Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my new book called "The Stonehenge Bluestones" -- available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
To order, click

Saturday 31 March 2012

"Current curatorial thinking...."

 I got this message from a friend today, on the topic of bluestone transport:
"I went to Nat Mus Wales yesterday --  they just have "man handling theory" writ large. I of course went and found a big wig and complained!!  He blanched as he had to answer to a genuine probe and had no peers to review his answer to me...... He said that it was a curatorial choice based on current archaeological thinking!"

This page on the NatMus web site is fairly straightforward and measured, but the displays might well be a very different matter. 

I must look in again one day -- it's ages since my last visit.....  But if the displays are wedded to that old HHT theory from all those years ago, it's high time that somebody in there got those exhibits updated.  I'm more than a little surprised and disappointed that nothing much has changed, because Richard Bevins (who has done a lot of the recent geology on the bluestones with Rob Ixer) must know about the glacial theory, as he must know about the shortcomings (and they are abundant) of the human transport theory.  Or does the Geology Department not have any input at all into the displays organized by the Archaeology Department?  I suppose I shouldn't be surprised...... after all, who wants to spoil a good story?

The top end of a glacier

Another wonderful image from the "Glaciers Online" web-site -- this is the accumulation area of the Monte Rosa Gletscher in the alps.  Click to enlarge.  There are a few ski tracks here and there.  But note the phenomenal amount of accumulation here among these high peaks -- this is the snow and firn that finds its way down-glacier under gravity and eventually gets transformed into glacier ice.

The amazing colour on this photo is natural -- this is the after-glow that occurs immediately after sunset.  What a beautiful world.....

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Is this the daftest question ever?

 Acknowledgement:  Stone-Circles web site.  
The "immaculate monument" as fondly imagined 
by EH and a multitude of the faithful.....

The other day, in quite a learned article designed to shoot down the "bluestone glacial transport theory" I came once more upon this idiotic question:  "If the glacier carried the bluestones to Stonehenge, how come it carried precisely the right number, so that there was not a single one left on Salisbury Plain when the monument was complete?"

This question is so loaded with assumptions that it becomes embarrassing.  Those who ask the question, in various ways, presumably have been given divine guidance to the effect that Stonehenge was complete and immaculate at some stage, and they presumably know precisely how many bluestones were involved.  Were there 80 or 82?  Doesn't really matter.......

If we count all the bluestones, including those standing, leaning and buried as stumps, the total is 43, give or take a couple.  Now even if quite a few stones were smashed up or stolen in the past, there is not a shred of evidence to demonstrate that Stonehenge ever stood as an "immaculate monument" in the form we see above -- and indeed, as we have discussed often on this blog, the drift of opinion is now that Stonehenge was abandoned, incomplete, having gone through a series of stone rearrangements.

So next time anybody asks me that insane question again, or simply trots it out in some learned article,  I shall sigh deeply and go and have a cold shower........

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Two Altar Stones at Stonehenge?

Now here's an interesting thing.  I was hunting about on the web (as one does) and I came across the web site for the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, where certain slides relating to the bluestones of Stonehenge are found.  These slides come from the Heddle Collection.

There are many thin sections which can be examined by geologists and the uninitiated as well.  Then there are five further slides flagged up as being of special historic interest.  They include two dolerite samples,  two sandstones (one from a sarsen stone and another from the Altar Stone) -- and then one labelled as follows:

volcanic breccia?; showing strong foliation, with albite and/or quartz?, chlorite, epidote, euhedral zircon, and large metabasalt clast

TS only
Dimensions: 75x25mm
Locality: Stonehenge, [Wiltshire], [England]
Context: "Altar Stone", [Neolithic]
Catalogue number: GLAHM 148302

Very strange indeed!  You can see a photo of this one on the web site.  A volcanic breccia labelled as "Altar Stone"?  Could this be a case of a sample being mislabelled?  That would be very strange, since the labelling of all the other samples seems to be fastidious.  Alternatively, is there really another Altar Stone hidden somewhere beneath those fallen sarsens?

Further info here:

The Carn Briw Folk Conspiracy

I was up on Carningli yesterday (and delightful it was too) -- and when I visited the Bronze Age (?) burial cairn called Carn Briw I was struck by the fact that although the cairn is somewhat battered around its flanks, there is a sort of folk conspiracy to keep it as a conical mound.

The damage on the flanks -- various pits and rearrangements -- is reputed to have been done for the most part by the Home Guard during WW2, when there was an observation post here, with some poor fellows stuck up here with their binoculars and radio sets, constantly scanning the skies and the waters of Cardigan Bay for signs of enemy activity.  It's very exposed, and I suppose one can't blame them for building windbreaks out of all those handy stones, and making pits in which to shelter from the rain.  Since the end of the war, small boys and young people doing their Duke of Edinburgh award schemes have camped out here, probably freshening up the holes and the windbreaks........

But if you look at the photo (click to enlarge) you'll see that the stones on the gentler slopes of the mound are lichen-covered (which means they have not been moved for very many years) whereas the stones on the conical summit look "fresher" and cleaner.  Many of them have been moved about over recent years.  This means there is a sort of "folk conspiracy" to maintain this conical cairn top so that it keeps its "proper" shape.  Sometimes some people knock stones off the top of the cone (children cannot resist standing on top of it), and then people rebuild them back up again.

Somehow I find that reassuring......

Periglacial blockfield on Carningli

I have often referred in the past, on this blog, to periglacial blockfields.  Here is a classic example, on the undulating plateau to the west of Carningli summit.  Last year, burning stripped off a cover of gorse and heather, and now the vegetation is re-establishing itself.  But the litter of angular and jagged boulders and stones of all sizes is readily apparent. 

