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Sunday, 21 August 2011

On intellectual convolutions

While enjoying a brisk walk on Carningli this morning, I pondered a bit on the extraordinary intellectual convolutions that have gone on with respect to the HH Thomas theory of bluestone transport.  When you look at HHT's 1921 lecture and at his paper published in 1923, you see that all he actually did, scientifically, was to demonstrate that there was a very close match between certain rock-types in the Stonehenge bluestone assemblage and certain rocks sampled in the eastern part of the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire.  No more and no less.  He did not demonstrate, through a convincing scientific argument, that the stones were carried from Preseli to Stonehenge by human beings.  He SPECULATED about that, with extraordinary conviction, but that is a different matter....

HHT argued, very naively, that the Irish Sea Ice Sheet never crossed the Bristol Channel, although others had already shown, pretty convincingly, that it had.  He argued that the maximum ice front was located just to the south of Pembrokeshire.  He then concluded, with considerable panache, if not foolhardiness, that his argument "permanently disposes of the idea of glacial transport for the foreign stones of Stonehenge."  Permanently??!!  Strange that a professional geologist, whose core belief relates to impermanence, should have used such a word.

That was when the intellectual convolutions really got going.  First, there was the debate about the Altar Stone.  HHT thought it might have come from the Senni Beds of South Wales, and thought that that indicated a likely overland route for the transport of all of the stones from Preseli to Stonehenge.  Later on, Richard Atkinson (the real high priest of the human transport myth) and many others argued that the Altar Stone had come from the Cosheston Beds around Milford Haven -- and that is when the sea transport story kicked in and became a mainstream part of the myth.  In recent years, when Ixer and Bevins showed that the Altar Stone had not come from the Cosheston area, some archaeologists returned to the land transport idea, and it was even mooted that there was a separate transport route for the Altar Stone, carried (supposedly) by Neolithic tribesmen more or less along the route of the A40 road via Brecon and Abergavenny.  More and more convolutions, and less and less common sense.  Then Ixer and Bevins suggested that there were many bluestone sources around Carn Meini, and a long way from it -- and that some of the stones and fragments in the "debitage" had come from sources still unidentified. "Ah yes," said the archaeologists, "that shows that the builders of Stonehenge collected sacred stones from many different sacred sites -- not just one."  And in a final bit of mental gymnastics, when Ixer, Bevins and Pearce showed that some fragments had come from Pont Saeson and other localities north of the Preseli Hills, those same learned gentlemen said "Ah yes, that proves that they collected stones up from the north side of Preseli, and carried them via Newport Bay and round the Pembrokeshire coast before crossing the Bristol Channel."

All of these convolutions were performed by the archaeologists quite shamelessly, without a single scrap of evidence which might contradict the glacial transport theory.  Are they all stupid?  I sometimes think that they must be, since they seem to have no clue about how hypotheses are formulated and tested to destruction.  HHT's human transport hypothesis had been tested to destruction even before it was formulated, since what he did was to replace a hypothesis (the glacial transport theory) which had SOME evidence in support of it with another hypothesis (of human transport) which had NO evidence to support it.  It should have been rejected on that basis alone in 1923, but those who accepted it with acclamation must have been a pretty feeble bunch of wimps, since they seemed to have been quite incapable of subjecting it to intellectual scrutiny.

Since 1923, the glacial transport theory has seen evidence in support of it mounting up inexorably -- and yet the archaeologists still reject it on the very dodgy grounds cited by HHT when he gave his famous lecture.  And over that period of ninety years or so, not a single scrap of evidence has been adduced to show that a single bluestone (let alone 82 of them) was transported by Neolithic tribesmen from Preseli to Stonehenge, either by land or by sea.

Why is it that Darvill, Wainwright, Parker Pearson, and many others who should know better, continue with these increasingly convoluted thought processes, based upon an unsupportable hypothesis, and coming up with ever more wacky explanatory stories, when Geikie, Judd, Jehu and others gave them a perfectly adequate glacial theory more than a century ago?  Answers on a post-card please.....

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

A trivial point It was Ixer and Turner who worked on the Altar Stone rather than the later Ixer and Bevins combo who are working on the volcanics.

GCU In two minds.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Sorry about that! Quite right you are.....