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Thursday, 5 January 2012

Stonehenge and the importance of heroic failures



While I am thinking beautiful thoughts, here is another one:  Could it be that the uniqueness and iconic stature of Stonehenge is explained quite simply by the fact that it was a heroic failure?

I have argued over and again on this site that Stonehenge was never finished -- and many others have also come to that view, including a well-known geologist who referred to it as a "jerry-built shambles."  I won't go over all the arguments here again -- but it's worth reminding ourselves that there ought to be around 160 stones at Stonehenge, instead of the 90 or so that we know about; that there are large "empty segments" in the structure where there appear to be neither stones, stumps nor sockets; and that it stretches credibility to extremes to suggest that no less than 70 large stones have been removed or destroyed by rival tribes, Romans, farmers, stone collectors and treasure hunters over the years.

I believe that even EH is beginning to come round to the view that the concept of the "immaculate Stonehenge" propounded by Anthony Johnson and many others is at fault; and that while we have to admit that the aspirations and ambitions of the Stonehenge builders were mightily impressive, we also have to accept that either their technologies or their manpower resources were inadequate to finish the job.  As I have often argued, the frequency of changes in the stone settings (cf all those intersecting sockets) also argues for indecisive leadership and a shortage of stones.  I think the stones were all gathered up from the neighbourhood of Stonehenge, and that the builders ranged further and further afield in their stone collecting trips and eventually reached a point at which the cost was greater than the benefit -- at which time the project ground to a halt.

So Stonehenge was a one-off, a glorious failure, which was why no other Neolithic tribal groups sought to either copy it or improve upon it.  The word got round that those mad people on Salisbury Plain had tried to build this crazy edifice but had given up on it.  We are normally told that the builders of Stonehenge were revered and respected by other tribes, to the extent that they even brought tribute stones of their ancestors to the site -- so as to become a part of the great enterprise.  Hmmm.......

Here is another view.  The builders of Stonehenge were looked on by their neighbours as a bunch of crazy idiots, admired in some way for their sheer audacity, but genuinely pitied and held up for ridicule at the same time................

So it is because Stonehenge failed that it is unique.  If it had succeeded, it would have been copied. And because it is unique, it has become one of the great iconic structures of prehistory.

44 comments:

chris johnson said...

Sometimes a lack of evidence can be as remarkable as evidence. Presumably in Roman times and early Celtic times Stonehenge was also seen as special, especially by the Romans who were great builders, and yet it was hardly written about or mentioned in their texts. Maybe Stonehenge had been copied, to the extent that it was not seen as being that unusual 2000 years ago.

One thing we can probably agree on - that whatever Stonehenge set out to DO was a failure. Had it succeeded then the technology evolution would have been pursued. Either that or some catastrophe occurred around 4000 years ago that caused knowledge of how to build such a monument to be lost.

Anonymous said...

Brian,

As a glaciologist and geomorphologist could you clear a curiosity I have?

Will the evidence for glaciation of glacier advance into an area already covered by ice be the same as for bare land unprotected by an ice cover?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Kostas -- I assume it's you, lurking beneath a cloak of anonymity! -- an ice front marching across a "clean" landscape would be a rarity. Generally, in the buildup to a glaciation, you get a coalescence of snow and ice patches, and local ice caps, which then thicken and become incorporated into an expanding larger ice cap or ice sheet. The development of ice streams within this large ice mass would be dependent upon where the ice is coming from, what the surface gradient is like, and what landscape constraints there may be in directing or influencing ice flow directions. This is all shown pretty well in the BRITICE animations.

Anonymous said...

Brian,

You know my thinking now so well you can see through any cloak of anonymity!

“Generally, in the buildup to a glaciation, you get a coalescence of snow and ice patches, and local ice caps, which then thicken and become incorporated into an expanding larger ice cap or ice sheet.”


Type of glaciation described in your quote above does not explain entrainment of erratics. For entrainment to occur we need movement and advance of large masses of glacier ice. But such glacier advance could be over bare land or over existing ice cover.

The point in my last post is the evidence for glaciation will be different depending on the type of area glaciers advanced over. This could help save your glaciation transport theory.

Kostas

Jon Morris said...

"I have argued over and again on this site that Stonehenge was never finished --"

That depends on what you mean. If you mean that the South West segment was never built out, perhaps evidence will prove you correct in the near future.

But, if the intent of the design was not to complete the full South Western segment, then 'never finished' would not be a correct description?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Kostas -- for the hundredth time, we do have a pretty good idea when entrainment occurs -- it happens when conditions on the glacier bed are right. That has to do with basal ice temperatures and basal ice characteristics, and with the stresses being exerted upon bedrock protuberances etc.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Jon -- it's not just the SW segment that's missing. There are missing stones all over the place.

