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Monday, 11 January 2016

Geologists and Neolithic Quarries

Back in the bad old days, there was no such thing as geomorphology.  Around 1900 the people who were interested in the shape of the land and the nature of landforms were for the most part geologists;  but by 1950 a new science had emerged, following the lead of giants like WM Davies, Wooldridge and Linton, and after that the subject evolved with a strong emphasis on spatial relationships and the quantification of the links between process, space and form. More and more geographers were attracted by the subject as it emerged, and by 2000 it's probably due to say that there was a strong emphasis on the horizontal, with the understanding of landscape in all its complexity as the ultimate goal.  In contrast, "physical geology" -- popularised by texts such as those of John Allen and Arthur Holmes -- had, as its justification, a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of rocks.  In other words, the emphasis was on the vertical -- on stratigraphy and environmental / sedimentological / igneous / metamorphic changes through time. 

That's a crude representation of the differences between geomorphology and physical geology, but to some degree it explains why very few geologists have become immersed in the problems of UK glaciation and periglaciation and in the Quaternary evolution of the British landscape.  After all, from a geological standpoint, glacial geomorphologists are just looking at the scratchings on the surface of the earth, and at a very thin layer of icing on a very thick cake.  In response, geomorphologists will argue that what is deep down is of interest for economic geology and for influencing the operation of surface processes to a variable extent, but that man lives and works in the biosphere, on a land surface which influences his operations in a multitude of ways and which therefore needs to be understood.

But if you are an archaeologist seeking to understand the nature of the landforms and sediments in an area of known Quaternary glaciation, whose advice do you seek?  That of a geologist specialising in petrology, or that of a geomorphologist?  A no-brainer, one would have thought........

Anyway, for better or for worse, no geomorphologists have been actively involved in the recent digs at Carn Goedog or Craig Rhosyfelin, and there has been no geomorphological input into the reporting of field results.  The two geologists who have been involved, Rob Ixer and Richard Bevins, are specialists in petrology and geochemistry who have made enormous contributions in recent years to our understanding of the sources for the Stonehenge bluestone orthostats and the debris found in and around Stonehenge.  We owe them a debt of gratitude on that.  Some of their articles can be read here:

For the most part, the two geologists have been very circumspect when referring to the source areas for the spotted and unspotted dolerites, rhyolites and sandstones found at Stonehenge, and they have in the past studiously avoided any references to quarrying or to the human transport of monoliths.  So academic rigour and impartiality have been maintained...........  However, in the recent "Antiquity" article they are listed as joint authors, and that means that they share corporate responsibility for the contents of the whole paper and for its conclusions.  Their inclusion in the authorship team has helped to give that team gravitas and credibility.  As readers of this blog will know, I'm less than impressed with the paper, which comprehensively ignores all the protocols of scientific publishing and reads simply as an exercise in ruling hypothesis confirmation. Involvement in it will, I suspect,  not have done the reputations of Rob and Richard any good at all:

 Their part of the paper is carefully considered and largely reports on material already in print, and I have no great problem with it apart from the over-optimistic claim that some of the foliated rhyolite fragments at Stonehenge have been provenanced to within a few square metres of the Rhosyfelin rock-face, and that the famous "monolith extraction recess" near the tip of the spur has some significance.  We have discussed all of that before, at length, so we won't go there again! 

But what I have found disappointing is the willingness of the two geologists to become involved in the promotion of the quarrying thesis via press releases and the media.  For example, we have Rob talking about IKEA (!!) and about the manner in which their research promotes the human transport thesis to the detriment of the glacial transport thesis.  These are just two of a multitude of articles which refer to the involvement of the geologists.

There are too many to list, but it's interesting that many articles refer to the research by a "team of archaeologists and geologists".  That label, of course, adds credibility and respectability to the quarry hunt, and as mentioned above it has suited the archaeologists very well indeed. But my understanding is that Rob and Richard have had hardly any involvement in the work at Craig Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog, apart from the collection of samples and some observations on the detailed geology of the foliated rhyolites and the spotted dolerites by Richard, and the detailed petrography and petrology (including thin section analysis) by Rob.  Because of that very limited output, I'm rather surprised that they allowed themselves to be talked into participation in a paper that might well come back to haunt them........

Anyway, they are almost (but not quite) back to their cautious best again in the short article which appears after the MPP article in the latest edition of "Current Archaeology."  The reference is this:

Rob Ixer and Richard Bevins, 2016.  "Go West --the search for the bluestone quarries."  Current Archaeology 311 (2016), pp 23-24.

