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, 13 September 2011

Bluestone Quarries and Occam's Razor

We currently have the rather interesting sight of teams of archaeologists rushing about in West Wales and looking for bluestone quarries.  They have been encouraged into this by the recent geological discoveries which now indicate that the Stonehenge "bluestone assemblage" contains at least 30 "foreign" non-sarsen rock types, some of which are still unidentified.  The list is in my book.  Apparently, as far as we know, all of those stones have come from the west or north-west. (Why are there none from the east?  Answers on a post-card please...)

Let us imagine for a moment that HH Thomas had never invented the human transport myth.  In that case, there would not be a moment's hesitation in saying -- with the full agreement of the archaeological and geological experts involved -- that the stones are probably glacial erratics, dumped somewhere to the west of Stonehenge and collected for use in the building of the monument.  No other theory or explanation would be necessary, since that accords with the facts on the ground relating to ice movements and glacial history. These facts have been known for decades, and indeed the old geologists knew about the broad pattern of ice movements more than a century ago. The ice moved across Pembrokeshire from NW towards SE and continued to flow in that direction until it skidded to a halt somewhere in SW England.  That much is indisputable, and is supported by the evidence of glacial deposits on the ground. (What we still don't know is precisely where the ice edge lay at the time of its maximum extent.)

But we are stuck with the HHT theory, and we are stuck with a generation of archaeologists obsessed with the task of proving it correct.  So we are also stuck with a bluestone quarry hunt, no matter how absurd and illogical that might seem to rational human beings.  It's interesting that it's not just MPP and his team who are involved in this hunt -- Dyfed Archaeology and Cadw also seem to be backing it enthusiastically, as does the National Museum of Wales and the Pembs Coast National Park Authority.  Why?  Well, they will all bask in the glory of joint press releases and media coverage, and see "success" in the bluestone quarry hunt as bringing them extra publicity and extra tourist income for Wales.  Maybe a few staff members will even get a few seconds on the telly!  A nice win / win scenario............. with rational thought processes conveniently kicked into the long grass.

Let us suppose that the quarry hunters find some large stones in the places where they go digging.  What will that tell us?  That there are lots of large stones lying around in the vicinity of rocky crags and other outcrops.  Big deal.   That is precisely what you would expect anyway.  What if they find some smaller stones as well, in the vicinity of the big ones?  Big deal.  Again, that is precisely what you would expect in a landscape littered with scree and morainic debris.  What if some of these smaller stones look rounded enough to be called mauls of hammer stones?  Big deal. Boulders of all shapes and sizes, in glaciated areas, have their sharp edges knocked off and smoothed by ice and water action.  What if you find actual physical traces of tooling and working on a rock face?  Big deal.  That might mean that at some stage somebody has levered out some handy building stones for use in building a barn or a stone wall -- just as country folk have always done when they are building things. 

What if some arrow heads or Neolithic artifacts are discovered in the ground adjacent to a big elongated stone?  Now that becomes a bot more interesting, since it shows that people might have been collecting stones from here for a very long time -- either for building purposes, or in the gathering of material suitable for axe manufacture.  But this is still no big deal, since we have absolutely no reason to assume any link with Stonehenge or anywhere else, on the basis of the evidence in front of us.

What if the rock type of the nice elongated boulder found in your pit is shown by geologists to be the same as that of certain fragments found at Stonehenge?  That again is no big deal.  We know that already, and have known it for years.  In fact it was that identification (in the case of Pont Saeson) that brought you out quarry hunting in the first place.   Without that, you would never dream of digging a hole here or anywhere near here.   So we are into circular reasoning territory, with a vengeance......

In an earlier post, I wrote:   

As far as the science of landscape is concerned, our principle is this:  If a past phenomenon can be understood as the result of a process now acting in time and space, do not invent or invoke an extinct or unknown or supernatural  cause as its explanation.  By the same token, if a landscape can be understood by reference to known physical processes, even if they have varied through space and time because of climate change or crustal movements, do not bring in "invented" processes which are unverifiable through observation.

Stephen Gould said in 1987:  “We should try to explain the past by causes now in operation without inventing extra, fancy, or unknown causes, however plausible in logic, if available processes suffice.”

This is known as the scientific principle of parsimony or Occam's Razor.  This is a good definition: "Of two equivalent theories or explanations, all other things being equal, the simpler one is to be preferred". 

So why have these enthusiastic quarry hunters refused to take on board a simple and natural explanation for the Stonehenge bluestones, and have gone for something that involves circular reasoning and wild fantasies instead?  Corporate amnesia?  Mass hysteria?  Money?  Don't ask me -- ask them....


Constantinos Ragazas said...


You write for Occam's Razor,

"Of two equivalent theories or explanations, all other things being equal, the simpler one is to be preferred". 

No explanation or theory can be more simple and more validating of the facts than claiming that 'aliens' built Stonehenge! I think your description of Occam's Razor needs to be modified:

“Of two equivalent theories or explanations, all other things being equal, the simpler one in agreement with our senses is to be preferred.”

For me, a theory must 'make sense'. Must be grounded on our common 'sense experience'. Otherwise we risk being disconnected with Nature and with one another.

There is nothing 'real' about any 'theory'. The word 'theory' itself (from ancient Greek) means 'realms of the divine'. This comes close to 'belief' and 'religion'.

We need to bring 'theory' down to earth! What motivates my revision of your Occam's Razor description! And what motivates my intellectual questioning of all established explanations!


BRIAN JOHN said...

Kostas -- the problem with your modification is that one person's sense is another person's nonsense.

Constantinos Ragazas said...


