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Thursday, 5 January 2012

On technological development



"Technology includes all tools, machines, utensils, weapons, instruments, housing, clothing, communicating and transporting devices and the skills by which we produce and use them."  (Bain, 1937)

I have been pondering on the fact that the Stonehenge bluestone "human transport enterprise" -- if it ever happened -- must have been one of the most extraordinary aberrations in prehistory.  And yet people actually do believe in it -- so fervently that it has become an article of faith within British archaeology.  That is also extraordinary.

It is in the nature of technological development -- in the field of prehistory -- that things start small, then develop and become mainstream, and then maybe fade away as other technologies take their place.  I know that Colin Renfrew, Tim Darvill and many others have pondered on this in the context of cultural diffusion, parallel development, innovation and so forth.  If we look at the history of the wheel, or of road building, or canals, or the making of stone tools, or house construction, or even pyramid construction, we can see in the prehistoric record the "beginning of things" followed by development and increasing sophistication, followed by an acme or zenith, and then decline.  (If not a decline, a time at which no further development occurs, either because the raw material will not allow it, or because the cost / benefit equation is all wrong, or because something better comes along to replace it.)  So a technology is not actually forgotten about, but put to one side.  In that process, the skills involved may well be lost.  What proportion of the population today knows how to make a stone axe?

So why is it that there is NO evidence for the seriously long-distance (or even moderately long-distance) transport of big stones from a source area to a megalithic monument site either before Stonehenge or after it?  According to all the rules, the technology needed for moving big stones must have developed gradually, maybe spreading out from a core area or maybe happening simultaneously in different places.  But there is no evidence for any of that, anywhere in Britain.  And once Stonehenge was up and running (if we believe that it was ever finished), why did that stone-moving technology not spread to other areas, or become duplicated or improved?  So why did it not happen on a smaller scale well away from Stonehenge, around the time of the Neolithic / Bronze Age transition?  If Stonehenge was constructed by a big and powerful tribal group, why was the behaviour of that group not mimicked by smaller groups elsewhere, who were maybe intent upon increasing their status?

To my mind this lack of a "technology development history" is one of the most powerful arguments against the human transport theory.  The theory just does not make sense, and is best forgotten about.

Note:  The Pyramids:  Monolithic, smooth sided pyramids did not just suddenly appear in Egypt. There was an evolutionary period, leading to the great pyramids of Giza that began with simple mastaba tombs, expanded into step pyramids, which led to experimentation, some of which failed miserably, and culminating with the perfected structure. In addition, the decorative themes associated with pyramids also evolved over time.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Brian you write,

“To my mind this lack of a "technology development history" is one of the most powerful arguments against the human transport theory.  The theory just does not make sense, and is best forgotten about.”


I couldn't agree with you more! Technologies do not exist in historical vacuum but leave behind ample and diverse evidence of their existence.

I wonder what Geo Cur has to say about this …

Kostas

Jon Morris said...

"And once Stonehenge was up and running (if we believe that it was ever finished), why did that stone-moving technology not spread to other areas, or become duplicated or improved?"

Once we had been to the moon, we stopped going. It's too expensive and we have other priorities. I think this argument is difficult to use because it could be circular?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Jon -- I don't think this is a good analogy. We got to the moon after a long series of experiments and missions which culminated on the manned landing on the moon. After that, our sights went further -- towards Mars and Jupiter etc. And the manned landing technology is still there -- and will probably be fished out again and used again in our lifetime.

Jon Morris said...

Maybe, but whether or not the larger stones were transported to the general area by glaciation or by man, they must have been moved and erected for the end stage. The technology for moving a stone four miles isn't much different to the technology for moving stones 40 miles (except for the first part of the journey).

Either way, the stone moving technology was lost?

chris johnson said...

I suspect the manned moon landings and stonehenge have some things in common. Both were top-down projects and neither had much utility in the final analysis. Manned space flight is a thing of the past, as are stone horseshoes with lintels.

The moon project had a big spin-off for other technologies, but I don't see this for Stonehenge. People did not get inspired to erect more stone buildings or move even bigger weights.

Like Brian, I would like to think we will resume manned space flights someday. However, we have to crack some laws of physics like faster-than-light travel and we will not be innovating on the basis of Apollo. The Apollo capsule is displayed in Florida where I visited. You are astounded by the bravery of the astronauts who undertook this mission in such a vehicle, protected like my Christmas Turkey in kitchen foil. It is such a ramshackle construction, viewed with modern eyes, that I would not be surprised to find parts of it are held together with rubber bands.

I suspect both Stonehenge III and Moon Landings were political statements of their respective times. Massive investments with insufficient payback, but perhaps more similarity between the underlying visions than we recognize.

Anonymous said...

Brian,

The technologies needed to built Stonehenge are the 'transport of megaliths' as well as the 'building with megaliths'. There is no evidence in the larger prehistoric context either of these technologies existed.

It is a self-contradiction to assert the technology of the 'transport of megaliths' cannot exist in a historical vacuum, yet assume the technology of 'building with megaliths' could.

Brian, you just can't have it both ways! Prehistoric people built Stonehenge but prehistoric people could not transport megaliths to Stonehenge. This is an inherent contradiction in your position and it just wont go away.

Kostas

BRIAN JOHN said...

You are quite wrong, Kostas. It is self-evident that people moved large stones over small distances and built them into Stonehenge and other monuments. The technology of placing large capstones onto uprights is attested in every cromlech or dolmen found throughout Western Europe.

Anonymous said...

“Self-evident” Brian? Sounds like a “belief” to me!

BRIAN JOHN said...

I also believe that Windsor Castle and St Pauls Cathedral were built by human beings, although I have no evidence in my possession which can prove it.

Anonymous said...

Brian,

You write, “I also believe that Windsor Castle and St Pauls Cathedral were built by human beings, although I have no evidence in my possession which can prove it. “

I can't believe you are making this argument! In an earlier post you write,

“... this lack of a "technology development history" is one of the most powerful arguments against the human transport theory.”


The technology used to built Windsor Castle and St Pauls Cathedral is reflected in so many other ways in other works and in historical records … it does not exist in a historical vacuum!

Kostas

Jon Morris said...

"The moon project had a big spin-off for other technologies, but I don't see this for Stonehenge. People did not get inspired to erect more stone buildings or move even bigger weights."

An interesting point of legend is the period of dark ages, accompanied by stories such as the battle of the titans, which appear to have taken place during, or prior to, the first or second millenium BC. It is possible, perhaps likely, that these events were wars of resources given the (natural) adverse climate change events which occurred over this period (starting about 1500 BC from memory).

Perhaps the apparent loss of all information and development over the period prior to 1500BC has more to tell us about our potential future than it does the past?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Jon -- I'm not sure we can talk of "the apparent loss of all information and development over the period prior to 1500BC" -- surely for other technologies (for example, stone axes, methods of burial, farming technologies etc) there are consistent and sensible lines of evidence that point to a continuous evolution?

Jon Morris said...

Agreed. But if our civilisation fell apart, all evidence of what we achieved would largely remain in non-metallic and non-biodegradable everyday items rather than evidence of special scientific advancement?

Debbie Thompson said...

I think that the standing stones ( later used as gate posts), found around the Pres eli hills in Pembrokeshire,were originally erected for skinning and fleshing animals

BRIAN JOHN said...

Worth thinking about. I have often thought that if foliated rhyolites, slates and mudstones ever were exploited in this area, the tools so created would all be cutting and scraping tools with sharp edges. Easily disposable, and easily replaced. But if you wanted to carve up an animal carcass and take the skin off, would you not do that on a flat-lying slab rather than on a standing stone?