This review, having been in the Cambridge system for the best part of a year, is now on the web site of The Antiquaries Journal:
Stonehenge. Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery. By Mike Parker Pearson. pp 406, Simon & Schuster, London, 2012.
ISBN 9780857207302. £25 (hbk).
The Antiquaries Journal, FirstView Articles
This is a real curate's egg of a book. It isn't just about Stonehenge, but about the Stonehenge Riverside Project which has been investigating the landscape around the monument for almost a decade. So there is a great deal about Durrington Walls, the River Avon, the Cursus and “Bluestonehenge.” I'm not sure where the "target readership" of the book is -- it is too chatty, amiable and rambling in style to be an academic tome, and too detailed and specialised to be aimed at a general readership. The presentation is not very wonderful either -- I can't think of any other recent Stonehenge book that is less attractive to look at or use, printed as it is on a bulky cream paper which renders all illustrations flat and dull. There are abundant maps, photos and diagrams, but they are unnumbered and some are not even referred to in the text, causing one to wonder whether they were added as afterthoughts.
The text is at times clear and informative, at other times quite muddled, hopping about in time and space, and taking what another reader has referred to as “bizarre side roads” such as the Druids, earthworms, the politics of research funding, and the reburial of prehistoric human remains. The book could have done with much tighter editing.
As for the contents, I have to admit to major concerns. Parker Pearson appears to have little respect for academic rigour, and a much greater liking for the process of telling a good tale. The book’s narrative is full of first-name bonhomie, giving the impression that conclusions on important matters are simply arrived at via jolly chats between good mates over a pint or two in the nearest available hostelry. In chapter after chapter, I could just not work out where evidence ended and speculation began -- and over and again I had to conclude that hypotheses were being used as substitutes for facts, and that many matters simply assumed to be correct had never been through a proper peer-review process. When a senior academic publishes a book of this type, one has a right to expect accurate and impartial presentation of field evidence to be followed by the outlining of working theories, with hypothesis testing next and tentative but still testable conclusions to round things off. It appears that Parker Pearson does not do scientific method........
The “sinking stomach” feeling comes in this book even before the Introduction is over and done with, in definitive statements about the quarrying, shaping and transporting of Preseli bluestones. There is no reference to alternative explanations; speculations are stated as facts. So the book goes on, with many interesting pieces of evidence and insights spoiled -- for this reader at least -- by unsupported assumptions just as things are getting interesting. For example, the section on “Bluestonehenge” (Chapter 15) asserts that there were 25 pits that contained bluestones, which were later transferred to Stonehenge. But as I see it, and as other commentators have also pointed out, there is no evidence for 25 pits and no hard evidence that any of them actually held bluestones. In Chapter 16 the author asserts with great conviction that Stonehenge is where it is because of the discovery by its Neolithic builders that there were “periglacial stripes” which were aligned precisely with the midsummer solstice sunrise and the midwinter sunset. These features happen to have been revealed in a dig within the Avenue; but the author does not even try to convince us that they are unique, let alone significant. The need for a good story has simply trumped academic rigour. In Chapter 17 (on the origins of the bluestones) Parker Pearson’s enthusiasm for a good story once again runs away with him, and in attempting to discredit the “glacial transport theory” he misrepresents the arguments of proponents and even uses a map of the wrong glaciation to reinforce his scepticism.
Nowhere in the book does Parker Pearson question the thesis that there were about 82 bluestones imported from West Wales, or that the sarsens were transported from the Marlborough Downs area, or that the stone monument was actually completed. That’s a pity, since other authors are nowadays - quite rightly - testing these assumptions.
When he comes to his section on the “bluestone quarries” at Carn Goedog and Rhosyfelin the author really gets enthusiastic. At the latter site “.... we realized that we had not just a prehistoric quarry but a perfectly preserved one -- the Pompeii of prehistoric stone quarries.” Dramatic statements like that should be made sparingly by academics; and I have seen no evidence of any quarrying activity at Rhosyfelin, where the rockfall material examined thus far seems to me to be entirely natural. I am not aware of any peer review of Parker Pearson’s ideas about “the Rhosyfelin megalith quarry” prior to their publication in this book. And I am not aware that any geomorphologist has ever been involved in any discussions over site interpretation. That is regrettable, to say the least. Then he gets even more enthusiastic, fantasising about whole communities moving stone circles from Wales to Stonehenge as part of some grand political unification project. Again, who cares about evidence when you have such grand and all-encompassing ideas to play with?
There are too many other highly dubious statements to recount in the space of a brief review. Suffice to say that this book is a profound disappointment, since Parker Pearson is a good communicator who spoils everything with his tendency to make sweeping assertions about certainties that do not exist. To quote the author himself (p 308): “We cling onto what we think are certainties and it can be difficult to recognize when a mistake has been made earlier, back down the line, because it has taken on the status of incontrovertible fact.” Quite so.
Past Lecturer in Geography, Durham University