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Friday, 7 August 2015

Rhosyfelin: manufacturing a Holy Grail

 After two months abroad, I called in at Rhosyfelin today, and this was how the big stone and its wrapping looked.  Wrapped up for protection from prying eyes.....

Not long ago I picked up from a rather senior figure in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority (PCNPA) that some sort of planning is in process for the designation of Craig Rhosyfelin as a key "heritage site"  -- one of the jewels in the crown which will be publicised mercilessly as Pembrokeshire seeks to show the world just how important it is in terms of archaeology and prehistoric heritage.  The tourism business in the UK is highly competitive these days, and you have to promote your assets for all you are worth, if you are to compete with other regions which also depend -- to an ever-increasing extent -- upon tourist income during the summer months.  So to hell with good science and the truth -- this is all about marketing and commercial advantage.

I reminded said senior figure that Rhosyfelin is not a Scheduled Ancient Monument, that there is no prospect of it being declared one, and that there is nothing in print (peer reviewed or otherwise) to demonstrate that there is anything at all here which is of archaeological interest, let alone a Neolithic Bluestone Quarry.  My letter to said senior figure has not elicited a reply.  That reminds me of the occasion, a couple of years ago, when I sought to correct some of the things put about by Phil Bennett, the senior archaeologist at the National Park, about Rhosyfelin:

My letter was ignored by Phil, and although I have reminded him about it subsequently, it remains ignored.  I am less than impressed.  And in the time that has passed since the start of the Rhosyfelin dig in 2011,  certain people have hoofed about on the lecture circuit, enthusiastically promoting the idea that the evidence from Rhosyfelin is "the smoking gun" in the bluestone transport debate, and that this site is "the Pompeii of prehistoric stone quarries"...........

Unstoppable momentum?  So it would appear, when nobody, apparently, wants to look at evidence and everybody, for their own reasons, wants a marketable product.  Of course, Rhosyfelin is highly marketable.  Who would not be interested in a Neolithic Bluestone Quarry?  So public access and visitor enjoyment have to be encouraged and enhanced, and things must be visible enough for the public to enjoy.  And clearly, as a part of this strategy, THE BIG STONE has to be the prime exhibit.  It is already designated as the Holy Grail, and on that basis it must be protected and nurtured -- and the mystique surrounding it has to be built up, bit by bit, until it is finally revealed to the world in a blaze of glory.  Just a reminder that we have seen it before, and that it looks like this:

Shock!  Horror!  People actually standing on the Holy Grail, and one of them rolling a ciggy at the same time.........  whatever next?  Well, the National Park (I presume) has tried to protect the stone from such blatant abuse on two previous occasions, so far as I am aware.  This is what it looked like last time:

At the time, I joked about the black plastic looking like a shroud, thinking that the stone was going to be reburied with full archaeological honours before very long.  But no, the black plastic (which was of course very quickly removed by inquisitive passers-by) was there for a much higher purpose, namely the protection of a valuable if not iconic object, to be protected at all costs.

I am still not sure who put the black plastic over the stone, and on whose authority -- but let that pass..........

This all reminds me of that poor little erratic in New Jersey, trapped in an iron cage. Does a similar fate await the famous Rhosyfelin pseudo-proto-orthostat? (It's somewhat larger than this little one, and a crude cage like this, made with concrete reinforcement rods, would never do inside the National Park.  Probably the budget would have to be found for a cage which is designed and created by a genuine master craftsman......)

So what about this amazing pseudo-proto-orthostat which is now to be considered on a par with the Holy Grail?  Let's just remind ourselves that it is completely useless as orthostats go, since it is too heavy (at 8 tonnes, about 4 times heavier than most of the other "bluestones" at Stonehenge; not a particularly useful shape; made of a very splintery and easily-shattered rock type; and so full of fractures that it could not possibly have survived transport out of the Brynberian Valley, let alone transport all the way to Stonehenge.  Also, let's remind ourselves that there is no evidence from anywhere that the Rhosyfelin foliated rhyolite was valued in any way as a rock suitable for orthostats, single standing stones, or cromlech pillars or capstones.  I know of no other prehistoric monument that used this foliated rhyolite -- and I suspect that is because no Neolithic stone-worker would have considered for a moment that it was worth using.  Maybe for cutting tools, but not for sticking in the ground as a pillar, for some ritual purpose or other.

