Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my new book called "The Stonehenge Bluestones" -- available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
To order, click

Monday 21 March 2016

Who needs quarries anyway?

Following on from my recent post, I came across these two photos in my collection.  They both show the extent to stone litter on uncleared land; I suspect that there are hundreds of acres of this sort of terrain on Preseli and Carningli, except that over large tracts the stone litter or erratic assemblage has been buried beneath peat, windblown sediments, colluvium and stratified slope deposits.

The top photo is from the western flank of Carningli, and the lower one is from a morainic mound near Gernos Fawr -- the surface has been exposed following foraging by pigs.   The stone litter in the foreground of the top photo has been described by Roger Worsley as a "chevaux de frise"  similar to the features at Carn Alw and Castell Henllys.  (The feature is a defensive one consisting large numbers of sharp stones set into the ground at an angle, to deter Iron Age tribal groups from mounting cavalry charges towards the entrance of a fortified settlement.)   In this case, I beg to differ -- I can see no trace here of any "arrangements" of the stones, and no evidence that pointed stones have been deliberately placed in one particular direction in order to protect the settlement's main entrance.  There archaeologists have very vivid imaginations.......but we knew that already.........)

Thursday 17 March 2016

Why would anybody be stupid enough to quarry bluestones?

 Natural stone litter, mostly dolerite, on the common near Gernos Fach, Preseli

 Natural stone litter on the surface of  a Devensian moraine, near Tafarn y Bwlch, Preseli

 Stone walls built of smaller boulders from field clearance work, near Ffordd Bedd Morris, Newport.  The larger elongated stones have generally been used as gateposts.

On several occasions on this blog I have asked the question: "Why would anybody be stupid enough to quarry bluestones?" 

Whether we are talking about the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age or historic times, the North Pembrokeshire landscape was and is so littered with large slabs and boulders, many of them elongated, that nobody with any sense would ever have considered that actually going to a rock face in a deep valley and quarrying stones there, from the living rock, would have been an option.  If you wanted "orthostats" or monoliths in the past, you would just go and pick them up from wherever was most convenient, and if it were not for our wonderful planning rules, the same principle would apply today.

The only grounds on which that principle might be overturned might be for a bedrock outcrop site to be so revered that stones taken from it might be invested with great significance -- and indeed that is why Darvill and Wainwright have argued that Carn Meini was exploited as a source of "healing stones" which had to be taken from one place, and one place only.  But as we know, that theory has fallen flat because the geologists now think that the spotted dolerites did not come from there at all.  And as for Carn Goedog and Rhosyfelin, there is absolutely no evidence that the stones from those sites were revered in any way.  Spotted dolerites are used in stone settings, but as I have pointed out, we do not know of a single instance in which Rhosyfelin foliated rhyolite was used in a megalithic setting, either in Pembrokeshire or anywhere else.

This all came into mind again recently as I have been wandering about looking at the Preseli landscape, and wondering at the sheer abundance of stones available at the surface.  Then I took a look at  ET Lewis's old book called "North of the Hills" and discovered these words on p 22, relating to the area of origin of the bluestones:   "..... in the triangle formed by Foel Drygarn, Garn Alw and Cerrig y Marchogion.  Those who took them could have chosen their stock from here, without undue quarrying, for the supply of stone is practically endless."

He also says:  "It should be emphasised at this point that igneous boulders are strewn over an extensive area south of the ridge.  Almost every field in many parishes was brought into cultivation after the partial removal of these boulders.  The process of clearance continues to this day; in fact, it has accelerated immensely in recent years.  Northwards of the ridge, hundreds of boulders can be observed, but invariably these have been selected for particular purposes, notably as gateposts, over a period of many centuries."

Thus spake the prophet.

ET Lewis was a pretty astute prehistorian, and he knew the territory intimately, and I think he was on the ball as far as stone collection was concerned. 

So why all the fuss about bluestone quarries?  It would help if some people just lifted their eyes unto the hills, and looked at the landscape......

Tuesday 15 March 2016

Martha Morgan Country

Sorry for recent inactivity on this site -- I have been rather busy trying to earn an honest living! I'm involved in a big new "literary tourism" initiative, trying to promote the area in which the 8 novels of the Angel Mountain saga are set -- with a lot of liaison involved with the local authorities, tourism operators etc.  Big launch in Newport on 3rd April.

In the meantime, if anybody wants to spend a little while doing our fun quiz, have a go!  You never know, you might win a gigantic prize!

Here is the link:

Monday 7 March 2016

Stonehenge Mania

A great photo by Elena Marimon Munoz -- Stonehenge, midsummer solstice -- from the BBC web site.  The winner of a British Life Photography Award in the Brits on Holiday category.

Brits on holiday?  Brits at worship, more like........ strange country we live in!

Stonehenge: a prehistoric tourist trap

This old article, from 2013, may not have been very widely read -- and the BBC has just republished it in full on its History web site.

