen Briggs and other archaeologists show that spotted dolerite was NOT used preferentially to other more local rock types.  People simply used whatever was to hand when they had it in mind to build a tomb or erect a setting of standing stones. 

There is no evidence in local folklore that the Carn Meini area was ever revered in any way.   One of the best guides to "ancient thinking" is the collection of tales known collectively as "The Mabinogion".  Some of the tales go back to the Iron Age, and so far as I am aware (somebody will correct me if I am wrong) Carn Meini is not mentioned at all.  Dyfed is mentioned as a place of mystery and enchantment.  But the big "sacred places" in West Wales that DO feature in the stories are Narberth, Abercuch and Grassholm -- each with connections with the Otherworld.  Preseli is mentioned, in connection with the battle between King Arthur and his knights and the Great Black Boar -- but the key location there is Cerrig Marchogion, not Carn Meini.

Have Darvill and Wainwright demonstrated beyond doubt that Preseli spotted dolerite was valued for its healing properties?  Not at all.  I agree with Robin Heath that the supposed “healing properties” of the stone have simply been invented.  In more than 30 years of collecting local folk tales and walking in the Preseli Hills, I have never come across a single reference to any healing properties attributed to spotted dolerite.  In a 1991 survey of 25 megalithic structures (cromlechs, standing stones and stone settings) in the environs of Preseli, Thorpe and others found that only four contained spotted dolerite, and that even in those four it was not exclusively used.  The idea that spotted dolerite was used preferentially for healing purposes or for anything else is sheer fantasy.

Doesn't the evidence of a “Preselite” axe factory in Preseli suggest that spotted dolerite was highly valued?  As we have seen, there is no evidence of a centre of axe head production in the Preseli Hills, in spite of the fact that archaeologists have been hunting fruitlessly for it over several decades.  Neither is there anything to suggest that “preselite” axes were specially valued in preference to other axes made of distinctive stone types.  It is a mistake to refer to these axes as a single group, since they come from many different igneous rock sources.  If there was an axe factory anywhere which specialised in the use of spotted dolerite, it was probably at or near Stonehenge, where raw materials were abundant, either from rejected or broken bluestone monoliths or from smaller spotted dolerite erratics which were too small to be set in the ground. It's interesting that Profs D and W -- in their most recent article -- seem to be quite attracted by this idea.

Doesn't the frequency of healing springs in the Carn Meini area point to the area having a magical or sacred reputation?   The hypothesis of the “Neolithic Lourdes” proposed by Darvill and Wainwright has no basis to it.  Whatever went on at Stonehenge, bluestones are not used preferentially in the structures built over springs and wells in the Carn Meini area.  Springs  (sacred or profane) are no more frequent in the Carn Meini area than in any other part of the Preseli uplands, and having studied this area since my student days I can say with hand on heart that I have never come across any “folk reference” to any healing power acquired by flowing water that has come from a bluestone source.  The one spring which is cited by Darvill and Wainwright  (Ffynnon Beswch or “cough spring”) is not in an area of spotted dolerite at all, but rises in an area of rough ignimbrites.  That spring, like thousands of others throughout the UK, may have had a medieval or later tradition of healing associated with it, but there is absolutely no reason why it should be linked in any way to Stonehenge.

I'm sorry if this sounds terribly unsporting and equally unromantic, but I am forced to conclude that the idea of Carn Meini being magical or sacred has been entirely manufactured within the last century, by a group of archaeologists determined - for a variety of reasons -- to promote the HHT human transport theory.

See also this post: Wednesday, 15 December 2010 "Preseli -- A Stone Age Holy Land?"


Tony Hinchliffe said...

I thought this quote from eminent archaeologist Caroline Malone from her "Neolithic Britain & Ireland",2001,pp 198-9, was worth repeating here, although it does not relate directly to spotted dolerite. "The most contentious example of transport [of stone to stone circles] is the movement of the bluestones from the Prescelly mountains of Pembrokeshire to Stonehenge (Thorpe et al. 1991) which now suggests that, contrary to the belief that the stones were transported by human effort, ice movement brought the rocks as erratics during the Ice age and dumped them between Wales & Salisbury Plain (e.g. Burl 2000, p 44). Research and chemical analysis of Rhyolite across Britain has shown that glacial transportation of the rock, and its use in prehistoric structures, was quite common and that Stonehenge and its use of exotic stone was not unique. For example, fragments of the stone occur in Wiltshire barrows, The Stonehenge cursus, Welsh monuments and standing stones and randomly in modern gateposts and walls." Caroline is currently (2010) Director of Education & Reader in Prehistoric Archaeology at Queen's University Belfast School of Geography, Archaeology & Prehistory. She has been Keeper of the Department of Prehistory and Early Europe at the British Museum, and began her career as Curator of the Alexander keiller Museum, Avebury.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thanks Tony -- I had not seen that quote before. She is saying what Stephen Briggs has said before -- and indeed what Steve Burrow says in "The Tomb Builders." The Neolithic tribesmen were essentially scavengers and opportunists, whether they were building tombs or sticking up megaliths. Why would they NOT use erratics, if they were lying around?

Unknown said...

I'm doing a small essay on Stonehenge, specifically the Bluestones. I decided to question why these stones would have been brought to the site and of what significance they would have to the Welsh that brought them there. I've read many theories and then I read your blog. It a ponderous amount of information and hard to stop reading it. Very interesting. Is there an answer? A reason? I'd appreciate your input or conclusions. Thank you

BRIAN JOHN said...

Stu -- if you are asking why the Welsh brought the stones to Stonehenge, remember that there were no "Welsh" at the time. There were Neolithic tribes, as there were in other parts of the UK. And as far as I am concerned, they didn't bring them at all -- and had no reason to. As we have said many times on this blog, there is no evidence of any "bluestones" being used preferentially in stone settings anywhere in Wales or anywhere else, for that matter -- and no evidence (as far as I am aware) of any special qualities being attributed to the stones.