Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my book called "The Bluestone Enigma" -- available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
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Saturday, 26 September 2015

Bluestones and the "smoking gun"

About a year ago I published a post on this blog relating to a 2011 paper from the team involved in the Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog digs.  It represents their thinking at the time the project started.  It's interesting to look at it again, since this article contains their most comprehensive assessment of the glacial transport hypothesis.  It is to the credit of the team members that they did at least consider some of the pros and cons, and give some time and space to looking at the arguments presented by Olwen Williams-Thorpe and her colleagues in 1991.  Here is the piece:

It will come as no surprise to anybody that I think the arguments presented against the glacial transport hypothesis are faulty -- as I state in my blog piece.  Also unsurprisingly, the human transport hypothesis is then accepted as fact, with analysis devoted to "how" and "why" the stones were carried / dragged / pushed / sailed / punted all the way from West Wales to Stonehenge.  The essential acceptance of the hypothesis is based upon no facts at all, but on a string of speculations and fantasies.  There is no itemisation of the flaws in the human transport thesis, as there is in the case of the glacial transport thesis.  The authors should have noted the following:

1.  There is no sound evidence from anywhere in the British Neolithic / Bronze Age record of large stones being hauled over long distances for incorporation in a megalithic monument.
2.  The builders of Neolithic monuments across the UK simply used whatever large stones were at hand.
3. If ancestor stones were being transported to Stonehenge, why have all of the known bluestones come from the west, and not from any other points of the compass?
4.  There is no evidence either from West Wales or from anywhere else of bluestones (or spotted dolerite in particular) being used preferentially in megalithic monuments, or revered in any way.
5.  If long-distance stone haulage was "the great thing" for the builders of Stonehenge, why is there no evidence of the development of the appropriate haulage technology leading up to the late Neolithic, and a decline afterwards?  It is a complete technological aberration.
6. The evidence for quarrying activity in key locations is questionable, to put it mildly.
7.  The sheer variety of bluestone types  (I still insist the figure is somewhere near 30 when one includes packing stones and debris) argues against selection and human transport.  There cannot possibly have been up to 30 "bluestone quarries" scattered about West Wales.
8.  No physical evidence has ever been found of ropes, rollers, trackways, sledges, abandoned stones, quarrymen's camps, or anything else that might bolster the hypothesis.
9.  Bits and pieces of experimental archaeology on stone haulage techniques (normally in "ideal" conditions) have done nothing to show that our ancestors could cope with the sheer physical difficulty of stone haulage across the heavily-wooded Neolithic terrain of West Wales (characterised by bogs, cataracts, steep slopes and very few clearings) or around the rocky coast.  Aubrey Burl made this point forcefully many years ago, and it remains forceful today.
10.  And if there was a "proto-Stonehenge" somewhere, built of assorted local stones and then dismantled and taken off to Stonehenge, where was it?

In relation to point (8) on the above list, the authors of the article have argued on a number of occasions that the discovery of a genuine bluestone quarry would be the "smoking gun" that would sort the issue out once and for all.  The quarry hunt has become something of an obsession.  Well, that's all very well, except that the evidence for ancient quarrying is incredibly difficult to interpret since we are dealing with the pre-metal tools era and with acidic environments in which bone and other organic materials do not survive for very long.  As we have seen at Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog, one man's Neolithic quarry is another man's natural rock outcrop.  In my book the supposed trackways, platforms, ramps, pivots, scratches, rails, revetments, pillars and so forth at Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog are figments of a fertile imagination -- and some of them have even been unconsciously "manufactured" by those involved in the archaeological digs.

Actually there are scores of "smoking guns" that might sort out the bluestone transport arguments.  One would be a discovery of a bluestone monolith on a sledge, buried in the mud of the Severn Estuary.  Another would be a discovery of an unequivocal glacial deposit on Salisbury Plain.  Another would be a collection of erratics scattered about in the Stonehenge landscape, or not far from it.  Another would be a sunken Neolithic boat somewhere in Carmarthen Bay, with a bluestone monolith in it.   Another might be a bluestone monolith abandoned somewhere near Abergavenny, with the remails of a haulage contractor crushed beneath it..........

Dream on, folks -- there must be plenty of other possibilities........

The paper:

No 1, 01 // 2011, pp 219-252


Whilst the sarsen stones of Stonehenge were brought from a short distance of about 30km away,
the smaller bluestones originate in Wales, over 200km to the west. This remarkable distance for the
movement of megaliths is unparalleled anywhere in the prehistoric world; some geologists have
suggested that the bluestones were carried by glaciers in a previous Ice Age but others point out
that there is no evidence for past glaciations ever having reached Salisbury Plain or even close to it.
This paper proposes that the bluestones were dragged by Neolithic people around 3000 BC, taking
a largely overland route except for a crossing of the River Severn. This contrasts with the conventional thinking that the stones were carried on boats across the sea from Milford Haven in south Wales to southeast England. It presents evidence for new sources of some of the bluestones on the northern flanks of the Preseli hills, as well as rejecting the long-held notion that the sandstone Altar Stone came from the area of Milford Haven. Finally, it proposes that the Preseli bluestones were selected for transport to Stonehenge because they represented the ancestry of one line of Britain’s
earliest farming migrants who arrived in the Preseli region shortly before 4000 BC.


Mike Parker Pearson (Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield). 
[ ]
Joshua Pollard (Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton). 

[ ]
Colin Richards (School of Arts, Histories and Cultures, University of Manchester). 

[ ]
Julian Thomas (School of Arts, Histories and Cultures, University of Manchester). 