The transverse fracture running across the face of the Rhosyfelin big slab.  It runs deep into the heart of the stone, perpendicular to the foliation planes in the rock.  The block is in grave danger of breaking in half.

So the fantasy rolls on -- and as it rolls by, more and more people jump on board, partly because they defer to the opinions of a certain professor who has a high media profile, and partly because it's good for business.  Some people not far away from here have just opened a little display relating to the prehistory of the area.  It proudly refers to the "Stonehenge Bluestone Quarry" which is over near Brynberian.  When challenged about this, the reply was: "Who cares what the truth is?  People love a heroic  story, and it's good for trade........"

Part of me thinks that none of this actually matters very much, since it's all froth.  But then another part of me thinks: "Whatever happened to scientific methods and academic standards?"

By the way, the National Park has posted a notice saying that the public footpath running past the tip of the Rhosyfelin rock spur will be closed for the month of September, or for the duration of the 2015 dig.  It will not cause any inconvenience to anybody, since a new temporary footpath will be in operation, just a few metres closer to the river.  Access to the dig site will still be very easy.


TonyH said...

Compare "Piltdown Man: a hoaxer still pursued", 17th December 2012 [a hundred years later] IN:-

Myris of Alexandria said...

Oh Brian the only one frothing is your own dear self.
Who suggested the Pompeii, quite good but better to use the little place up the river Mons Claudianus,far closer analogy.

I have been told the Cryf Antiquity paper has dozens of interesting C14 dates enough for even Kostas to engorge upon.

Qtz outcrop, subcrop is interesting, there are Welsh qtz standing stones, perhaps the ancients were looking for large qtz outcrops before hitting the jackpot at CRyf.
Can somebody please translate Mons Claudianus into old Welsh for me.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Myris, dear friend, somebody has to do a bit of frothing, and since nobody with any knowledge of geomorphology has apparently ever been invited by the diggers to look at this site, I suppose it has to be me...... but others from the QRA will be looking at it too, so let's hope that there will be a few more restraining voices before too long.

The Pompeii quote, by the way, comes directly from Prof MPP.

Mons Claudianus? Please elucidate.

When the Antiquity paper is published, we all look forward to seeing dozens of C14 dates and working out what they mean. All the sediments are riddled with root remains, so there is plenty of organic debris. Context is everything, and lots of dates (even if some of them are Neolithic) will not in themselves prove that this is a Neolithic orthostat quarry site.

My personal preference is the idea that there might have been a camp site here, with the rhyolite outcrops and fallen slabs maybe used for the making of cutting tools.

You use the term "jackpot" for CRyF -- see what I mean? You too are infected with Holy Grail mentality. It's a very worrying condition......

TonyH said...


Mons Claudianus: simple!

Merthyr Tydfil (although some locals insist on translating this as "having had a skinful of Brains'")

And, yes indeed, the Pompeii quote comes direct from the Master himself, MPP, in "Stonehenge: exploring the greatest Stone Age mystery" [2012]. Some of us still remember fondly Mr Frankie Howerd's outstanding thespian performances as Lurkio in the drama, "Up Pompeii".

BRIAN JOHN said...

Mons Claudianus? Merthyr Tydfil? I am but a simple soul, and do not have the faintest idea what this is all about.....

BRIAN JOHN said...

Ah -- Mons Claudianus and the Roman quarry. Yes, we have quarries in Pembs too, much closer to home -- Trefgarn, Garnwen, Abereiddy, Caerfai, Bolton Hill and plenty more. Relevance, please?

Myris of Alexandria said...

At Mons Claudianus (The recently dead and much missed Prof Peacock of S'Hampton started this- his book The Stones of Life should be made enforced reading)the ancient sequence of quarrying can be determined petrographically. I am constantly amazed there is no Muse dedicated to petrography.
The porphyry from here was transported as HUGE very heavy lumps all over the Roman Empire but only for Imperial monuments.
Hence- a in seamless weave- we reach (St) Constantine Palaeologos Porphyrogentus.

For those collecting heavy rock movements do not forget the Olmeca Heads etc as seen outdoors at La Venta. Vera Cruz?/Tabasco?.

