Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my new book called "The Stonehenge Bluestones" -- due for publication on June 1st 2018. After that, it will be available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
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Thursday, 19 November 2015

The inability to see what isn't there

 It goes something like this:  "Even though there are no signs  of a quarry here, we have reason to believe that there was one, so therefore this is a quarry site....."

One or two occasional contributors to our blog discussions are getting hot under the collar because I have recently blocked some comments which have been so repetitive and convoluted that they have done nothing to advance our knowledge of anything apart from the obsessions of the contributors.  I have done that before, with other contributors and on widely differing topics.  The reason for this latest weird and fruitless debate -- off the record rather than on it -- is the publication of the recent article on the geomorphology and stratigraphy of Rhosyfelin.  We are accused of failing to see what is there, or what might be there, or might not be there, on the grounds that there are many things in this life which are invisible to those who are not trained to see them or who are not well tuned to the subtleties of the landscape.  That point is fair enough, and as somebody who knows the local landscape rather well I pride myself on having picked up many rather subtle things like old stone walls, embankments, circles, settlement sites and so forth that have apparently been missed by previous generations of archaeologists.  So I am neither blind nor naive.  But my default position, as a trained glacial geomorphologist, is to assume that things are natural unless there are signs that they are not.  Cwm Gwaun is natural, as is Carngoedog.  The pyramids are not natural, and neither is Silbury Hill.  Others have different default positions, and assume that a wide range of features are man-made until somebody can come along and prove conclusively that they are not........

At Rhosyfelin my colleagues Dyfed and John and I have looked at the site carefully and have honestly described what we have seen in a peer-reviewed short paper.  We have briefly examined the claims that have been made for "quarrying features" and have stated that in our view these features are all entirely natural.  In other words, the quarrying hypothesis is not supported by the evidence on the ground, and is thus superfluous.  In our press release, we have stated that our research undermines the quarrying hypothesis.  If anybody wants to come along and present contrary evidence, that's their privilege.  We'll then weigh up their evidence against ours, and independent observers can do the same. 

But when we get into arguments (from people who have not even visited the site) about things possibly being there, or possibly not, as the case may be, and about the impossibility of proving that things did happen or didn't happen because absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and so forth, accompanied by arguments and protestations about comments being misinterpreted or misrepresented, it's time to call a halt, on the grounds that we are leaving reality and getting into a world of metaphysics, psychology and even politics.  I have better things to do with my time.

So a few comments have been dumped, and a few people have been invited to spend their time looking at other blogs instead of mine.  For that, no apologies.


Myris of Alex said...

I am afraid it makes you look bad (and insecure).

Nothing alienates an audience quicker than complaining about the back-stage staff, a sore throat, or worst of all disputive members of the audience.

Do all that in strong terms away from the main stage.

You are onstage, you, on top form, the audience has comes to see, deal with hecklers, don't redact them.
I for one miss Kostas and his unique views.
No one doubts your views are genuinely held just how correct they are.

The test is with the uninvolved Pleistocene wallahs, what are they saying or rather what will be the consensus.

A brilliant,and I rarely use that word of people now sadly dead, colleague (Dr John Ashworth, he proved the existence of water on Mars decades before the landers) when told he was to be designated an independent researcher said
I don't know if that means 'I am a lost sheep or a lone wolf'. He was both but mainly remarkably brilliant.


BRIAN JOHN said...

Points taken, Myris. But I'll take that risk. Who's going to get upset with me? There's a big readership / following out there, and I suspect most of them look at the blog not to follow the intricacies of assorted esoteric discussions, but to inform themselves about the things that we cover, including glacial geomorphology. There is this thing called editorial control. And there is this other thing called time -- I do not have limitless time to devote to dealing with disruptive or obsessive individuals. Remember that a lot of blogs allow no comments at all, and a lot of other blogs publish comments that are so sychophantic and predictable that they make one squirm. So I'll continue to accept comments which are original and creative, while retaining the right to control excesses. If some people don't like all that, they can wander off elsewhere.

chris johnson said...

I don't like to see the argument with Geo. He provides many solid insights and data points.

I assume after the press release some new people will be visiting this blog and many will be unimpressed by the apparent suppression of alternative opinions. Regulars like myself know Brian is very tolerant of contributors in general, even when they disagree fundamentally with his view. However too many opinions and too few facts will get short thrift, as will trolling such as from our Greek ex-member - unlamented in my view Myris.

I think I understand what Geo is saying and can appreciate it, although it is not making a material contribution and I fear is even muddying the waters for people not so close to the narrative. It is a case of poor timing. Surely Geo will agree that it is overdue for the archaeologists to show their cards after FIVE YEARS digging this site!!

Alex Gee said...

Brian I think you're right to take the risk. I visit this site because I have a genuine interest in proper scientific evidence; As provided by Yourself, Dr Ixer and others.