Although there is some till here, and occasional erratic boulders, most of these rocks are very local -- dolerites, rhyolites and some gabbros and ignimbrites.  Frost has done most of the work here, covering this landscape with a layer of frost-shattered debris, maybe over several glacial episodes.  There is no trace of patterned ground (circles or polygons) -- but there are occasional "stone take" hollows, traces of old field boundaries and trackways -- this has been an inhabited landscape since Neolithic times, and there is a substantial hillfort on the summit in the middle distance.  That is assumed to be Iron Age, but parts of it might be older.

Monday 26 March 2012

The Stonehenge prehistoric landscape

I found this wonderful image on the stone-circles web site.  See it here:

It shows the "ritual" and non-ritual features in the Stonehenge area -- with the features themselves overlaid onto a satellite image of the district.  Click to enlarge.

Chris Collyer's site is thoroughly recommended -- it's full of very useful info.

Sunday 25 March 2012

The Boles Barrow Bluestone -- then and now

My thanks to Pete G and Tim D for these photos.  One of them shows the Boles Barrow spotted dolerite bluestone in its position in the garden of Heytesbury House, prior to its removal to the museum in Salisbury.   It was probably used as a garden seat!  It must have been very pleasant, to sit there with one's back against the tree..........The photo below shows the boulder as it is currently displayed in the museum, the other way up, with a label and an invitation to children to guess the weight!

The weight is listed as 611.64 kg.

From the shape and size of this boulder there is not much doubt that this is the original stone, correctly labelled.

In case you missed it, I got this note from the Wiltshire Heritage Museum:

 We shouldn't be judging Cunnington from a 21st Century viewpoint. He was really the first archaeologist, and Boles Barrow was fairly early in his digging career. He was the first person to leave proper accounts of his excavations and, with Sir Richard Colt Hoare, to publish the results. His work holds up today, in ways which is not the case for many other later archaeologists.

Ben Cunnington, first Curator of Devizes Museum, and in Cunnington, B H, 1924, The blue stone from Boles Barrow. Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, 442, 431–47 refers to a letter of 1802 in which William Cunnington wrote to John Britton - 'I think I showed you a great variety of the stones ... that are of the same kind with several of those at Stonehenge'. The article outlines how Ben Cunnington located the stone and confirmed that it came from Boles Barrow, using contemporary evidence.

19 March 2012 14:26

It appears, therefore, that in spite of the misgivings of Hobgoblin, Chris Green and others, the staff of the museum are pretty certain about the provenance, and confident that the stone did indeed come from Boles Barrow rather than Stonehenge. 

See Tim's blog here:

Thursday 22 March 2012

Important message re Penguins

This doesn't quite count as glaciology, but it's near enough.

Hooray for science! The world is safe as long as scientists are beavering away on vastly important matters that have a bearing on the future of mankind and the fate of the planet. This is from a paper published in the journal Polar Biology on the rectal pressures involved in penguin defaecation.

The key finding in the paper is that the rectal pressure needs to be about half an atmosphere for the faecal material to land c 40 cm away from the nest.  Not a lot of people know that.

Stones in Wales, Wood in Wessex

 Above -- Pentre Ifan, Pembrokeshire.  Megalithic culture and big stones at the core of a now-removed long barrow.
Below:  White Barrow, Wilts.  An earthen barrow that may have had a timber internal structure.

I was struck, when reading one of Aubrey Burl's books the other day, by the extraordinary lag that occurred between the use of big stones in megalithic monuments in Brittany, Scotland, Wales and Ireland on the one hand and in Wessex on the other hand.  Big stones started to be used in all those former places around 6,000 years ago, but while a megalithic culture was flourishing on the Celtic fringe, the people who lived on and around Salisbury Plain carried on making timber monuments (were their trees bigger and better?) and long barrows made almost entirely with chalk rubble and soil, with a few stones chucked in if they happened to be handy (as at Boles Barrow).  Often they are referred to as "earthen barrows" although some of them incorporate sections of stone walling -- generally using small stones.  I have found some references to incorporated sarsens -- but very few.

I think I have this right -- no doubt I will be corrected if I don't -- but Burl mentions that of the 66 long barrows in the Stonehenge area only one (Tidcombe and Fosbury 1) has a fabricated stone chamber made out of sidewalls and capstone.  West Kennet uses much bigger stones, and has a date of around 4,900 yrs BP.  So the portal dolmens, passage tombs and variations were built over a wide geographical area in the Celtic Fringe, with only the Cotswold-Severn tombs impinging onto the chalklands of Salisbury Plain.  This situation persisted for almost 1500 years, if we accept that the first stone settings at Stonehenge were not put in place until about 4500 yrs BP.  Around about the same time, big stones were used at Avebury -- and after that, a megalithic culture then carried on alongside an earth-moving culture and a timber using culture.  In the centuries around the Late Neolithic - early Bronze age transition, all three elements were incorporated into the big civil engineering projects of the Salisbury plain tribes or family groups.

Then, in the west and north, people got fed up with using big stones in tombs and moved into a "standing stone" phase instead, putting up rows, circles, ovals and pairs all over the place, not to mention thousands of single standing stones as waymarks, memorials, territorial boundary markers, cattle scratching stones, or whatever.

To summarise -- it seems to me that for about a thousand years, between 6,000 yrs BP and 5,000 yrs BP,  big stones were used as a matter of course in burial chambers around the Celtic Fringe, but not on Salisbury Plain.  Why?  It's not that there weren't plenty of big stones lying around in the landscape -- David Field, Aubrey Burl and others have commented on the fact that there were sarsens littered across the chalklands.  (I would argue that somewhere there were lots of erratics as well, but leave that to one side for the moment.....)  People chose not to use them, but to continue with digging ditches, making ridges and embankments and putting vertical posts into the ground.

