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Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Scott, Mallory and Stonehenge



In some earlier posts I have discussed the "mood of the times" of the years immediately following the First World War, during which HH Thomas proposed his theory of the human transport of the Stonehenge bluestones -- without anybody subjecting the theory to rigorous scrutiny. When one considers the reasons for this apparent reluctance, among the earth science community of the day, to press Thomas on his evidence and to examine his assumptions (several of which were fundamentally flawed) one has to conclude that there was a sort of national contract to sign up for anything that made the nation feel good about itself.

I have come back to this because of new books on Scott of the Antarctic and George Mallory, who died on Everest in 1924. Reviews of these books make constant reference to the British "heroic myth" and the idea that all obstacles could be overcome through "sheer force of Britishness." We may find this slightly ludicrous nowadays, but we have to remember that the years before, during and after the First World War of 1914-1918 were very strange, involving not only idiotic politics and incompetent leadership, but also self-sacrifice and heroism on a gigantic scale. This was the period in which Scott and his companions died on their return from the South Pole; during which Shackleton became a national hero after extricating every single member of his "Endurance" expedition in which -- according to all the rules -- they all should have perished.

A couple of reviewers of the new books have both remarked on the special penchant of the British for becoming totally absorbed in tasks of "heroic futility." At the time when HH Thomas presented his famous lecture about the bluestones (in 1921) another great exercise in heroic futility was being planned. The Mount Everest Committee had just been formed -- with the specific objective of getting a British citizen onto the top of Mount Everest before anybody else managed to do it. We were jolly well not going to allow another unfortunate episode to occur, such as that in which Amundsen beat Scott to the South Pole......... So massive diplomatic and financial resources were thrown into the Everest Project, and in 1921 Mallory was involved in the British Reconnaissance Expedition, tasked with finding the best route up the mountain.

Thomas, as a member of the London scientific elite, must have known about the expedition; and he probably knew at least some of the members of the Mount Everest Committee. He was after all Secretary of the Geological Society of London at the time.

 Herbert Thomas, the man who was largely responsible for the promotion of the famous "human transport" theory

So in an atmosphere of nationalist fervour and a growing feeling that "we won the war; we can do anything" conditions were just perfect for the amiable reception of Thomas's theory, when he made his lecture to the Society of Antiquaries in 1921. His lecture matched perfectly the mood of the time, and indeed those who sat in his audience and suppressed any instincts they might have had to ask any serious questions may themselves have been greatly taken with the thought that our Neolithic ancestors were just as clever at undertaking "acts of heroic futility" as those of their own generation who become obsessed with reaching the South Pole or the top of Mount Everest.

Mallory died on Everest in 1924, the year after Thomas's paper was published. Again, that death became a national news story, once again confirming a sort of "mystic patriotism" which led men to their deaths in pursuit of heroic objectives. In that sort of environment of national jingoism and pride, who was seriously going to question the ability of our heroic Neolithic ancestors to shift 82 puny little bluestones from there to here?

20 comments:

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Brian,

Insightful! … interesting analysis, well informed and courageous as only you could write it!

Kostas

Tony H said...

Said by Squadron Leaderto Flight Officer Perkins: "Iwant you to lay down your life, Perkins". "right, sir!" "We need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war."

Beyond The Fringe c. 1960, featuring Peter Cook & Dudley Moore

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Brian,

In case you are not aware of this, I should tell you that you are referenced in the Wikipedia article on Stonehenge below. So glaciers are getting some traction after all in the inertia of current thinking.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stonehenge

Kostas

BRIAN JOHN said...

Kostas and Tony -- thanks for the comments. re the Wikipedia entry, there are so many people clamouring to "update" the text on the site that it's difficult to get any sense of balance. But I have worked at it now and then, in an effort to get at least some mentions of the glacier transport hypothesis......

Tony H said...

And before we have even watched tonight's Episode of "Digging For Britain",4/4 Series 2, at least the existence of, and possible effect of glaciers is implied in the title, namely ICE AND STONE.