Myris of Alexandria. said...

I want to use the Mons Claudianus analogy for my chatettes but want it in Welsh.

Wonderful man Mr Howard and rediscovered by Cilla Black she helped him through the very dark times.


TonyH said...

Yes, and 'e gave Us all a lorra lorra laughs, didn't he?

But WHERE, Myris, IS Mons Cluudianus, and is it named after Emperor Claudius (who led the Roman invasion of Britain A.D. 43) whom Derek Jacobi played in more recent Centuries?

Alex Gee said...

Brian: Just a random thought about your posts on the much awaited MPP paper, and the comments received.

Perhaps Myris could explain when and why the pet rock boys view of the paper changed from absolute certainty to "we'll all hang together?

Would be most interested to hear!

BRIAN JOHN said...

I still fail to see why a Roman quarry in Egypt is any sort of analogy for whatever happened at Rhosyfelin in the Neolithic.......

Myris of Alexandria said...

Brian you miss my point.
I was commenting on the aptness of Pompeii as an analogy, I think Mons Claudianus better as both are quarries where special rocks have been transported anthropogenically to very special places. Pompeii is tawdry and packed and there is a lack of crisp bodies at CRyf.
Gee!, sigh, somebody as ever, is plodding two paces behind the rest of us.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Ah -- fair enough. Feel free to complain to MPP about using Pompeii inappropriately.

re this: ".......both are quarries where special rocks have been transported anthropogenically to very special places." Totally disagree -- nothing to show that Rhosyfelin rock was special in any way, nothing to show it was transported anthropogenically. Might agree with you that Stonehenge was considered special in some way.....

TonyH said...

It recently occurred to me that the extent to which the ease with which the notion that certain "bluestone" rocks were transported anthropogenically in spectacular fashion all the way to "The Old Ruin" was swallowed hook, line and sinker from the early 20th Century to the present day, is linked, in the Collective Subconscious of Punters, to the OTHER notion that was similarly collectively swallowed hook, line and sinker over all those years.

That other notion is that, for certain, those OTHER megaliths present at Stonehenge, the much, much larger and heavier sarsen stones, were undoubtedly, no argument, carried all the way from the Marlborough Downs, perhaps even close to Avebury.

This last notion about the sarsen transportation has been challenged by David Field, formerly of English Heritage (now called Historic ENGLAND). He has researched the written and map records around Stonehenge, and supports the idea that perhaps many of the sarsen stones were in the vicinity of Stonehenge, and were utilised because they were handy.

His claim is contained in a newly - published book, of which he is part author. More anon.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thanks Tony. Thanks too for that review -- arrived in the post today. Will give it a mention.

David Field has been saying this about the sarsens for some time. He is by no means the first. Andrew Goudie and various others have the same view -- a far more sensible one than the myth involving haulage from the Vale of Pewsey, or wherever.

Myris of Alexandria said...

Brian I was being naughty and certainly one could argue as Dr Ixer has in his published letter "Stonehenge and the Inka" that the Stonehenge stones had little importance outside of their immediate context.the stonehenge landscape.
But.... that quasi-proto-orthostat remains your favourite pachyderm room mate.
Must check spelling hope it will not be a mammoth task.

BRIAN JOHN said...

The focus on that big stone is not of my making, Myris. You forget that Prof MPP, as soon as it was discovered in 2011, told that world that this was the "smoking gun" (and assorted other symbols) which proved definitively that this was a Neolithic bluestone quarry, and that the bluestone transport debate was over and done with. That's why he has been trying, ever since, to prove the correctness of the ruling hypothesis and why I have sought (not very successfully) to be a restraining influence.

Somebody has a millstone (sorry, mammoth) round his neck, and it sure ain't me.

Hugh Thomas said...

Does anyone know how deep in the sediment layers the *cough * "Holiest of orthostats " was found to be buried ? If indeed it once sat on the floor of a "neolithic quarry" at Rhos y Felyn could it be reasonably expected to have been buried to that depth since the suspected historical quarrying window and the modern day if had been abandoned on site ? What bothers me is the fact that no ancient sites like cromlechs and standing stones even locally seem to be similarly buried, they are all still above ground .. Just a thought.... Apart from this , anyone who has seen this orthostat in person will soon recognise it is not made of a solid block but layers which can be flaked away, hardly a candidate for transport given the fact it has already begun to split laterally. So unless some cataclysmic event occurred that buried the quarry floor rapidly soon after this rock was hewn from the outcrop or it has been buried for much longer than the contemporary standing stones in the landscape around...