This does not argue for close cultural ties between the Salisbury Plain community and the communities of the Celtic Fringe.  When, finally, a stone-based megalithic culture arrived on Salisbury Plain, it lasted for 500 - 600 years and was something of an aberration, with the creation of a rather wacky monument called Stonehenge, using woodworking techniques (tongue and groove joints, mortise and tenon joints etc) on stone -- and mimicking and developing the things people had been doing for many generations with big timber posts. 

Very strange......and this does have a bearing on the likelihood of the Stonehenge people knowing anything at all about bluestones, the uplands of Preseli, and the routeways between West Wales and Salisbury Plain.  There was clearly not complete cultural isolation, because stone axes and other trade goods were being exchanged all the time, but I would argue that that trading activity was more or less random, opportunistic and quite small in scale.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Bronze Age Quarrying at Carn Briw

Above:  satellite image of Carn Briw.  Look at the pock-marked texture of the land surface 
around the cairn.
Below: The cairn (somewhat damaged) is on the right.  The little pinnacle is a recent embellishment....

I have recently been looking again at Carn Briw, a Bronze Age (?) cairn on the highest point on the upland of Carningli in North Pembrokeshire.  It's a smallish conical mound in quite an isolated position, and the assumption is that it might have contained a cist grave or maybe several burials;  maybe it was the key burial site for the Bronze age community that lived in these parts.  There are at least a dozen round houses, ring cairns and other features in the vicinity.  The mound has been substantially rearranged over the centuries, probably by Dad's Army in WW2 (this was a lookout position) and by large numbers of small boys before and after WW2.

The mound might be classified as a round barrow if it was somewhere else -- but it has close relations in the three gigantic cairns on the summit of Foel Drigarn in eastern Preseli.

The land surface hereabouts is covered with a layer of broken rock debris -- this is essentially a periglacial blockfield with some glacial erratic material added for good measure.  The soil is thin and stony -- and between Carn Briw and the summit of Carningli literally thousands of angular boulders and stones break the land surface.

Above is a satellite image of the cairn.  As we can see, its northern section has been damaged.  But the most interesting thing about this feature is that it is made of stones up to 1m in length -- nearly all capable of being moved by one or two men working together.  Because the heath is dry here, and because there has been no peat growth to cover things over, we can see in striking detail exactly where the stones in the cairn have come from.  For a radius of about 50m from the cairn the land surface is pock-marked with pits and hollows, some of them 2-3m across and some up to a metre deep.  Some of them contain standing water after wet weather.  These are the Carn Briw Quarries -- the builders of the cairn were concerned above all else with economy of effort.  They took what they needed from as close as possible, probably spreading out further and further from the centre of their little circle as more and more stones were needed.

There is no evidence at all that certain stone types or shapes were preferentially used.

Monday 19 March 2012

Gors Fawr Stone Circle

Recently we were talking about Gors Fawr stone circle, on the south side of the Preseli uplands.  this happens to be one of the best photos I have seen -- taken by my son Martin some years ago, and used by me for a book cover! As you can see, the stones are not exactly spectacular -- maybe marginally larger than those of Bedd Arthur.

Excuse all the lettering........ The peak on the left is Foelcwmcerwyn, and below it you can see Cwm Cerwyn, the site of Pembrokeshire's last Pleistocene glacier -- it may have existed in the Younger Dryas cold episode.

The Parker Brothers

I found this charming illustration -- Cunnington and Colt Hoare (the gentlemen) watching the Parker Brothers (the diggers) on Normanton Down.  The drawing probably dates from 1805.

Article from EARTH magazine

Stonehenge's Mysterious Stones
A tale of glaciers, man, rocks and North America

In case anybody missed it, this article appeared in EARTH magazine in 2009, written by invitation by Lionel Jackson and myself.

It's nice to know that some journals take the glacial transport theory seriously enough to commission an article!  Partly, that's because of the abiding interest in North America in the Foothills Erratic Train.

The web article is missing a number of key illustrations, but you get the general idea....

Sunday 18 March 2012

Burl on Boles Barrow

See also this, among other posts on the Boles Barrow bluestone:

Following some recent correspondence on this blog about Boles Barrow (again), I have taken another look at Aubrey Burl's writings on the subject.  The barrow (otherwise known as Heytesbury 1) is generally classified as an earthen Neolithic long barrow, dated to approx 6,000 - 5,000 years BP.  Burl is convinced that the big stones in this long barrow were sealed in place about a thousand years before the Steonehenge Q and R holes were dug and stones placed into them.

Burl knows his subject well, and has researched it carefully -- and in several of his books he describes the discovery by William Cunnington in 1801 of a lump of "bluestone of the kind later to be set up in concentric circles at Stonehenge."  Burl says it was one of a number of loose stones so loosely stacked that they cane tumbling down as the excavation was under way.  Above these stones was a capping of white marl -- which presumably means chalk detritus.  Most of the big stones were sarsens, up to 200 lb in weight.

Cunnington lived just 3 miles from Boles Barrow, in the village of Heytesbury.  He was a good enough geologist to know the difference between sarsen and spotted dolerite.  He was so taken with these stones that he took ten of them and arranged them in a circle around a tree in his lawn. Later on (some time before 1860) the stone was removed from Cunnington's garden to the grounds of Heytesbury House, where it was known as the "Stonehenge Stone"  -- not because it had come from Stonehenge but because it was clearly like the best-known of the bluestones there.  Later on, in 1934, it was given by Siegfried Sassoon to the Salisbury Museum, where it remains to this day.  Its dimensions were (and presumably still are) 76 cm x 67 cm x 41 cm.  It was weighed and found to weigh over 12 cwt -- just about manageable by three men working together.  So it was a big heavy boulder -- not a pillar like the most famous of the Stonehenge bluestones.

