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Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my book called "The Bluestone Enigma" -- available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
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Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Neolithic Argonauts


Here is an extract from Chapter 5 of "The Bluestone Enigma"  pp 78-80.  It deals with the matter of maritime transport and the likelihood of 80 or so large bluestones being carried by water across the Bristol Channel.  Actually, the stones have many different geological provenances, but let that little matter pass for the moment.....

This might come in handy, given the renewed interest in recreating the "bluestone voyages" for a TV documentary to be filmed in August.


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Reference has been made above to the nature of the craft which might have been used by the Early Neolithic adventurers on their crossings of the Bristol Channel or the Severn Estuary.  It is also assumed that the seafarers had reasonable “mental maps” of the seaways they were using, and also considerable maritime skills.  Aubrey Burl, a seafarer himself, was not convinced:

There has been little serious consideration of the logistics involved in the hypothetical journey from Wales to Wiltshire. The most meticulous was by Richard Atkinson. In his scheme, the stones were brought by land and river to Milford Haven, floated along the shores of South Wales and up the Severn, and then taken by rivers and land-portage up to Stonehenge. He suggested the use of a pine raft with a crew of twelve. A modification of his description would envisage a tree-trunk platform about 6m square, constructed for buoyancy in three layers, each of 20 logs 6m long and 0.3m thick. With a dry weight of 35lb per 0.03m3 the logs would have weighed about 20 tons and the entire cargo of wood, stone and men over 30 tons. Whether this unwieldy craft was seaworthy and capable of being manoeuvred during the day and beached night after night by a small crew is doubtful.

On a floating platform without sails, with propulsion dependent on paddles and poles, with little control over steering, affected by every capricious current of the Atlantic Ocean and Bristol Channel, the kamikaze crews faced daunting challenges. Once out of the shelter of Milford Haven, almost immediately the voyagers would have encountered strong tides and under-tows across the dangerous waters surging southwards near Freshwater West. Tidal flows of three to five knots streamed on the east side of Carmarthen Bay, and beyond them were treacherous sandbanks at Cefn Sidan Sands. Between Carmarthen and Swansea Bays heavy currents swirled at every headland. A mile from the coast off Ogmore-by-Sea lay the reef of Tusker Rock on which many mechanically powered ships later foundered.

Even when the mouth of the Severn was reached the struggle was not done. The river could pour seawards at up to ten knots, there were submerged mudbanks, the highest rise and fall of tides anywhere in the British Isles, all this before the Bristol Avon was reached at Portishead. At that point the stone would have to be transferred to something more suitable for travel along narrow and winding rivers. Further miles against the current took the vessel to Frome where everything again had to be disembarked for a portage that required a work-gang to drag the stone some eight or nine miles over land rising persistently to Warminster. There the cargo was replaced in the reassembled craft for another up-river crawl to West Amesbury, and once again unloaded and hauled up the chalk slopes to Stonehenge. This unprecedented undertaking had to be repeated almost 80 times.


What Burl was saying, in quite forthright terms, was that there was not a scrap of evidence to support the theory and that from a logistical point of view it would have been virtually impossible for any “bluestone” voyages to have been completed successfully.  His view is of course underpinned by the shambles known as the Millennium Stone Project, as described in Chapter 3.  The technology required to transport a large group of stones from the Eastern Cleddau to the mouth of Milford Haven, and thence across Carmarthen Bay and up the Bristol Channel, in the face of powerful tidal streams and unstable weather, was just not available to Neolithic tribes.  Besides, the tribes of Middle England were farmers and herders, and not seafarers; and it stretches credibility even further to suggest that they co-operated in their mighty enterprise with friendly coastal tribes who made their vessels and their manpower available -- in exchange for some hypothetical benefits.

It is pointed out -- quite reasonably -- that the sea has never been seen as a barrier but as a highway, presenting opportunities for the movement of goods and for new cultural links and settlement opportunities.  It is also pointed out that  the technology for making substantial cargo boats -- and sailing them across wide stretches of open water -- was available in Bronze Age times and maybe earlier.  However, we are talking here about the EARLY Neolithic, when there was not much trading activity going on in the British Isles, on land let alone at sea.  We know about the trading of a few hand axes and “special treasures” or personal ornaments here and there, and can speculate that animals, crops, skins and furs were exchanged or sold-- but there was no trading of metals or metal ores.

