Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my new book called "The Stonehenge Bluestones" -- due for publication on June 1st 2018. After that, it will be available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
To order, click

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Bluestone Argonauts -- did they sail or paddle?

 Above: the reconstructed Ferriby Boat called "Oakleaf"
Below: the Dover Boat

 I have been quite intrigued recently, on going through some of the literature, to see that the experts seem to think that in the early Bronze Age there was no knowledge of sails or sailing techniques in Western Europe -- and that means the waters around the coasts of Britain.  If that was the case, then there would certainly have been no sailing boats around in the Neolithic, when our heroic ancestors are supposed to have transported 82 bluestones over land and sea from Pembrokeshire to Stonehenge. Apparently the technical challenge which these earlier boatbuilders had not overcome was that of bedding a mast foot into the bottom or keel of a boat, so as to cope with the enormous stresses involved in catching and using the wind, often in rough sea conditions.  So this famous illustration by Alan Sorrel is probably up the creek...

See my post dated 27 November 2011 on the "Bluestone Argonauts" and their sea-going vessels.

I recall that Herbert Thomas, the man who started this whole hare running, was no great believer in the marine transport of the stones, and many others have shared that view, on the basis that the technical challenge would have been far too great for the Neolithic tribesmen to cope with.  Aubrey Burl shared that view, and analysed the maritime transport idea in some detail in more than one of his books.  HHT thought that the stones must have been transported overland, all the way.  It was Atkinson -- ably assisted by Alan Sorrell -- who enthusiastically promoted the idea of sea-going rafts and naked heroes braving the elements on a stormy shore.....  By God, sir, they were a tough bunch in those days......

Not only do we have to cope with the technical challenge of making a seaworthy vessel large enough to take a stone weighing up to 8 tonnes (we have to assume that the Altar Stone travelled the same way as the others) -- but we also have the technical challenges associated with sails, ropes and paddles, and paddle fixings.  Then there are the problems -- flagged up by Aubrey Burl -- on navigation and mental maps;  and he quite rightly asks whether Neolithic tribesmen would have had the capacity to identify a source area in West Wales, to map out in their minds how to travel there and back on many different occasions, and to cope with all of the navigational hazards which we all know about around the Pembrokeshire Coast, in Carmarthen Bay, and in the Bristol Channel
-- areas of high seas, rapid tide races and currents, and very high tidal ranges.

I think that in this part of  "The Great Stonehenge Story", more than in any other part, we are guilty of seeing as our heroes modern men in fancy dress.


Robert John Langdon said...


"in the early Bronze Age there was no knowledge of sails or sailing techniques in Western Europe -- and that means the waters around the coasts of Britain. If that was the case, then there would certainly have been no sailing boats around in the Neolithic"

What rubbish are you trying to peddle now (or is it paddle)?

In the Neolithic you have Stone Tools from all over Britain in various coastal sites including Shetland and Ireland, Amber from the Baltic Sea and Jade from Italy - are you seriously saying they paddled around in boats because the concept of wind and sails was beyond their intelligence?

They can invent the mortise and tenon joint for wood working and apply it to the construction of Stonehenge including the task of moving and erecting the 10 tonne stones - but to use of a sail was far beyond their capabilities?

Moreover, why do you need a sail boat for the Stones? You would put them on a log raft and punt them along the river ways to Stonehenge - are the fruitless attempts to justify your hypothesis clouding your judgement here?


BRIAN JOHN said...

Robert -- kindly be more careful with your quotes. What I said was this: ".......the experts seem to think that in the early Bronze Age there was no knowledge of sails or sailing techniques in Western Europe -- and that means the waters around the coasts of Britain."

I was quoting from some of the articles I have been looking at. If you think that these experts are talking rubbish, that's your privilege. Show us some evidence that they are wrong.

chris johnson said...

We cannot have it both ways.

There seems to be plenty of evidence for connected west-coast cultures at a time after ocean levels had risen - in the late mesolithic/early neolithic. Even connections as far as Brittany.

Should masts be a pre-requisite for this connectivity then presumably they had masts and sails, although we have yet to find the physical evidence.

Still there is a big step to being able and willing to transport tons of precious stone up the Bristol Channel.

And when you don't believe in sea connections then our dating is completely wrong - pushing back into the paleolithic when you might have been able to walk from Callanish to the Scilly islands.

I think in-shore ocean going boats are likely.

BRIAN JOHN said...

The position of the shoreline in the Neolithic was not that different from its position today, since sea-level was maybe 5-8m lower than now. So essentially the nautical challenges would have been very similar to those faced by modern sailors (and paddlers!)

Tony H said...

Mention of sailing or paddling the precious cargo of bluestones in this and the previous Post instantly came to mind whilst listening to Radio 2's Arts Programme on Friday night.

A new musical, "Big Society", has just opened in Leeds. Its song "We're All In This Together", contains the lines "I will be the Captain and You can work the Oars". The play features Dave the ventriloquist and Nick the dummy. It seeks tomake a contemporary, political point there, it seems.

But was there a Big Society in Neolithic & Bronze Age days? Or was there a Big Man, like the One Geoff and Tim have (nearly) uncovered in the Preselis?

We're often told about the need for a Big Man back then.......but if a boat is carrying a Big Stone, was there room enogh for a Big Man too on board? Or were they all paddling furiously, at least across the Bristol Channel, just to keep their heads above water?

I lie awake at night mulling over these thoughts. Do others?

Robin Jack said...

The blog drives us way back in history of ships and sail boats, from where it all started. The blog revolves around a controversy of whether our forefathers had the know-how of the techniques to sail along the sea and transporting heavy things across the sea. A deep attentive thought reveals that it was practically not feasible for our ancestors to perform such a herculean task. Yacht Transportation