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Saturday, 19 December 2015

The Rhosyfelin Affair: after the famine, the feast

Following the 2011 discovery by geologists Richard Bevins and Rob Ixer that some of the rhyolitic debris at Stonehenge could be provenanced to the Pont Saeson - Rhosyfelin area in Pembrokeshire, there have been five archaeological digs at a pre-selected "Neolithic quarry site" accompanied by many rather spectacular announcements as to the site's significance.

A big team has been at work at Rhosyfelin, assisted by a very large budget (the size of which has not been revealed).  Considerable technical resources have also been available, through the involvement of a number of UK universities and other institutions.   The world has been kept informed of progress through press announcements about a wondrous "proto-orthostat" uncovered at the site and about "the Pompeii of prehistoric quarries", and there have been countless lectures about the progress of the dig by Prof Mike Parker Pearson and his colleagues.  So there has not exactly been silence.  But strangely, there have been no publications at all, apart from brief mentions of the Rhosyfelin quarry and its significance in Parker Pearson's 2012 book and in a few articles of a general nature.  Archaeological journals and the media have publicized the "discoveries" sometimes in breathless terms, but there are no site descriptions on the record, no seasonal excavation reports and (until now) no peer-reviewed papers relating to five years of work.

If you are a cynic, you might explain this "failure to publish" as being down to the fact that nothing of any importance has been discovered, and that the archaeologists have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting for the discovery of the "smoking gun" that would sort out the Neolithic quarrying business once and for all.  There are also rumours of an embargo placed on publication by the National Geographic Society, which has a considerable financial stake in the archaeological dig.  Whatever the truth of the matter, it has done the reputations of the archaeologists no good at all to have waited five years before putting anything into print.

And after the famine, the feast.  In late 2015, within the space of a month, we have four papers in print, two from Mike Parker Pearson and his team, and two from Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd, John Downes and me:

Brian John, Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd and John Downes (2015). "Quaternary Events at Craig Rhosyfelin, Pembrokeshire." Quaternary Newsletter, October 2015 (No 137), pp 16-32.

Brian John, Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd and John Downes.  2015. OBSERVATIONS ON THE SUPPOSED “NEOLITHIC BLUESTONE QUARRY” AT CRAIG RHOSYFELIN, PEMBROKESHIRE".  Archaeology in Wales 54, pp 139-148. (Publication 14th December 2015)

Mike Parker Pearson, Richard Bevins, Rob Ixer, Joshua Pollard, Colin Richards, Kate Welham, Ben Chan, Kevan Edinborough, Derek Hamilton, Richard Macphail, Duncan Schlee, Jean-Luc Schwenninger, Ellen Simmons and Martin Smith (2015). Craig Rhos-y-felin: a Welsh bluestone megalith quarry for Stonehenge.   Antiquity, 89 (348) (Dec 2015), pp 1331-1352. 

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.

 There are interesting differences in the publication process used by the archaeologists and that of the earth scientists. Let's just outline these.

Tell, don't show

It must be obvious to any reader of the two archaeology papers that they are in effect extended confirmations of a ruling hypothesis.  Neither paper makes any pretence of following the normal protocols of scholarly publishing, and in each case, from the outset, we are told that Rhosyfelin is a Neolithic quarry -- and we are left in no doubt that the assertion is not even up for discussion.  So each paper goes on to describe the features of the "quarry" and to tell the reader how old they are and how they relate to one another.  I am intrigued about this -- not only because of the way in which the papers have been written but because the journal editors (Chris Scarre and Mike Pitts) have apparently gone along with this comprehensive sidestepping of scientific norms.  "Popular" articles with beautiful illustrations (and not too much boring detail) have taken the place of learned discourse.

And it gets worse.  Both of these papers are behind paywalls, so nobody except the subscribers to the two journals can read them.  So journalists, and members of the public have been unable to read the articles for themselves unless one or other of the authors has been kind enough to send them PDF copies.  At the same time there has been a massive publicity campaign involving all of the university media relations departments, with purple prose, quotes from the lead authors, photos and even video clips circulated to the world's media via the press agencies.  I've mentioned this media blitz in earlier blogs -- on the basis that there has been much marketing and not much substance.  But it has certainly been effective.  Journalists have accepted the press release contents at face value, and I suspect that hardly any of them have read or even scanned the papers themselves.  By now there must have been over 500 "Rhosyfelin quarry" stories in the world's media, and the little crag near Brynberian must be challenging Stonehenge on the global list of mythical locations...........

Show, don't tell

John, Dyfed and I are three retired academics who have no departmental resources behind us, no research funding and no commercial contracts to fulfill.  What we share is a good knowledge of Welsh geology and geomorphology and a long history of working in the field both as research scientists and as teachers working with students.

Our two papers, written earlier this year, arose from our concerns about the ongoing promotion of the Rhosyfelin quarrying hypothesis and the apparent determination of the digging team to refuse any geomorphological input into their work and to ignore any points which were deemed to be inconvenient.  During the digs, I arranged twice to meet with the archaeologists at Rhosyfelin, and on both occasions I was the only one who turned up.  So on both occasions I wandered about, made some notes, measured some things, took some photos, and then went home.  Points raised  at MPP lectures were dismissed out of hand,  and so a situation developed in which the diggers went their own sweet way while the rest of us undertook "guerrilla research."  Mostly this took place in the off season when the digging site was left open;  access has been very easy since Craig Rhosyfelin is immediately adjacent to a public footpath.

