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Friday, 29 January 2016

Our Neolithic ancestors -- too smart to take stones from stupid places...


 Garn Turne -- a Neolithic site predetermined by the position of the chosen capstone.

Earlier this month I put up a post on this blog which asked this question:  why would anybody in their right mind, back in the Neolithic, go to the trouble of quarrying large slabs of rock from stupid places like Carn Goedog or Craig Rhosyfelin when they could have picked up all the stones they needed from almost anywhere in the landscape?

http://brian-mountainman.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/neolithic-bluestone-quarries-why-would.html

This came up in my seminar in the Swansea Geography Department the other day, in the context of a discussion about the collection of stones to be incorporated into cromlechs and other stone settings.  We talked quite a bit about cost / benefit ratios and agreed that as far as any of us knew, all of the big capstones used in Welsh cromlechs were probably used exactly where found (many were glacial erratics), and were maybe levered upwards or propped up in some cases, whereas the vertical or supporting stones, which tend to be smaller, might have been brought in from within the neighbourhood, with a search extending outwards from the building site until the costs of the exercise outweighed the benefits.  I'm increasingly convinced that the LOCATIONS OF DESIRABLE CAPSTONES is what has determined the location of cromlechs across Wales -- and this of course is what Steve Burrow has said quite forcefully in his book "The Tomb Builders."

So the signs are that the Neolithic tomb builders knew all about costs and benefits, and were far more concerned about economy of effort than they were about aesthetics, or astronomical alignments, or the magical or healing properties of the stones they were using. 

The consensus in our discussion was that the Neolithic tribesmen of North Pembrokeshire would have been completely stupid to have actually quarried monoliths at Carn Goedog or Craig Rhosyfelin, given the superabundance of convenient stones already littering the landscape following the events of the Devensian glacial episode.    And the signs are that they were not stupid at all, if the arrangements and characteristics of West Wales stone settings is anything to go by.

So who were, or are, the people behaving obsessively or irrationally in this whole business?  Sadly, we have to conclude that the ones who appear to have taken leave of their senses are the quarry hunters themselves, who appear to have set themselves upon a course of action where the minimalist returns are out of all proportion to the effort and cash expended, and who appear to have learned nothing at all about cost-benefit considerations from their Neolithic ancestors.

Rhosyfelin.  Diggers and buckets galore, and a vast expenditure of time and money. But did anybody actually do a cost-benefit analysis before it all started? 

16 comments:

Dave Maynard said...

Brian,

How is your survey of stone gateposts going?

I'd like to get stuck in more to this, but the weather is against me.

How does the cost-benefit model apply to gateposts? No problem in those areas where the landscape is rocky, but how about further away? I came across a group of stones that someone had placed upright on a road verge just north of Llanddewi Velfrey, Whitland. I think they must have been gathered up from recent field amalgamations and put in an interesting place. What is intriguing was that I'd have said there would be few stone gateposts in this area as it is about 10 miles from the nearest rock outcrops.

Could stone gateposts have come from field collections, or from a historic quarrying industry? The shape of such stones further away from a source could well indicate the manner by which they got there. Long slender ones with few signs of working, probably indicate historic travelled stones as opposed to naturally sourced stones.

I've also been seeing a number of large slabby stones laid sideways in hedgebanks almost like orthostats. These would almost certainly be stones cleared from fields and used to make hedges. I don't see a cost-benefit in moving those very far. They could be used as an indicator of the original distribution of such stones to compare with the spread of stone gateposts.

Dave

chris johnson said...

Interesting Brian, so you are starting to believe in alignments and such like?

On gateposts, I do not find the stones to be very practical as gate posts and am inclined to believe the stones were once stood up for reasons unknown and proved to be logical places to run paths by and signal field boundaries. In Victorian times there was a fashion among the English squirearchy for having stone posts at the entrance to the property, but again I doubt there was much utilitarian value beyond showing off.

My impression is that there are many erratics in the direction of Whitland, all the way from the Prescelly outcrops in fact. What a surprise that would be :)

BRIAN JOHN said...

Chris -- have I ever disbelieved alignments? They sure occur at Avebury, Carnac and even Parc y Meirw, so there is no great problem in accepting that they exist......