BRIAN JOHN said...

Hugh -- I agree with you that the "proto-orthostat" is completely useless, and would be no good at all for anybody wanting to put it into a hole in the ground, let alone to cart it off to Stonehenge. As far as I understand it (I wasn't there when it was uncovered) its upper surface wasn't far beneath the surface -- maybe 25-50 cms? Somebody else might put us right on that. But from the images I posted in 2011, you can see that there were thick overlying / enclosing sediments:
with no trace of a "quarrying floor" and no break in sedimentation. This is simply a continuous sequence of rockfalls and slope deposit accumulation over many thousands of years. As I have said before (many times!), if all of the sediments shown in the photos published on 24.09.2011 are post-Neolithic, or more recent than 4500 BP, where on earth are all the sediments from the 15,000 years before that?

Myris said...

It would of course be useful to look at the debitage and see how strong is the foliation of the Welsh rocks found at SH or indeed look at SH38, 40 or even Atkinson's photo showing the 32a-e stumps to realise that the argument the rocks chosen by Neolithic/BA man to build SH were too foliated for use is quite lacking in merit.
Brian if you are correct in your last paragraph then it is not for archies to answer that question as it has no importance to them. It is for Holocene scientists to determine. Lower down perhaps??
Nowhere has the excavation reached bedrock, it would be very interesting to know what the bedrock is, not CRyf rhyolite I guess.

BRIAN JOHN said...

There's a big difference between using whatever was available or easily accessible (assuming the SH builders sourced everything locally) and carting flaky or friable rocks all the way from West wales to Stonehenge. I think those "useless" rocks were used simply because there was nothing else available. That's a perfectly reasonable hypothesis.

I think the excavation has reached bedrock, in the vicinity of the big stone, just a bit upvalley. I have done posts on this -- worn rhyolite surfaces, and outcropping quartz veins. All will no doubt be revealed in the 2015 dig.

That's a strange idea -- namely that archaeologists have no interest in how old the sediments are, or where they have come from! I should have thought that is an absolutely fundamental point, and if they haven't been thinking about it, God help us all.....

Hugh Thomas said...

Thank you Brian for pointing out the threads on the orthostat depth, surely it is clear this slab has fallen and ended up too deep in the sediments for the "sands of time " to cover it sparcely and support the quarry theory ? Even to a layman such as myself it is obvious the answers lay in the surrounding sediments. It is also starkely obvious to me that the diggers would have jumped on any suitably shaped rock buried in the sediments within 100 yards of Rhos Y Felyn . There are hundreds of prostate elongated shaped orthostats scattered all over Preselau but only 30-40 of what I have seen have made me check twice and maybe 25-35 still have me scratching my head feeling they could well be worked stones. Farmers have been dragging them off the ridge for centuries so it does not mean it was the ancients working on them.
It is obvious the powers at be are trying to sell a product because most will not get out there and look at what is in the landscape and they rely on that . They are doing their best to get everyone caught up in some sort of bluestone fever . I have walked with archaeologists and pointed out the bluestone mystery and most of them I encountered believe in it. When though , I challenge them and say " Well should you not be proving it once and for all ?" , I more often that not get met with blank stares....

BRIAN JOHN said...

When, at the end of a glacial episode (or after a cliff face rockfall) you get a long period of "normal" conditions when slope processes are operating, the fines moving downslope will first of all fill in all the spaces or gaps between big stones and then gradually the surface will rise. Sometimes, if you look carefully, you will see the "flowlines" around a big obstacle, with the long axes of the small stones in the slope material aligned for least resistance. If a geomorphologist had been involved in this dig, he would have looked for that as a diagnostic feature. As it is, I have my doubts........... I suspect that in their excitement, the archaeologists simply shovelled all that stuff away without properly looking at it.