This stone has for a very long time been extremely inconvenient to those who subscribe to the "human bluestone transport theory"  because it suggests that at least one big chunk of bluestone was present on Salisbury Plain a thousand years too early.  Accordingly, many writers -- including James Scourse and Chris Green -- have gone out of their way to question the provenance of the stone and to suggest that it was really taken from Stonehenge either by Cunnington or somebody else, and mistakenly identified as the stone from Boles Barrow.  They have no hard evidence to support this contention -- the best they can say is that the provenance is inadequately established.  That is a pretty feeble line to take, and Burl gives it short shrift.  Did Scourse and Green expect that the stones in Cunnington's garden should have written provenances, or bronze plaques with "certified places of origin" affixed to them" ?  Burl argues that Cunnington was a fastidious recorder and that there is no reason why he or anybody else would get their stones and their provenances mixed up.  In any case, he says, the careful survey of the Stonehenge stones and stumps by Flinders Petrie in 1877 established that no bluestones had been stolen or removed from the site between 1747 (the date of John Wood's plan) and 1877.  He also suggests that if Cunnington was indeed into the business of boulder collecting, he was much more likely to collect stones from a ruinous and collapsed long barrow close to his home than from Stonehenge, which was deemed -- even in 1801 -- to be a very valuable archaeological site.

That's all good enough for me.  Burl is dismissive of the human transport fantasy, saying in his book called "A Brief History of Stonehenge" (2007):  "There was no human transportation.  It is a geological certainty that agrees with several quite independent facts."

In accepting that the Stonehenge bluestones were from an assemblage of glacial erratics, Burl has not made any firm pronouncement (as far as I know) on where this assemblage was located.  He suggests a site somewhere in West Wiltshire -- and inclines to the view that the stones were somewhere near Heytesbury and Boles Barrow, about 12 miles from Stonehenge, available on the ground surface and ready to be picked up.   He mentions a place named Breakheart Bottom.  Appropriate name, that......

Friday 16 March 2012

Was Stonehenge a Neolithic pergola?

The Saga of Achill Stonehenge continues.  In the latest exciting development, the owner /builder has explained that his magnificent structure was built “primarily as an ornamental garden sited on agricultural lands”.  He should know -- he built it. 

One of the guiding principles of archaeology  is that if two structures (A and B) have clear similarities, and we know what one of them is but not the other, then a similar form must indicate a similar function.  On this basis, it may be reliably be concluded that Stonehenge was also built as an ornamental structure in a garden or landscape park of some sort, surrounded by agricultural land.  The pillars, lintels and trilithons are interesting, and when we look at the standard gardening books, we discover that a pergola is " a shaded walkway, passageway or sitting area of vertical posts or pillars that usually support cross-beams and a sturdy open lattice...."

I rest my case, m'lud.  and remember, you saw it here first.......

Court rules on Achill 'Stonehenge'

A Stonehenge-like structure built on Achill Island by developer Joe McNamara must be demolished if An Bord Pleanala finds it was built without planning permission, the High Court ruled today.
Mayo County Council had argued before the court that Mr McNamara’s application to An Bord Pleanala aimed at having the structure declared exempt from planning permission requirements cannot succeed and is “a delaying tactic”.
Mr Justice Brian McGovern agreed Mr McNamara’s application was “utterly hopeless” and was made simply “to delay the inevitable.”
In an affidavit by an architect acting on Mr McNamara’s behalf, the court was told the intended use of the structure was “primarily as an ornamental garden sited on agricultural lands”.
Mayo County Council, which contends the structure is unauthorised development, yesterday secured orders from Mr Justice McGovern compelling the developer, if An Bord Pleanala rules the structure is not exempted development, to demolish it and restore the site to its original state under the supervision of an ecologist and an archaeologist.
The Council previously told the court it has particular concerns about the structure because of its proximity to an area of special conservation on Achill.
Mr McNamara (41), with addresses at Achill Island, Co Mayo and Salthill, Co Galway, has claimed the structure - consisting of a ring with 30 large columns with tapping stones placed on top - does not require planning permission because it is exempted development within the meaning of the Planning and Development Regulations 2001.
He has applied under Section 5 of the Planning Development Act to An Bord Pleanála to have the structure deemed an exempted development. The board is due to make a decision on that application in the coming months.
Mr McNamara, who is working in the UK, was not in court.
Pat Butler SC, for the Council, told the judge an affidavit sworn by an architect acting on Mr McNamara’s behalf had stated the intended use of the structure is “primarily as an ornamental garden sited on agricultural lands.”
While a garden may be exempted development, Mr McNamara’s development contained structures which required planning permission, counsel argued. Under the planning laws, only structures in a garden erected by the State are exempt from the requirement for planning permission, he said.
Counsel said Mr McNamara’s application to An Bord Pleanala has no prospect of success and was “a delaying tactic.”
Patrick Keane, a solicitor acting for Mr McNamara, said the Council’s proceedings aimed at demolishing the structure should be put on hold until after the Board has made its decision.
Mr Justice McGovern said he would make the orders sought by the Council against Mr McNamara but would stay those pending the decision of An Bord Pleanala.
There was “overwhelming evidence” this “extraordinary structure” was not an exempted development, he said. Insufficient reasons for the structure to be regarded exempt had been offered to the court on Mr McNamara’s behalf, he added.
The judge noted the council’s concerns about the structures impact on an area of special conservation. There was enough evidence of poor planning in Ireland’s rural and urban landscapes in respect of developments were planning decisions were actually made, he also remarked.
Last year, Mr McNamara was jailed for three days after being found in contempt of a court order requiring him to immediately cease work on the project.
Mr McNamara previously came to public attention when he drove a cement lorry emblazoned with the words “Anglo” and “toxic bank” at the gates of Leinster House. He was later acquitted of charges of criminal damage and dangerous driving in connection with that incident.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