If I want to see scientific evidence of the grade provided by MPP for the evidence of a quarry, I can just pop along to Glastonbury ;my local town and chat to the charlatans who own the shops in the High Street; Or visit my local sewerage farm.

I'm afraid that I don't share Myris's enthusiasm for relativism; the idea that all ideas carry equal weight.

Jon Morris said...

Surely Geo will agree that it is overdue for the archaeologists to show their cards after FIVE YEARS digging this site!!

Not sure Chris. It seems to me that they are under no commercial obligation to publish any of their findings. If the work done has no value to others, they may feel that there is no moral obligation to publish: We don't know what they have found so are not able to assess whether or not it has any value.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Chris -- not mentioning any names here, but there's no way I'm trying to suppress points being made. I'm not scared or threatened by any arguments, from any quarter. But I am exerting some editorial control relating to points that are made over and again, wasting too much of my time and everybody else's. Anybody who follows this blog will know that we have been over all of this many times before. Essentially the argument is this:

In a landscape with rocky outcrops and scattered boulders lying around, we know (from written scanty records) that farmers and other locals have collected stones for various purposes in historic time. There are no quarries or obvious features in the landscape that we can recognize clearly as stone extraction or collection points. Now we move to Rhosyfelin or some other place that might have been a Neolithic quarry, according to somebody or other, on the basis of zero evidence. Because we can't recognize quarries up on the hills we can't recognize them here in the lowlands either -- in spite of the fact that they might have existed. So we can't rule out the fact that there might have been a Neolithic quarry at Rhosyfelin, in spite of there being no evidence for it.

Hope you get the gist.... it is a nonsense argument, loaded with negatives, because it is based on the non-existence of evidence and is totally dependent upon the supposition that man did wonderful things to the landscape unless somebody can prove that they didn't. There is also the presumption that evidence MIGHT be there, if only we were smart enough to see it. Gets nobody anywhere, and does nothing to advance any arguments.

My colleagues and I have never said that it is IMPOSSIBLE that there was ever a quarry at Rhosyfelin. All we have done is look at the site in considerable detail, assess the evidence, and describe it and interpret it. Our conclusion, as field scientists trying to be objective, is that we see no signs of human interference in a set of landforms and in a sequence of natural deposits. Therefore we disagree with people like MPP who claim to be able to see a wide range of "engineering phenomena." In our view, our work undermines the quarrying hypothesis.

Perfectly simple.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Jon -- I think there is a moral obligation placed on university researchers who are paid from the public purse, using grant aid also coming from the public purse, to demonstrate that there is some demonstrable benefit to the sum of human knowledge coming from the funded research programme. Most other archaeologists, as far as I can see, are very fastidious in their publication of annual research reports. Five years without any annual reports or peer-reviewed publications on a simple dig like this is far too long, and if I had been a member of the research body that had dished out substantial funds, I would certainly not be best pleased.

Jon Morris said...

Has this work been funded from the public purse Brian? My impression (from George in an earlier thread) was that it was something they were doing off their own bat, perhaps with a little help from media sponsors, given that the project appears to have no commercial or social value.


chris johnson said...

Presumably the tax payers investing in a new visitor centre just up the road have a distinct commercial interest?

When they use the bulldozers and shovels to excavate our history, and cart off bags of interesting stuff in the boots of their cars, the DO have an obligation to tell the rest of us what they have found and appropriated. It their role to make the assessment of commercial value. Without a proper report it is no better than looting.

BRIAN JOHN said...

There is certainly Research Council funding in there at Rhosyfelin, but I have no idea how large the grants have been. No budgets have been published. For research funding, you do not have to demonstrate any commercial interest or potential -- quite right too. "Pure" research is essential in any civilised society.

By the way, there appears to be NO grant aid or subsidy involved in the proposed Visitor Centre at Tafarn y Bwlch. The developer seems to be prepared to go it alone, as a commercial investment.

Jon Morris said...

Possibly Chris.

We dig up old foundations all the time, cart them away to the dump. We know that this act has some (very minor) impact on the historical record: If it had a major impact, there is an obligation to inform in a timely manner. As Brian points out, there is no prior evidence that the areas being excavated have any historical meaning at all. Maybe the delay in publication (by whoever is funding/promoting it) is just signalling that nothing of importance was found?

Hi Brian

Commercial funding is one thing but social value is another. I would be surprised if public bodies still fund projects that have no potential for either social or commercial value (even some of the more obscure arts projects are thought to add social value): A project that might have a social value to society can be justified politically, but I thought that the funding of vanity projects by public bodies was a thing of the past?

Myris of Alexandria said...

Ah Brian
You have not applied for a grant for many many years- there is now a load of drivel in any grant application these days about plans for disseminating Daily Mail level, chav-friendly results.
It is all part of the same process that gives pretty tv presenters chairs in XXX 'popular' XXX. Wait until Baldrick become Reg. Professor of Turnips in Oxbridge.

