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Thursday, 21 August 2014

Review of Mike Parker Pearson's 2012 book


 One of the pages from the book.  A little less certainty and a little more circumspection might have been appropriate......

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).

Brian John

The Antiquaries Journal, FirstView Articles
http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=9243563&fulltextType=BR&fileId=S0003581514000043


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.

Brian John

Past Lecturer in Geography, Durham University

36 comments:

TonyH said...

Delighted, and stunned, in equal measure, to find that your review has made it onto the web site of The Antiquaries Journal.

It seems we do not live in North Korea after all.

My impression, based upon first - hand conversations, is that the "target readership" is as many as possible, so as to sell as many copies as possible.

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Brian,

Enjoyed reading your review of MPP's book. Well done. But I think your argument could have been more enhanced and more convincing if you also outlined what further research and excavations could help 'falsify' MPP's fantasies.

For example, the sampling of the buried stumps SH32 d/e and the Rhosyfelin C14 dates of samples taken but never revealed.

Or perhaps the C14 dates of fresh water shells from atop the Crag Rhosyfelin. Which, if these date to the Neolithic and sooner, would disprove MPP's Neolithic “megalith quarry” by proving the Crag was engulfed in water.

Kostas

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thanks Tony -- yes, I was quite intrigued myself! But they asked for a review, and when I provided it I suppose they had to use it!

Of course MPP wants to sell as many books as possible. Don't we all.....?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Kostas -- strict word limit. I would have loved to do a PROPER job, but I was over my word limit as it was, and pleasantly surprised that they did very little editing.

Myris of Alexandria said...

Who invited you to do the review.
Did not Dr Ixer review your book in the same journal.
It would be good to share backgrounds to those reviews.
M

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Brian,

I understand. Perhaps some other form or forum than a book review? Perhaps here? What new research can help decide the issue? Compiling such a list would make the point what we are told now is fantasy.

Kostas

BRIAN JOHN said...

I imagine that Tom James, the Reviews Editor, organizes all the reviews. The journal does a lot of them -- it must be pretty well a full-time job........ the only problem is that they only publish once a year, so there is always a big pile-up near the publication date.

AG said...

"But they asked for a review, and when I provided it I suppose they had to use it!"

Brian: That's not playing fair!
Now you've gone and embarrassed a lot of people!

Such a significant and influential journal, should not be publishing crack pot hypothesis dreamt up and supported by us swivel eyed loon's

AG said...

Tony H
No doubt the Kim Il Sungs will be having a word in poor Mr James's Shell like; and attempting to return his gaze to the correct page in the hymn book!

BRIAN JOHN said...

Not sure of your point here, Alex. the journal has not published anything -- this is the reviews section, which receives books from publishers and finds reviewers for them. I was quite flattered to be asked to do a review -- and, as I say, surprised, since normally archaeology tomes are reviewed by archaeologists. By asking a non-archaeologist to look at the book, the journal presumably knew that there might well be a rather more objective scrutiny brought to bear.......

chris johnson said...

Fair comment.

It is difficult for the archaeological establishment to find the right voice. On the one hand there is a popular interest, and on the other hand there are serious academics. Many consumers also want to be taken seriously and have direct access to the evidence. Mike did actually succeed to make a readable book that covered a lot of ground seriously.

Looking back I find the biggest unaddressed question to be the "sacred landscape" which is much wider than Stonehenge. When Stonehenge was being constructed in 2500 BC then so was Avebury and so were many other monuments. Glastonbury area is fascinating too.

Mike hints at links with the far North. Orkney is a long way away and yet there are connections. Anyone visiting the Boyne valley cannot fail to be impressed, and perhaps Prescelly was part of this cultural tapestry.

The MPP book scratches the surface of the history. He begins to ask questions in a broader context but very tentatively, like a man in a trench with a small shovel and eyes focussed on his own feet.

Constantinos ragazas said...

Chris,

You write, ”It is difficult for the archaeological establishment to find the right voice.”.

”find the right voice”? Really? What about finding the objective truth! They are not writing a novel afterall to struggle with finding the right voice. Or are they!

Kostas

TonyH said...

MPP has admitted that his all- time hero is the eminently fictitious Indiana Jones, who brought Harrison Ford as much attention as his previous character in the Star Wars films, Hans Solo.