The Magic Cave of Abermawr

This cave at the northern end of Abermawr beach in North Pembrokeshire is rather mysterious, since it wasn't there 50 years ago, when I was a research student studying the glacial deposits in the bay.  In fact, it was there -- it's just that it was hidden.  In 1962 the storm beach was about 5 m higher than it is today,  and the glacial and periglacial deposits masked virtually all of the bedrock that we can see in this photo.  The "drift cliff" has retreated about 20m over the space of 50 years -- a very dramatic rate of change.

So this cave is very old, and has nothing to do with present-day coastal processes.  At the very least, it must be from the last interglacial episode, around 100,000 years ago.  Because of its position, around HWMST, the sea-level at the time of its formation must have been considerably higher than it is today, and there must have been a deep embayment running well inland, along an ancient valley which is nowadays protected by a big storm beach.   Later on, as the climate cooled and as sea-level started to drop with the onset of the last glacial episode, the cave was left high and dry, and was gradually choked or blocked up with debris falling down the cliff face and slope -- we would call this material rockfall scree or periglacial "head"  -- since there is evidence that much of the accumulated slope deposits was laid down at a time a very cold climatic conditions.

The cave might indeed be several interglacials old, periodically exposed and covered up as the climate has warmed and cooled over the last half million years or more.

Human artifacts would have no chance of surviving here, but this illustrates how caves higher up on cliff faces would have been attractive settlement sites in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods, and how they could have been periodically "sealed" by slope and glacial deposits and then exposed again by the processes of coastal erosion.  This is precisely what seems to have happened to many of the limestone caves of South Pembrokeshire and the Gower Peninsula -- perhaps explaining why very significant deposits and artifacts (and indeed human remains such as those of the "Red Lady") have been well preserved.

Monday 12 March 2012

Beware of the zooming ice block....

Another of the wonderful images from the Glaciers Online web site.  This is from Monch, in Switzerland -- a 55 tonne ice block has fallen from the ice cliff with such force that it has been able to slide well out onto a relatively gentle and compact snow surface.

Never trust a hanging glacier, that's what I say...........

By the way, how do you get umlauts on this computer?!

Irish Sea Till

The famous Irish Sea Till has been mentioned often enough on this site.  I took this photo of an exposure at Abermawr, on the North Pembrokeshire coast, yesterday.  It's typical -- this is a rather dried-out surface with a grey-blue colour.  When seen wet and fresh, the colour is much darker.   At the top edge of the exposure, in the weathered horizon,  there is some iron staining, so the till is a foxy red colour;  and this colour can also be seen in the basal layers of the till, where it is in contact with underlying periglacial deposits -- as a result of water percolation upwards into the (largely impervious) till from beneath.

If you click to enlarge the photo you can see some interesting details -- pebbles of various shapes and sizes and origins, some clearly striated, and also fragments of shells and lignite (carbonized or hardened fossilized wood).  These organic materials have come from the bed of St George's Channel.  The till itself is made up almost entirely of old sea-floor sediments, dredged up and transported by the overriding ice of the Irish Sea Glacier around 23,000 years ago.  The till is also highly calcareous, and reacts with hydrochloric acid.

How was the till emplaced?  There's a lot of debate about this -- but it is probably for the most part a lodgement till, created by material being "plastered" onto the glacier bed by ice sliding along on its base.

Wiltshire Heritage Museum

I'm always happy to flag up the importance of our museums -- especially those which are independent and run by charitable institutions. Those (such as the Wiltshire Heritage Museum in Devizes) are the most vulnerable -- and as somebody who is a charity trustee myself, I know what it is like to battle on in hard times, when local authority and other funding can no longer be taken for granted. Charitable funds are very hard to come by these days, and I hope that the Devizes Museum will manage to raise the money it needs to keep going. They are organizing a lecture on 31st March. Looks interesting -- please support it if you can.....

Fundraising Lecture by Lord Asa Briggs
History and its Neighbours on Saturday 31 March at 2.30pm.

Professor Lord Briggs (Asa Briggs), is perhaps the best-known living historian in Britain and he is giving this fundraising lecture for the Wiltshire Heritage Museum. He gives this description of his lecture:

Historians of all kinds are concerned with perspectives. How and why do they change? In my lecture I will draw on my own experience inside and, just as important, outside universities. I shall also draw on some of the remarkale experiences of your remarkable Society* founded in 1853. I have been as deeply interested in the relationship between local, national and global history as your Society has. I have deliberately chosen the same title for this lecture as I chose for my inaugural lecture as Professor of History at Leeds University in 1955.

Lord Briggs was formerly Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex and Chancellor of the Open University. He is a renowned historian and one of the most respected to write on the Victorian era.

*The Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, which owns and adminsters the Wiltshire Heritage Museum, was formed in 1853.

Tickets cost just £10 and you will be helping us to continue to maintain the nationally important collections we hold. We are an independent charity and only 10% of our income comes from public funding. We face an annual deficit in excess of £50,000.

