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Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Craig Rhosyfelin -- where are the restraining voices?

One thing that interests me about the ongoing Rhosyfelin debate is that there seem to be virtually no restraining voices which might temper Prof Mike Parker Pearson's obvious enthusiasm for the "most perfectly preserved Neolithic quarry in Europe" or "the Pompeii of Neolithic stone quarries."  That's been his view since the unearthing of the big "proto-orthostat" in 2011, and every utterance since then has been devoted to the confirmation of the ruling hypothesis.  I'm clearly not the only one who thinks that we have here a situation in which marketing has taken the place of science.  But why have others involved in this dig not intervened to point out that the "evidence of quarrying" is equivocal to say the least, and is open to a number of interpretations?

Richard Bevins and Rob Ixer are petrologists who have done a fantastic job in provenancing some of the rhyolite fragments at Stonehenge to the rock face at Rhosyfelin or to the immediate vicinity; but they are not geomorphologists, and it would be unfair to expect them to have looked in detail at some of the geomorphological subtleties of this site.  I have no idea how this project is being run.  But we know that there are those in MPP's team who do have expertise in geomorphology -- Charly French and Mike Allen to name but two -- and there are many bright young geomorphologists in the universities of the UK who could have brought a cold and dispassionate eye to some of the interpretations about which I have been complaining for the last couple of years. 

The things I pointed out in my last past on this blog should have been pointed out by others working on the dig, or others pulled in to advise on certain aspects of the work.  Because there have not apparently been any researchers pointing out natural phenomena, looking for alternative explanations of "exciting discoveries" and urging caution, what we now have is a runaway bandwaggon with a lot of clever researchers stuck on board........ 

...........continue the metaphor in whatever manner you wish!


TonyH said...

"..what we have now is a runaway bandwagon with a lot of clever researchers stuck on board...

......continue the metaphor....!" runawaytrain/shtml

I commend the lyrics of "THE RUNAWAY TRAIN" [Robert E Massey/ Harry Warren/ Carson Robison] to the honourable jury, i.e. those seeking any kind of explanation of this newly - defined 'Parker Pearson Bandwagon Phenomenon'.

TonyH said...

Probably wouldn't be a bad idea to speak about your concerns with your contacts at Aberystwyth Geography Department [Geomorphology Section]; also Dyfed Archaeological Trust, if that is the correct title.

Wales' academic fraternity surely ought to have an involvement, even if only in applying some nationalistic pressure in the press thereabouts.

Anonymous said...

Brian: Sharing your puzzlement and frustration at the lack of dissenting voices. I have conducted a little research of my own; The results are most interesting.

It would appear that the root of this problem, is the Society of Antiqueeries and its members. For brevities sake I shall refer to them henceforth as plain queeries!

Ever since Herbert Thomas announced his findings to them in 1921 the primary sources/literature, demonstrate almost complete critical acceptance by its members, of the findings of Thomas, Atkinson, Darvill, Wainwright and now Parker Pearson.

As an experienced amateur restorer of antique furniture. I'm all too aware of the damage to ones mental faculties, that can be caused by inhaling the fumes given off by substances used to polish oak panelling and leather upholstered armchairs.

I don't claim to know the answer, merely offer this as my own humble explanation for such soggy minded thinking.

Alex G

TonyH said...

I think you may well have hit the nail on the head (to continue partially your furniture restoring analogy, Alex. We seem to have (but Myris as a Member will no doubt rebuff my suggestion)in the Society of Antiquaries a Body that may not be too dissimilar to the Freemasons.
Surely their very title, antiquaries, gives the game away? They appear to pay undue homage to the antiquated notions of their predecessors from the 18th Century onwards. True, admirable people like General Pitt - Rivers were
members, but one thing this Society could do with right NOW is admittance of some members with geomorphological experience. This strikes me as all the more relevant now that techniques such as LIDAR are revealing miniscule details on the land surface, even through dense vegetation. Geomorphologists could help differentiate between, say, lynchets and subsidence occurring on steep slopes.

Constantinos Ragazas said...


The ”restraining voices” are right here in your blog! Most prominently your own!


Myris of Alexandria said...

The Society of Antiquaries of London is not the Masons (I am on the square on this). It does not have geomorphologists that I know of because most are not involved matters anthropologically ancient. They mainly
Worship across the courtyard and have FGS as post-nominal letters. There are people who are both FSA and FGS, some involved in matters lithic.
Dr Olwen Williams-Thorpe and Aubrey Burl are Fellows (FSA) but are not the greatest supporters of MPP.
The Society is a powerful group working for goodness and greatness, it is a genuine honour to be elected but of course a responsibility too.
Most of the chairs are utilitarian.

chris johnson said...

