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, 19 December 2015

The new BritArch article by MPP et al

Here is the citation for the new article in BA:

Parker Pearson, M., Pollard, J., Richards, C., Schlee, D., and Welham, K. (2016).  "In search of the Stonehenge Quarries,"  British Archaeology Jan/Feb 2016, pp 16-23.

Sadly, it's behind a paywall, so you can only read it if you are a BA subscriber. 
I've been taking a look at it, and it is undoubtedly beautifully illustrated and designed, with a raft of splendid annotated photographs.  But there is nothing new in it, and as ever the problem is that the edifice is founded on the assumptions that (a) the bluestones must have been quarried in the places pointed out by geologists Richard Bevins and Rob Ixer, and (b) the human transport hypothesis has been established as fact.  So yet again, we have ruling hypotheses and bad science.  In the very first paragraph, we know what is coming: "The Welsh ‘bluestones’ stand no taller than 2.6m and are dwarfed by the sarsens that make up Stonehenge’s outer circle and inner horseshoe of trilithons. But moving these 1-2 tonne monoliths 180 miles across neolithic countryside must rank as one of the greatest achievements in human prehistory........."

Why, oh why, can we not have something scholarly, even in a popular journal?  Is it too much to ask that if the authors of articles want us to believe their stories, they should at least give us their evidence first and then at the end invite us to accept their interpretation of it?  But there seems to be a weird belief that if you tell your story with sufficient panache, and with some nice pictures to accompany it, it is bound to be true.......  and I'll continue my gripe by bemoaning the fact that editors like Mike Pitts apparently go along with this way of communicating with the world.

Popular articles of this type are OK if they follow hard on the heels of detailed peer-reviewed research reports in which all the evidence from a dig is clearly laid out and analysed.  But here we have no prior research report, and we are simply asked to accept everything on trust........

Craig Rhosyfelin

And the contents of the paper? The first section simply summarises the earlier published work of Ixer and Bevins, flagging up the similarities between some of the rhyolite fragments in that famous JF Stone shoe-box and the foliated rhyolites at Rhosyfelin.  Then we get onto the narrative of the dig.  As soon as the 4m-long monolith is mentioned, quarries and quarrymen come into the frame, as does the "prehistoric surface" lying beneath medieval, iron age and bronze age "archaeological layers".  They mention the "monolith extraction point" and the "shallow groove" and "primitive hole" supposedly used with wedges to prise  a monolith off the rock face.  Then they go on to talk about the "orthostat pivot",  the "stone jetty-like structure built out from the bank of a prehistoric stream bed",  a "flat-bottomed hollow way" and an "artificial terrace of stones"  -- all assumed to have been connected with quarrying operations.  As with the "Antiquity" article, there is no description of the stratigraphy.

Parker Pearson and his colleagues reveal some of their radiocarbon dates, stating that the "hillwash" or colluvial layer is from around 1030-890 BC and that organic material from beneath the "proto-orthostat" dates from 2140-1950 BC.  This means that the monolith cannot have come into its present position before the Early Bronze Age.  That must have been a profound disappointment to the archaeologists, since a Neolithic date was needed to tie the stone into the supposed Neolithic monolith collecting expeditions supposed to have supplied the bluestones for Stonehenge.

In the Neolithic hearth near the rock face (with which we have no problem), material has been dated to 3620-3129 BC, three or four hundred years earlier than the first stage of Stonehenge.  It is suggested that one monolith at Stonehenge came from here, and that stump 32d in the bluestone circle might be all that is left of it.

So nothing in the dating sequence is of any use for confirming the "Neolithic quarrying" scenario.  The hearth material is too early, and the emplacement of the rhyolite monolith is too late.   It looks as if the authors of this article are having to come to terms with the fact that there was a long history of occupation at this site, and not a concentrated burst of activity at the time when bluestone monoliths for Stonehenge were needed.  So now they seem to be suggesting that there was also a long history of stone extraction, beginning maybe 500 years before any stones were taken to Stonehenge.  They present no evidence in support of that contention.  But inevitably it leads later on to the idea of a proto-Stonehenge somewhere in the local area, for which the search will start in 2016...........

((The most interesting fact from this article is that a chip of foliated rhyolite assumed to be from Rhosyfelin has been found beneath the bank of the Stonehenge Avenue, dated to 2500-2270 BC.  Also Anthony Johnson refers in his book to "quantities of bluestone fragments within the bank rubble" -- that's rather interesting, given that the bank and ditch at Stonehenge are dated to c 3,000 BC.  He also says there has been "hardly any archaeological investigation of the bank", although we know it is made mostly of chalk rubble excavated from the ditch. So regardless of whether bluestones were set into the Aubrey Holes, bluestone material existed in the Stonehenge landscape at least 5,000 years ago.  This of course ties in with the occurrence of the Boles Barrow bluestone.))

Postscript:  What's coming into the frame here again is the DEBU (date of earliest bluestone use) at Stonehenge.    The DEBU must be around 5,000 years BP or even earlier.  Another reminder of what MPP has written previously:

Bluestones at Stonehenge

In 2008 we dug within Stonehenge itself, recovering 60 cremation burials from a pit, one of the circle of 56 Aubrey Holes that are concentric with the ditch and bank (see News, Nov/Dec 2008). These had originally been excavated by William Hawley in the 1920s when he dug 32 of the Aubrey Holes. Because the cremated bones were considered at that time to be of little scientific value, they were dumped in a mixed-up heap in Aubrey Hole 7 in 1935.

Our greatest discovery in that small hole, however, was that Hawley's workmen had not fully dug it out. In the bottom sat the undisturbed residue of a layer of chalk packing and a patch of crushed chalk caused by the weight of a standing stone. Checking Hawley's diary, we found that he had initially decided that the Aubrey Holes once contained small standing stones that were later pulled out. Sadly, Hawley did not have the courage of his convictions and, when confronted with the huge postholes of Woodhenge at Maud Cunnington's excavations in 1926–27, he changed his mind.

We realised that the small stones that once stood in the Aubrey Holes had to have been bluestones, the monoliths from the Preseli Hills and other parts of south Wales. By radiocarbon dating a cremation burial found in the chalk packing of Aubrey Hole 32, dug by Richard Atkinson in 1950, we had evidence that this stone circle was likely to have been put up around the time that the ditch and bank were dug in 3015–2935BC. This and other radiocarbon dates at Stonehenge have been refined by Bayesian statistical modelling of its stratigraphic sequence.

This meant the conventional threefold scheme of Stonehenge as an earthen monument, succeeded first by wooden posts and then by stone uprights could not be correct. Stonehenge was a stone monument from the beginning, and five of our new radiocarbon dates on cremated and unburnt human bone showed that it had also been a place of burial from this moment until at least 2400BC (statistically modelled as 2470–2300BC) – certainly during the erection of megaliths, and probably after as well.


The next part of the BritArch article deals with Carn Goedog -- the first time that the evidence from that site has been presented in a journal.  I'll take a look at that in another post.


TonyH said...

Glad you finally broke your vow of abstinence and somehow obtained this Rhosyfelin - focussed copy of British Archaeology!

BRIAN JOHN said...

Yes, thanks for the tip, Tony. It seemed like a reasonable deal, for a fiver........