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Sunday, 7 April 2013

Stones with Character?

Pentre Ifan cromlech in Pembrokeshire.  The stones were all collected from the immediate vicinity -- there are many others still lying around.  Were the stones just the right shape and size, or did they have "meaning"??

Thanks to Chris for drawing attention to this.  I have to admit to not having read the article, but I am tempted to say -- from a reading of the abstract -- that this looks rather like mystical hogwash in that even unworked stones are given "meaning" in that they  "would have helped preserved the visual resemblance of the stones to the outcrops or boulder fields from which they were derived."  Hmmm.  I can understand that when we are looking at rock art we can bring in some ideas about "meaning" and "significance" since somebody has obviously spent a lot of time making patterns with tools, and one is justified in asking "why?" ..... but to suggest that the recycling of old stones is also significant in that this shows an acceptance of the "materiality of the slabs" and maybe some embodiment of "anthropomorphic symbolism" seems to me to be going too far, by quite some distance.  People re-use old stones because, well, why wouldn't they?

At least Prof Scarre seems to accept that stones were usually locally sourced -- which shows that he accepts a degree of utilitarianism and practicality on the part of the megalith builders.  But then to say "the careful selection of megalithic blocks suggests that they incorporated and materialised memories, powers and associations of place" leaves me wanting some evidence.  Prof Scarre is not alone here -- as we have debated at length on this blog, all three of the learned professors (GW, DT and MPP) assume that the bluestones -- in particular -- were invested with magical or sacred properties, either because they were supposed to have healing properties, or because they incorporated the spirits of the ancestors.  (Of course if you are arguing that they were collected from a very distant place and transported over a vast distance you have a find some justification for that mighty enterprise.)  The utilitarian view -- that stones in megalithic monuments were used simply because they were in the right place at the right time, and because  they were a convenient size and shape -- does not get much space in the learned texts, probably because it is too simple.


Stones with character : animism, agency and megalithic monuments.

Scarre, Chris (2009) 'Stones with character : animism, agency and megalithic monuments.', in Materialitas: working stone, carving identity. Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 9-18.
Recent studies of megalithic monuments have shown how they incorporate blocks, sometimes taken from different locations, which link the monuments to features of their local landscapes. The slabs were often left unworked, or only minimally shaped, which would have helped preserved the visual resemblance of the stones to the outcrops or boulder fields from which they were derived. The careful selection of megalithic blocks suggests that they incorporated and materialised memories, powers and associations of place. The recycling of carved and shaped standing stones in the passage graves of Brittany illustrates another approach to the materiality of the slabs, one which draws upon anthropomorphic symbolism. Some later monuments too have carved motifs, and those motifs may imply they were thought to embody ‘human’ qualities. An ‘animistic’ or ‘anthropomorphic’ reading of these blocks may provide additional insights into the social practices and beliefs which lay behind the construction of megalithic monuments.
 Scarre, Chris (2009). Megalithic Quarrying: Sourcing, extracting and manipulating the stones. Oxford: Archaeopress.
  • Publication type: Books: edited
  • ISSN/ISBN: 978 1 4073 0405 2


chris johnson said...

I downloaded the pdf for free from

It is not a long read but interesting.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thanks Chris -- shall have a little read when I have finished repairing my chimney! Job for today, before the rain comes.....

Constantinos Ragazas said...


All these theories ascribing 'intentionality' to prehistoric behavior suffer from the same paradox. How do we distinguish 'our intentions' for them from 'prehistoric intentions'?

This is especially disturbing (and disturbed!) when 'our intentionality' is detached from the real physical conditions prehistoric people faced in their struggle to survive.

Oh I forgot! Chris does not think prehistoric people just coming out of the Ice Age were struggling to survive!


TonyH said...

Brian, your photo of Pentre Ifan cromlech reminds me that I understand Mike Parker Pearson will be there in September 2013 with a group of keenly interested archaeology fans, showing them round the prehistoric sites of Preseli. A leaflet appeared in the latest issue of "British Archaeology", together with details of cost for several days in Pembrokeshire.

BRIAN JOHN said...

yes, thanks for the leaflet, Tony. safely received. It looks as if MPP is doing ann afternoon tour of assorted places with significance. No specific mention of Rhosyfelin, but maybe they will call in there since the 2013 dig will be under way. So another generation of budding and amateur archaeologists will hear the authorised version of events, and will have no contact at all with anything different. In such a fashion is orthodoxy maintained and even spread!

TonyH said...

Yes, ironically, we normally associate solid rock with reliable and stable truth, at least when metaphorical language is used. "he who builds his house upon rock", etc.

TonyH said...

Some rock formations, however, have FAULTS in them, as can readily be seen in various parts of Pembrokeshire.

BRIAN JOHN said...

There are faults in virtually ALL of the rock formations in Pembrokeshire. Does that make geology a faulty science?