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Wednesday, 19 September 2012

An evening in Brynberian

 The 2011 dig -- showing the big stone which has caused more excitement than is really justified, and the litter of smaller broken stones banked up against the rock face.

A photo taken by Linda Norris, showing how much bigger the 2012 dig is, and showing the great bank of rubble and slabs between the big stone and the rock face.

Well, I turned up last evening to the packed village hall in Bynberian to hear the presentations from Colin Richards and Mike PP.  Very jolly fellows, both of them  - and I say that without a hint of sarcasm.  The presentations were interesting and informative -- and they were pretty up-front about everything.  And I refrained from making any comments at all in public, having been exhorted on all sides to be on my best behaviour.  I was very proud of myself.  And that was in spite of the speakers steadfastly refusing even to utter the words "glacial erratics" -- almost as if they might have caused grave offence among the members of the audience.......  Of course, most of the audience turned up hoping to get a jolly good story, and that was what they got -- with the borders between fact and fantasy very blurred indeed.  That having been said, I found that both Colin and Mike were a good deal more circumspect than they were last year in the language that they used.  On this occasion, my blood did not boil.  So maybe we are making a little progress.......

I also visited the site at Rhosyfelin, and had a long chat with Colin, whom I found very straightforward and open. 

First of all, the site.  The dig is now ENORMOUS -- they have extended in all directions, although I don't think they have gone any deeper than last year, since I'm keen to see if there are fluvioglacial gravels (or even till) beneath the slope deposits which they have been investigating.  They have been carefully removing all of the fine material around the broken rock debris that litters the "floor" of the excavation, as seen in the old pic above and in the other pic (from this year) below.

The key features which MPP is using in support of his quarry hypothesis are as follows:

1.  An elongated stone perpendicular to the lower end of the big recumbent stone which has a damaged upper surface.  MPP argued that this damage is the result of other big stones being dragged over it before the current big one was left where it is. My view?  The stone certainly does have a broken upper surface, and it is conceivable that the damage was done by a big stone -- or several --  being dragged across it.  But I'm intrigued by how rounded and moulded it is -- and I am pondering on whether quite a lot of the stones exposed at the bottom of the dig have actually been moulded by over-riding ice.  I was really struck by this moulding when I looked at the dig -- but it has not been commented on by the archaeologists.  Human versus natural?  50:50

2.  The hammer stones and mauls found here and there in the dig.  I haven't examined them myself, and I 'm not sure where they have come from, but a photo was shown purporting to be of one of them insitu, embedded in the midst of a litter of angular stones.  The other archaeologists to whom I spoke said that these stones are fractured and damaged by percussion --  and for the moment I'm prepared to accept that they know what they are talking about.  Not sure what rock types they are made of -- but if they are genuinely foreign, that would strengthen the MPP case.  Human versus natural?  75:25

3.  There is an Iron Age date (around 500 BC?) from charcoal (?) somewhere on the site, which I suppose shows that at that time there were people around here, making fires.  Date obtained in 2011?

4.  The elongated "railway lines" or "sliding stones" shown in the photo in MPP's book, and along which big stones were supposedly slid sideways down the slope from the cliff face.  I couldn't see them last year, and I couldn't see them this year either.  More fantasy than fact? Human versus natural?  20:80

5.  A huge stone pit or socket, reputed to have held a big standing stone held in place with packing stones.  You can glimpse the edge of this pit at the extreme L edge of Linda's photo.  I have to accept that this is real, rather than just an artifact created by the diggers -- but it is quite an anomaly.  Nobody seems to know what to make of it.  It's a very strange place for people to have put up a standing stone -- down near the floor of a wooded valley, close to a rocky crag.  MPP thinks that a big standing stone or monolith was in position here until the Iron Age, when it was removed or smashed up.  No trace of it today -- unless the stones found in the pit are the remnants of it.  Human versus natural?  90:10

6.  A strange "activity surface" in the flattish area behind the people in Linda's photo.  MPP seemed to suggest that this was another Iron Age feature -- with flints, chips, flakes, charcoal and burnt stone in a quite extensive spread of debris.  Then, after 500 AD, the site was covered with hillwash and slope deposits.  So -- traces of human activity, certainly -- but quite the wrong age to be used in support of the "Neolithic Quarry" hypothesis.  MPP argues, of course, that the standing stone and this evidence of Iron Age occupation (even if for a very short time, in a seasonal winter camp, maybe) shows that the site was revered as a quarry site from which sacred stones had been taken long ago ---- and hence that there must have been USE of this site over many thousands of years.   Hmmm -- that sounds pretty fantastical to me -- and I wouldn't mind having a bit of evidence to support the idea.