[ ]
Kate Welham (School of Conservation Sciences, Bournemouth University).
Richard Bevins (National Museum of Wales, Cardiff).
Robert Ixer (Freelance geological consultant, Sutton Coldfield).
Peter Marshall (Honorary lecturer, University of Sheffield).
Andrew Chamberlain (Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield).


TonyH said...

It's high time and high tide for a new edition or revised version of your 2008 "Bluestone Enigma", taking account of all the activity by the human transport proponents in Preseli in particular.

Myris of Alexandria said...

You can insist on 30 or 300 different stones, your opinion is not based on first hand experience either as a trained geologist or someone who has seen the material.
Your reluctance to face the data is Kastas-like in its enormity.
Why stick to packing stones,regional greensand and sarsen why not include Meldon Quarry
Railway ballast, Midlands basalt road stone.
You weaken your case by this silliness.
There are enough echte bluestones to challenge the quarry hypothesis.
The Gods know the pet rock boys if read carefully provide plenty of potential ammunition. Trawling around the secondary and tertiary literature for different nicknames and not recognising that many are the same rock but given slightly different emphases gives me the uneasy feeling of an addict looking for another fix.
Find a competent petrographically savvy geologist, tell him what you want give him the literature. It would not be difficult.
But give up this bloody foolish there are dozen and dozens of bluestones. There are not Take a deep breath get some decent help, abandon old thinking and let the fun begin.
In this absence of dropped stones then the presence of quarries are the key.
Come on NEW, thinking.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Myris, your position is completely illogical. If you insist on counting only the bluestone orthostats at Stonehenge, how come all this fuss about some of the fragments in the debitage? Can I remind you that nobody knows whether those fragments have actually come from a standing stone. So if you are writing learned papers about some small chips and flakes, and placing great stress on their provenances, why the reluctance to look at other Stonehenge material that happens to be below ground? If certain stones are adventitious, then so be it. They can be identified and rejected.

I couldn't care less what learned geologists try to teach me about what is valid and what is not valid. I'm a geomorphologist, and if I am looking at a set of sediments, or an erratic suite in a landscape, it is patently absurd to set an arbitrary size limit and only look at the stuff that happens to be over 2m in length, or whatever. I look at EVERYTHING, and often it is the smallest bits that tell us the most. Come and have a look at Aberrhigian beach some time, and you will discover that the pebbles under 10cm in diameter are the ones that tell you most about the directions of ice movement.

Less of this foolishness, please, Myris. You don't make the rules around here. I do!

Skid Marx said...

Brian's having a bad day.

BRIAN JOHN said...

A bad day? What do you know, my friend? On the contrary, we had a wonderful walk on the beach in amazing autumnal weather, and then Wales beat England. Doesn't get much better........

TonyH said...

Whilst a lot of this Post has been stimulated by Rhosyfelin, the silhouetted cowboy takes me back to "Rawhide". Come to think of it, we could do with Clint Eastwood's persona to sort out this "smoking gun" claim: "d'ya feel lucky. punk?"

Geo Cur said...

One would be a discovery of a bluestone monolith on a sledge, buried in the mud of the Severn Estuary. Another would be a sunken Neolithic boat somewhere in Carmarthen Bay, with a bluestone monolith in it. Another might be a bluestone monolith abandoned somewhere near Abergavenny, with the remails of a haulage contractor crushed beneath it..........”
In the cases where we have unequivocal evidence of human transport of large stones from prehistory , there is no evidence like the above . Even when the journey is short and the route from source to site could be assumed with some degree certainty ,there is nothing . All there is , is absence of the glaciation argument and/or provenancing of stones in monuments from distant (or near in the case of short distances )sources/ quarries .
Organic remains are extremely unlikely to be found , finds of Neolithic boats are rare and if there were no sea route involved ,it would be impossible to find one associated with a megalith .
However as the route suggested by the glacial proponents also crosses water at some point , a similar finding of the “smoking gun” of rocks minus the “bound for Stonehenge” stamp and associated sledges /hardware would also apply . Both cases best forgot about until something extremely unlikely and serendipitous happens .

BRIAN JOHN said...

An accurate piece of provenancing is certainly very interesting and useful, but it does not indicate that the source was a quarry and that the place of the find was determined by human beings who carted stones over long distances. The provenancing is "neutral" in that it supports neither one theory nor the other. The mistake that the archaeologists have made is in assuming that the finding of a bluestone source equals the finding of a bluestone quarry. That's why they have spent 5 digging seasons looking at natural features and labelling them as "proofs of engineering techniques." Nasty things, ruling hypotheses.

Geo Cur said...

When glaciation can be ruled out , as is the case in many of the non uk provenanced examples then human transport is the most likley option ,and in the cases where the distance from source /quarry to site is short and the route relatively obvious there is no supporting evidence e.g. artefacts .The same applies to the 1000's of tonnes of granite transported from Aswan to Giza (500+ miles ) ,there is also an absence of artefacts to support the assumption .
When glaciation is a possibility along with human transport neither proponents of their agenda's should make assumptions .

I haven't seeen the paper and therfore can't comment on the quality of evidence for quarrying . But absence of evidence ,even for a quarry , does not mean that that human opportunism/quarrying didn't take place ,as we have seen with the recent examples from the area , the evidence of which seems to have gone un-noticed .

AG said...

A most valuable reminder of where everyone involved stands in the glacial/human transport debate!

From what you've posted lately I get the impression that some people on the list have been indulging in a little backsliding? particularly with regard to whether Rhosfelyin was a quarry for the Stonehenge bluestones or not.

Their position apparently changing from absolutely certainty about the MPP paper and the quarry hypothesis to "we'll all hang together"

Most curious!