Evergreen couldn't resist the question said...

Brian,

What alignments do you consider exist at Avebury?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Sorry -- careless of me. Should have said West Kennet Avenue, which looks to me like stones arranged in rows...... I'd better not get involved in a debate about imaginary lines drawn on maps joining up assorted stones from the main monument!

TonyH said...

when THE MOON IS IN THE SEVENTH HOUSE





When the moon is in the seventh house
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Peace will rule the planets
And Brian will rule us all
....









TonyH said...

I think the twenty - first century Quarry Hunters from UCL, Universities of Manchester, Southampton, etc, may have known exactly what they were doing when they considered cost benefit in relation to their Preseli project. They have milked their preposterous proposition for all it is worth and first touted it to National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institute and the like.

TonyH said...

Colin Richards "has ventured into Polynesian Archaeology" with his research interests....


Manchester.ac.uk/research/colin.c.richards/research

He's the Raj of Rapa Nui (aka Easter Island)

BRIAN JOHN said...

Maybe Colin and his mates will have better luck with quarries over on Easter Island, where perhaps the natives are not quite so sceptical.......

Dave Maynard said...

Chris,

There are certainly many stones set in positions to 'show off', both in historic times and more recently. These are at farm entrances and drives, probably including the several modern cromlechs we see about the place. There are however many in locations that look original and purely utilitarian.

The landscape has changed with big modern equipment and daily visits by milk tankers, resulting in widened gateways. I'd guess that 70% of entrances on roadsides are concrete, wood or steel pillars; stone posts 20%; the rest being various things such as cattle grids or nothing at all.

Fitting a gate to stone post is very hard, which accounts for the frequency of iron hinges and hooks that can be adjusted to accommodate the shape of the stone. I'd expect many of the stones to be dressed to make them more regular, but I've not often seen evidence of that. It could reflect a time when hurdles were used as gates rather than hinged gates, especially where they were opened less frequently.

There is also quite a proportion of pillars made from slate, which is easier to dress and drill holes for iron hooks. The sources of these might be easier to pin down for a cost-benefit analysis. Perhaps not the sources, but few would be glacially derived.

The field boundaries in stony areas are composed of the material out of the field and big heavy blocks certainly influenced the size and shape of the field. The Whitland area has a limited number of erratics and I have yet to find any outcrops, so the size and shape of fields will be governed by topographic influences. How numerous stone gate posts are in the area, is something I hope to tell you later.

Dave

Dave Maynard said...

One of the anonymous contributors about a year ago was looking was looking for Strahan, A., Cantrill, T.C., Dixon, E.E.L., Thomas, H.H. and Jones, O.T. 1914: The geology of the south Wales coalfield. Part XI. the country around Haverfordwest.

I was able to find it here where it can be read, but takes a bit of ingenuity to download the pdf.

https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uiug.30112026824471;view=1up;seq=10

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thanks Dave -- I hadn't realised they were available via the web. I have an extremely ancient Xerox copy on the file. Will try to get the PDF too..... There's a lot of very valuable stuff in those old memoirs......

Dave Maynard said...

Huge number of observations, makes you wonder if anyone has done anything on a similar scale since then, certainly at a regional level. They were probably looking at all the old quarries that are now overgrown, while we have perhaps more ground disturbances, but they happen more quickly and are hidden by health and safety rules

PeteG said...

hm no surprise there!
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-wiltshire-35461309

As Neolithic man explored the receeding ice sheets on reaching Salisbury Plain the women announced "Right! You can pick up all these bloody stones for a start!"

Alex Gee said...

On my Mendip travels I've come across many orthostat shaped and sized boulders buried in hedges and used as gate posts. As well as forming gateposts, These "Orthostats" also appear to form a handy end capping finishing for the ends of runs of dry stone walls.

I do wonder whether this was their main purpose? the fact that they quite often coincide with the entrance to fields being a useful side benefit?

Alex Gee said...

One other thought: why would Neolithic Man not find the local mendip rock types used for the magnificent frontage of Wells Cathedral equally attractive and hundreds of miles nearer?