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Friday 16 September 2011

An evening of fairy tales

Craig Rhosyfelin, a magical place -- with fairies lurking among the rocks.  The dig site is just behind this crag, at the junction between the rock outcrops and the valley floor
 The dig site, showing the "big bluestone" and its relation to the rock outcrop and the slope deposits that have come down from the right, towards the valley floor.

Patience, dear reader.  This may take a little time.  I am still trying to adjust to the real world again, after an evening of fairy tales in the presence of three (no, there may have been 20) learned archaeologists.  The occasion was in Newport Memorial Hall, last evening, and the talk was free to allcomers, hosted by the Dyfed Archaeological Trust and paid for by the taxpayer.  ("Is that relevant?" I hear you cry?........ Well yes, actually it is......)

The coffee and biscuits were very nice, the displays were impressive, and members of the audience were welcomed to scan through images from the latest digs on the laptop computer set up specially for that purpose.  That was very considerate of the organizers, given that not everybody has been able to visit the dig site at Craig Rhosyfelin.  After a friendly welcome from a lady from the Trust, we were treated to a talk split into three parts. 

Prof Mike Parker Pearson talked about Stonehenge, Bluestonehenge, Durrington Walls and other things, and about the work over the last couple of weeks at the "Carn Goedog Quarry"and the "Rhosyfelin Quarry".  Some of the things he said had me hopping up and down in anguish, but I am very good at pain control.  Then Josh Pollard took over, and talked in detail about the big dig during which they have found the stone shown above.  There was not a moment of doubt in anything he said -- and every piece of "evidence" uncovered was neatly slotted in as supporting the story of the heroic excavation of the site by Neolithic people who were connected in some way with local stone circle building and with Stonehenge.  Having established to their own satisfaction that the area was of huge significance during the Neolithic, Colin Richards took the baton and sought to answer the question: "Why was this area so important?"  He assembled information from Indonesia, Madagascar and Easter Island to emphasise the sacredness of stone and the mighty efforts made by societies -- then and now -- to move stones over long distances for ritual purposes.

What interested me was the absolute certainty of the three speakers regarding their central thesis, and the utter conviction that because they are learned gentlemen with high academic positions, we just have to believe what they say and all will be well with the world.  At no point was there any attempt to assemble field evidence, present it impartially, examine a number of explanations for whatever had been found, and then propose a reasonable hypothesis for future testing.  Don't archaeologists do that any more?

I was also struck by the fact that there was no mention during the evening of the glaciation of Pembrokeshire and the presence everywhere of glacial, fluvio-glacial and periglacial deposits -- and the influence that glacial events might have had on their findings on the ground.  They had clearly taken no advice at all from a geomorphologist -- and had nobody on their team capable of pointing out to them the simplest facts about Ice Age deposits and how they are distributed across the landscape.

At any rate, after the talks there were a number of polite questions and comments from those who did not know enough about the subject to challenge anything very much, and then I managed to catch the chairperson's eye and had a go at the three presenters.  I have to admit to being a bit worked up, so I have no clear recollection of what I said, but I did accuse them of abandoning the scientific method and of twisting everything into a central ruling hypothesis that was unsupportable.  I also said that nothing I had heard during the evening seemed to have any relevance at all to Stonehenge, in spite of their continuous assertions to the contrary.  I also accused MPP of either misunderstanding or deliberately misrepresenting the views of those he has consulted (and especially Prof Chris Clark) relating to the extent of British glaciations -- and of repeating the nonsense that glacier ice never affected the shores of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall.

Afterwards, MPP spluttered a bit, but refused to answer any of my points.  Maybe he spends too much time surrounded by sycophants and students and not enough time actually discussing things with earth scientists?

So there we are -- fairy tales is what I expected, and fairy tales is what I got.  Don't know whether to laugh or cry.......


Tony Hinchliffe said...

Was there nothing brought forward, then, of any irrefutable evidence that prehistoric man had been there? i.e. artefacts etc, uncovered during the excavation.

I know Josh Pollard, among others, has been to Easter Island in the last 2-3 years. Presumably that gives him unquestionable credentials to make ethnographic comparisons with respect to the Easter Island quarry/ quarries, and what he now "finds" in the Preseli landscape.

BRIAN JOHN said...

No -- the only "evidence" they presented was that they have found so-called mauls and hammer-stones, and also sharp flakes that they assume have come from tool-making operations. No bones, antlers, charcoal or anything else, as far as I'm aware. I'll deal with all this in another post.

Chris johnson said...

Sound like a fun evening.

There are two main doubts about your glaciation theory as I see it.
1) no evidence that glaciers extended to Wiltshire
2) no stray bluestones still around or used for other buildings - near Stonehenge at least.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Chris -- fair comment, and I have been trying to address these issues elsewhere on the blog. Partly this is because I think there was a very limited period of entrainment by the Irish Sea Glacier, and also deposition over a very limited area. Where that area was, is still open to discussion. If truth be told, I'm not that bothered -- maybe the glaciers didn't reach Wiltshire, and the erratics were dumped somewhere to the west, in Somerset? More fieldwork is needed to establish this. So there's still rather an impressive feat of stone collection and transport involved.