Current Archaeology, meanwhile is eulogising one of Parker Pearson's less flamboyant contemporaries, Alasdair Whittle - incidentally, a person who has done much good work in the landscape surrounding Avebury e.g. Windmill Hill and the palisaded enclosures close to West Kennett farm and the river Kennet. In the September issue, Whittle's contemporary, David Miles describes him as a hero of European prehistoric studies. At a prize-winning May Cardiff conference** held in his honour, "speaker after speaker emphasised Alasdair's inspiration...through detailed dating, ethnographic analogy, climatic, isotopic, and biological studies"....."This was not one of those exercises in self-congratulation. Alasdair himself, the ever forthright Alex Bayliss, and many others emphasisied what remains to be done...."
** "People, Place and Time in Neolithic and Chalcolithic Europe"

Jon Morris said...

It is difficult for the archaeological establishment to find the right voice. On the one hand there is a popular interest, and on the other hand there are serious academics.

Personally, I enjoyed MPP's book. I also enjoyed reading his theories. Having said that, I've enjoyed reading many of the books on Stonehenge (with one or two notable exceptions)

Other than general interest, it's difficult from the lay person's point of view to see what the point of doing the work at Rhosfelin is. So I guess the balancing act between popular interest and the academic is lost (at least to me).

chris johnson said...

Jon, you asked this challenging question about what is the point of researching Stonehenge a few weeks ago and it got me thinking.

I do believe that this type of research is very important these days when our society is asked to make huge decisions on the basis of insufficient factual information and with limited resources. It is important because of what we can discover about process and methods and motives, the weighing of evidence and the construction of a plausible narrative that can be acted upon.

To give some examples, think of global warming, genetic modification of crops, the situation in Ukraine, the rise of IS, etc. On a lower level, In my professional life the question of making substantial investments without the luxury of "objective truth" is a regular necessity. The archaeologists should have much of importance to teach us all.

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Chris,

You write, ”... without the luxury of “objective truth” is a regular necessity ...”. “Objective truth” is not a “luxury”! It is a necessity. What the archeologists and global warming and the rise of ISIS and everything else you mention teach us is without objective truth we sink further into the Abyss of the Unknowing. Where fantasies are real and reality is deemed a fantasy.

Though we may not always know objective truth, we can know to value it above all else. And when we can know objective truth we should seek knowing it above any construction of a narrative we seek to sell.

We can know the lithology of the buried stumps SH32d/e by simple sampling. So why don't we seek to know this objective truth? MPP knows the C14 dates from Rhosyfelin. Why doesn't he tell us that objective truth? Instead of writing more ”archeology stories” and giving more popular public talks?

Kostas

chris johnson said...

Kostas,
Stories are fundamental to our humanity. We need stories to make sense of things.
The sampling of the stumps you mention will not change the story materially, so perhaps not worth doing in this already much damaged context.
Why MPP does not reveal the C14 dates? Your guess is as good as mine. I can only assume that the story is not yet finished.

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Chris,

”Stories are fundamental to our humanity. We need stories to make sense of things.”

Truth is even more fundamental to our common humanity! And only true stories can help us make sense of things and of one another.

Knowing the objective truth of the buried stumps will certainly ” change the [Stonehenge] story materially”. For example, this objective truth can help prove MPP's Neolithic “quarry” is a fantasy. And as for ”Why MPP does not reveal the C14 dates? [.] I can only assume that the story is not yet finished”. So why is MPP telling his “quarry” story at all if the story is incomplete? The “objective truth” of the Rhosyfelin C14 dates obtained but not revealed IS the story! No need to make up stories in order to tell these dates. Unless these dates don't tell the same story MPP is telling.

Kostas

Jon Morris said...

It is important because of what we can discover about process and methods and motives, the weighing of evidence and the construction of a plausible narrative that can be acted upon.

That is a very plausible argument for benefit Chris. A description of the process, methods and motives which led to the sequence of development could well give exactly that sort of narrative.

The archaeologists should have much of importance to teach us all.

Sometimes it appears, at least to a lay observer, that the profession does not believe this to be the case. There appears to be very little promotion of archaeology as being beneficial to society.

But if the solution to what happened in our past; the 'why' of our monuments, is the type of thing you describe, it may prove to be a very delicate flower: Whatever it might be could point the way to places and things which would need protection if their relevance becomes known. A profession that is not confident of its own importance may not be the best guardian of this type of narrative?


TonyH said...