Stonehenge: a prehistoric tourist trap

Wiltshire’s world-famous stones have been attracting sightseers for thousands of years. Here, Mike Pitts tells the tourists’ story.
This article was first published in the Christmas 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

There is also a new article, with this title:

 Was Stonehenge first built in Wales? 

Stonehenge, which began to be built around 3000 BC, continues to mystify historians, archaeologists and geologists.

This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of History Revealed

The article is not available in full unless you part with good money, but this summary is published:

The prehistoric stone circle is composed predominantly of locally-sourced sarsen (sandstone), but at its centre is a setting of smaller ‘bluestone’ monoliths.
For these, spotted dolerite was used – an igneous rock that outcrops in West Wales, some 140 miles from Salisbury Plain.
How these bluestones first came to Stonehenge is subject to heated debate. The answer may come from recent discoveries of potential prehistoric quarries, where dolerite may have been extracted, in the Preseli Hills of Pembrokeshire.
Yet some still contend that the bluestones were deposited on Salisbury Plain by glaciers.
Alternatively, the monoliths may originally have been part of a stone circle constructed in Wales, which was lifted and moved wholesale in the third millennium BC.
But why the herculean effort to move such massive stones? It could be that the unusual spotted dolerite was prized by those living on the more colour-deficient chalk landscapes of Wiltshire.

Answered by one of our Q&A experts, Miles Russell. For more fascinating question by Miles, and the rest of our panel, pick up a copy of History Revealed! Available in print and for digital devices

Sounds rather like yet another uncritical regurgitation of the standard MPP story....... one gets used to this proliferation of very shallow journalism.....

Friday 4 March 2016

On Chris Catling, Trowels and Bluestones

 The chalk scarp at Westbury -- was this the 100m high barrier that prevented the ice of the Irish Sea Glacier from making any further eastwards progress?

Thanks to Tony for sending a photocopy of the "Sherds" section from CA 312.  It's mostly as I expected, but one other bit needs to be dealt with.........

To quote Chris Catling:  "Dr John and his supporters should be asked to present evidence that glaciation reached as far east as Stonehenge and was capable of carrying a large glacial erratic all that way from Pembrokeshire.  He might like, for example, to point to an example somewhere in the landscape of such an erratic, or even a small fragment of one -- for surely the Neolithic people cannot have found and exploited every single one."

Well, the evidence might just be staring us in the face, in the form of a strange assemblage of 43 erratic boulders, slabs and pillars,  of many different lithologies, picked up in the neighbourhood and  built into the Stonehenge stone settings.  That is just as feasible an argument as the one that says that Neolithic tribesment went off to Wales, collected them up and carried them eastwards.  We are not aware of any "anomalous boulders" in the Stonehenge or Salisbury Plain landscape, apart from the Boles Barrow spotted dolerite boulder which Prof MPP now appears to accept as authentic (rather than being a stolen Stonehenge boulder).  And there are plenty of unexplained fragments scattered about which seem to suggest that bluestones were lying around and were exploited BEFORE the earliest stone setting phase at Stonehenge.

For the moment, my gut feeling (based on what we know about ice edge behaviour) is that the ice reached the chalk scarp somewhere near Westbury -- and maybe pushed over it and onto the chalk downs.

The "every single one" argument is a strange one.  I have had this put to me over and again -- and behind it is the idea that there were 80 bluestones used at Stonehenge.  Surely it would have been beyond the bounds of credibility to claim that there were 80 bluestones available in the Stonehenge landscape, precisely the right number to be incorporated into the monument?  To counter that one, all we need to do is to say that nobody has ever demonstrated that there were 80 (or 82) bluestones at Stonehenge.  We only know about 43, which appear to have been used over and again in many different settings;  and the logical conclusion has to be that the Stonehenge builders did indeed collect up all of the bluestones and the sarsens they could find, extending their search area further and further afield, until the costs involved outweighed any benefits that might have accrued.  So in response to Chris, yes, I do believe that the Neolithic people did find and exploit every single bluestone lying on the surface -- and that they gave up in disgust when the stones ran out.  That does not preclude the possibility that there may be more, buried in the chalk rubble or the soil layer, waiting to be discovered by chance or through some systematic search........

Tuesday 1 March 2016

The Blessing Stone at St Dogmaels

 I just came across a reference to this rather large stone close to the River Teifi in St Dogmaels.  Is it really made of spotted dolerite?  I must go and check it out.  It is reputed to weigh about 14 tonnes.  It looks like a large glacial erratic, and I'm not sure where the idea comes from that says it was once the capstone of a dolmen.  Sounds rather fanciful to me.......

From the local descriptions of the stone:

The Blessing or Answer Stone:
The Blessing Stone below the Teifi Netpool pub in St Dogmaels was possibly once the capstone of a dolmen [from the Breton taol-maen - ‘stone table’] that stood on the level ground above its present position, where the view is spectacular.

