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Saturday, 14 February 2015

The Infamous Rhosyfelin "Proto-Orthostat"



 The Infamous Rhosyfelin "Proto-orthostat"

White elephant, red herring and aberration

Why is it that the most famous slab of rock in the archaeological firmament at the moment is this big lump of foliated rhyolite from Rhosyfelin, not far from Brynberian in North Pembrokeshire? 

Well, part of the answer lies in the fact that the geologists have made a pretty accurate match between the foliated rhyolites in an outcropping crag at this site and some of the "rhyolitic debitage" at Stonehenge. Any sensible earth scientist would say "Fine.  Interesting research.  It's always satisfying when erratic material at one place can be matched with a provenance a long way off, no matter what the mode of transport might have been between source and resting place."  He or she would then ponder on transport mechanisms and assume that glacier ice was probably involved, since other evidence on the record suggests that the ice of the Irish Sea Glacier extended at one stage at least as far as central Somerset.........

The other part of the answer lies in the fact that certain archaeologists have "taken possession" of the Rhosyfelin site and have pontificated, in their infinite wisdom, that glacier ice cannot possibly have extended all the way from Pembrokeshire to Salisbury Plain and that there must, therefore, have been a "bluestone quarry" at Rhosyfelin.  They had decided this even before they started digging on the site in 2011 -- and when a large slabby rock was found among the rockfall debris near the degraded rock face they all shouted "Bingo!" and proceeded to tell the world that this was indeed a bluestone quarry and that the "proto-orthostat" would have been taken off to Stonehenge if cruel fate had not intervened.  And from that point on, an extremely elaborate story has been put together by Pof MPP and his colleagues....... and heavily promoted through popular articles, press releases and lectures.

All terribly exciting.  But hang on for a moment.  Let's look at this in the cold light of day.

Is there any evidence of Rhosyfelin foliated rhyolite being used as a standing stone at Stonehenge?  Er, no....... apart from some chips of rock found in the debitage during excavations. 

Is there any evidence of the Rhosyfelin rhyolite being "special" in some way,  or of it being used in megalithic contexts in Pembrokeshire?  Er, no...... 

Does the Rhosyfelin "proto-orthostat" look like any of the standing or recumbent bluestones at Stonehenge?  Er, no..... 

Is there any evidence of slabs of rock being levered off rock faces by Neolithic quarrymen anywhere else in Pembrokeshire?  Er, no..... 

Is there any indisputable evidence of quarrying activity at Rhosyfelin itself?  Er no...... but if you give us long enough we'll certainly find it......

Any archaeologist who knows southern Britain must admit, if he is honest, that the Rhosyfelin "proto-orthostat" is an aberration.  There is no other word for it.  It is nothing like the standing dolerite bluestones of the Stonehenge bluestone horseshoe, and it is nothing like the collection of smoothed and rounded stumps, slabs, blocks and boulders found in the Stonehenge bluestone circle.  The Rhosyfelin stone is sharp-edged and angular, with a remarkably fresh appearance -- as you would expect of a rock which has fallen from a nearby cliff or rock face.  The Stonehenge bluestones (or at least those that are undressed) are rounded or well-rounded and very irregular in shape -- they show signs of considerable abrasion during prolonged transport by ice.

The conclusion has to be that the Rhosyfelin "proto-orthostat" is simply a big stone in a random position, having fallen from the cliff face at some time during the Holocene.  It has no archaeological significance, either for Stonehenge or anywhere else -- unless some powerful evidence emerges to suggest otherwise.

"But wait," say the archaeologists. "We have the evidence!  Look at the way the big stone just lies there on its props and pillars, in glorious isolation, ready to be moved off down the valley."  To which I reply that when you do an excavation and strip away all the stones and soil that once surrounded the big stone, of course it sits there in isolation, resting on the stones that are beneath it.  You have created an artifice rather than revealed something significant.

"But there's more!" say the archaeologists. "We have yet more evidence, and this time it's indisputable!  Signs of Neolithic occupation and radiocarbon dates to show that this was an important Neolithic site and that quarrymen were at work here at just the right time to move stones off to Stonehenge."  That will all come rather soon in one or more papers from the digging team.  We shall see what the colour of the evidence is -- but my instinct (from what has thus far been revealed) is to respond that Rhosyfelin was a perfect site for a temporary Neolithic camp -- in the shelter of the rock, protected by trees and the steep valley sides from the wild winter winds of West Wales, and convenient for both hunting and fishing.  If there was a camp here, used over many millennia -- was it in any way unique?  How many similar camps were there in the deep valleys of Pembrokeshire, and how many might be revealed if the archaeologists were to check them out with the same level of financial investment and manpower commitment as we have seen at Rhosyfelin?  (There is always a danger (in geomorphology, geology and archaeology) of referring to a field discovery as unique or significant when it may be nothing of the sort -- it may be unique IN YOUR EXPERIENCE because you haven't yet discovered all the other sites where the same thing occurs.)

If there was a settlement site at Rhosyfelin, that's really interesting.  But I hope to goodness that the archaeologists do not use that discovery to push their ruling hypothesis that this was a QUARRYING SETTLEMENT and that those in residence during the Neolithic were intent on shipping off a rather large rhyolite stone to Stonehenge until orders came down from their site managers that work should stop, since their client had cancelled the order.


Alex Gee said...