There are also real difficulties in imagining the "mental maps" that Neolithic people might have had of seaways and coastal configurations, and hazards including reefs and shoals.  What was their capacity for planning long-distance routes?   The fact that we know that long voyages were completed in the Neolithic does not necessarily mean that people were actually planning to get from A to B.    They may have hoped to go to C, because some seafarer told them there were wondrous things there,  fifteen days' sailing towards a particular star in the heavens, and ended up at B instead.  There must have been a huge random element in these ancient voyages.  And of course for every successful voyage that we may be able to reconstruct, there would have been hundreds or thousands that failed, with seafarers lost without trace.  Also, if the landlubber Wessex tribes had wanted to carry stones from Wales to Salisbury Plain, they would have needed the active cooperation not only of the coastal tribes who lived on both sides of the Bristol Channel, but also of their “navigators” who knew (and fiercely protected) the secrets of travelling by the stars, the sun and the moon.   In trying to assess the extent of their knowledge, all we have to go on is historical information about the “Stone Age” Pacific traders who came into contact with the early European explorers of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.  By the 1700’s these “Stone Age” navigator families had a sophisticated knowledge of how to navigate by the stars,  but by then they had hundreds of generations of accumulated knowledge and observations to build on.  It would be dangerous indeed to assume that Early Neolithic navigators around the western coasts of the British Isles had anything like the same degree of knowledge, since they were moving about in newly explored and newly settled territory.  So while the technical side is one problem (relating to inadequate Early Neolithic vessels), it must also be doubted that our seafarers had the organizational capacity, navigational skills, or territorial / map knowledge assumed by certain imaginative archaeologists.

43 comments:

Robert John Langdon said...

"However, we are talking here about the EARLY Neolithic, when there was not much trading activity going on in the British Isles, on land let alone at sea."

What a lot of nonsense jade axes were traded all around Europe including England, Ireland and Scotland by boat from Carnac between the 6th and 3rd Millennium - that's not my dates that's from paper published by University of Leiden in 2008 (Yvan Pailler)

http://univ-paris1.academia.edu/YvanPAILLER/Papers/1012510/Neolithic_Alpine_axeheads_from_the_Continent_to_Great_Britain_the_Isle_of_Man_and_Ireland

Two thousand years before phase I of Stonehenge according to EH.

"On a floating platform without sails, with propulsion dependent on paddles and poles, with little control over steering, affected by every capricious current of the Atlantic Ocean and Bristol Channel, the kamikaze crews faced daunting challenges"

Check out this prehistoric boat - replace the commercial passengers with a stone - they don't seem to have much trouble.

http://youtu.be/oKOYCwaCMJ8

You should stick to your other fairy tales!!

RJL

BRIAN JOHN said...

Nice video, Robert. Relevance?

BRIAN JOHN said...

It is self-evident, Robert, that people travelled by sea and that they carried with them goods which were traded. I have never questioned that. What I am questioning is the SCALE of such activities, and the ability of people to carry with them across the open sea very heavy and ungainly cargoes -- such as 4-tonne bluestones.

Robert John Langdon said...

Brian

HUGE Early Neolithic trade routes by BOAT and a prehistoric BOAT that could easily carry a couple of bluestones with ease with FULL CONTROL.

Relevant enough?

Suggest a re-write in the next edition.

RJL

BRIAN JOHN said...

I think I'll stick to evidence, if you don't mind...

Jon Morris said...

What Burl was saying, in quite forthright terms, was that ... from a logistical point of view it would have been virtually impossible for any “bluestone” voyages to have been completed successfully.

Agreed but with the caveat that Aubrey also said There has been little serious consideration of the logistics involved in the hypothetical journey from Wales to Wiltshire.

This looks to be a spot on assessment given the descriptions which follow. I wonder whether the latest theorists will take the time to ask a construction firm how to transport heavy construction materials.

Timothy Daw said...

Off topic but this might amuse you -
The Fake Bluestone at Stonehenge. http://www.sarsen.org/2012/05/fake-bluestone-at-stonehenge.html

chris johnson said...

I wonder why the sea theories depart from Milford Haven?

Camarthen Bay would be a better bet. It is clearly visible from the South-North ridge running close to the sources of the stone and there are several relatively easy (still difficult) walking contours running in that direction. Camarthen Bay would also be in the right direction and avoid major perils like Freshwater West which is fully exposed to Atlantic swells. Distance wise there is not much to choose between Milford and Camarthen Bay.

Why do all the sea theories talk about Milford?

When you include river transport in the scenario there is not much to choose between the Taff (Camarthen Bay) and the Cleddau (Milford), at least in the initial stages. Personally, I think both rivers are equally unlikely to have been used for transport away from the hills - both shallow, rocky, fast flowing streams, with wild growth overhanging.