This is the latest of a number of popular / glossy articles for non-specialist consumption that Richard and Rob have written.  We'll allow them some leeway in their phraseology, because these "pop" articles have in all cases been preceded by proper specialist articles in the peer-reviewed literature.  That is the way things should be done. (And that is why I am so disappointed that MPP and his team have by-passed that process entirely, going straight into print in "Antiquity",  "British Archaeology" and "Current Archaeology" without any prior research reports and expecting the rest of us to believe all their unsupported speculations and their fantasies.)

Back to the latest Ixer/Bevins article.  Shall we forgive them for the references to quarries and quarrying in the title and first paragraph?  Maybe.  Let's assume that they were poorly advised by the editor.  But then they refer to quarrying again......  and in the conclusion they say:  "There is clearly still much to learn here, but as work on the Preseli quarries continues, we hope that our detailed petrology will help to resolve the ongoing debate about how the bluestones arrived at Stonehenge and from exactly where."  

Sorry, but on second thoughts, forgiveness is not in order.  The geologists should be more careful about what they say and who they choose as their academic friends.



Jon Morris said...

From an external perspective, it's difficult to know who to believe. To my eyes, the paper in Antiquity didn't seem convincing. But then I have no expertise in archaeology and it is always possible that the team have more evidence than they care to share: If that were the case, there may be commercial reasons behind it.

I understand that there will be more investigations elsewhere in the Preseli areas and that the hope is that they will find something to definitively link the prior use of the bluestones to this location: The finding of a place in Preseli at which the bluestones of Stonehenge were previously used (by people) would have a good chance of killing the long-haul glacial transport hypothesis (but it would not necessarily validate the quarry hypothesis).

Nevertheless, validation all round might possibly be achieved with the new rounds of investigations. If their hypotheses are correct, let's hope they know where to look.

chris johnson said...

A reasonable level of doubt is not shared by the archaeologists or indeed the archaeological establishment. It is this ignoring of the evidence, or lack of evidence, that is the most troubling. An entire profession of "scientists" is having an epiphany.

The paper written for the culture secretary is replete with tales about the importance of archaeology to the creation of a national narrative, a cultural context on which national pride can take root and grow. In Michael Goves narrative, history started in 1066 with the arrival of our Norman rules. At least with MPP we are going a few thousand years earlier to discover the unification of our proud nation, including the Scots and the Welsh of course.

I would prefer the archaeologists to focus on collecting evidence and sharing it widely for discussion, wherever the evidence leads. They would do us all a service instead of making up stories which, honestly speaking, others are equally qualified to do - perhaps more qualified when it comes to Pembrokeshire tales.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Jon, you don't need to be an expert in archaeology in order to see that if the "Antiquity" paper purports to be a reliable and scholarly article, it falls well short of the standards required. The conclusions are presumed from the beginning to the end of the paper, and no evidence is presented which might allow the reader to make a judgment on whether the interpretations and conclusions are reliable or not. On that basis, it seems to me to be extraordinary that the editor allowed it to be published.

You are being more than a little generous when you say" is always possible that the team have more evidence than they care to share: If that were the case, there may be commercial reasons behind it." You do not withhold evidence for commercial reasons -- and if MPP and his colleagues were disinclined to share their data they should never have gone into print in the first place. No -- this was a carefully coordinated high pressure piece of marketing, and it brings no credit to anybody.

Jon Morris said...

“You do not withhold evidence for commercial reasons”

Not sure I agree with that Brian: If you do not have the economic resources to publish all the data, you would have to make choices about what information has the most potential benefit to readers. There are lots of more complex reasons that information might be delayed from release or kept confidential. Having said that, I don't know much about the processes of archaeology, so it's possible that I'm making assumptions that are entirely wrong.

“The paper written for the culture secretary is replete with tales about the importance of archaeology to the creation of a national narrative, a cultural context on which national pride can take root and grow. In Michael Goves narrative, history started in 1066 with the arrival of our Norman rules.”

Do you have a reference to that paper Chris?


BRIAN JOHN said...

Jon -- if you have enough money to conduct five years of digs, you sure have enough to publish your data and your research reports. In any case it does not need to cost anything to publish your key evidence and put it in the public domain where it can be properly scrutinized -- it can be done online (for example on Researchgate or Academia)for nothing, and there are still plenty of journals out there who do not charge for publication. No -- the conclusion has to be that this is just a lack of respect for scholarship from a group of academics who thought they could get away with publishing their fantasies / conclusions without bothering the world with all that boring stuff called "evidence."

Jon Morris said...