The lecture will be at Devizes Town Hall and tickets can be purchased online, or by contacting the Bookings Secretary on 01380 727369.
Devizes MP, Claire Perry, pledges to support Museum

Devizes MP Claire Perry wrote in Thursday's Gazette ...
'Last Thursday I had the great treat of visiting the Wiltshire Heritage Museum in Devizes, which contains the best bronze age collection of artefacts in the country ... but receives public funding that is a fraction of that enjoyed by museums in London.
The museum has expansion plans that will strengthen its links with the World Heritage Sites at Stonehenge and Avebury (one of the most atmospheric places int he world) but needs to attract more funding and visitors. I have pledged to do all I can to help this gem of an institution.'


The Wiltshire Heritage Museum has an international reputation and attracts visitors from all over the world. The archaeology collections, which are among the finest in Britain, trace the history of people living in Wiltshire in a series of galleries - Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, Saxon, and Medieval. The collections on display include important finds associated with the World Heritage Sites of Avebury and Stonehenge.

Wiltshire Heritage Museum
Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society
Company Limited by Guarantee Registered in England - no. 3885649
Registered Office: 41 Long Street, Devizes, Wiltshire. SN10 1NS
Registered Charity No. 1080096
Tel. No. 01380 727369

Sunday 11 March 2012

Thinking about sex.......

 Two photos of the Machrie Moor standing stones, posted by my friend Mary Baker onto her Facebook page.  Thanks Mary!  There are remnants of six stone circles at Machrie Moor, on the island of Arran.

 Mary speculates as follows:

"...............perhaps the lucious rounded inviting circles were lunar and feminine and the showy offy pointy stick up huge ones are solar and masculine -- just a thought... oh and the rounded lovelys were grey in colour and the pointy show offs were red!"

Difficult to argue with the sexual symbolism here, one would have thought, but never having been to this site I'll leave it to others (who have greater knowledge of these matters) to comment......

There is some good info here:

Saturday 10 March 2012

Lost Neolithic "city" in Turkey


 Thanks to Phil for alerting me to this one.......

Some big stones here -- this "lost city" is featured on the Nat Geog TV channel on Tuesday.  Supposedly the site is older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids -- and there are some rather splendid stones incorporated into the structures.


Join the experts to unearth the treasures of an ancient wonder in the UK premiere of Lost Civilisation on Wednesday 14 March at 9pm.

It is the find that could rewrite the whole of human history.

In 1995, under the dusty soil of a Turkish hill, a complex was unearthed that is older than the Egyptian pyramids and pre-dates Stonehenge.

However, with the true significance of the site only now becoming apparent, the find is making experts re-evaluate their theories on mankind's entire development.

Could this incredible monument really have been the catalyst that started humanity's journey from the Stone Age to the Space Race?

Find out with experts, including Dave Chapman, as they investigate how and why this mysterious place was built.


Lost Civilisation: Episode 1
Unearth the treasures of an ancient wonder, predating man's discovery of agriculture and the wheel – a find that can rewrite history.

Next Showing:
Tuesday 13 March at 9:00PM - National Geographic Channel
Wednesday 14 March at 1:00AM - National Geographic Channel
Wednesday 14 March at 8:00PM - National Geographic Channe

Sightlines and Neolithic navigation

View from Hay Bluff towards the Malvern Hills

View from Hay Bluff towards Pen-y-Fan

From Phil Morgan:

As you well know I am a member of the 'human transport' camp and I have pondered the problem of how our ancestors may have navigated the route if the bluestones were transported overland. While driving from the Midlands to south Wales, along the M50 there was an excellent view of the Black Mountains, which prompted the following:

The co-ordinates below are for the end points of sightlines and are taken from 'Where's the path?' on the Internet.

a).  Amesbury to Milk Hill,                 (240 metres, 51.376549, -1.850252)      =   14 miles apart;
b).  Milk Hill to the Malvern Hills,       (400 metres, 52.104766, -2.338886)      =   32 miles     ..  ; 
c).  Malvern Hills to Hay Bluff,           (700 metres, 52.009586, -3.086171)      =   40 miles     ..  ;
d).  Hay Bluff to Pen y Fan,               (860 metres, 51.883511, -3.436704)      =   17 miles     ..  ;
e).  Pen y Fan to Fan Brycheiniog,    (780 metres, 51.881021, -3.707156)      =   12 miles    ..   ;
f).   Fan Brycheiniog toTrichrug,        (400 metres, 51.890319, -3.891735)      =     8 miles     ..  ;
g).  Trichrug to Pen-crug-melyn,        (300 metres, 51.934820, -4.179311)      =   13 miles    ..   ;
h).  Pen-crug-melyn to Foel Drygarn, (340 metres, 51.970606, -4.683437)      =   21 miles    ..   .

I'm not suggesting that the people would have moved from one mountain top to the next, but they may have initially used the peaks as land marks. Moss would have grown on the north facing side of tree trunks, just as it does today, and they could have used this feature as a reasonably accurate compass, which would overcome the problem of mental maps.  With the trackways becoming more established the navigation problem would disappear.

As your blog is world-wide it follows that many of the readers/contributors would have no knowledge of the topography of the land between Preseli and Salisbury Plain. Attached are two photos which may assist, both were taken from Hay Bluff (a) looking to the Malvern Hills and (b) looking towards Pen-y-Fan.

Comment:  On looking at the "overland human transport" hypothesis (favoured by MPP and others) it's indisputable that people would have wandered about over considerable distances in the Neolithic.  And yes, we can assume that they would have used landmarks and sightlines, as well as navigating by the sun, moon and stars.  But I have particular problems relating to the nature of the terrain.   As Aubrey Burl and others have pointed out, anybody proposing to carry one large stone (let alone 80) overland over a great distance would have to cope with what was essentialy a trackless jungle, in which long-distance sightlines would have been very difficult to follow, except maybe on the high ridges.  Sorry Phil -- I don't buy it!  (And by the way, in Wales there is moss everywhere, not just on the northern sides of trees.......  not that people would have had any problem distinguishing north from south.)

