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Thursday, 22 March 2012

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.


chris johnson said...

This a fascinating post and you are hitting on many of the "facts" that are puzzling me as a relative newcomer.

I am increasingly of the belief that Stonehenge was the end-point of a cultural development and perhaps the builders did not understand basic principles, or had external influences and ideas that they were trying to reconcile.

There are huge time differences between the chronology in Brittany, "Celtic Fringe", and Wiltshire. It is also important - I think - that Avebury predates Stonehenge although it is close physically. Culturally they are miles apart.

Lots to think about. Great post, Brian.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thanks Tony -- I hope I have got my facts right here -- but I was very struck by Burl's points about the failure of the Salisbury Plain people to use big stones in their long barrows....

re a point we have discussed earlier -- maybe the high culture WAS in the west, and spread eastwards, with Stonehenge as an aberration and as a "last hurrah" of the Neolithic megalithic tradition?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Oops -- sorry Chris. Now I notice that it was you!!

chris johnson said...

No problem. You did this once before I recall.

Looking forward to Tony's opinion when he come online.

Tony Hinchliffe said...

Great Post, Brian.

2 points:-

1) Mike Parker Pearson et al keep telling us that they believe there are roots, 'Somewhere Further West', to do with what eventually turned up at Stonehenge. I keep mentioning Llandegai henge near Bangor. He knows far more than we do about those earlier Goings-On west of the [not-yet-built!] Offa's Dyke.

2)We could do with a Wise 'Old' Man, archaeologically speaking, to give us the low-down on all this i.e. to clarify as far as possible the chronology of the development of a megalithic culture, and its geographical spread.

"Where are you now, Geocur,
A Nation turns its lonely heart to you......
Wooo hoo ooo.......????" [Acknowledgements to Paul Simon!]

Also,I wonder what the lady archaeologist and writer, Frances Lynch, could tell us about this, Brian? Saw her on one of Iolo Williams' "Rugged Wales" programmes now shown again, on BBC2, where she spoke about the Bronze Age burial structures in the Rhinogau mountains.

A reference I mentioned previously that is worth a look is:-

www.jungsteinsite..............etc2010 -Burials and builders of Stonehenge:social identities in late Neolithic and Chalcolithic Britain. Dated 26.11.2010

Google the following:-


BRIAN JOHN said...

Chris -- I'm just getting confused. Old age -- or is it just Stonehenge making me mad?

Robert John Langdon said...


Where do you get your information from?

Burl was an idiot and believed Stonehenge was built by Druids - so dump his book and findings.

West Kennet (even by the estimates of the Geo's of this world) is way over 4,900 BP - Google it!

And as for the 'Celtic Fringe' your about 2,200 years out - no Celts around in 3000 BCE - these monuments were created by a single civilisation.

If you wish to understand the evolution of these monuments you need to understand who built them, when they were built and to do that you need to know the reason for there construction.


BRIAN JOHN said...

Be careful, Robert, when throwing the word "idiot" around -- it might come back and hit you. I happen to think that Burl makes very careful and well-researched points for the most part -- I have not observed any druidical obsessions in the material I have read.

OK -- I should have been more precise with West Kennet. I referred to the approx time in which it was used -- the consensus seems to be that its initial construction was 5650 BP. Doesn't affect my hypothesis at all.

You know perfectly well that I use the term "Celtic Fringe" in a geographical sense, with no intent to imply that Celtic tribes were then in occupation. If it will make you happy, let's use the term "the western peninsulas and islands of the British Isles" instead.......

If you are going to be pedantic, we should not use the terms Wales, Scotland, Ireland and England either, since they did not exist either.

Robert John Langdon said...


One tribe, one people, one civilisation - until historians (and geologists) can get a grip of this fact the chances of any hypotheses on Stonehenge being correct is 'minimal' at best.

The population size (even 3300BC - which is incorrect, as Long Barrows are much much older) during the stone constructions of the megaliths civilisation the population of Britain would number less about 10,000 - this has been verified by genetics and linguist experts.

Yes wood constructions come before Stone, no problem with that idea and as you pointed out the same woodworking techniques are used on stone. But to conclude that this was an isolated group of people who had the capabilities to construct Stonehenge on a 'summers afternoon' by a handful of people - pure nonsense.