On a far more sombre note Dr Vin Davis the noted lithics expert who was immediately instrumental in introducing the pet rocks boys to the SH archaeologists, (probably without him Craig Rhosyfelin would still be an overgrown, unknown outcrop in a farmer's field) died yesterday at a silly young age.
Never has 'Myris' been so apt.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Oh dear -- sad to read of that, Myris. I have of course come across his name in many contexts -- thanks to you.

On the research funding front, I will defend from the trenches the right of serious researchers to follow their noses and simply research what is there, so as to increase the sum total of human knowledge. My own research was deemed frivolous and self-indulgent by some (who really wanted to know what the sequence of glaciation was in Pembrokeshire or the South Shetlands, back in the 1960's?) but somebody with foresight must have assumed that some good might come of it, and of course what happened later was that all that research (with huge numbers of other research projects) fed into glacier modelling and responses to climatic oscillations, which fed in turn into the attempts to understand feedback mechanisms in the atmosphere and climate change generally. So NOTHING involving serious research is a waste of time.....

Myris of Alexandria said...

Brian you are preaching to the long converted, my point was that these days that sort of research is no longer funded. Research now must have immediate, preferably easily explained results.
Two things have been lost, systematics - try to find a botanist under 65 who can identify weeds in the field, or a zoologist who can identify a dozen British spiders to genus level and "blue sky" research and full time topographical mineralogist.
It is not just languages that have a last few elders smiling into extinction.

chris johnson said...

Hey Bruan, are the owners at Tafarn y Bwlch related to the archaeologists at Rhosyfelin? Or will they be hiring an English lawyer when Rhosyfelin is exposed as a complete fake and the visitors go instead to the Bluestone Park near Haverford West?

We can be confident that a local Candle Workshop did not invest as a result of advice from the University of London that they would shortly be located next to a world heritage site. Pity or they could sue one of these days - no wonder the reports are slow to see the light of day.....

All of the above is tongue is cheek as you all will recognise.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Who is related to whom? Must ask around -- all I know is that Prof GW lives in Cwm Gwaun and that Prof MPP's wife also has family in the area. In fact, it may be these family connections (and the existence of Bessie's famous pub in Pontfaen) that have driven assorted famous archaeologists to home in on the area and to start digging holes all over the place. If they keep digging for long enough, they are sure to turn up something fairly interesting.......

TonyH said...

Chris,I thought we'd decided that only those who dig and fixate at STONEHENGE tend to go slightly awry, putting it gently and politely! Incidentally, MPP was reared in the Taunton area, does this mean that Taunton's relative proximity to New Age Glastonbury had a decisive influence on his World View of all things archaeological? You can see for miles and miles and miles and miles from the top of Glastonbury Tor. Anyway, Mike, it must be admitted that you show NO traces of erratic thinking, by virtue of your Closed, sorry, Ruling, Hypothesis. But at least Stonehenge Riverside Centre should by now be willing to step outside his thought processes, as it has promised to stock Brian's Bluestone Enigma once again amongst its books section.

TonyH said...


Don't knock "Baldrick". We on this Blog may yet persuade him to join in the Blue Stones of Stonehenge Debate. Take a look at Socialist Sir Tony Robinson's Wiki entry, or other info, about his iconoclastic attitudes, he says he is a dragon - slayer as regards out - of - date mythical beliefs. So watch your back, MPP!! Your former Presenter may yet reveal a more grave persona.

TonyH said...

Sir Tony currently has a series: "Tony Robinson Walking Through History" on Channel Four. Previously, some time ago, he's presented documentaries about Physical Geography i.e. Geomorphology in the British Isles..... Pembrokeshire next?

At least it's MPP having to call his former Presenter "Sir", now, rather than T.R. having to pull his forelock obsequiously to his erstwhile Great Man.

Myris of Alexandria said...

He is a presenter, a shop assistant selling ideas.
I do not know if this is true but his brand of socialism ensures that he is the only person to get repeat fees for TT much to the irritation of the archies. He has not been the voices for Animal Farm has he?
I believe the jury is still out with regard to benefits/debits of TT. It did wonders for u/g numbers for a few years, sadly most of those are now employed elsewhere or surviving on job-seekers allowance.
Still better a thesp than The Scottish Player who also is wont to a little geomorphological gabbling whilst holding the tide back.

TonyH said...

T.R. did a lot of serious studying of archaeology of his own accord due to his own enthusiasm, long before he got onto popular TV programmes about it. He did it under Mike Aston, so to speak, at a Bristol institution connected to the University. This may be confirmed at his wiki entry.

What have you got against TV Presenters, Myris? Somebody's got to do it, as Spike Milligan might well have said in one of his Goon voices. Where would anyone of us be without summarisers like, say, Hugh on The Ten o'clock News?? And welcome back, George Alagiah.