Maybe they intended to build a romantic ruinous folly?

Anonymous said...

Brian,

However entrainment occurs, you STILL need glacier advancement and ice stream flow to transport erratics anywhere.

My point is the evidence for glaciation will differ depending on conditions of the area where glacier advancement and ice flow took place.

And if that area is covered already by a local ice sheet, typical glaciation evidence may be lacking. This is what happened with Salisbury Plain, I believe. And this is what will save your glacier transport theory!

Have you responded yet to Chris Johnson's three points of evidence to convince him of the glaciation of Salisbury Plain? This is the Achilles Heel of your theory Brian and it just wont go away.

Kostas

Anonymous said...

Brian

Name me one complete prehistoric structure?

A.N.Other

Jon Morris said...

"Jon -- it's not just the SW segment that's missing. There are missing stones all over the place."

Yes, but most of the smaller stones are of a size that could be broken up or re-used for occasional building projects. We're unlikely to know whether there was an intent for these to exist.

We can also be fairly sure that they didn't intend some of the stones to remain in their original locations (as indicated by stoneholes).

After that, there's a couple of Station Stones, and the South West segment of Sarsens, which are of such a size that they remain enigmatic.

Anonymous said...

Jon,

Obviously we need to make up more stories to fill in these gaps!

BRIAN JOHN said...

Anon -- Name me one complete prehistoric structure? Surely there are unexcavated round barrows all over the place? Shall we not assume that these are complete? What point are you trying to make?

Anonymous said...

Brian

Is a barrow a structure?

Was Woodhenge never completed either and what about Avebury?

What complete Roman buildings are there in Britain? (and these have been around half the time).

"The geomorphologist doth protest too much, methinks"

A.N.Other

BRIAN JOHN said...

Of course a barrow is a structure -- the long ones might even contain burial chambers made with large stones. I still don't know what point you are trying to make...

Anonymous said...

Brian

You seem to lack the ability to match like with like!

If a 'earthwork' is a structure - so why is the ditch complete at Stonehenge?

If your referring to the building blocks of the structure like the Sarsen stones - where is there another complete prehistoric building structure like Woodhenge or Avebury with all it's building blocks intact?

It seems that the basis of your argument is that; as pieces are missing its incomplete, because people don't steal free stone.

So where is your proof?

If every other prehistoric building is 'complete' and Stonehenge is not - then you have a point. If all prehistoric buildings are incomplete your observation are pointless and just argumental.

Annie O

BRIAN JOHN said...

Annie -- I'm afraid I can't follow your convoluted logic. Of course an earthwork is a structure -- not sure whether I would call a ditch a structure, but it doesn't matter really. The fact that the earthworks at Stonehenge may be complete is quite immaterial to my argument re the stone settings. I was not arguing that Stonehenge is UNIQUE in not being completed -- please read my words more carefully! I was simply saying that Stonehenge was a glorious failure -- like many other failures in history -- and that people learned from that, and did not wish to repeat the failure.

Anonymous said...

Brian,

What Annie O may be arguing here is since no other prehistoric monument is complete, why should Stonehenge be complete?

What such argument implies is a predilection of prehistoric people not to complete projects they spend great resources and time pursuing.

What such conclusion suggests to me is perhaps these many incomplete prehistoric projects were not made by men but made mainly by Nature.

This perspective must be considered and represented in any 'honest debate' on Stonehenge.

Kostas

Anonymous said...

Brian

An earthwork is a structure but a ditch is not?? If they place the spoil from the ditch to make a mound on one side, is it then a structure in your eyes? - such nonsense.

And the Colosseum in Rome is that another 'glorious failure' according to your 'logic' as it is far from complete today?

A.O.

BRIAN JOHN said...

OK Annie -- if you want to call ditches structures, that's fine by me. And why would I want to call the Colosseum or the old Coventry Cathedral (for example) failures, when we know from historical records that they were completed and used prior to being damaged. In many historical cases we actually know when the damage was done, and why. What on earth are you on about?

Anonymous said...

Brian

Hurray,success at last.

You have now concluded that although structures are incomplete now it does not mean they were never completed.

You suggest that 'we know from historical records that they were completed and used prior to being damaged'- but if the Romans did not have written language your conclusions would be for a unfinished structure which through your own submission is incorrect.

Annie O

Anonymous said...

Loads of the stones that once formed part of the "Avebury" half of the Stonehenge & Avebury World Heritage Site [i.e. from the Stone Circles & no doubt also from the Beckhampton Avenue as well as the Southern Avenue] can now be found residing in the houses and walls of Avebury, and, indeed, in the walls of the revered Avebury Church.

