Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my new book called "The Stonehenge Bluestones" -- available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
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Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Bluestone Magic -- book review (1)

"Bluestone Magic" -- book review

This book by my old friend Robin Heath is very strange indeed. It is an attractively produced A5 paperback, with many colour illustrations and line drawings, in a format very similar to my "Bluestone Enigma."  On thumbing through it, it appears to be a somewhat scientific and objective analysis of the prehistoric monuments of West Wales, but once one settles into reading it, it becomes more and more bizarre with every page turned.

Let's start at the beginning. In his introductory section Robin complains about the inertia of conventional archaeology (I would agree with that) and introduces the idea that academics have largely ignored astronomical functions and landscape geometry in prehistory.  So far so good, although the frequent use of words like "remarkable", "phenomenally precise"and "astonishing" did make me wonder from the very beginning what sort of journey the author had mapped out for the reader.  He defines "magic" as "The right location. The right time. The right action.  The right motive."  And he cites Arthur C Clarke:  "..... any sufficiently advanced technology that is misunderstood by the current cultural order tends to become regarded as magic."  That's all very wise, so long as we do not fall into the trap of dressing up primitive societies in modern clothes.

The first 60 pages or so -- the chapters on the landscape and the sites -- are innocuous enough, but the text is scattered with rather fanciful allusions and inaccuracies.  For example, the summit of Foelcwmcerwyn is not 1600 feet above sea level; the name of the rocks above Tycanol Wood is CARNEDD Meibion Owen; and the Carningli Hillfort is Iron Age, not Bronze Age.  I'm not sure that archaeologists would be happy with some of his statements about the cromlechs or dolmens of the area, and particularly with his tendency to see "landscape mirrors" in capstone shapes, given the fact that many (if not all) capstones would have originally been incorporated into, or buried beneath, mounds of a quite different shape.  The author already appears to be intent upon finding "meaning" or "purpose" or "design" in matters that appear to others to be insignificant,  coincidental or vaguely interesting -- this is perhaps justifiable, since this is how scientific progress is made, but at an early stage one begins to harbour an uneasy suspicion that maybe we have an author here who has an outrageous hypothesis desperately in need of some manufactured facts..........

Once we get to the chapter called "A First Glimpse of the Otherworld" things start to become very eccentric indeed.  Robin mixes up prehistoric, Dark Age and Celtic folklore and belief systems in a quite grotesque way, searching for pagan and Christian associations which will reinforce his view that there were magical alignments involving Llech y Dribedd and Pentre Ifan cromlechs,  Bardsey Island, Caldey Island and Lundy on a north-south line.  He chooses to give all of these places vast significance in some ancient wisdom or cultural context of his own making -- but Bardsey is by no means a pivotal point in the Celtic tradition, and he seems to home in on Llech y Dribedd as a key location simply because it is more or less north of Pentre Ifan.  Actually, the key locations selected by the author in the text  are all over the place; there is not one line between Bardsey and Lundy, but two, separated by a distance of about five miles.  Neither the lines nor the locations are exactly right, and the author then refers to the line as a "corridor" with the "bluestone quarries" located -- very conveniently -- in the middle of it.  The text is scattered with the word "almost" so frequently that by the time one reads that "this is perhaps the oldest evidence of applied surveying yet discovered anywhere in the world" and that "precision surveying activities were being undertaken (here) in prehistory",  a healthy scepticism has already set in.

The next chapter is about solar alignments and lunar alignments, foresights and backsights, equinoxes and azimuths, with many diagrams, maps and photos (some of them digitally "adjusted") purporting to show that stones, cromlechs and alignments were used as astronomical sighting features, either singly or in groups.  On every page there are unsupported assumptions about intervisibility (with the author conveniently forgetting that in the Neolithic there were trees everywhere) and about cromlechs being "open" when they were in fact closed if not sealed.  Distant features are assumed to be visible even if they were not.  Solar or lunar significance is read into anything which is "conveniently" located; and features in the landscape that are not convenient are simply ignored.

This becomes an exercise in selective citation of facts, and we soon reach the point where -- in the midst of something that looks terribly learned and scientific -- we cannot work out any longer which things are facts and which are the inventions of the author. 

Such is the way with pseudo-science.  And we haven't even got to the bit about the bluestones yet........ but we'll keep that for another day.

Robin Heath. "Bluestone Magic – A Guide to the Prehistoric Monuments of West Wales".
UK Price £9.90 (plus £2 P&P UK)
ISBN 978-0-9526151-0-1. Paperback, 184 pages
Published by Bluestone Press, Cardigan, Wales.


Anonymous said...

I guess everyone is completely underwhelmed by Robin Heath's vibrant new book.

BRIAN JOHN said...

No no -- according to legend, Robin gives talks on all of this, and packs halls up and down the land. Mind you, not sure where that particular legend came from.......but some people are obviously swept away by the mathematical and astronomical brilliance of it all. They would probably consider my comments deeply disrespectful of the Ancient Wisdom.

Tony Hinchliffe said...

I have found Dennis Price's blogsite: fascinating to read on the topic TANITH II ["The (so-called) avenue NW into the hills (from Stonehenge towards Wales).

In particular:-

The late Alex Down's post on 28.4.09 blows Robin Heath's "Stonehenge Lunation Triangle" [right-angled triangle as discussed on a recently preceding Brian post] clear out of the water, particularly in relation to where this triangular line reaches in the Preselis.

However, Dennis Price differs from Robin Heath in that his discussions on what lies to the NW are not heavily reliant on numerology and alleged lines but involve far more intellectual reasoning to do with what lies more broadly in the general direction NW from Stonehenge. A world of difference.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thanks Tony -- I had forgotten about that piece by Alex. Have now posted it up, with due acknowledgement to Dennis's site...