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Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Callanish -- quarried slabs or erratics?

This is Colin Richards's Fig 8, showing a collapsed monolith within the Callanish X circle at Na Dromannan.  Like many of the other stones in these circles, they could not be set into sockets because the soil was thin and the circle builders simply had to set them on end, resting on bedrock and propped up with "packing stones" around their bases.  No wonder many of the stones have collapsed.......

I'm off to Lewis next week -- very exciting, since I have never had the chance before to visit the Callanish circles.  I'm with a group of old college friends, so there will be much feasting and jollification and not much time for serious fieldwork.  But I look forward to taking a look at the famous monuments......

Here is an extract from a longer paper published by Colin Richards in 2004:


(Extract from a longer article.  See the illustrations in the original)

Rethinking the great stone circles of Northwest Britain (2004)

by Colin Richards

Possibly the most famous group of stone circles in Northern Britain, the Callanish complex, lies on the west coast of Lewis and comprises at least five stone circles with another possible example to be confirmed (Callanish XI).

A preliminary examination of the different circles in September 2002 revealed the stones to have been quarried (as opposed to glacial erratics) and to be composed of different types of Lewisian gneiss.

Figure 5. View of Callanish (I), Lewis, looking along the ridge and up the avenue

As with Orkney there seemed to be a mixture of different types of Gneiss present within each circle (Fig. 5).

However, the main circle (Callanish I), renowned for both its long avenue and projecting lines of monoliths, differed slightly in that it did comprise numerous stones with black hornblende 'eye' inclusions (which could be interpreted as a form of rock art or decoration, albeit naturally derived) (Fig. 6).

These distinctive stones were almost certainly obtained from a single outcrop and so far the only identified outcrop containing hornblende inclusions is the natural 'knoll' at the end of the ridge upon which the circle and avenue lies.

Examination of the monoliths comprising the other three circles provides a less consistent pattern with the presence of gneiss, some of which appears to be derived from a variety of different sources.

Figure 6. The black hornblende 'eye' inclusions in the stones forming part of Callanish I. These could be interpreted as constituting a form of megalithic art.

So at Callanish we immediately see a difference with Orkney in that there are more smaller circles which although incorporating different types of gneiss show a tendency to a predominance of one particular type - probably obtained from the same outcrop and place.

In 2002 a four day period of survey was undertaken with Joffy Hill to locate possible quarry sites for the circles. In particular, attention was given to a supposed quarry and 'ruined' stone circle (Callanish X) at Na Dromannan; a ridge on high ground to the north of the Callanish circles.

The 'ruined' stone circle was represented by a number of angled stones projecting through the peat at the southern end of a long ridge. The supposed quarry was a revealed rock cliff forming the western side of the ridge.

Close examination of the rock revealed in the cliff indicated it not being a source for monoliths composing the four definite Callanish circles in that the Gneiss was of different colour and grain size.

After initial inspection of the 'ruined circle' there remained a possibility that the angled stones projecting through the peat were actually stones propped up for removal after being quarried from outcropping on the spine and southern end of the ridge. Also a monolith designated as a 'standing stone' lying on a parallel ridge, 150 metres east of Na Dromannan, was clearly a monolith wedged on its side; presumably for future transportation that never occurred (Fig. 7).

Figure 7. The monolith wedged on its side for later removal.

To investigate these possibilities excavations at Na Dromannan were undertaken over a four week period during late summer in 2003.

When the peat was removed it immediately became clear that the reason for the tilt of the recumbent monoliths was that each stone rested on the slope of a pile of large packing-stones which resembled small cairns.

While some stone blocks were clearly displaced others resembled the packing stones commonly seen surrounding the bases of standing monoliths; supporting and stabilizing the standing stones within their sockets (Fig. 8).

The interpretation that the stones had all originally stood upright was quickly confirmed when a number of broken upper sections of the monoliths were revealed beneath the peat. Clearly, these had snapped when the stones had fallen onto the hard bedrock.

Figure 8. Excavating collapsed stone 15 within Na Dromannan stone circle (Callanish X).