I suppose Milford Haven is preferred because of the supposed Cosheton provenance for the altar stone which I understand is in doubt?

salisbury_matt said...

>> They may have hoped to go to C, because some seafarer told them there were wondrous things there, fifteen days' sailing towards a particular star in the heavens, and ended up at B instead

Much later on Christopher Columbus was a good example of this - wasn't he aiming for China?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Happens all the time, Matt, and always has, throughout history.....my wife runs a candle-making workshop near Newport (Pembs) -- and every now and again we get a phone call from some irate person who can't find us. Normally, it turns out that he and his family are in Newport (Gwent) about 130 miles away -- and this in spite of car atlases, leaflets, TomToms and so forth. You can tell people about wondrous things, and there is no guarantee that they will find them when they come looking...

chris johnson said...

My puzzle was about things you can actually see - at least when it is not raining.

From Prescelli you can see Milford Haven - just about. And you can see Camarthen Bay - very clearly. No Tom-Toms needed. So why go in the wrong direction towards Milford?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Agree with you, Chris -- if I was a neolithic argonaut wanting to take a pile of stones from Preseli down to the coast, I would probably use the Taf Valley and get down to the coast at Laugharne, where there is good tidal water. I don't think I would use either Newport or Milford Haven. Mind you, the Taf valley is and was pretty rough too -- nah -- give me a good glacier any day......

chris johnson said...

Relieved to hear your opinion Brian.

There is not much to choose between the Taf and the Cleddau, and neither look easier than an overland route to the east along one of several contours in the general direction of Camarthen.

I honestly cannot imagine people trying to transport 4 ton bluestones over either of these rivers.

A few months ago I proposed the Nyfer as a route toward Nevern/Newport, but having followed this on foot I conclude that this is even more absurd. Silly me!

Right now I think if there was an overland route it would NOT have used the river systems and most likely avoided the headwaters. Phil suggested Whitland, I think, and while plausible, I think the most likely overland route is more directly towards Abergwili (where my grandfather is buried).

Glaciation seems to me much more likely. A massive amount of effort would be required to do it any other way.

Geo Cur said...

Or you could have picked up some erratics at Lampeter Valfrey and saved the trudge .

BRIAN JOHN said...

There are numerous possibilities. You could maybe have picked them up on Gower, or on Flatholm, or on the Somerset Levels, or on Salisbury Plain.......

Geo Cur said...

I was thinking of places where we are sure of the presence of bluestones . We do know there were some at lampeter Valfrey unlike the Somerset Levels or Salisbury Plain .
Are there bluestone erratics in the Gower ?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Geo -- this wretched term "bluestone". Kindly define what you mean by it..... is a boulder of Northern Ireland white limestone in Somerset a bluestone, or not?

Geo Cur said...

I thought that bluestone was commonly used term here for non sarsens found at Stonehenge .If not then that loose definition will do .
Seeing as I was referring to the erratics at Lampeter Valfrey I thought it would be obvious that meant the dolerites with identical element compostions to those found at Carnmenyn/Carngyfrwy .
Has anyone here used bluestone to refer to white limestone in Somerset ?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Not quite sure why you are so interested in the erratics at Lampeter Velfrey, Geo. If there are erratics there, they seem to me to be largely insignificant in the great scheme of things -- but we have been over all that before.

Yes, as far as I am concerned, the while limestone boulder is a chunk of bluestone -- no more and no less strange than many other erratics scattereed about in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. We have discussed many of these in past posts.

Geo Cur said...

Of course the Lampeter Valfrey erratics are more interesting in relation to Stonehenge than erratics from Ireland found in the Gower .They came from Carnmenyn/Carngyfrwy .

BRIAN JOHN said...

Geo -- to repeat what I said in January -- the "cluster" of eastern Preseli erratics at Lampeter Velfrey is nothing more than a piece of sampling bias -- it happens to be an area which Cantrill and the others looked at, so Olwen and her colleagues looked there too -- no more or less significant than any other bit of the landscape in Central Pembrokeshire. I wrote this, in case you had forgotten --

"Not sure we can descri=be these stones at Lampeter Velfrey as a "cluster" -- from what Olwen and the others say, they looked at erratics cleared from the fields, and found some dolerites (matched to the Carn Meini area), some rhyolites, some unknown pyroclastic rocks, and some Palaeozoic sandstones. We may simply get an impression of a cluster because that is where they happened to look, because of the fact that Strahan and his colleagues had also looked there before 1920. So there is bias in the sampling -- as usual with field studies, you find something and then you study it....." Personally, I find Flimston Churchyard far more interesting.

Geo Cur said...