WHY is Parker Pearson's principal employer, University College London, permitting MPP to occupy several weeks, at least, every year, on digging at Rhosyfelin and Castell Mawr, if Mike is, for example, not divulging the Rhosyfelin Carbon 14 dates (for example) to the wider public?

Does Parker Pearson have a clause in his employment contract permitting him to continue his interests in Rhosyfelin, etc, separate from his UCL teaching and research activities?

Archaeologist - turne - journalist Mike Pitts has said in print a number of times that the glacial theory is merely a "fringe interest".

Yet MPP, Colin Richards and Josh Pollard, and a few others, the "Inner Sanctum", seem steadfastly hell - bent on pursuing their Closed Hypothesis that human beings happily lugged the bluestones to Wiltshire, fortifying their brawn with beer and community spirit. Could it be that this Closed Hypothesis is still flogged to death because it simply generates research funds [from gullible, wide - eyed outfits like the Smithsonian Institute and National Geographic?] to enable digging and analysis to take place? And, if some analysis, e.g. the Carbon 14 Rhosyfelin dates doesn't fit the Closed Hypothesis, it is simply discarded, rather than it being admitted publicly that this round peg does not fit into the square hole?

Could it be that, like the Saxons and the Vikings, who revelled in the mythical stories of Beowolf, our current sophisticated society similarly thoroughly enjoys and, on a primeval level, accepts without question, modern Myths, promulgated by what Brian terms "Senior Archaeologists"? What do others think?

chris johnson said...

If I was Mike I would want to test the part of his hypothesis on which much rests, namely that glaciers did not reach salisbury plain. It would be a nice project for a few geology students.

Currently Mike seems totally convinced that the science tells as "objective truth" that the glaciers never came anywhere near.

Meanwhile I look forward to another season digging in Prescelly because my hunch is that something very interesting is going to turn up there if it hasn't already.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Chris -- a few geology students? Please, let's get to the bottom of this and have GEOMORPHOLOGISTS involved! Then we might get somewhere.....

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Chris,

”Currently Mike seems totally convinced that the science tells as "objective truth" that the glaciers never came anywhere near.”

”that the glaciers never came anywhere near [Salisbury Plain]” is a self-serving conviction.

The Rhosyfelin C14 dates MPP is hiding from us is in essence an “objective truth”. The lithology of the buried stumps SH32d/e is also in essence an “objective truth”.

If MPP is really interested in “objective truth” he would release the C14 dates he is hiding and would sample SH32d/e in his next excavation of Stonehenge. Instead, he is busy working the masses giving talks and writing “stories”.

Speaking of “objective truth”, where are the Atkinson extensive excavation reports of Stonehenge? These also never seen the light of day. There is something about Stonehenge … that makes men mad and forgetful.

Kostas

chris johnson said...

Tony, several weeks a year?

My impression is that 10 days a year get squeezed in after the holidays and before school starts. There are no big resources being thrown at this - although it might be big in the archaeology world.

Could be MPP had a fixed sum to spend and is being parsimonious - very focussed. This could be why it takes so long to get the results. We all share an interest in this subject but from the lofty heights of London or Washington this might seem small beer compared to the spectacles at Gobleki Tepe or Brodgar or even the Stone Circles of the North, and Amesbury. After all MPP said it was a quarry so what is left to find?

My feeling is that MPP thinks he is on to something big and does not want to go half-cock. Frustrating for the bystanders... but. Strong rumours that Rhosyfelin has some mesolithic links and it will be necessary to dig deeper. If so I can see why he wants to keep low-profile. Of course he may have nothing at all....

@Brian. Don't you think a geologist would do as first step? After all, no self-respecting geomorphology student would want to be sent on what appears like a chase after wild geese.

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Chris,

The Rhosyfelin "proto-orthostat" is just a meter or so from the surface. If MPP wants to argue his Neolithic Rhosyfelin "quarry", he needs to show the C14 dates where this Proto-orthostat is laying date to the Neolithic. Why dig further and deeper for a Mesolithic connection? When the Neolithic claims are not substantiated?

As for Gobekli Tepe and Brodgar, this is a "switch and argue by association" argument. Does not work with those that want to know the truth.

Kostas

Myris of Alexandria said...

Kostas the chances of sampling unsampled orthostats buried or ABOVE ground by anyone is almost zero.
Continuing to harp on about this makes it less likely to happen. Drop it and allow slow discussions to take place.
M

BRIAN JOHN said...