BRIAN JOHN said...

There is still the Boles Barrow problem -- and I'm inclined to believe Aubrey Burl and Richard Atkinson on this one. They both seemed happy that the source was established beyond reasonable doubt -- in spite of the recent scepticism of others.

Barrie Foster said...

Calm down Brian, it's only an ad.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Wise words, Barrie. The problem is that most people think it's science...

Anonymous said...

There is no doubt, but, that rocks from within 2 metres of that dig reached Stonehenge and appear amongst the debitage.
The rest is fung shei
My experience of British BA mining sites tells me that mauls are found by the hundreds-even thousands.
Mauls are common at Stonehenge-off hand cannot remember what sort of numbers.
What we need is a bit of Corded Ware.
Thomas Rhymer.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thomas my friend, no matter how brilliant your geology may be, I'm not sure you can fix any source to 2m unless you have a 2m x 2m grid properly sampled. Presumably you mean 20m or maybe 200m?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Not that it matters that much. Let's remind ourselves of the process here. This is not a piece of brilliant archaeological detective work, but a piece of very good geology. What we have is two geologists -- who shall be nameless if they want to be -- who have examined masses of rock fragments from the Stonehenge area and have managed to match some of them up very precisely to rock samples taken in the Point Saeson area. One of the very good matches was with a sample taken from the rock outcrop at the end of the ridge called Craig Rhosyfelin. The geologists have given the precise grid reference and site description to the archaeologists, who have then said "So that means there is a quarry there! Let's go and find the quarry!" So they announce to the world that they are going to the Rhosyfelin Bluestone Quarry. They then do some geophysics (resistivity?) on a very small area beneath the crag, looking for a big stone. And lo and behold! They find a big stone when they start to dig. In their minds, everything is confirmed..... but if they had conducted just such an investigation beneath almost any of the craggy outcrops in the valley, or in North Pembs for that matter, they would -- I can assure you -- also have found big stones in the scree.

So this is not a "smoking gun" moment at all, nor is it an archaeological triumph. These archaeologists have set out upon a mission designed to confirm their ruling hypothesis. At no stage do they even seem to have considered the geomorphology or landscape history of the site. That's very naughty of them, and it's bad science.

So is it a quarry, or is it not? They are convinced that it is, and I'm convinced (until somebody can show me some impressive evidence to the contrary) that it isn't.

Have we moved forward at all? I don't think so.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thomas Rhymer -- re mauls and hammerstones at Stonehenge, I put some info here:

Put "mauls" into the search and it'll probably come up...

Tony Hinchliffe said...

Brian, thank you for explaining very clearly, in your comment timed at 13.31, why exactly the Craig Rhosyfelin ridge dig, in the Pont Saeson vicinity, has been a mission by archaeologists to confirm their fixed ruling hypothesis, with complete disrespect for other factors they should be considering, i.e. the physical geography/ geomorphology of that area. I think you should use this very clear statement as the basis for communications with the Media, and anyone else who you think would stop, pause and then question what the archaeologists may claim, e.g. the British Association For The Advancement of Science.

Chris Johnson said...

On the Boles Barrow problem, I followed your steer to the Hobgoblin analysis. Thanks for that. He summarizes the several reasons to be suspicious about the provenance of this particular bluestone.

The 2009 discovery of Blue Stonehenge near the river banks and the (Newall?) tongue and groove theory also raise the possibility that the Bluestone component of Stonehenge has been moved more than once in this long history.

I agree with you and Burl that it is unlikely that the Bluestones were transported by sea after the big rise in sea levels. He presents a totally plausible analysis and anyone who doubts should try swimming off Freshwater West. It is definitely not the way to move anything valuable as the many wrecks around the coast do testify.

This leaves the other possibilities:
- they were moved closer to final destination by glaciation (your preference)
- they were moved on a sea route BEFORE the rise in sea levels
- they were moved overland by either slave labour or by religious fanatics.

The "Lottery" experiment at least proved that it is possible to move the Bluestones overland, even when you don't know quite how to do it efficiently.

Fascinating blog, thanks.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thanks Chris -- that's a pretty plausible analysis. re the possibility of moving the stones before the sea-level reached its present position relative to the coastline we see today, we know that by about 7,000 BP or 5,000 BC sea-level had recovered to about -10m or even -5m. That means that the Bristol Channel would not have been THAT different from what we see today -- and probably even those areas above the MSL of the day would have been vast boggy expanses with marshlands and an extensive forest cover. I really don't think that it would have been feasible, no matter how motivated the engineers might have been by religious fervour, or whatever.

BRIAN JOHN said...

The Millennium Stone experiment (in which I took part) was a total shambles -- all it showed was that even with modern ropes and low-friction netting, and using asphalt roads rather than going cross-country, it was incredibly difficult to move one stone just a short distance (it didn't even come from up in the mountains) to the tidal reach of the Eastern Cleddau. Then there was the problem of getting it onto a vessel of some sort -- a task only achieved with the aid of a JCB and a heavy lift crane! So 82 big stones, moved across the rough terrain of N Pembs during the Neolithic? I think we can forget it...