Eventually a big stone is completely covered by this rising tide of slope deposits; and after that the surface continues to rise, burying the big stone more and more deeply. The stone alignments in this topmost layer will of course show no deflections.

Subtle changes in the stratigraphy of this slope layer will represent climatic oscillations and changes in vegetation too.

Myris of Alexandria said...

Brian bedrock needs to be proven. I am not convinced that you are not mistaking float or sub-crop for bedrock.
Once the archaeology has stopped there is no archaeological point in digging further.
I put my faith in well contexted C14 dates, no rootlets were harmed in the radiometric dating,
Sediments beneath the quarry site are just that. Holocene sediments.

TonyH said...

"We've found the Neolithic road surface [just south of the river Kennet at Clatford] and it's a Motorway" purred MPP a few years back whilst I was participating in his joint UCL and Universities of Leicester and Southampton dig. A man given to rather instantaneous conclusions. It's all gone very quiet since, and I believe funding wasn't received for further digging.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Myris -- I am intrigued by the manner in which you have become the chief apologist for the archaeologists! Well, as they say, somebody has to do it........

What's the problem with bedrock outcropping just up the valley from the uppermost end of the big stone? I'm fairly convinced by the quartz vein and some patches of what I take to be bedrock -- very much moulded and smoothed. I have published some pics of them. We should not expect the bedrock floor to be deeply buried after all -- this is quite a shallow little valley.

I'm not bothered about rootlets being harmed during the radiocarbon sampling programme. (I might be rather more worried about the mature trees and many shrubs that have simply been cleared away, but let that pass.) I am rather more intrigued by the mosaic of very ancient, dead and decayed roots which penetrates all the sediments. There are also organic-rich horizons. They must be of many different ages. I hope none of the ancient roots have been used in the sampling programme. If charcoal or bone has been found in secure archaeological contexts, now that's a different matter, and much more interesting!

Myris of Alexandria said...

Have rootlets ever been used? I cannot think they have, for obvious reasons.
We know there is outcrop nearby after all the quarry face is part of the excavation site.
But it is bedrock beneath the quarry floor that is important. That has not been hit so there could be metres of Holocene sediments beneath the archaeology, it is just unknown.
Vein quartz is notorious for forming float. Continuous bedrock is needed.
I fear the C14 results will afford you little comfort.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Ah, now this is getting interesting! Let battle be joined.

So you need somewhere for the sediments between 20,000 years BP and 5,000 yrs BP to go, so you conveniently speculate that they are somewhere beneath the big stone. You say: ".......there could be metres of Holocene sediments beneath the archaeology, it is just unknown." If the present dig surface downslops of the big stone represents "the archaeology", take it from me and from any other geomorphologist who chooses to look at the site that there are no hidden or mysterious Holocene sediments waiting to be discovered. You are already down onto the Devensian glacial and fluvioglacial materials, around 20,000 years old.

And if the archaeologists refuse to check for sediments under the big stone, or for the presence of bedrock roughly in the position where I think it is, that could be a VERY interesting admission of the dubious nature of their chronology, whatever that might be.

So let's get this straight. You are referring to a "quarry floor" somewhere around the level at which the diggers stopped last year -- ie just beneath the big stone.

That means my assumption is correct -- that everything above that "floor" -- ie several metres of slope deposits -- is interpreted as being less than 5,000 years old. That is vanishingly unlikely. The dig has exposed the till surface in the vicinity of the big stone. Are you really saying that the "Neolithic quarrymen" removed all the sediments accumulated in the period 20,000 yrs BP to 5,000 yrs BP (ie over 15,000 years), then used the old till surface as a quarry floor onto which they could drop a few "proto-orthostats" prior to carting them off to Stonehenge? What on earth would be the point of that? The whole idea would be -- excuse my French -- completely preposterous!

Let's say the rate of sedimentation for these slope deposits, according to the archaeologists, is c 2m per 5,000 years. So over 15,000 years that would equal about 6m of slope deposits. And the quarrymen removed all of that just to give themselves a nice "quarry floor" to play about on? Come come, dear Myris.......

You also say: "Once the archaeology has stopped there is no archaeological point in digging further." Well, my advice to the archaeologists, which they probably don't want, is this: out with the JCB and get digging, upslope of the big stone, until you hit something which you are happy to call bedrock. Then we will see what the full sedimentary sequence is. There might be some broken rock or head under the till, but that would be normal for Pembrokeshire.