Brian has frequently assured us that us that Prehistoric Man was essentially an opportunist magpie, collecting his megaliths etc from wherever they were to be found, and building his structures close by.

Well, Medieval Man (and quite probably his Roman & Iron Age predecessors) was certainly an opportunist magpie at Avebury (not withstanding the deliberate destruction of some large stones on religious grounds).

I fail to see why Brian cannot accept that a fair amount of Medieval etc opportunist pilfering occurred at Stonehenge, just 20 mile south of Avebury! Amesbury's not far afield, nor are quite a few other settlements. Perhaps the locals looked upon their Stonehenge "booty" as Trophies-of -their-time?! Villages may have rivalled on another to see who could make off with the most of the "corpse"!

As we say in Wiltshire, "yous have to specilate to accumulate!"

Human nature was ever thus!!


Hey- Nony Harvest Mouse (Wiltshire)

Anonymous said...

Vast numbers of folk certainly came to the Durrington henge, and partied as though there was no tomorrow. They built great timber structures there, and may well have gathered there to build Stonehenge after they'd finished their Durrington & Woodhenge structures. Their houses have been found in the present Century, and their (perhaps seasonal) population may have been immense, and gathered from a very wide area, beyond tribal boundaries.

Not every Medieval Cathedral was built in one fell swoop, you know. Just because it is a possibility that Stonehenge, for whatever reason, is, to the 21st Century mind 'incomplete', does not make it an object for fun, scorn or belittling ridicule. You would be better served by encouraging an intelligent dialogue if you wish to gain support for your glacial proposition.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Annie Not sure why you are feeling so chuffed!
"You have now concluded that although structures are incomplete now it does not mean they were never completed."
Did I ever claim that? I don't think so.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Harvest Mouse -- no problem with pilfering and the use of stones from old sites on new ones. Not sure how you would tell which stones used in Avebury buildings came from the stone settings and which ones came from random sarsen finds in gardens and fields etc.

Are you suggesting that around 70 stones from Stonehenge have been pilfered? I would find that very hard to accept -- and it seems that EH is now coming round to that view also. Some stones maybe -- but surely not 70.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Anon -- no problem with all the partying at Durrington Walls etc. Sounds like fun!

Aren't you being a bit po-faced with respect to Stonehenge? Am I supposed to treat it with some sort of religious reverence? I wasn't the first person to call it a "jerry-built shambles" -- but I do think that's a pretty fair description.

As for intelligent dialogue -- I think that if you look back over the posts and the discussions on this blog that is exactly what you will find.

Anonymous said...

Annie O,

'Ruined' is different from 'incomplete'!

A complete building can be ruined. But a building is not incomplete by being ruined.

Do we know Stonehenge is incomplete because it looks ruined? NO! We know Stonehenge is incomplete because the evidence in the ground show us Stonehenge was never finished!

You can take away stones from the circle, but you cannot make up holes in the ground where the stones would have been but are not!

Brian is telling it as it is. INCOMPLETE! Don't blame him for that. He's just being honest!

Kostas

Jon Morris said...

"Are you suggesting that around 70 stones from Stonehenge have been pilfered?"

I agree Brian; sounds a very difficult suggestion. A more logical explanation, particularly for the larger postulated stones (which have not been confirmed to have existed, particularly at the south West), would be that a full outer sarsen circle was either:

1: unnecessary and not intended.
2: unnecessary but not completed.
3: necessary but not completed.

Given the extent of planning and working of the stones, the builders would have had to be remarkably incompetent to have instructed necessary works to go ahead without knowing that they could source all the materials.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Agree with most of that, Jon. Good points. My own feeling is that there was indecisive leadership, and maybe changes of plans and priorities over the generations -- especially with respect to the bluestones. Just look at all those intersecting sockets!

I think it's quite possible that the whole project evolved without any guarantee that all the stones were available. A little personal saga here. I should have been born in 1940 in Haverfordwest, and my parents should have been installed in their new house in the town prior to my arrival. But the War intervened -- materials which they assumed to be in good supply weren't available after all, so the house was delayed -- and I was born in Carmarthen instead!

Jon Morris said...

"My own feeling is that there was indecisive leadership, and maybe changes of plans and priorities over the generations."

Especially with regard to the bluestones: There's a lot of evidence that these stones were re-used or, less likely, had special individual purposes.

Not sure about the indecision: In a world where you have exceptionally limited resources, re-incorporation of materials into progressively bigger and better schemes makes a lot of sense; even if they contain marks or forms from past schemes?

I agree that a sudden war would put the kybosh on any scheme. This might give a reason to explain the 3rd option? Though to me it seems slightly less likely than either of the first two options.