Friday 9 March 2012

Check out the Mesolithic Forest

Apparently there are very low tides tomorrow in the middle of the day -- so if you live in West Wales, it's the perfect time to have a look at the submerged forest, across which our Mesolithic ancestors used to roam.

The forest is present between the tide marks, but in the summer it is usually hidden beneath the beach sand (which, as any geomorphologist will tell you, accumulates in the summer and is washed out to sea in the winter.)  So now is a perfect time, before beaches start to aggrade again.  Tree stumps, branches, root systems, and even peaty beds with soft vegetable matter and nuts and seeds, can be seen.  Generally the peat beds and traces of woodland vegetation are resting on either broken bedrock or glacial and fluvio-glacial sediments.  In Newport Bay, a couple of weeks ago, I found quite a large expanse of Irish Sea till underneath the submerged forest -- quite close to the main car park for Traeth Mawr. 

I have always dreamed of finding a skeleton, or a set of antlers, or maybe even a skull and horns belonging to some great beast, but the best I have been able to manage, after years of searching, is some hazel nuts with the nuts still intact inside the shells, some 7,000 years old........

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Profs TD and GW -- again....

Following recent reports that Tim Darvill has been very scathing lately about the bluestone "glacial transport" theory, I thought I'd better check up on what he might have said, and came across a new (is it new?) article in Current Archaeology mag. Details below.
Current Archaeology Live! London 2012 » Session Schedule

Below was the timetable for Current Archaeology Live! 2012, with sessions, speakers, and titles.
Friday 2 March
Stonehenge and megalithic monuments
Professor Timothy Darvill (Bournemouth University) - Stonehenge and Preseli: its only rock ‘n’ roll

Article:  The Stones of Stonehenge

Tim Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright’s research focuses on the very stones of Stonehenge. Here, they give us an insight into their 2008 excavation at Stonehenge and ten years of fieldwork in and around the Bluestone quarries in the Preseli Hills of north Pembrokeshire.

But hang on, what's this doing being flagged up as a new article in the magazine?  Wasn't there an identical article in the mag in March 2011?  And even then didn't I get a feeling that I had seen it before, and even before that?  Now I am really confused......  and my confusion is not helped by the magazine failing to put dates on its articles.  Can somebody please do a radiocarbon date on this particular artifact, so that we can see which archaeological period it belongs to?

Quote:  ".........ten years of fieldwork in and around the Bluestone quarries in the Preseli Hills of north Pembrokeshire."  Oh dear oh dear.  May the Good Lord give me strength.....

Tuesday 6 March 2012

Holy wells and sacred springs

Last night I was reading Francis Jones's book called "Treasury of Historic Pembrokeshire" -- and in it there is a transcript of a lecture he gave in 1969 -- called "The Holy Wells of Pembrokeshire."  By "wells" he means "wells and springs" -- and indeed there are hardly any deep wells in Pembrokeshire of the sort that needed buckets and ropes, since the water table is in general very close to the surface.  So the main image is one of a small pool fed by an underground spring or source -- the word "ffynnon" is usually used in Welsh.  Major Francis Jones (he liked to be called MAJOR Jones) counted 236 wells in Pembrokeshire, and classified them into a number of different types, by names (saints' names are often used), locations etc.

This all brought into mind the fun and games which we all had when Profs Wainwright and Darvill claimed that the area around Carn Meini was renowned for its concentration of healing springs -- and used this as a rationale for the hypothesis that if the waters were sacred in the area, then so were the rocks, thus explaining why the local bluestone was invested with sanctity and was greatly valued.  "Nonsese", said I.  "Pure fabrication!"  And this sentiment was shared with others, such as Robin Heath, who know eastern Preseli well.

Unfortunately Major Jones does not publish a map of the 236 springs (sacred and otherwise) in Pembrokeshire, but from going through his text there is no mention of any sacred spring in the neighbourhood of Carn Meini -- and indeed, compared with other parts of Pembrokeshire sacred springs in NE Pembrokeshire are pretty thin on the ground.  In general, the sacred springs are associated with monastic or early Christian settlements, and the great majority of them are in the lowlands.  In the uplands, springs are so common that nobody attached any great significance to them, or even bothered to give them names.  So there 'tis then.......


(I'm sorry I have been neglecting this blog lately -- been preoccupied in trying to get my latest novel into print in time for Easter.  That means lots of hassle dealing with printers, bookshops, getting PR info out to the trade etc etc.  But now everything is on schedule....)

Saturday 3 March 2012

The Story of Wales -- a great opportunity missed

The big BBC Wales TV series (made with the cooperation of the OU, Uncle Tom Cobbley et al) has shown two programmes out of the six so far -- and it's proving to be a grave disappointment.  The BBC calls it one of the most ambitious series ever produced in Wales.  Hmmm.   It's full of technical wizardry -- history and archaeology programmes these days clearly have to have computer generated reconstructions of absolutely everything, so as Huw Edwards paddles around in a little rowing boat on Llangorse Lake, a leafy island is miraculously transformed into a busy crannog.  You know the sort of thing.....

I think this series is closely modelled on a series last year about the History of Scotland (wasn't the OU also involved, and wasn't Neil Oliver the front man on that one?)  Well, this is very much in the Neil Oliver mould -- but this time there's far too much Huw Edwards and far too little of everything else, as Huw struts manfully on top of beetling cliffs, wanders across mountainsides and through verdant pastures, holding forth about this and that.  You know the sort of thing......  the trouble is that it's all very shallow and actually rather boring,  and I'm beginning to long for just a little humour -- and maybe even a little scepticism and discussion of some issues where there may actually be a little disagreement.    Come back, Neil -- all is forgiven!!  The commentary (who wrote it, I wonder?) is so terribly sincere and EARNEST.........