The origianl point was that Lampeter Valfrey not only has erratics from Preseli but it is also close to the coast , not that far from where you suggested ,Laugharne ,but saving the trudge .

Anonymous said...

Dear everyone
Read the primary literature-
In every paper on this subject I define bluestone as 'any non-Sarsen rock found at SH that was, or may have come from, an orthostat in my papers it is more elegantly put as I hope we would expect.
Stick to that otherwise we have Brian's legion of small exotica or vague musings on spotted dolerite.
Read boys read.
M

Geo Cur said...

Thanks M, that is exactly what I meant and imagined would be the understanding of anyone reading this blog , yet still had to reiterate .My first in Be but not in Me ......

BRIAN JOHN said...

We'll part company on that definition -- since it assumes that only the orthoststs (or what's left of them) are important, and because it focusses attention on Stonehenge to the exclusion of other areas. What was I saying about sampling bias? If we are looking for erratics and traces of glaciation, I am perfectly happy for all the exotic stones on and around Salisbury Plain to be treated seriously. Some of them will be modern introductions -- and we will eliminate those from our enquiries. But I don't go with this Stonehenge obsession -- it skews everything, suits the archaeologists and is ultimately unscientific.

Anonymous said...

Now Brian you are being naughty so it will be the N step for you and no gruel.
If your exotica were capapble of being carried to SH/Salisbury Plain in Neolithic/BA clutch bags why would anyone bother to ask 'did glaciers carry them thither'. (Pace the erratic stone axe-head arguments where I know we both agree that adventitious usage is more important than many archies believe.)
SIZE/weight is everything here. It is the bigguns that give the greatest headaches.
That is why I exclude anything that is not from an orthostat as unimportant.
I think I covered this aspect at some length in one of my reviews of your book.
M.

Geo Cur said...

The header says "This site is devoted to the problems of where the Stonehenge bluestones came from " .
The simple definition is useful but if we are describing erratics like white limestone from Ireland found in Somerset as bluestone then it gets unnecessarily confusing .

chris johnson said...

The mini-megaliths in Flimston churchyard used as headstones are curious indeed. I was reminded about St Twynnel's Church nearby where a Longstone was reported and supposedly moved to a nearby farmyard and re-erected - called the Loving Stone. Some artist friends of mine lived nearby and were quite convinced that the history of the area could be traced back to the neolithic, although little is left visible. The lady of the family was quite convinced she had seen little people on horseback riding on Carn Ingli after a sunday pub lunch in Newport....

Geo, I am not sure what weight to give the Lampeter Velfrey stones. Pembrokeshire is rich in stories and remains that speak to the imagination. The southern area is good farm land and supposedly the best beef in Britain was raised around Castlemartin in the time of the drovers. The Normans performed a version of ethnic cleansing south of the Landsker and imported people with no connection to the past - the Flemings. Being Dutch myself I recognize a total lack of sympathy with stuff that is in-the-way. All-in-all it is surprising that anything survives and you have to look for clues (cup marks?) in the hedgerows and the ancient lanes.

BRIAN JOHN said...

OK Rob -- that's your view and I respect it. Mine is different. You have been employed (I didn't say paid!!) to look at stones collected at Stonehenga and other sites and passed over to you by the archaeologists. That's fine.

You don't know that all of those fragments have come from orthostasts. Some of them might have come from destroyed cobbles, which just happened to have been the same -- or almost the same -- geologically as some of the orhtostats that we know about.

As a geomorphologist, I am interested in debris in all its glory, since glaciers do not just carry big stones. They carry stones of all shapes and sizes, from gravel fragments to cobbles, boulders and big slabs of various shapes and sizes -- like the Stonehenge orthostats. Some of those orthostats -- or what's left of them -- are short and stumpy, others flattish and others are longer and thinner.

I agree of course that it is the big stones that need serious and robust explanations.

But to just concentrate on these latter stones is to play the archaeology game -- enhancing the establishment view that Stonehenge is the only special thing worth concentrating on. I'm not playing that game..... I want to know what happened across the whole of this landscape, and what sediments and erratic materials there might be, in the soil and beneath it, or on the surface, waiting to be studied and explained. That's what geomorphologists do.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Geo -- yes indeed, the header says that. But it also says I am not averse to a bit of musing and even rambling on related matters. Neither are my esteemed contributors, as we all know....

BRIAN JOHN said...

Little people on horseback riding on carningli? Maybe your friend had been to Bessie's in Pontfaen for rather too long? Or maybe she saw the mayor and his little friends doing the annual "beating of the bounds" perambulation?

chris johnson said...