The belief that the ice sheets did NOT reach Wiltshire has been the official line of British geologists and geomorphologists for a long time - long before MPP reached his current position. It would be strange indeed were MPP to challenge this long held foundation belief without any new facts having emerged.

The same experts also agree that Prescelli was covered by glacial ice capable of quarrying stone from outcrops like Rhosyfelin. Hardly surprising to anybody that there are signs of glacial activity on and around the site.

I am not sure what these "restraining voices" should be arguing against and what new facts they should be presenting.

Judging by my time on site this year and last there is a lively dialogue going on between professionals and experts from several disciplines and from all corners of the world. MPP is very open and welcoming to visitors and eager to tell and to listen and to debate. It is a shame he and Brian did not meet face-to-face.

Constantinos Ragazas said...


”MPP is very open and welcoming to visitors and eager to tell and to listen and to debate.”

That's nice! But not very reassuring! Why hasn't MPP released the Rhosyfelin carbon dates? Just the raw facts. He has no problems releasing all his 'made-up stories'.

He surely could tell us what these dates are and where they came from! Still waiting for NatGeo clearance after some two years?


TonyH said...

MPP set up his "Stones of Stonehenge" project [after finishing his Stonehenge Riverside Project] with specific aims, viz to find human 'quarrying' sites, both on Presceli and the Marlborough Downs, to back up the old, old story of rugged mankind's stupendous achievements. That is to say, NOT to explicitly consider and probe the evidence that natural agencies like Glaciers were primarily responsible [as regards the Wales component] for a very large percentage of the distance travelled in the removals.

MPP has chosen to isolate himself from new geomorphological/ glacial facts and present his piece of research in the Stones of Stonehenge Project as though the newly - emerging facts - e.g. the now - acknowledged Dartmoor glaciation and our greater understanding of North Somerset glaciations and how these may have implications for the landscape formations around Bath, Bradford - on - Avon and Frome, let alone Salisbury Plain - were of no account and dismissible.

He refused point blank to answer Brian's question at the recent Moylesgrove village hall meeting, saying only "the debate is over, we have found the quarry", rather than being "open and welcoming to visitors and eager to tell and to listen and to debate". In this regard, his refusal to engage properly is comparable to me,as a Christian, to what sometimes occurs within the sphere of Christianity when one denomination refuses to engage in debate with another denomination's point of view, on the grounds that only THEY have found the true essential Gospel truth. e.g. historically what has regrettably occurred between Catholics and Protestants.

In fact, the vast majority of us know we should be dealing in matters that are essentially Scientific on this Blog, so MPP's refusal to properly engage and respect other properly - reasoned and investigated propositions has to be MPP's Achilles Heel. He has paid it quite a bit of lip service in his recent 2012 book, which shows his genuine concern for the potential it has to undermine his own thesis, but he fails to listen closely enough to the counter - arguments to his own well - worn and often out - of - date claims.

TonyH said...

MPP's whole Presceli Story seems, in its emphasis on the greater Geographical picture involving not only SW Wales and Western England/ Wiltshire, but also inter - connections in NW Europe, to be serving up a tale that is ideally suited to his National Geographic audience, who will always be keen to hear tales of daring - do across lands and tribal boundaries, with wonderful feats.

Unfortunately, MPP doesn't think the awesome Power of Glaciers should be part of his Story. Ironically, a quick glance at the National Geographic Magazine or Channel would show him plenty of coloured images of glaciers too!!

BRIAN JOHN said...

Chris --this has nothing to do with the question of whether an ice sheet or glacier reached Wiltshire. It's about the interpretation of field evidence. We should all (geomorphologists or archaeologists or whatever) look at what is in front of us and make the simplest and most logical interpretations. When I look at what we have exposed in the Rhosyfelin dig site I see an entirely natural jumble of slabs and broken stones such as you might see beneath any crag in Pembrokeshire where frost action, glacial action and gravity have combined to give you a long history of rockfalls and crag collapses. In my view, what the archaeologists are desperate to see is a Neolithic quarry -- and so, lo and behold, they see a quarry. Classic ruling hypothesis scenario.

Dave Maynard said...


The question you should ask is where is the research design and what is the collection policy for evidence that may relate to alternative explanations?