Don't suppose harping on about it makes any difference to EH -- they probably don't read this blog. But if they do, it's no bad thing for them to realise that quite a few think that sampling might be rather a good idea.

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Myris,

” the chances of sampling unsampled orthostats buried or ABOVE ground by anyone is almost zero”

And why is that? Just a short year ago the opposite was argued! And appeals to sample all the Stonehenge stones were made in earnest and in print.

”Drop it and allow slow discussions to take place.”

The more reason why this issue cannot and should not be dropped! So honest discussions can take place. Why settle for “slow”? Which often means “never”. As the issue goes off the radar screen and the issue is forgotten. Such tactics just wont work here!

Kostas

chris johnson said...

@Kostas.
Give MPP some credit for doing a professional job.
Surely it is better to do things thoroughly? The evidence from various other digs, currently in Amesbury, points to a need to look back further in time.

I do not know what you expect to be revealed by sampling SH32 d/e. It will add to the dataset which is a good thing, but it will not change the narrative or the direction of research. Hence it is not worth doing at the moment.

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Chris,

”Give MPP some credit for doing a professional job”. Surely MPP does not need my “credit”. But then again, your comment was not really directed to me!

You write, ”Surely it is better to do things thoroughly”. Of course it is. So why is MPP promoting in talk and print and funding his Rhosyfelin “quarry” theory? Why such “rush to judgment” to shape public opinion of what is the “objective truth” here?

”I do not know what you expect to be revealed by sampling SH32 d/e”. Simply, the scientific “objective truth” of how all the thousands of Rhosyfelin rhyolite gravel got to be at Stonehenge from Wales. If these do NOT match ANY of the stones at Stonehenge (SH32 d/e being the “the last best hope” for a match), than the ONLY sensible explanation is the Rhosyfelin rhyolite gravel were carried to Stonehenge by Nature.

And that should put an end to MPP's Neolithic “quirry” fantasy. And that explains why MPP and all his “patners” want this issue to go away!

”...but it will not change the narrative or the direction of research. Hence it is not worth doing at the moment.”

That is a very sad state of professional attitudes researching the Truth of Stonehenge. Not worth doing? Only if you are not interested in knowing the “objective truth”! But only wish to sell a story.

Kostas

chris johnson said...

Kostas,
When you share the firmly held and widely supported opinion that the glaciers did not reach salisbury plain then of course Rhosyfelin is a quarry. What else could it be?

The truth behind the stumps won't move the ball forward although it is definitely "nice to know". For one we do not agree how many megaliths there were, so analysis that shows NO connection with Rhosyfelin does not prove anything. Analysis that shows a connection only confirms what nearly everybody already believes and is already acting upon. I hope you get my point?

I suppose what Myris is hinting at might make more sense - do the analysis as a part of a wider investigation but then this new investigation needs to be framed convincingly - if I understand Myris correctly. That is the trouble with enigmas, so much guesswork.

You seem determined to ignore the expert opinions that the debitage is NOT gravel, but looks like the result of people breaking larger stones. Perhaps this is the data point that you should be challenging first because the hallowed turf does not need breaking open to check these opinions.

Jon Morris said...

Chris

Do you mind if I quote you for a special blog post I'm thinking of preparing?

I had closed up the blog to new comment, but think it might be worth doing one more post.

All the best

Jon

chris johnson said...

Jon, I don't mind.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Kostas -- comment blocked. Fed up with this gravel obsession -- and you have made the same points many times before.

Constantinos Ragazas said...

Chris,

I'll spare Brian the moral dilemma of blocking more of my comments by limiting my comments to the arguments in your comment. Please clarify:

Are you arguing if it were shown the Rhosyfelin rhyolite chips at Stonehenge did not match any of the Stonehenge stones above and below the ground these chips would likely match missing megaliths?

I will not counter-argue here … but, for the record, would like you to confirm that is what you are arguing.

Kostas

chris johnson said...

Kostas,
We DO NOT agree how many bluestones there were. We DO NOT know how many were needed in the different phases of the monument. We DO know that several are missing, either partially or even completely.

It is always going to be impossible to say, according to your high standards of objective truth, that the debitage did NOT come from a megalith.

In all likelihood the debitage did come from a megalith - that is what it looks like to expert eyes. Proving this is nice to know when and if the opportunity arises, but it is hardly in the top ten of stonehenge questions. When resources are scarce this is not the type of question to spend time on.

I hope I am clearer this time.