Anonymous said...

Jon/Brian,

If the resources were limited but the technology was known, why not use the available resources and technology to built smaller circles?

As for all those intersecting sockets? Perhaps these never contained any stones.

Every which way you look at this enigma, human agency just doesn't make sense!

Kostas

Alex Gee said...

Jon
I spent most of my life in the construction industry. Believe me when I say that the "remarkable incompetence" of those who plan and design 'some' major projects hasn't changed in 3000 years.

There may even be something in the local water.

In Salisbury; throughout most of the seventies and early eighties, there was an elevated entrance ramp to a car park and no car park. I think local wags nicknamed it the Ski Jump.

Jon Morris said...

"I spent most of my life in the construction industry. Believe me when I say that the "remarkable incompetence" of those who plan and design 'some' major projects hasn't changed in 3000 years."

An interesting point, but for Stonehenge to be a result of gross incompetence doesn't seem that likely given the obvious competence of the design elsewhere?

A war which resulted in the the builders being unable to finish it is also a possibility, but is also unlikely because there aren't the remains of one or two worked stones lying about waiting to be erected?

Anonymous said...

You say perhaps 70 stones are missing from Stonehenge when there should be 160. Can you tell us what proportion of the missing stones are bluestones, as opposed to the much larger sarsens?

MRS WHEELER

BRIAN JOHN said...

Mrs Wheeler -- we can't be that accurate with the figures, because some stones are split in half or just remain as stumps, and there is some doubt about the numbering system too. But from what I can gather, there are 43 bluestones where there should be 80 or 82; and around 50 sarsens when there should be 80 or 82 of those. So that means -- by most counts -- about 70 stones missing.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Jon -- there are lots of stones lying around. Many of those, as far as I can gather, have not been lifted sufficiently to see what lies under them. Some of them are almost certainly fallen stones that once stood upright or sat as lintels on top of pillars -- but others may never have been lifted into their desired positions. Do they lie in the Stonehenge Layer, or on top of it? Room for some decent stratigraphy, I think......

Does anybody out there know how many of these "fallen" stones are genuinely stones that were previously "raised"?

Anonymous said...

As I understand it, part of your thesis explaining a glacially tranported origin for many of the so-called 'bluestones' at the monument, is the sheer variety of geological types, beyond the more popularly known dolerites and rhyolites. Are you saying that many of these other forms of volcanic rock (and sandstone) are less durable and more likely to crumble as a result of men working them into orthostats? And you believe it is more likely that men collected these within, say, 25-30 miles (or less) of Stonehenge to use, for lack of any other geological rocks closer to hand? Do you think they might have considered that a miscellaneous exotic collection of such stones, deposited by glaciation, would possibly have given the stones a mystique (compared with,say,local sarsen) which encouraged their useage in their 'Temple'?

MRS WHEELER

Alf Resco said...

Brian,
I fear this is a discussion to nowhere.
The only person who can categorically say if Stonehenge was completed was its designer, and sadly s/he has long gone.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Very true, Alfie old chap. But since when did that prevent human beings from speculating endlessly about anything and everything to do with Stonehenge?

Mind you, on the topic of the designer, Profs TD and GW think they know where he was buried, and they are on the trail......

Alf Resco said...

Hello Brian,
Correct, Stonehenge provides hours of entertainment with liberal doses of frustration, and brings out the best, and the worst, in all of us.
Long may it continue to do so.

With reference to Craig Rhosyfelin, could you say whether any local person is likely to object if I went to the site to take some photos, or would I need to apply for permission?

Best wishes,

Alf

BRIAN JOHN said...

The dig site is on private land, but you can see a lot of the spur from the road. Ask at the cottage -- not sure if they are the owners of the field. You can park right next to the ford.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Mrs Wheeler --- yes, yes and yes. The sheer number of rock types makes this look like an erratic assemblage. And another interesting point is that the stones all seem to have come from the west. If the stones were brought to Stonehenge as tribute stones etc, where are the stones from the E, N and S? Some of the sandstones (Chilmark stone?) might have come from the south, but as I understand it they might also have come from outcrops to the west. And of course the ice came in from the west -- that is the only direction that makes sense glaciologically.

Alfie said...

Hello Brian,
Thanks for the 'dig-site' info.
I aim to be there between 10 and 11am tomorrow, (Monday 9/1/12).
If your not busy come along for a walk and a talk.
Cheers,
Phil M.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Sorry Phil -- Eco Centre Trustees meeting this morning. But by all means call over some time!

Phil M. said...

Hello Brian,

Not to worry, found the site, took sufficient photos, job done for the time being.

Best wishes,
Phil