To build such a monument without heavy machinery takes the collective effort of probably a majority 10,000 citizens, from engineers, to labours and craftsman and not forgetting the food supply lines - a smaller group would not have this expertise.

The best small groups can achieve have been seen with the North American Indians and their groups of 150+ tribesmen - Totem poles carved over a summers camp - Stonehenge is way beyond their capacity as it needs a much larger society and greater organisation.


chris johnson said...

There are some major differences in approach between Carnac, Newgrange, Orkney, Avebury, and Stonehenge - to name but five. Stone circles in Western Scotland and Aberdeenshire and Prescelli - quite different in character.

There is a unifying theme but talk of One Nation would be overstating the case I feel, especially with the different chronology.

Brian's observation about Stone in Wales and Wood in Wessex is quite profound - it is not as simple as saying wood preceded stone.

I find the accepted wisdom on population quite unconvincing. The more we are looking the more we are finding and there is evidence for mesolithic/neolithic all over the place. In many of the studies the basic premise is wrong - a sudden switch to the superior technology of farming. As for linguists, I think they have no clue and this is where I gained my academic qualifications so I think I have a basis for my opinion. It is not for want of trying, but the main reason I do not get involved in the theorizing is because I have no idea where to start yet and, on the whole, nor do the academics who specialize in the area. A lot of the difficulty, I feel, is a complete misconception about human development - primitive grunts evolving to shakespearean english, cavemen eating raw liver because they were too dumb to poach a salmon, cultural prejudice of an extreme form.

Robert John Langdon said...


I agree there are differences in the Mesolithic culture as seen at the sites mentioned - but this must have been one culture as the design aspect of this civilisation is unique to the Northern Hemisphere.

But I feel the variations you noted are down to the longevity of that culture - Carnac has a Long Barrow which a carbon dated sample from the base shows it was constructed in about 6850BC so we could be talking about 3000 years of architectural development. The most compelling aspect of the one culture theory is that nearly 1000 long barrows once existed ONLY in the Northern Hemisphere.

The chances of individual groups sharing a common feature like long barrows is 'astronomical', therefore this would support both, linguistic and genetic evidence of a small but influential culture - and there is eight Long Barrows that surround Stonehenge.


chris johnson said...

I agree, there is a unifying theme - perhaps you can even call it a culture depending how you choose to define the word. The time differences are extreme - we are talking thousands of years. Given the short life expectancy in the Mesolithic/Neolithic we are actually talking about massive extents of time.

Had there been a central authority or governance in the Mesolithic we might expect things we see today to have happened in a more logical sequence and to grow towards a conclusion.

In my view the inspiration for this unifying theme lies way back in time, before Doggerland and perhaps before the mesolithic. Maybe in the time people could walk between Wales and Ireland, as reported in the Mabinogion. Perhaps in the time of the Cro-Magnons, he says while looking forward to your new book.

Jon Morris said...

People chose not to use them, but to continue with digging ditches, making ridges and embankments and putting vertical posts into the ground.

In the past, material technology depended largely on the local availability of resources. If the local resources were inclined towards timber and easily worked ground (for instance on chalkland), it would not be that surprising if the inhabitants chose not to go searching for the large stones which are more readily available in the uplands.

I can't see the argument for a lack of connection between communities as relevant: Whether there was a central authority, warring tribes or a complete division between peoples, the individual communities would still tend to use the materials they are familiar with.

It perhaps implies that there was no overall authority imposing monument building and material selection by central dictat?

chris johnson said...

Yes, John but the availability of trees does not necessarily lead to cutting them down and putting them into circles. When other people are making circles of stone, maybe because stone is available, you have to think that some belief in the value of circles was a unifying factor.

The extent to which the different communities communicated is a fascination - to me at least.

Jon Morris said...

I agree there's likely to be unifying factors between communities, not sure that circles are necessarily the factor itself: They may just be one a manifestation of a common belief system?

chris johnson said...

My current book is postulating some links between the earthen barrows and the east/north-east, even into Denmark. Meeting place of cultures?

Jon Morris said...

Doesn't seem at all unreasonable Chris, especially links between Scandinavia and the UK

chris johnson said...

Thanks Jon,
In case of misunderstanding this is a book I am reading - not writing. Julian Thomas should have gotten credit from me.