"Jon -- if you have enough money to conduct five years of digs, you sure have enough to publish your data and your research reports. In any case it does not need to cost anything to publish your key evidence and put it in the public domain where it can be properly scrutinized"

I have no idea what the funding arrangements for digging stuff Brian: I would guess that it's largely a volunteer effort sort of thing. The hidden costs of panel publication via peer review are quite large and looking at the number of authors on the Antiquity paper, there's only a certain amount of time that people are willing to donate to projects before they want to get paid for that work.

If there is a reason that not all of the data has been shared, I don't think that there is any duty on them to immediately publish everything via non-reviewed methods. The exception, perhaps, would be if some aspect of the unpublished project work would aid others to achieve some sort of secondary goal (a goal that has some sort of value to society rather than a debate for debate's sake type of thing). If that situation existed, no doubt the 'others' would have been in contact.

Wait and see what happens next I guess?


BRIAN JOHN said...

Sure, there are lots of volunteers, but you may be quite certain that the digs at Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog are heavily grant aided -- and as we know, there is substantial National Geographic money in there as well. The Stones of Stonehenge project cost £500,000, and I bet this one (which is a sort of offshoot called "Preseli Stones of Stonehenge") will be costing £250,000 at least.

Not sure why you are bending over backwards to defend the indefensible here, Jon -- the main casualties of the determination to tell fantastical stories without first giving us the evidence on which they are based are Prof MPP and his co-workers. Do they value their academic reputations, or do they not? If they do, they are going about things in a fashion that beggars belief. If you lose the confidence of your peers you are, to coin a phrase, on the slippery slope to oblivion.

chris johnson said...

Jon, I shared the link to you on twitter. The CBA response to Ed Vaisey is promoted on the Britarch site and you can download it via there too.

It sounds like you agree that the conclusions advanced by MPP and the team are NOT supported by the evidence provided. This is at any rate my judgement. As professionals I cannot imagine what they might gain by keeping evidence secret. Actually the finger of suspicion would point at the commercial reason being the need to secure more funding pronto in order to find the missing links.

We all know the government needs to cut spending and the archaeologists are understandably active on several fronts to convince government of their value.

BRIAN JOHN said...

It's fairly obvious that the strategy is to keep this little stunt going for as long as possible, so be in no doubt that as we speak, applications are in the pipeline. But once you lose credibility, funding as a nasty habit of drying up -- and if I was a member of the MPP team, I think I might be rather worried just now about my academic career and about my ability to pull in research grants.........

You make your own Karma.......

Jon Morris said...

Hi Chris

It sounds like you agree that the conclusions advanced by MPP and the team are NOT supported by the evidence provided

I can't say that I was convinced that the conclusions were supported by the evidence Chris. Though I'm reading it from an amateur point of view, I felt that the conclusions were stated as fact, but appeared to be based on opinion. Perhaps the requirements of the journal didn't allow them the space to set out other evidence? It can be difficult to decide what evidence is relevant.

Thanks for the link.. will take a look

Hi Brian

Not sure why you are bending over backwards to defend the indefensible here, Jon

I wouldn't say that I'm bending over backwards to defend Brian. I don't know enough about it to be able to make a judgement of that sort.

It seems to me that the reputations of archaeologists past, and some others, lie strewn about the edifice of Stonehenge. So assuming that they know the risks, I would be exceptionally surprised if there isn't quite a lot more, yet to be released, than has been published to date: Only time will tell, so it'll be interesting to see what else they have up their sleeves and where they go with it next.


Unknown said...

If a monument is found within Preselau that has identifiable holes where stones once stood , even if dating evidence points to the time frame I cannot see how it will confirm human transport of the stones . These stones could have been hauled away by anyone at any time in the interim period for use anywhere in the vicinity . The back fill in the then empty holes would not take long to occupy the holes and any dating evidence can only be ephemeral at best .
I agree it can be difficult to know who to believe given the ever growing number of exchanges of views and papers , my gut feeling is that commercial archaeology is causing scientific , level headed analysis of sites to begin to enter the realms of the fantastical in the pursuit of ever decreasing cost quotes from commercial archaeologists ,in my view can only hamper the findings and leaves it all open to filling in gaps with theories and attention seek8ng for more funding...

TonyH said...

Myris is keeping his head several inches into the sand, geologically speaking, isn't he? No cryptic comments from the codger/blogger, Grecian or otherwise, from him as yet....Watch this space!

TonyH said...

"Indiana Jones and the Mummy's Curse" was apparently a prequel to all those Indiana Jones films.

Perhaps "MPP & The Pseudo - Quarry's Curse" will be the sequel to all those "Road to Rhosyfelin" Bing Crosby/ Bob Hope box - office winners. Rumour has it this may have been the late Alan Rickman's last film.