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Thursday, 8 November 2012

Swarbrick's Gazetteer of Standing Stones

 A review from Rob Ixer in Current Archaeology, Dec 2012:

A Gazetteer of Prehistoric Standing Stones in Great Britain.
Olaf Swarbrick BAR British Series 558
2012,  Paperback, 101pp, £25.00

In September 1996 Olaf Swarbrick, a very well-respected, large-animal vet, determined to visit and record all the British, (mainly single) standing stones between the Scilly Isles and Unst in the  Shetlands (but not the Channel Isles).

So between 1997 and 2009 he visited 1068 sites (sometimes more than once) measured and recorded just over 1500 stones; this Gazetteer is the result of those monumental observations.

The data are enormous and these days could only be collected by an amateur with access to vast amounts of time, much money and singular, single mindedness. Few grant-gifting bodies would give serious thought to, and none would commit the funding for, a decade long, multi-distance, basic, data-gathering project with no immediate ‘added value’ and… what career archaeologist would dream of initiating such a scheme. Yet, most of this short volume will stand tall alongside many a professional monograph; its data becoming increasingly important as a snap shot/professional photograph of a quite rapidly deteriorating source.

The core of the book is the 28 page gazetteer listing the standing stones by country and then by county; these lists are supplemented by three maps showing all the stone locations and by 26 pages of sketches (10) and photographs (57). In addition three appendices list unvisited but extant stones, (“my hill walking days are over”),  lost/destroyed stones and stones who status is unknown (many lost in forestry plantations or peat bogs). A final list comprises other unlisted stone many of which are “small” and mostly “uninteresting” but include six sarsens erected in 2000 by Swarbrick in his garden-all are given the same attention. He measured/recorded their grid reference, shape and above ground dimensions, altitude, orientation and attitude, lithology (as well as he could), the degree of dressing and all unusual features– especially weathering characteristics and anthropogenic carvings/wear. These data are then given simple statistical analysis.

He highlights ‘enigmatic’ classes of standing stones, those made of white quartz (many are Welsh) and those with significant ‘grooves’ or ‘perforating holes.  These classes may indeed be problematical but a serious geological re-examination is needed to determine what is natural and what is man-made before any speculation on their meaning and importance can be secured.

Naturally he brushes past the ever topical question, who or what moved the stones ‘human agency or glacial action’ but is too canny to become entangled in individual examples. Instead, he describes the standing stones in terms of their altitude and spatial distribution- there are about fifteen times the number of standing stones above 300metres in England and Wales (in a total of 56 sites) than in Scotland (in a total of 5 sites) and there are no stones along the northwest coast of Scotland but plenty in the parallel lying Outer Isles. 

But in the best Rough Guide tradition there are personal lists, including the top fifteen standing stones “chosen for their intrinsic beauty” including one at Garth Farm erected in 1999AD and the top seven tallest stones, The Rudstone Monument is the tallest at 8.2m.

Essentially he worked in isolation relying on his common sense, personal contacts and on secondary sources rather than going to the primary literature (although there may not be much of that) and although all his data are explained and discussed in the first 37 pages of text leading to his first order (but proper) conclusions, there is little broad archaeological analysis. Surely this must be done by others, starting perhaps with those three beguiling distribution maps.

Mr Swarbrick died during the production of this book having completed the text but before he could carefully or fully edit it and so the references are very poorly presented, there are factual errors/typos (often between the photographs and text), some text is repeated, a little is inelegant or slightly intemperate, but this only allows his voice to come over urgently, sounding clearly, beyond the data, warning that this important class of monument  is being neglected both  intellectually and physically with the stones being eroded by weather, indifference and even official neglect. 

Most men can only hope for a single headstone as a memorial but Olaf Swarbrick through this, most important volume, has 1502 for his remembrance, although probably, and to use his nomenclature, he would have chosen to rest next to “Wimblestone, 24 Somerset, ST434585”.


TonyH said...

Olaf's genetic half-cousin, former Fairport small-violinist Dave, features in a showing of a tribute concert to late gigantic folk music singer/songwriter megastar Sandy Denny at the Barbican in london, tonight on BBC4, 10.05 to 11.35.

TonyH said...

I wonder why, according to Olaf, there are no standing stones along the north-west coast of Scotland? Surely nothing to do with the strong prevailing westerly wind and the predomonance of peat bog??! Is it time for the 21st Century archaeologists to get there Geo Phys. equipment out and to also start probing?

chris johnson said...

Tony. I was struck by this too and would love to see the distribution maps Dr Ixer is referring to.

My immediate thought was around the uncertainty of dating standing stones and to wonder when the outer islands became separated from the mainland. Then again we are confronted with the Orkney civilisation, so either they were much better seafarers than we think or our timing is seriously off.

Geocur said...

Depending on what is considered to be NW Scotland , he is broadly correct ,with the exception of a few chambered cairns there are few megalithic monuments on that mainland coast ,although the west coast of most of the Islands ,both inner and outer Hebrides have plenty .If Ardnamurchan qualifies as NW Scotland then he missed only a 1km from the sea and ,which is less than 1km from the shores of a sea loch .Thre is also another at Badrallach again less than a Km from the shores of a sea loch , Little Loch Broom .If anything that coast is rockier than that of isles although it does have it's fair share of sand , peat and wind too , more importantly it was settled but arguably not as hospitable as the islands .