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.
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?