No matter how wonderful the radiocarbon dates might be, cockeyed stratigraphy is not going to do anybody any good. Hmmm -- I have rather a bad feeling about this forthcoming paper......

Myris of Alexandria said...

I am being unfair I am toying with you. Although the strat is fully discussed I do not have insufficient interest to work through it in all its detail. It looks correct and believable. My use of quarry is just to wave a red rag as to quarry floor that was naught but wickedness.
As to what is going on down slope from the proto orthostat (wave, wave) I have not really thought about it and was intending it.
But even if the proto orthostat have the words Stonehenge next stop" carved on them you would still have strong doubts about any paper that does not support you ideas.
Weigh up
A restricted series of large similar sized Welsh stones is glacially dumped close to Stonehenge, but no other glacial material is found within 50 miles
A quarry-like surface, an orthostat-like rock at an unlikely angle to that surface are present there is Prehistoric presence.
You take your pick of probabilities.
Without serious glacial deposits in southern England I find too much special pleading.
However, we shall see.
It is what is in the peer reviewed literature that is of lasting value,single authored books by anyone are just that. One view, rarely totally correct.
We shall have to wait to see.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Carry on being wicked, Myris .... gives us all some entertainment, but also reveals quite a lot about where you and your co-authors are coming from.

If you were to turn up at Rhosyfelin with lots of dosh and a mission to do an archaeological dig, there is no way you would come away with the thesis that there was a Neolithic orthostat quarry here. The fact that a rock face "looks like a quarry" and that there is a big stone arranged at a rather strange angle would not qualify as evidence in anybody's book. If evidence is forthcoming of prehistoric occupation, camp fires etc, between the Mesolithic and the Iron Age, that's just wonderful, and the best of luck to the archaeologists in unravelling the occupation history. It can tell us quite a lot about prehistoric occupation of this landscape, just as scores if not hundreds of other sites would do if they were to be investigated in this sort of detail.

If the archaeologists like, I could point them to many more sites in the neighbourhood which will be worth investigating.......

What do you mean by "serious glacial deposits"? In areas affected by very old glacial episodes, anywhere in the world, you do not get "serious" deposits -- you get very subtle and widely dispersed traces of glaciation in the form of occasional erratics, enigmatic deposits that have been reworked or redistributed, and maybe landforms that can give you clues. Just look at the debates about the Driftless Area in the USA, Buchan in Scotland, and Jameson Land in Greenland. In most cases, areas assumed to have escaped glaciation are found to have been affected by ice, maybe many millions of years ago. In any case, there are serious glacial deposits in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall and the Scilly Isles -- go to the peer reviewed literature and read it!

There is a wide variation in the sizes, shapes and types of "bluestones" at Stonehenge -- so you cannot represent them as "a restricted series of large similar sized Welsh stones" especially since some are broken (ie they were bigger previously) and some (which might have been cobbles or boulders or slabs)are apparently destroyed completely.

Too much special pleading, Myris.

chris johnson said...

There is a serious weakness in the Rhosyfelin quarry argument when the strongest argument proposed against the alternative is the lack of evidence for glaciation with fifty miles of Stonehenge - although actually I believe the real number is closer to 20 miles.

Surely the years of investigation in and around Rhosyfelin have turned up a battery of smoking artillery pieces by now.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Well, I think I have heard all the verbal presentations of the quarrying "evidence" since the beginning of the dig in 2011, and they have all been damp squibs. I suspect that what we will get, eventually, is a nice piece of work, supported by radiocarbon dates and a few bits and pieces, showing a long occupation history of the site. That will then be cited as "evidence" for orthostat quarrying, which is a different thing entirely.

TonyH said...

"I suspect that what we will get, eventually, is a nice piece of work, supported by radiocarbon dates and a few bits and pieces, showing a long occupation history of the site. That will be cited as "evidence" for orthostat quarrying, which is a different thing entirely."

Why am I constantly reminded of a rather botched - up magician's trick performed by a nervously chuckling and be - fezed Tommy Cooper, R.I.P.?

"Just like that".