These ancient monuments are made of spotted dolerite (bluestone), a basalt which occurs at several outcrops in the Preseli Mountains, which provided the main sources for the famous Stonehenge bluestones. If you the stand on the stone and yell you get the most perfect echo back. Plus once a year there is a ceremony to bless the river from the stone which is well worth attending.


Tradition holds that the Carreg-y-Fendith (Blessing Stone) on the Netpool is where the Abbot blessed the fishermen before they set out on their fishing season. The stone, also called Carreg Ateb (Echo Stone), was re-discovered in the 1960s.

Nevern Castle gets a fabulous interactive web site

Take a look at this, folks:

I think it's rather impressive -- a brand new web site for Nevern Castle, with interactive components.  Congrats to all involved........  this is the way to interest people of all generations in archaeology, since it's pitched at a relatively simple level and is yet very informative.  I like the "Discworld" spinning images that you can manipulate for yourself.  The technology involved in making this site -- audio, video and computer graphics -- is impressive, and yet the site has a nice folksy feel to it.

Nevern Castle is never going to be overrun with tourists, because there is actually not very much there for people to see -- and we'll have to take it on trust that the 11th and 12th century reconstructions of the fortifications etc are accurate.  But this web site will surely enhance the enjoyment of those who do visit what's left up there on this wooded valley spur, especially if they view it on their smartphones and manage to get some sort of signal from somewhere beyond the trees.....

There are still a few glitsches on the site, so I assume it's still under development.

Strange suggestion from "Current Archaeology".......

 One of Rodney Castleden's illustrations from his book.  Message to archaeologists: go forth into the countryside and find us some evidence of such a fine waggon train, and we might start to take you seriously.......

I'm just an occasional reader of "Current Archaeology", and I have not seen the piece from its columnist (Chris Catling?)  about the bluestone 'battle' in CA 312.  Somebody kindly sent me an extract, in which Chris says:  "Choosing his words with care, Dr John described the archaeological work at Craig Rhosyfelin and Stonehenge as an interesting piece of 'rock provenancing' that 'tells us nothing at all about how monoliths or smaller rock fragments found their way to Stonehenge from west Wales'.  He then goes on to assert that there is 'substantial evidence in favour of glacial transport and zero evidence in support of the human transport theory'."

I assume he is referring to the two articles by Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd, John Downes and myself, and our accompanying press releases, in which we do indeed make statements like that.  And we stand by them.  There is zero evidence in support of the human transport theory:  no sledges, ropes, rollers, tracks, rafts, boats, abandoned orthostats or anything else that might be considered "archaeological evidence" has ever been found between West Wales and Salisbury Plain to suggest any sort of human enterprise involving the long-distance transport of bluestones.  So there is no smoking gun.  Even if traces of quarrying were to be found in Rhosyfelin or Carn Goedog, that would not tell us anything about long-distance stone transport.

As for our statement that there is  "substantial evidence in favour of glacial transport", we stand by that too.  Much of this blog has been devoted to analysing the evidence, in the form of erratics and glacial deposits in Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and the Scilly Isles.  We are claiming that there is substantial evidence on the record to support the thesis that the ice of the Irish Sea glacier over-rode Preseli, flowed up the Bristol Channel and pressed well into Somerset.  We are not saying that the ice edge pushed as far east as Stonehenge, although we do think that is a possibility.  Is the bluestone assemblage at Stonehenge an assemblage of locally collected erratics?  From the shapes, lithologies and sizes of the stones, we think that's a distinct possibility.......

So on the glacial transport side, there is limited evidence on the ground to support it.  On the human transport side, there is nothing.  So the balance of possibilities is clearly in favour of glacial transport, for at least part of the bluestone journey from source to destination.

That having been said, I gather that Chris then "throws down the gauntlet" by saying that to clarify matters perhaps we three earth scientists could point to an unexploited glacial erratic in the vicinity of Stonehenge, while Mike Parker Pearson could send a team of students to haul a bluestone from west Wales.  With all due respect to Chris, that's rather a cockeyed way of looking at things. Are we looking for evidence here, or are we not?  If we are expected to find an "unexploited glacial erratic" in order to make our case, would it not be entirely reasonable to expect MPP and his colleagues to find an equivalent piece of hard evidence somewhere, in the form of a dressed and abandoned orthostat, or a sledge, or a stone-carrying boat preserved in the mud of the Severn Estuary? 

A bit of experimental archaeology involving the hauling of a stone would tell us precisely nothing about what actually happened.  Atkinson and his tame schoolboys did some jolly stone-moving back in the 1950's and many people have had fun doing similar experiments since then, but it gets none of us anywhere simply to carry on saying "We have shown that stones could probably have been moved by doing this, that or the other, and therefore that's what actually happened."  That's not field evidence, and it's not science.  That's fantasy.