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Monday, 17 October 2011

Megalithic structures -- the big issue

In April 2010 I devoted some space on this blog to the part played by erratics in megalithic structures in the UK -- and indeed in the manufacture of stone axes and other tools and weapons.  I cited a number of authorities, including Stephen Briggs, Olwen Williams-Thorpe, and Aubrey Burl, who have argued very strongly that the guiding principle of ancient communities was economy of effort.  Actually, not much changes -- since economy of effort is the same as the minimisation of costs, this is still a principle that runs through the construction industry and many other industries as well.  Stephen Briggs stressed "the importance of opportunism, utilitarianism and scavenging amongst prehistoric peoples" as something that has tended to be forgotten by archaeologists who seem to be constantly seeking after ever more sophisticated motives when they try to explain why structures look as they do, and why they are located here rather than there.  My old post is here:

It seems to me that the big issue is this:  was "economy of effort" ALWAYS the guiding principle during the Neolithic, when people were using big stones in quite spectacular ways?

We can, I think, recognize three scales of complexity in megalithic monuments:

1.  Standing stones -- either erected singly, or in groups including alignments and circles.  It seems to me from my reading on many sites in this category, that the builders always used what was to hand -- big slabs or pillars from scree slopes, erratic boulders littered across the landscape, or rocks fallen off cliffs or smaller outcrops.  There are hundreds if not thousands of such sites across the UK.  In the ones that I am familiar with, I don't know one where rocks have been carried by the builders a long way from their places of origin.  And indeed, why would they bother?


2.  Cromlechs -- burial chambers etc where large stones were lifted and supported by pillars. There are many hundreds of these across the UK.  I know quite a few of the Welsh ones -- and there isn't a single one where I have asked "I wonder where the stones have come from?"  so without exception the stones have simply been picked up in the immediate vicinity.  Indeed some of the capstones (as at Garn Turne) are so enormous that the location of the capstone is the thing that determines the location of the burial chamber.  Find it, lever it up, support it, and then cover it with a mound........  Steve Burrow, in his book "The Tomb Builders" confirms that this was ALWAYS the rule with respect to the tombs built in Wales between 4000 BC and 3000 BC.  Opportunism and utilitarianism in practice.  In some cases (as at Newgrange) white quartz stones were valued, and were brought in from some distance away for the "facing" of the monument, but that was a relatively straightforward "cosmetic" matter, given the small size of the stones being carried.

3.  Complex monuments involving the erection of pillars, the placing of lintels to create trilithons, and the working of stone in complex ways.  Only one example -- Stonehenge!  Built over many centuries, and passing through many different phases.  But would the builders have abandoned all of the simple principles adopted by their contemporaries who were putting things up all over the UK?  I doubt it.  Why would they want to go off to West Wales to collect their stones, if stones were available within easy reach?  If the stones from Preseli were sacred in some way, why were they not taken from Preseli and incorporated into megalithic structures elsewhere in the British Isles?  And if they were token stones or ancestor stones invested with particular qualities,  why were there no equally valuable "magic" stones to the north, east or south of the site?

Looking at all of the stones in the neighbourhood of the site (and let's remember that there are around 30 different rock types) the conclusion has to be that the builders of Stonehenge were following exactly the same rules as their cousins in other parts of the British Isles.  I agree that they had greater imagination, aspirations and technical skills than other groups, but in the end they still had to make the best of whatever they had to hand.  And of course, as I and many others have pointed out, they never did have enough stones to finish the job, and spent a lot of their time moving stones around from one setting to another before finally giving up and walking away.


Anonymous said...

I am not sure that there are 30 different rock types associated with the Orthostats.
I define bluestone as any non-sarsen used/possibly used as an orthostat.
Using this definition we have.
Spotted dolerite (I am not certain that spotted and unspotted dolerites are separate. But possibly from more than one source.
Rhosyfelin rhyolites. orthostat 32e?/debitage
Possibly 2 separate rhyolitic tuffs
orthostats 46 48
Lithic tuffs posssibly 2 namely orthostats 38 40
Paleozoic sst debitage possible buried stumps.
Less certain
At least two sorts of lithic tuff/'basic tuff'. Debitage.
Calacareous sst. Altar stone (sorry that is certain.)
All other rock types are trivial in amount and number including glauconitic sst, cherts etc etc.
Not 30 but not a couple of quarries either.
Everytime I hear quarry, it is, but a dart in my heart (pun alert!)
Read the primary lit.-the 19th cent antiquarians and their excavation reports. Do NOT hope that secondary sources are accurate.

BRIAN JOHN said...

I would agree with you that there are probably not 30 different rock types in the orthostats -- with the qualification that a good many of the standing bluestones and most of the stumps have never been properly sampled for petrographic and geochemical analysis. We know there are 43 stones -- but apart from the "groupings" you mention there are still many unknowns. Wouldn't it be nice if EH would agree to a FULL sampling programme, for every single known bluestone orthostat? Thought of applying for permission?

I think it's a mistake to be too preoccupied with the orthostats. I use the term "bluestone" to refer to ANY stone in the Stonehenge environs which is demonstrably not sarsen. And in this category I'm sure there are at least 30 different rock types represented. If there are small foreign stones on the site, in the clutter or debitage, we need to know where they came from and how they got there. If we are talking about glacial deposits there should be small stones as well as big ones.

Some of the small stones may have been used as hammer stones etc, and some as packing stones -- but I'm not too fond of largish boulders being used as "mauls" since some of them will have been impossible to use for striking bits off larger sarsens or bluestone pillars. Were some of those on the site to start with?

On 32e, Rob, a bit of a leap of faith on your part? There are lots of these rather flaky / foliated rhyolites in this district, and with only the Atkinson photos to go on, I think it could have come from almost anywhere......

So the "trivial" amounts (in quantity) of other rock types may not be trivial at all -- in terms of their importance for unravelling the story.

Alex Gee said...

Just curious, but could the Tuffs have come from the Beacon Hill Pericline on Mendip?; what is now Moons Hill Quarry
Or are they a completely different rock type?

Anonymous said...

I do so agree.
Controlled sampling is needed but EH is EH! and I suspect they have yet to overcome the shock of the 2008 digs.
Re the rocky noise I can only remind you of the paragraph in my review of John's book in the ferret club and the presence of new age crystals etc.
32e I agree 'tis only a photo if only that man had sampled!!
I have NEVER bet(believing it etc etc) but were I to do so I would put a small wager on orthostat 32e being from Rhosyfelin (citing Kostas' beloved Occum).
There are NOT lots of foliated rhyolites (otherwise Richard and I would not have drawn everyone's attention to that outcrop). Show me otherwise and I shall be as happy as you!!

BRIAN JOHN said...

Rob -- I won't push the point about the foliated rhyolites (you and Richard know far more about this than I do) but from thr appearance of the Rhosyfelin rhyolite it doesn't look that different from other rhyolites in this area that have a flaky and foliated look about them when seen fresh. There is one big rhyolite erratic near where I live that looks remarkably similar, and outcrops of "streaky" rhyolite near Sychpant. I wonder if that Rhosyfelin outcrop is part of a long strip that pops up here and there over a distance of a few miles?

Anonymous said...

Mr Gee
I suspect the answer is in the Thorpe et al 1991 seminal paper-they looked at the Somerset volcanics. I would take a look at that paper.
Their (the rocks not the OU team) geochemistry was different.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Images OK on this one? Let me know if they are not...