The hardness of that bedrock appears to have prohibited deep sockets being excavated and consequently the base of each stone rested upon the exposed rock, being supported by a group of boulders packed around its base.

This raised the intriguing question of why the circle had been positioned on the rock surface; as this had caused the instability which led to eventual collapse.

The answer to this question is difficult to resolve but two features of the circle perhaps hold the key. First, Na Dromannan stone circle                was situated on the hillside overlooking the Callanish circles and when viewed from below it appears on the immediate skyline to the east.

Consequently, it was positioned in a highly visible - almost dramatic location. Although on higher ground the circle is positioned at the southern end of the narrow ridge running north-south. The ridge is formed by a combination of rock outcropping and peat of a variable depth filling in the declivities between the projecting rock.

Morphologically, the ridge is extremely similar to the those upon which the lower stone circles are positioned, particularly Callanish I, II and III, where each circle assumes an intermediate position in relation to a large glacial knoll at the end of the ridge.

Hence, in terms of topographic position, the fallen stones at Na Dromannan corresponded to the other Callanish stone circles.

The second point is that the outcropping rock at Na Dromannan appears to have been exploited as a quarry for monoliths.

As was a similar ridge approximately 100m to the east where the single monolith remained propped up (Fig 7). Here then we have the quarry site itself marked by the presence of a stone circle which again indicates the significance and special qualities attached to this place.

The evidence from Callanish paints a different picture to that seen at Stenness and Brodgar in Orkney. A large proportion of the monoliths comprising the main Callanish circle and avenue appear to have been derived from outcropping on the ridge upon which it lies.

A similar situation appears to occur at Na Dromannan stone circle. The three remaining circles seem to be more variable in composition, however, these require further investigation.

Figure 9. View of Callanish III showing the position of the circle on a ridge with the large natural knoll at its end.

In Lewis it seems as if the actual location of each circle is paramount in its understanding. In being positioned at an intermediate point along a narrow ridge, with a large natural knoll at the end, each circle constitutes an 'in-between' or transitional point within a pathway leading to the knoll (Fig. 9).

This passage along the spine of the ridge is formalised within the main Callanish circle by the presence of an impressive avenue (Fig. 5). Under these circumstances it is the natural knoll that provides the main focus of attention and to which the monumentality will constantly be referenced.

Moreover, the stone source for the majority of monoliths within the ring appears to be derived from the knoll itself (Callanish I) or outcropping on the ridge (Na Dromannan - Callanish X).

Here the possible 'sacred' nature of the stone and the 'place' may well be determining the composition and location of each circle.

The presence of monoliths within each circle from other stone sources suggests a further component of complexity which again may relate to the drawing together of different places, people and identities.

As opposed to Orkney where massive monoliths are dragged many miles from different sources to compose the circle, in Lewis people may be coming from a distance and gradually constructing different circles. However, they may be dragging and including stones from distant sources to compliment the monoliths quarried from the place of the circle.


Joost van den Buijs said...

Wish you lots of fun on Lewis. I was very impressed by the Callanish circles, take your time to visit and enjoy them!

Phil morgan said...

Hello Brian,
Professor Richards et al, have published a new book titled 'Building The Great Stone Circles Of The North' (Oxbow Books, Oxford), which begins with a consideration of how the stone structures of Western Scotland can be interpreted, the volume looks in detail at the context of the circles and cairns from Orkney and the Outer Hebrides - from quarrying the raw material to their symbolic role within the landscape - before widening out into a consideration of the societies who built and used them, and the myth and folklore that is now embedded within these megaliths.
Of particular interest were the many photographs of quarry sites that bore a marked resemblance to Craig Rhos-y-Felin and other south Wales locations of possible Neolithic quarrying activities.

An excellent book and highly recommended.


TonyH said...

Quite expensive though, eh, Phil?

Does Colin Richards himself explicitly compare the Rhosyfelin site with his Northern Britain 'quarry sites' in his photographs? After all, he's been involved in both areas.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Not sure how much new stuff there may be in the book, but the article for which I give the hyperlink is quite detailed enough for me -- revealing an man with a quarry hunting tendency. Some of his statements seem reasonable to me -- others seem very fanciful indeed. This explains why all sorts of natural features at Rhosyfelin are accorded huge -- and misguided -- significance.