Geo Cur said...

Just as there had been pre Kellaway (e.g. Judd in 1901 ) suggestions for glacial transport ,Thomas was hardly the first to suggest human transport and his reasoning was evidence based rather than cultural . If he had believed that the glacier had reached Salibury Plain would he have supported the human transport theory ?. William Long writing in 1895 was a proponent of human transport and maybe it is with he and his period that hermeneutics would be more appropriate or why not a similar analysis on the incredulity to human transport apparent today ?

Tony H said...

Geo Cur

Please tell us more of William Long writing in 1895, etc.

BRIAN JOHN said...

But William Long did not know precisely where the spotted dolerites and rhyolites at Stonehenge had come from. Neither did Geoffrey of Monmouth when he suggested the magical intervention of Merlin! Thomas's theory was only evidence based in regard to the petrology of the stones -- it was not evidence based with regard to human transport. That was sheer speculation -- based on a misunderstanding of (or refusal to accept) the evidence of glaciation.

Geo Cur said...

We all recognise that science is no more agenda free today than it was 90 years ago but it’s clear that H.H .Thomas’s conclusions were evidence based e.g. he said “so ,alluring as the Glacial Drift Theory may appear ,it must reluctantly be set aside for want of convincing evidence . “ not the words of someone that driven by an agenda , if he had an agenda it was that the stones came from South Wales .

William Long an antiquary , wrote “Stonehenge and it’s Barrows “ the “Stonehenge in it’s landscape “ of the day and more accurate and reasonable than many written a century and more later , much of the barrows detail is derived from John Thurnham who had re-excavated Boles Barrow .Writing nearly 50 years before Thomas’ 1923 paper his understanding was the “foreign” stones had came from Wales or Cornwall and in the absence of glaciation , human transport was the obvious explanation ,where he differed from the likes of Thomas was that he speculated that the stones would have been considered of religious importance and that was the reason for the transport Four years before, the archaeologist William Long had assembled the extensive evidence from excavation to argue that while Salisbury Plain boasted hundreds of burial mounds – containing well-preserved skeletons, popularly said to be Druidic – Stonehenge itself was not a cemetery.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thanks for that info about William Long, Geo. Interesting. As far as HHT is concerned, he decided to disregard the evidence and argumants already published by Gowland and Judd, which one would have thought that he, as a geologist, would have been inclined to accept. We will never know his real motives, I suppose, unless somebody has access to his papers......... but I am still convinced that his thesis was not just "evidence-based" but was designed to suit the mood of the times. As I have suggested in earlier posts, I am still not convinced, either, that his science was entirely honest -- and that he "forced" his arguments through selective use of his data. I'm not saying that he was a charlatan, but that like many scientists he was fully aware of the fame that would flow from the presentation of a rather wacky theory. In that regard, not much changes......

Geo Cur said...

I think you do Thomas a disservice , the main thrust and bulk of the 1923 paper is clear from the title “The Source of the Stones of Stonehenge “ . Interestingly it was glacial erratics found around Narbeth that led to the realisation that the source described as a “wide but limited area “ might be the Preseli hills . We have progressed a little recently in refining the sources but that original description has stood the test of time and that is what the paper was about .
With the secondary considerations i.e. the glacial hypothesis , once again he differs little from our current understanding “First there is no evidence of glacial drift on Salisbury Plain “ etc .

The suggestion that human transport explains the presence of the stones was a common place long before the paper e.g. Willaim Long , Conybeare etc .and had little to do with nationalism /triumphalism etc . Today’s veneration of the ancients /ancestors “skills “ was not typical of the period where a Hobbesian “nasty brutish and short “ thinking was more likely .
Thomas ,if anything underplays the effort involved and is aware of similar efforts outwith the Empire “The weight of the foreign stones is in no case excessive “ “if it be possible to carry a block of stone across bad country a distance of ten miles , it is equally possible to convey it a hundred miles , given the requisite labour , time and motive “ .
The weakest part of the paper imo is the “Reasons for Transport “ but that is just his interpretation and is no more falsifiable than any other .