That seems to be the essence of the "case for the Quarry" -- although the geology evidence is jumbled up in the argument too.  Richard Bevins was at the lecture, and I had a good chat with him about provenancing etc.  I'll cover that in another post.  But for the moment I'll say that the geological evidence is neutral -- it is nothing more and nothing less than an interesting piece of geological detective work, and it does nothing to support the Quarry Hypothesis.

In summary, there is clear evidence of human occupation of this site -- I have no wish to deny that.  But whether there was NEOLITHIC occupation is quite another matter.  There do not as yet seem to be any radiocarbon dates to support occupation around 3,500 BC -- which is the date which MPP now speaks of as the date for the "first known presence of bluestones in the Stonehenge area."  That's a very long time ago -- 5,500 years ago.  Is it really likely that Iron Age tribes in this area would have continued to revere a site first used 4,000 years earlier?

Far more questions than answers.  Currently, my thinking is that this site has nothing whatsoever to do with the human transport of big stones to Stonehenge -- but that it might have been used intermittently for the fabrication of implements, given the lovely sharp edges which this rhyolite gives.  so in that sense, it might have been a quarry or a factory.  Later on, some Iron Age people used this sheltered site against a craggy rock face in a wooded valley as an encampment -- maybe over the winter months.

Finally, a word about artificial significance.  Archaeologists don't think about it often enough.  We could also call it sampling bias.   I am pretty convinced that MPP and his colleagues have invested this site with significance because they have decided in advance that it is a Neolithic quarry site.  It is perfectly reasonable to think that if they had visited almost any sheltered craggy site in a north Pembrokeshire valley (and there are many of them) and subjected that site to this level of scrutiny, they would have found virtually the same assortment of features -- including a litter of large blocks and slabs, and even traces of temporary encampments in the Iron Age.

To be continued......


chris johnson said...

I decided at the last minute to join the meeting and had a great two days - sorry to miss you Brian but it was very crowded in the hall. I was lucky enough to meet MPP while helping set-up and he was kind enough to give me a tour of the dig the next day together with a sculptor from Newport. Again I was lucky to arrive in the quiet time while the laser scanning was finishing and MPP had time for a couple of visitors. My head is still spinning with the conversations with MPP and Prof Colin Richards, the presentations, and the site itself and I was delighted by the courtesy and patience both men showed to everybody.

There is no doubt in the minds of the several professionals present that orthostats were quarried at Rhos-y-felin in the neolithic. They found several Neolithic tools at the foot of the face and believe they have reached the Neolithic level - although exact dating will take a few months.

I asked whether glaciation could have caused the jumble of loose stones and Mike said they had not yet reached what he called the holocene level. There has been a lot of soil deposits running into the valley. They also believe they may find mesolithic evidence next year when they continue the dig.

I was also lucky that Mike showed me two mauls they had recovered - one suspected to be spotted dolerite. I am no expert but it looked rather convincing to me that these stones had been used as tools in the past.

It is a shame I did not run into you, Brian, but perhaps we can meet up and compare notes? I learned so much in a short time and will be sharing on this site.

chris johnson said...

Talking about the standing stone with Professor Colin Richards, he has seen similar situations at other neolithic quarries. Perhaps the stone was erected when the quarry was closed?

Interesting new fact: the laser scanning at stonehenge has allowed the volume of the bluestones to be calculated more accurately than before. The experts now think the average weight was more like two tons than four.

BRIAN JOHN said...

A pity I missed you, Chris! I chatted to quite a few people after the meeting, including Richard Bevins and Heather James, but as you say it was all a bit hectic. I had hoped to go over to the site yesterday, but there was too much going on. But I managed to get down there this morning, and met one of the team on site -- got a few pics in the bag before the rain set in.

Ah yes, the view of "several professionals......" Well, this professional still disagrees -- too little evidence, and too many leaps of faith.

"Holocene" level? Everything excavated thus far is Holocene.

More posts later...

Anonymous said...

Just wondering,
Did anyone estimate the weight of the larger stone in the area of the dig?
It seems to be larger than the Bluestones at Stonehedge.
Also,is the bottom of that stone flat or is it jagged?
A jagged stone is less likely to move over the "rails" don't you think?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Not as far as I know -- but it looks to me toi be around 4 or 5 tonnes? Rob may correct me on that.....
The edges are pretty jagged -- and if you look at the photos of it, you'll see striking foliation and fracture patterns. I have severe doubts about whether a large stone like this is coherent and stable enough to be transported anywhere, let alone all the way to Stonehenge, without simply falling apart due to the stresses involved.

chris johnson said...

Chap I was with had an insight based on the experience of miners in his family. They moved big stones underground by inserting something under the balance point of the stone after which it could be moved relatively easily. Colin took this idea quite seriously - there seems to be a stone under the "orthostat" at the right point which might have been serving this purpose.

The theory is that the "orthostat" was left in-situ because it had cracked, perhaps while being moved away from the face.