Based upon our "guerrilla research" we became increasingly convinced that everything at Rhosyfelin apart from the occupation traces could be explained by reference to natural processes, and that the quarrying hypothesis was deeply flawed.  We wrote two short notes, one for the Quaternary science community and the other aimed at archaeologists.  They were submitted in parallel to "Quaternary Newsletter" and to "Archaeology in Wales".  Both were peer reviewed and accepted after modifications, and we were gratified when both editors (Sven Lukas and Jemma Bezant) asked us to expand the papers and to incorporate more field evidence and illustrations.  (Editors don't often ask for papers to be lengthened!)  We were even more gratified when the AiW reviewer asked us to add a section on the end of our paper which directly addressed the archaeological issues, and when this request was supported by the editor.  So we added the section entitled "Supposed Human Activity Traces" which now seems to be attracting considerable attention from readers!

We are fully aware that our two papers are defective in many respects, and it is a cause for regret that we have not had access to resources that would have permitted accurate surveying, laboratory analyses of sediments, petrological studies of erratic clasts, palynological analyses of sediments or radiocarbon or OSL dating of the sediment sequence.  Given those constraints, we have sought to stick to scholarly norms by simply describing and interpreting what we have found at Rhosyfelin and by ignoring the related issues of bluestone transport and the building of Stonehenge.

We are grateful to both of the journal editors who have published our research for encouraging open access, and on this basis both papers were made available on publication day via Researchgate to anybody who is minded to look at them, to dissect them and -- if they want -- to criticise them.

In parallel, we have also put out press releases with a certain amount of purple prose in them, more or less at random, to assorted newsrooms and journalists -- without much expectation that they would be picked up just a week after the "Neolithic Quarry" story was widely reported.  We had no assistance whatsoever from the Reuters, Press Association or other press agencies.  But, amazingly, our story has been widely reported -- and maybe that is partly down to the fact the our papers have actually been looked at by journalists.

What next?

Feast?  It's felt a bit more like a feeding frenzy at times........ but Christmas is coming, and people will soon have other things on their minds.

We hope that this is not the end of research at Rhosyfelin.  The excavation pit is closed now, so most of the evidence cited by the archaeologists and by the Three Musketeers cannot be accessed.  But the big stone is still accessible, as are the rocky crags and the rock face, and new pits can always be opened for fresh investigations.  There are still many unanswered questions here, and we hope that other geomorphologists  will come in and contribute to the debate.

 As for the archaeologists, we have already suggested that in future they should try to describe what they see and not what they want to find, and that they should state their conclusions not at the beginning of their research but at the end.  To quote from our latest paper:

"Finally, it is a cause for regret that there has apparently been no geomorphological input into the fieldwork and assessment of the naturally-formed features and sediments at Rhosyfelin. It is recommended that in future there should be much greater cooperation between archaeologists and specialists from related disciplines. Also, it is suggested that great care should henceforth be exercised in the attempts by archaeologists to identify Neolithic quarries in the British landscape."

 And will the relevant parts of the archaeological community do any soul searching and take any lessons away from this little spat?  Time will tell.

 Couldn't resist this one!


Myris said...

Last photo
Have you watched the programmes about psychopaths and self-aggrandisement? Hope you are not thinking if being the rather portly one.
I see this has all made the antepenultimate page of today's Thunderer.

Myris said...

I think there are some retired academics in this circus who put their hands into their pocket regularly and paid and are paying, from their meagre pension (add as may clich├ęs as you can bear), for material to be prepared with scarce a flinch, even when the material is disappointing- (well perhaps a bit of moaning then).
All this whinging about pay-walls etc. You don't stand outside a cinema and complain that the film is not free. Do you give your Bluestone book away free? Of course not and you should not be expected to although a very fine opaque atlas is freely available so it can be done.
Use your enormous royalty monies from that bluestone book.
Apply for a grant even crowd source I am sure some on here will forgo a dead-dog to assist.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Ah, a bit of fun, but there is no way we three old geezers can compete with Indiana Pearson and the Quarry of Gloom -- or with his very splendid red T-shirt.

re the Times -- presumably something is slipped in on the sports pages?

Myris said...

No just above the court circular and the doings of the Countess of Wessex.
Minor royalty throughout the page.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Ah yes, all these old retired academics who suffer in silence and who meet all the costs of their research efforts themselves. Reminds one of all those Victorian clergymen who kept science alive in the good old days.......

Enormous royalyies?!! If only.......

I have been whingeing about paywalls on journal sites for years. I don't go to the cinema to watch publicly-funded research efforts being displayed -- I go to be entertained, and am happy to pay for it. But research done with my tax monies should be in the public domain, free at the point of delivery -- and not used to line the pockets of Elsevier and the rest of them.