Feel free to ignore my ramblings triggered by your mention of Flimston. Hopefully Geo is interested.

I am however confused by your mental picture of how the glacial movement might have occurred. Had lots of little pebbles been transported then we might reasonably expect a trail westwards and there is no such trail.

Recently you convinced me that several big erratics might have been transported in a one-off movement and ended up in the general area for quarrying and shaping. Real big erratics and not a train of debris.

You also surprise me by suggesting that the orthostats might have been transported in their almost finished form. It appears that the orthostats that remain are too regular for that. As an amateur I would expect much more variation had the stones lying around simply been stuck in the ground.

BRIAN JOHN said...

The standing stones of South Pembs are rather interesting, since most of them occur in areas of sedimentary rocks. Not enough has been done on their geology. We know about the Flimston erratics which have come from the St David's Peninsula area, but I wonder if any of the others (especially those that are elongated) have come from the areas of igneous rocks in North Pembs? A good research topic for somebody...

BRIAN JOHN said...

Chris -- cobbles and till are no more likely to have been laid out in a trail in a glaciated area than large orthostats. It all depends on the mechanisms on which I have spent a lot of time in this blog -- entrainment, transport and desposition. Huge variations in all three, with many different processes at work.

Have I suggested that the orthostats were transported in an almost finished form? Not knowingly, I haven't. Some of them look pretty rough and unaltered, but we know that others have had a lot of work done on them. That isn't in dispute.

chris johnson said...

Brian, sorry our posts crossed.

All I know is she was deadly serious and not given to becoming drunk at lunchtime or inventing stuff to make herself interesting. She is dead now so I cannot ask her more. She gave quite an accurate description of the little people and their horses.

My point was more that there are a lot of tales. On my last visit to Pembrokeshire I was told by a very straightforward person that many people in Tenby believe that a recent fatal motorcycle accident on the ridgeway north of town was caused by the victim having seen the headless horseman. Believe what you will ...

Bessies place comes highly recommended.

Anonymous said...

I have been employed by many people including yourself a couple of times (when we were showing that the Milford Haven origin for the Altar Stone was rubbish)with NO payment. It allows me to say what I believe. (From 1 - 100 how happy do you think D and W are about Rhos-y-felin- lacking as it does mystical springs)
This means I am totally independant
My only paymaster is the Constantine XI Palaeologos Research Fund who become very annoyed and threaten me with extiction if I do not regularly acknowledge them as I do now of course.
Small stones are small beer. Big stones decades of fun- I'm into my third!!
M.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Long live independence! I am all in favour of it....

And long live Constantine XI -- or is he dead already?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Heaven forbid that I should ever doubt the sightings of fairies at Pentre Ifan, black dogs of hell at Fishguard, ghosts in Narberth, dragons up on Preseli, or giants on Skomer. I didn't get where I am today by doubting the authenticity of folk tales.... as my 4 vols of Pembs folk tales will attest!

Anonymous said...

He is a Saint in the Orthodox Church, died a hero's death in his golden sandles at 11.45am May 29th 1543.
But he lives on in Myris.
M.

Anonymous said...

The year was 1453

Constantine Paleologos

Anonymous said...

woops so it is.

I must type that date many times a week as it is my pin number.!

Not certain what happened in 1543, cetainly not 'The World on the Last Day'.
I have dedicated my Atlas of Opaque and Ore Minerals in their Associations and quite a few plaques to Constantine XI Palaeologos Porphyrogenitus. A man to be eternally honoured.
M

Tony Hinchliffe said...

The late field archaeologist Leslie Grinsell wrote often on folk tales throughout England (but not Wales) which connected Prehistoric Sites with strange goings-on and headless chickens etc etc. He often related these to his spellbound audiences with a wide grin upon his countenance, as one might expect, given his surname. And he lived to a great old age, with no personal history of poltergeists.

Nymeria Meliae said...

They had the technology to transport the stones by sea at the time of Stonehenge. You need only look at what they were doing in the Orkney and other Scottish islands at that time where the sites are older than Stonehenge and they were capable seafarers. They might have taken the stones via the sea around the coast of Cornwall and brought them to site from the south rather than the north. Would mean less rivers and streams etc. to cross all of which pose an obstacle to the idea that they came by land. Keep in mind most of the land around the Severn would've been swampland.

Also there is nothing to suggest that Stonehenge was built by farmers etc. if the site is as old as claimed, then it is just as possible that it was built by the same seafaring people who built the stone circles in Orkney who then later settled and became farmers.


But there is also the idea that the stones were already on site... perhaps that being the reason for choosing to build Stonehenge where it is located.