There are so many pious platitudes and portentious pronouncements that I am already tearing my hair out, just after two episodes.  You know the sort of thing:  "This was now the beginning of the end for the world as they knew it....."  -- "Nothing would ever be the same again...." -- "For the first time in the history of Wales, something new had happened...."  --  "and so the ancient order was swept away..."  -- "the old world was disappearing, to be replaced by the new..."  ---  "This great new leader stirred the soul of the nation as never before..."  and so on, and so on, ad infinitum.  Seldom can so many cliches have been fitted into a single hour of TV time.  I'm actually quite impressed -- is there a BAFTA for cliche density?

No expense has been spared in this series.  Every now and then, so that we can get a few seconds without Huw on the screen, there are a few flashing images of hairy fellows dressed up as warriors, or monks, or priests, or Roman legionnaires, with mighty sounds of battle, flames, screams, and flashing weapons.  I'm sure I've seen the same faces twenty times already in different guises .....  by the end of the series we'll all be very familiar with them.    The other technique is to have some sturdy fellow (they all seem to be men) in fancy dress gazing manfully into the camera lens as it zooms in on him........  It might be Hywel Dda, or Llewelyn the Great, or Owain Glyndwr..... but these fellows do look very fierce and very imposing.   Sometimes they look pensive, or even enigmatic, with furrowed brows and a grim set to the jaw.   Did any of them ever smile, I wonder, when they were alive?

Lighten up, chaps!  History should be fun!!

Friday 2 March 2012

Dating the Red Lady

Nice title that, I reckon! (Some of us will remember that the "Red Lady" was initially thought to have been a prostitute working on the Gower in Roman times......)

The two most recent dates for the human bones are the C14 (radiocarbon dating) date of c 29,000 yrs BP and the C13 isotopic dating of c 33,000 yrs BP.  The references are below.  With the application of different techniques, there is a much greater chance of getting (at last!) a date that is reasonably accurate -- bearing in mind that the first radiocarbon assay gave a date of c 18,000 years......

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 September 22;
Published online 2009 August 11

Isotopic evidence for the diets of European Neanderthals and early modern humans
Michael P. Richards and Erik Trinkau

Received April 7, 2009

Quote:  "This human was originally interpreted as having a minor, but detectable, contribution of marine protein in its diet (47). Redating of Paviland 1 to ≈33,000 cal BP (48) means that we can now compare the human isotope values to fauna dating to an earlier period."


Age of earliest human burial in Britain pinpointed

30 October 2007

The oldest known buried remains in Britain are 29,000 years old, archaeologists have found – 4,000 years older than previously thought. The findings show that ceremonial burials were taking place in western Europe much earlier than researchers had believed.

New dating techniques developed by Oxford University and British Museum researchers have pinpointed the age of the ‘Red Lady’ burial in Wales, previously thought to be 25,000 years old, to 29,000 years old.

The finding suggests that the origins of human burial may be found in western Europe, and perhaps Britain, rather than elsewhere, although further dating work is required.

The skeleton of the ‘Red Lady,’ actually that of a young male, is housed in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, having been first discovered and excavated in Wales in 1823 by William Buckland, then Professor of Geology at Oxford University. The ‘Red Lady’ owes its name to the red ochre covering the bones.

The burial site lies in Goat’s Hole Cave, Paviland, on the Gower Peninsula in Wales. Ivory ‘wands,’ bracelets, and periwinkle shells were found near the remains when the site was excavated.

The remains and artefacts were previously difficult to date accurately. ‘Many of the bones were treated with preservatives in the 19th century, and some of this contamination is persistent and often difficult to remove,’ says Dr Thomas Higham, Deputy Director of Oxford’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. With Dr Roger Jacobi of the British Museum and colleagues, he applied an improved chemical preparation technique for removing small contaminants from bone collagen, which was applied to a piece of rib and a fragment of collar-bone from the skeleton. This ‘ultrafiltration’ technique allowed more accurate radiocarbon dating than had previously been possible.

The discovery sheds new light on human behaviour at the beginning of the Gravettian period of the European Palaeolithic. The new date is the earliest direct date for a human from this time period in this part of the world.

Artefacts found near the burial were also analysed, with varying degrees of success. ‘When we attempted to re-date some of the artefacts from Paviland, we found either no collagen preserved well enough for dating, or ages that were older than before,’ says Dr Higham. ‘One thing we discovered is that the notion that the site was revisited over several millennia after the burial of the “Red Lady” is no longer supported by radiocarbon evidence.’

The ‘Red Lady’ is part of a small group of elaborate burials dating from the Gravettian period of the Upper Palaeolithic, with some found as far west as Portugal, and as far east as Moscow. Their graves frequently include the bones of dangerous herbivores, ochre, and the decoration of body or clothing with beads, often manufactured from shells. The new dating technique has revealed that the ‘Red Lady’ lived in Britain during interstadial, or warmer conditions, rather than a cold spell as previously thought.

In the mid-20th century scientists dated the remains to about 18,000 years ago, at the height of the Glacial (cold) period, using the then recently-developed radiocarbon method. Later the specimen was re-dated to between 25,000 to 26,000 years. The current research shows that the remains are even older.

Dr Jacobi, Principal Researcher in the Leverhulme Trust–funded Ancient Human Occupation of Britain Project, said the much greater age of the ‘Red Lady’ compared to other burials ‘indicates a much earlier origin for these elaborate inhumations in Western Europe. This raises new questions about the way in which these people spread and lived on the continent.’