You need to read my messages more carefully and more deeply!

When I speak of 'sense' I mean in the sense of 'physical experience'.

It's what connects us with Nature. And so it is what is in common to all of us and so connects us with one another!

Beyond that, and we really risk being “metaphysical”!

In the case of Stonehenge, for example, it “doesn't make sense” that Neolithic people could or would drag huge stones 250 km over difficult terrain to erect these in concentric circles on the side of a hill at a Neolithic SPA. And it “doesn't make sense” that a scant Neolithic population trying to survive in a harsh environment and freezing winters, with a short life span, would spend tens of years of their lives building mountains of dirt, or having the skill to stand stones erect for many millennium. Yet not applying such advanced technical knowledge to built a palace and proper lasting tombs for those charismatic leaders able to so mobilize them dragging stones across tundra and waterways.

All this defies “common sense”. Ask the man on the street for his “expert opinion” on what “makes sense”. Ask him, “would you drag heavy stones 250 km over soggy land to make a stone circle?” My answer is NO!!! What is your answer Brian?


BRIAN JOHN said...

Oh, I do read things carefully and ponder them deeply, Kostas! I tend to agree with you that it doesn't make sense to have these Neolithic fellows dragging large stones all over the place, but it does make sense to me for these same fellows to put lots of effort into building something rather ambitious. Similar fellows did just that with the pyramids and other prehistoric structures.

But neither does it make sense for large holes to be created in sheets of ice, and for elongated stones to slide into them and neatly arrange themselves in circles. Nobody has any physical experience of either observing this happening, or finding evidence on the ground that it has happened in the past. As I said, one man's sense is another man's nonsense.

Tony Hinchliffe said...

As I have just written in a comment on your previous post "A Bluestone Quarry?", dated 12th September, let us all hope fervently that MPP will be utilising one or two experienced, recognised Professional Geologists skilled in identifying (or not) any possible ancient man-made quarries. At the Stonehenge Riverside Project,over 7 years, he had in his team of specialists such people. It is to be hoped that they will be approaching their work in a scientific, open-minded way, and not be swayed by non-scientific emotional thinking.

Constantinos Ragazas said...


You keep misrepresenting my theory!

Stones do not arrange themselves in circles neatly by themselves!

Men do that! Made possible by the action of Natural forces! Like 'dropping the stones from above'. And not by unknown and unrecorded capabilities of primitive people!

Let me state my theory instead you misstating my theory!

Nature is mainly responsible for these prehistoric monuments with some help from prehistoric men commensurate with their known capabilities!



BRIAN JOHN said...

Tony -- agree. We live in hope.....

Geo Cur said...

Occam's razor has it's uses when dealing with competing theories but when dealing with those non-utilitarian motivations that drive (wo)men to extremes it's pretty useless . These types of actions are not grounded in common sense to begin with so it is no good using that approach trying to understand them .

BRIAN JOHN said...

Occam's Razor is not about common sense -- it's about minimising complexity and seeking simplicity.

And I think we can accept quirky ideas and aspirations as a normal part of hunman behaviour. Isn't that what art and even religion are all about? One might say that neither of these has anything to do with "utilitarian" motivations -- but we can factor them in anyway.

Geo Cur said...

If you want to gain an understanding of art and religion it's best avoid using Occam's razor .

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Geo Cur,

What do we know about the intentions of men whose intentions we do not know?

If we adapt your standards of validation, then anything goes! Since we can always argue, “this was the intention of prehistoric men”. No logical difference from arguing that Merlin the Wizard carried the stones from Ireland. As Brian would say, this is just not 'falsifiable' since we have no objective basis to make such judgments. It becomes a matter of belief. Not science!

You write,

“These types of actions are not grounded in common sense to begin with so it is no good using that approach trying to understand them .”

We must not forget the harsh and difficult living conditions of prehistoric men. Their life span was short, their numbers were small, and they had to etch out a living for their families to survive another cold winter.

I ask you, does it make sense that they would put the lives of their loved ones in jeopardy indulging in quirky pursuits, like dragging ten ton stones over land for 250 km?

Lets get real, here! Are we so in love with our fantasies we are willing to give up reason?


Constantinos Ragazas said...


“Quirky ideas” may explain some Modern Art and Religious Cults. But does not explain the behavior and lives of ancient people! They were spared the 'luxury of leisure' and the 'market place of quirky ideas' to spend their lives in such pursuits.

Art (akin to Religion) played an important and 'utilitarian' function in the lives of ancient people. The 'cave paintings' were not quirky amusements by prehistoric men, but a preparation for the hunt and food. By drawing the wild boar and imagining themselves hunting and killing it, they spiritually and mentally prepared themselves to duplicate the same behavior next day for real. And, of course, religion gave purpose and organization to masses of people to enable them to develop and survive as a culture. Totally utilitarian!


Geo Cur said...

The fantasy is all yours Kostas , I’m surprised you believe that the cave art was not natural too , the pyramids ? If you have to ask the question about any major non –utilitarian feat whether artistic or physical then I doubt that you would understand the explanation from anyone who has been involved .
The early 20 th C utilitarian idea that Franco –Cantabrian cave art was hunting magic ,mainly based on contemporary ethnography of aboriginal increase ceremonies , is no longer accepted . There are very examples of what might be construed as spears or hunting scenes in this cave art , the animals depicted are not those that were hunted e.g. not many boars ,the horse is probably the most widespread , the animals that were common locally and hunted were not necessarily those depicted and more importantly neither are the hunters . This like the construction of the major Early Neolithic monuments or is falsifiable . Can you provide anything falsifiable to support your idea ?