The Archaeologists did not go under the stone this time - health and safety. Presumably they will on next years dig when they go down further and backwards in time.

BRIAN JOHN said...

This is all quite well known -- there is that famous video on YouTube about the American guy who moved phenomenal weights in precisely this way. But the whole point is that the pebble (or whatever) under the balancing point has to rest on a very solid flat surface for it all to work. He had a nice concrete slab specially put there for the purpose....

BRIAN JOHN said...

Concerning the "abandoned orthostat" -- they would say that, wouldn't they? As I have said elsewhere, this rhyolite is so liable to cracking and splitting and falling apart that I think it quite unsuitable for use as an orthostat anyway. I would not fancy the chances of any orthostat from here travelling as far as Eglwyswrw, let alone Stonehenge. Maybe just as far as the nice pit which is causing all the excitement......!!

Tony H said...

Various of us on this Blog have used the expression "on a wild goose chase" in reference to the hunt for Neolithic quarries in bluestone country. I've just come back from London, where we took a look at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, and I was amazed to find how many phrases in common useage owe their origin to The Immortal Bard. One of these is WILD GOOSE CHASE.

We all know that the expression means a pursuit that is likely to prove pointless and unfruitful, as in "we went on a WILD GOOSE CHASE for the antique store, but just couldn't find it". This English idiom has been in use since the 16th Century, with the first recorded use occurring in Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet. It may surprise many to learn that it actually has nothing to do with wild geese, despite the name.

This slang term references a type of HORSE RACE popular in some parts of England in the 16th Century.

In this race, the pack of horses would:- FOLLOW THE LEADER, OFTEN ADOPTING A FORMATION THAT CASUALLY RESEMBLED A FLOCK OF GEESE. Is this beginning to ring any bells, e.g. modern comparisons, Readers?!?

This was extremely challenging, and gamblers often commented it was difficult to PREDICT THE OUTCOME OF A WILD GOOSE CHASE, let alone profit from it.

Interesting that you, Brian, gave your own precentage odds for the outcome of various of the quarry hypothesis notions!!

When Will Shakespeare used the expression, he meant it in a metaphorical sense, referring to one of Romeo's harebrained plans as a "wild goose chase", meaning that Romeo was embarking on an adventure that was likely to prove futile.

Tony H said...

"I would not fancy the chances of any orthostat from here travelling as far as Eglwyswrw, let alone Stonehenge."

Exactly how far away is Eglwyswrw?

Sounds distinctly likely that it has a Church. Wonder if Myris' contacts might take a sample from its stonework to establish its provenance.

We need to move,carefully, one step at a time. Circumspection is all. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, as Elvis Preseli once sang.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Eglwyswrw is a few miles away -- not sure what the church is made of! But spotted dolerite was used for the coinstones of Velindre Farchog chapel -- specially fetched from the Preseli hills! Tough stuff, the spotted dolerite...

Anonymous said...

Hi Brian
Do you know why these Archeos have such trouble in calculating the weight of the stones at their dig sites?

An accuracy of +/- 30 tons for the estimated weight of the capstone is ludicrous; So is a two ton discrepancy for the bluestone.

I admit it was a long time ago, but when I went to school the average child could have calculated the weight of the stones, and with considerable precision??

Is this yet another sign of dumbing down?

Perhaps while they are there you could lend them a tape measure, a bucket of water and a set of kitchen scales.


chris johnson said...

Brian, you make good remarks in your piece. Reflecting on my visits to Brynberian I don't see the latest dig takes us much further in the transport debate.

The archaeologists told me they found definite evidence of neolithic activity close to Point 8 and I presume they know what they are talking about. Still, we know the broader area was occupied in the Neolithic and before, so this is not surprising. The many rocks lying around could be used for tools, and mauls may well have been used to break them up. Conceivably a suitable block might have been erected as a standing stone.

I made a post a couple of days ago which seems to have disappeared. Did you get it? Or are you still having internet problems?

Tony H said...

I fully endorse your comments on ARTIFICIAL SIGNIFICANCE towards the end of your piece. As you say, this might also be called Sampling Bias.
I should think it is rather similar to what occurs when folk too readily attribute significance to coincidental occurences.We could swiftly get into a discussion of Ley Lines and such. Your Post some time ago about the deeper significance positioning of Woolworths stores in the U.K. springs to mind. Don't archaeologists learn about statistical significance and sampling data accurately whilst at University? Or is it ALL Indian Jones, and marketing their project proposals to secure funding? Anyone know, and prepared to say?

Geocur said...

Alex ,I commented on the garn turne capstone "( 80 tonne ?,it seems to be getting heavier, 60 tonne used to be the max with 50 the most often quoted ) " Do you know where the 80 tonne mention come from , was it an archaeo ?