BRIAN JOHN said...

.... strange, however, that Thomas, as an earth scientist himself, did not accept that if it is possible for a glacier to transport a group of erratics for ten miles, then it is also possible for that glacier to transport them a hundred miles, or two hundred......

And how come the entirely illogical acceptance of "zero evidence" in the case of the human transport theory, and a refusal to accept limited evidence in the case of the glacial theory?

That is bad science today, and it was bad science in 1923.

Geo Cur said...

The two different categories , human transport and glacial transport , have different constraints and limits , what is possible for one does not mean it is possible the other . There is no evidence today nor was there in 1923 for glacial drift on Salisbury Plain it’s not that the evidence was limited but the extent of the glacier was .

There is no evidence for any prehistoric transport of megaliths anywhere in Britain and as far as I know elsewhere (with the possible exception of the pyramids ) , all we have is their presence and sometimes knowledge of their source(s) .Yet Thorpe and Williams –Thorpe accepted that the Kerloas menhir weighing (150 tonnnes whilst bluestone 2-3 tonnes ) was transported 2.5 Km and others moved up to 5 Km with “Zero evidence “ was that bad science ? Occams razor suggests it isn’t .

David Robertson Mitchell said...

As I listen to this debate, it seems to me that this is not a question of 'either or' but actually that that both ice and man were involved. I struggle with the human transport of the stone all the way from Wales, but even collecting and moving the stones locally would have been an impressive feat for our ancestors. Ice moving the stones to Somerset, where they lie for a long time before being collected and moved to Stonehenge is believable - and doesn't diminish in any way my admiration for those involved in transporting them.

BRIAN JOHN said...

My feeling exactly, David. I don't know why the archaeologists are in a state of total denial about glacial transport. Like you, I think it's pretty impressive if our Neolithic ancestors collected the stones from a scatter somewhere to the west of Stonehenge and transported them from this "source area" to the site of the monument. This is exactly what happened with every other megalithic structure in the UK.

Geo Cur said...

David ,for me the this thread was about Thomas not about an either or , or anything in between about glaciation or human transport .I hope I never gave the impression of taking any side in that debate .

BRIAN JOHN said...

I have added a photo of HHT to this post -- for the sake of completeness! I had been searching for a photo for years -- but hey presto, there it was on the BBC prog.

Matt said...

Brian,

A very interesting idea. I read Rosemary Hill's 'Stonehenge' book recently.

The central story of her book is the interplay over time between the interpretation of Stonehenge and social or cultural movements.

The 'heroic' view of the transport of the Stones arising from a 'heroic' age fits in very nicely with that.

Matt (salisbury_matt on twitter)

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thanks Matt. Haven't read that -- but it sounds interesting. this is a very interesting area -- and on this thread Geo has already mentioned hermeneutics. How are the interpretations of things influenced by the fashions of the day, and by the gullibility / incredulity of the public, and by the need to conform to scientific orthodoxy? This is a big field -- but none of us exists in a vacuum, and we are all, whether writers or readers, subject to the need to conform, or the need to rebel -- and I suppose that while we all claim to be impartial seekers after the truth, the truth is always more complex than we would like.....

Constantinos Ragazas said...

David, et al

If we are to assume a 'limited glacier transport' theory that glaciers dumped the bluestones somewhere west of Stonehenge and prehistoric men carried these to Stonehenge, how can we then explain the presence of bluestone chips at Stonehenge which do not trace to bluestones at Stonehenge? But do trace to various locations at Preseli? And that is just one dilemma out of so many!

What we are seeking is a sensible explanation that can explain ALL the 'facts on the ground' and NOT what will make us feel good. That is the challenge of science. And that is the challenge of Stonehenge!

I understand Brian's position on this as a conflict between science and myth. I am with him on this.

Kostas