Myris of Alexandria said...

Prof Richards makes no mention of Cryf in his wonderfully well-illustrated book.
He does however discuss Stonehenge, indeed he wraps it up.
Very readable.

Phil Morgan said...

Hello Tony,
Regarding the price of the book ---- you get the quality you pay for.

The comparison of possible quarry sites was mine alone, so the Professor can be safely declared not guilty.

When he returns from the current Orkney explorations I shall ask permission to reproduce some of the quarry photos to allow you to judge the similarities for yourself.



TonyH said...

Quite a provocative statement: "indeed he wraps it up".

In what sense does he wrap it up?

This is still one of the biggest enigmas in World Archaeology, and the Jury is, surely, very much Out!

It is not the personal untouchable project of only Messrs Pearson, Richards and, dare I say it, the illusive Ixer & Bevins.

What I have always advocated is a truly multi - disciplinary team, i.e. one that recognises the authentic contribution of Geomorphology & Glaciology to the debate. Put that in
your collective chummy
pipes and smoke it, members of the Stonehenge Riverside Team. Aren't you all University - based eggheads, after all? If you don't, you may find that your academic Goose is well and truly cooked, and never did nest in Pembrokeshire quarries. Anyone remember Piltdown Man, whatever happened to Him?

BRIAN JOHN said...

I too was intrigued by the "wrapping up" bit. Anybody who thinks Stonehenge is wrapped up is probably suffering from too much contentment and will certainly be heading for a rude jolt or two...........

BRIAN JOHN said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Myris of Alexandria said...

Ah read the book the comment is a critique of Colin's philosophy on the meaning of Neolithic architectures as given in chapter two. It is I think rather an excellent pun.
I am so very disappointed that you thought the comment was to be read one dimensionally and taken at face value, chums work a little harder.
Do read the book ignore the more TAG-esque elements. I learned much, agreed with a lot and have thought about the rest.
Brian's thoughts on Lewis will be interesting.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Myris -- If you want to give us a brief review of the book, I'll publish it on the blog.

TonyH said...

The book costs a lot more than most of us here on this Blog are able, or are prepared, to spend. Neither will it be easily available from within the bounds of an average County Library service.Few of us live within the walls of academia. At minimum, we'd mostly be required to travel to a single public Reference centre to view it in - house, without being permitted borrowing. Petrol costs....etc etc.
Based on what I have just said, most of us cannot "work a little harder": what a patronising remark! We need folk to be less cryptic when submitting contributions to the debate, otherwise they remain wild, primeval and woolly, though I realise this is Myris's forte! Esoteric remarks tend to fall by the wayside, so, ultimately, what does that achieve? Save to inflate the writer's ego, it serves no-one who is an average punter looking on this Blogsite for a little straightforward light to be shed upon the debate as to how, ultimately, in reality, the so-called bluestones arrived in the broad region surrounding what was to become Stonehenge.
I, too, hope some kind soul with easy access to Colin Richards' book, or knows of an easy - to - understand brief review of it, perhaps on other Blogs, will generously share this with us here.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Sorry for the delay in posting your comments -- I just discovered them lurking in a strange mailbox!

BRIAN JOHN said...

As I have said before, I have profound reservations about these "similarities" between Rhosyfelin, Callanish, Stenness etc. There are literally thousands of places in the UK where large stones are resting on or in mixed deposits of scree, till, solifluxion materials etc. If you home in on the large stones, decide in your infinite wisdom that they are "forgotten or abandoned monoliths" and then throw resources at digging around then and taking away all the fine sediments, what are you left with? Why, as if by magic you have a monolith originally intended for some higher purpose but for some reason abandoned, propped up on a collection of smaller stones, and a Neolithic quarry! If the stone is broken (as they often are) that is cause for even more celebration. You have a reason for its abandonment!! Nobody seems to notice that what they are looking at is an artifice, created by the very process of excavation, and supported by a great deal of wishful thinking. Not good science, folks.....