I think your concern is on the lines that:
The stones that will be left at Rhydyfelin will be covered over without being fully recorded, in a way that allows either interpretation to be adequately re-considered in future. Once the site is covered again, no-one will have sufficient resources to re-open the site to check evidence, certainly not if the perceived explanation is a natural one.

When the report on this excavation comes to be written, there should be sections on the geological and geomorphological history. In these, the writer should show that he has considered natural effects on rock in the gorge, and described it sufficiently to establish that any identified feature is due to human activity.

The author then needs to prove that this feature is the result of quarrying, and finally, was it carried out by Neolithic man?

This means the deposits that are being excavated should be adequately described and soundings made at greater depth to establish the nature and depth of what lies beneath the limits of the present excavation. It sounds as if microwear analysis is needed on rock samples with grooves/scratches to establish if they are of glacial or human origin. I don't know if that is possible, maybe glacial scratches are deeper and all over the rock and human shallower, and only on a portion of the rock. What about glacially scratched rock used by humans?

I was always confused by the Carn Meini quarry excavations. Even if Neolithic man had quarried here, recent man had also quarried here as shown by the shot holes drilled in the rocks. Showing Neolithic as opposed to recent quarry effects would be very difficult.

I like the idea of photogrammetric recording for these types of features. Having a 3D digital model can allow all sorts of games - putting stones back in place and filling in the blanks where someone else had taken the good pieces.

Any suggestion that Rhydyfelin was used as a source of gateposts by more recent farmers? Makes more sense for Eglwyswrw farms to have local stone, rather than carting from the far side of Preseli.


Dave Maynard said...

I'm sorry, I meant 'Craig Rhosyfelin'.

I must have been thinking of somewhere else!


TonyH said...

Brian, in your response to Chris dated 17.39 hrs on 25th Sept, I note you used the expression 2classic ruling hypothesis scenario". Sine this had echoes with my previous comments about MPP's modus operandi, I looked into it and have just found via Google that a famous Geologist TC Chamberlin recommended to students the method of MULTIPLE WORKING HYPOTHESES since these do not fall into the trap of overlooking relevant data. See:-

T.C. Chamberlin's "Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses": An encapsulation for modern students.

He was based at the Dept. of Geology, University of Georgia and was President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Tracked this info by googling RULING HYPOTHESIS. It is within:-

BRIAN JOHN said...

Dave -- I agree that the destruction of evidence, as the dig goes deeper, does make sensible academic debate extremely difficult. The diggers uncover something, record it, map it and photograph it (probably) and then destroy it because they want to go deeper. Both the finer grained sediments and larger stones are slung out of the pit onto the spoil heaps, where no further analysis is possible.

It's different in geomorphology, where an exposed section through a set of sediments is usually left intact, so that it can be examined in detail and argued over by whomsoever chooses to come and have a look...... when I discovered extremely important Pleisocene sites in Pembrokeshire I had to put up with groups of my peers from the BGRG and QRA who came and subjected everything to minute scrutiny, and grilled me on my evidence and interpretations. That still gos on in geomorphology today. I suspect that nothing similar will ever happen at Rhosyfelin, because those who visit and discuss things with the diggers are probably not experienced enough -- or sceptical enough -- to subject the "quarrymen" to the really hard grilling they deserve!

BRIAN JOHN said...

Tony -- yes, I suppose Chamberlin and every other serious scientist would advise students to be very careful indeed about using multiple working hypotheses (not too many, because you very quickly tend to narrow them down to two or three) and about avoiding the ruling hypothesis. The latter demon can creep up on you and insinuate itself into your mind, without you realising what is happening. This is something I have given a pretty fair airing to over the years -- just type "ruling hypothesis" into the search box!

chris johnson said...

Probably you are aware of the >1 gigapixel image made by Adam Stanford and featured on

This panorama was made towards the close of the 2012 season and gives a massive amount of detail. It goes someway to mitigate concerns about destroying evidence.

Worth a look!

Dave Maynard said...


An excellent image, and a testament to the hard work of the diggers!

Just need to move a bit uphill to the left to see what the machine was doing.

I don't think information is being destroyed, I know it is all being properly recorded in accordance with good archaeological principles. We know science involves observation and interpretation!


Constantinos Ragazas said...


If we can't be sure of the evidence there for all to see, how can we be sure of the evidence no one can see -- like the carbon dates MPP has been keeping!

Evidence need not be destroyed in order for evidence to be selectively used.