So what you're saying then Brian is that MPP and his followers should be grateful that Archeology isn't a science?

Otherwise; given the lack of evidence for quarrying, they'd be occupying the same reputational niche as the scientists who claimed to have cracked "cold fusion"?

As a coincidence, I think one of the cold fusionists is currently working in the Burger king just outside Amesbury!

Alex Gee said...

Perhaps Myris or others could advise?

With the plethora of analytical techniques available today, surely it's possible to ascertain whether or not the rundng or erosion of the orthostats was due to natural processes or human intervention?

Although those who've staked their reputations on ridiculing the ideas of Kellaway may not be quite so keen?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Well, let's see what the evidence of quarrying turns out to be, when these long-awaited papers are published. I doubt that the evidence of hammer-stones, rails, pivots and pillars will be any different from that already presented in assorted lectures -- all of which I found singularly unconvincing.

No, I don't think archaeology is a science, although archaeologists do employ some quite sophisticated techniques nowadays. You judge a scientist by his style of thinking, not by his gadgets.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Alex -- re the rounding of the stones in the bluestone circle, there is no way that could be attributed to human agency. There are no grooves or hammer-stone or maul marks like those seen on some of the sarsens. The damaged and chipped edges, on the other hand, look fresh and are almost certainly down to human intervention. The only way that degree of rounding could have occurred is by long-distance glacial transport or long exposure to subaerial weathering processes.

TonyH said...

As regards Mike PP and his well - known Ruling Hypothesis (as far as Stonehenge bluestone human transportation is concerned) I do recall him saying very clearly, probably more than once, that he believes in setting out a hypothesis, or scenario, and testing out that hypothesis as his excavation and array of background researches continue. Then, if the newly - emerging evidence CONFLICTS with his initial scenario, he will always have to ADJUST or CHANGE his hypothesis. Incidentally, he gave an example of doing just this with regard to the so - called "Bluestonehenge" site, at the bottom of the Stonehenge Avenue by the River Avon. His Team's initial opinion, at the end of a Season's digging in 2008, had to be considerably altered the following Season. He said all this to camera, talking to Tony Robinson on a one - off Special of Time Team.

Let's hope Mike PP is going to be as good as his word on matters Rhosyfelin too.

I also recall him saying to me in a private conversation on his "Sarsen Stones transportation to Stonehenge" dig near Marlborough (at Clatford for those who wish to find out more, go into Brian's Search Engine}, that he very nearly chose to study Geography (like me and Brian did) rather than Archaeology at University. It's not too late for some private familiarisation with the techniques of geomorphology, Mike.

T said...

Brian, you have the Geologist Isobel Geddes agreeing with you, in print, as regards the Bluestones and glaciation.

Her book, "Hidden Depths: Wiltshire's Geology and Landscapes", 2000, says:-

"There is a school of thought that the bluestones of Stonehenge and Heytesbury could have been brought by the earliest (Late Tertiary) ice sheet; they have a variety of Welsh sources, not just Pembrokeshire, as is commonly believed. A few have been striated (i.e scratched) by ice movement (although this could have happened in Wales."

I am pretty sure Isobel Geddes would agree with you also on your point made at 22.06 back to Alex about rounded edges of the bluestones in the Stonehenge circle not possibly being attributable to human agency, but in fact caused by geomorphological processes.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thanks Tony -- I hadn't recalled Isobel saying that there are striations on some pf the bluestones. Which ones? What do the striations look like? Has anybody got any photos? Were any striations remarked upon when the results of the laser survey were published? (Can't get at the said document here on La Gomera, where the broadband link is erratic, to say the least.....)

TonyH said...

Isobel G doesn't enlarge upon the quote in the 2000 book I quote.

Brian, why not contact her, either via the Wiltshire Geology Group, or via Facebook. I'm not on Facebook, but she is. Something you could do on your return from your inter Break?

Myris of Alexandria said...

In the annals of infamy, put up he 1950s photo of AN32e.
Then the clinching proto-orthostat comes back into contention.Do read Marcus Abott.
Still this is a good line of argument.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Myris -- good morning! We have dealt with this before. As I said before, I think you have the numbering wrong. 32e is a dolerite, I suspect. The stumps that look like flaky rhyolite are 32c and 32d. See the original photo:

Anonymous said...

Ah 32d then, 32c looks like a volcanics with sub-planar texture
32d does look like CRyf
32e could be dolerite but Dr Ixer thought it has a planar fabric.
Still 32x take your pick is like the end of the proto-orthostat

TonyH said...

Just driven back from a family pub lunch near Ashley, Box. As we passed Bathford, to our left above us was Brown's Folly, where remnants of glacial till have been found and incorporated into the British Geological Survey's maps [see previous Posts]; also discovered at Kingsdown above Ashley and Box. Similarly, to our right, across the "Bristol" River Avon, the BGS has determined there is more very early glacial evidence, on Bathampton Down near the University of Bath. I read that, for example, traces of coal have been found in the glacial deposits. We are hereabouts, as the crow flies, only 25 miles or less from Stonehenge. And this is the Scientific Story so this space!!

TonyH said...

Further to my last point, people could take a look at Brian's Post dated 19 August 2014, "The Avon Ice Lobe", where the contents of glacial till found east of Bath are analysed. This also well illustrates a map relevant to what I have just said, from a 1995 publication by Donovan.