Neolithic bluestone quarries: the making of a modern myth?
Paper presented to the Spring Day Scool of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (Wales Group) at Machynlleth, 13th May 2016
1. A reminder of what the word "myth" actually means. It can mean a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature. On the other hand it can mean a falsehood, fiction or half-truth, deliberately and aggressively promoted for reasons that may not be immediately apparent. Which of these definitions might be appropriate here?
2. Summary of the bluestones at Stonehenge -- 43 stones of many different shapes, sizes and lithologies. In what remains of the bluestone horseshoe, spotted and unspotted dolerites, and in the remains of the bluestone circle, many other lithologies. When the debitage, packing stones and litter are included, there are certainly close to 30 stone sources represented, including (in the orthostat assemblage) ash flow tuffs, ashes, calcareous volcanic ash, micaceous sandstones, and calcarous sandstone; and in the debitage, rhyolites and dacites. The majority of the orthostats are not pillars, but slabs and boulders with irregular shapes and heavily weathered surfaces.
3. With respect to the "bluestone enigma" there are three essential problems. First, at source: how were they picked up. Second, en route: how were they carried? Third, at destination: how were they emplaced? Unfortunately, the transport issue has become the obsession.....
4. The glacial transport hypothesis is well articulated by Judd, Geikie, Lewis, Jehu, Kellaway, Williams-Thorpe and others, and is adequately supported by ground evidence of erratics and deposits as far east as Somerset. It is also supported by glaciologocal modelling. Current maps of ice limits for the Anglian and Devensian are in need of revision in the light of recent discoveries (for example, relating to the Isles of Scilly, Lundy and Dartmoor).
5. The human transport hypothesis initially proposed by Thomas, and then elaborated upon by Atkinson, Parker Pearson, Castleden, Uncle Tom Cobbley and All, is not supported by ANY ground evidence. Abundant routes have been proposed. The basic argument seems to be to cite spectacular achievements like Macchu Pichu, the Pyramids, the Easter Island heads, Grand Menhir de Brise, Newgrange etc, and to follow it by saying “If they did all that, they probably did this too, since glacial transport was impossible.........” Even geomorphologists like Chris Green, James Scourse, Chris Clark, and David Bowen have signed up to this strangely unsatisfactory style of thinking.
6. On the basis that nothing is agreed on the bluestone transport issue, it should be placed to one side and declared irrelevant for the purposes of determining the entrainment / monolith pickup mechanisms. So what is the evidence on the ground? First, we need to look at the Bevins / Ixer provenancing work done within the last ten years. In their search for bluestone provenances, they have concentrated on the Fishguard Volcanic Series and on the dolerite intrusions on the northern flank of Preseli. Key locations are Carn Meini, Carn Goedog, Rhosyfelin, Carn Alw, Cerrig Marchogion, and Foel Drigarn.
7. Bevins and Ixer claim to have shown that Carn Goedog (not Carn Meini) is the most likely source for most of the spotted dolerite orthostats at Stonehenge, and they have supported -- in print -- the idea that there is a bluestone quarry at Carn Goedog. This is unwise, since the spotted dolerites at Stonehenge are quite variable, both in the standing stones and in the debitage, and the bulk of this material could have come from anywhere on the "Carn Goedog sill" which runs across country towards Carn Alw in the NE and which also seems to be related to the outcrops at Cerrig Marchogion to the SW. The provenancing is accurate to within 5 kms or so, but to claim greater accuracy is asking for trouble. http://brian-mountainman.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/more-thoughts-on-carn-goedog.html
8. The Carn Goedog quarrying debate. This is an extensive hillside tor made of spotted dolerite, in a tumbledown state as a consequence of damage by overriding ice and by frost action and rockfall / scree formation mechanisms. Parker Pearson and his team appear to have decided -- on the basis of guidance from the geologists -- that there has to be a Neolithic quarry here. Their excavations, especially in 2014 and 2015, on the south flank of the tor, in the col between the rock outcrops and the hillside above, have apparently revealed the following features: pillars, flat slabs, pavements, fireplaces, wedges, recesses, split monoliths, trestles, ramps, redeposited soil layers................ Accordingly it has been announced that this is indeed a crucial Neolithic quarry from which hundreds of monoliths have been removed. However, examination of the so-called engineering features by geomorphologists have shown that all of them are entirely natural and unexceptional. There are signs of intermittent occupation, backed up by radiocarbon dates, but this does not mean that there was active quarrying here. It should also be noted that -- in spite of a meticulous search -- there are no artifacts like picks, wedges, levers or hammerstones, no pottery fragments, no blades, axes or hammer heads, and no working floors with concentrations of worked bluestone debris. The description of the "discoveries" in "British Archaeology" is based entirely on assumptions, unsupported assertions and speculations, with no serious attempt made at any stage to describe features or sediments carefully prior to scientific analysis and interpretation. This is not how research should be done or reported.
9. Bevins and Ixer claim to have shown that the bulk of the foliated rhyolite "debitage" at Stonehenge has come from near the tip of the Rhosyfelin spur, with their spot provenancing accurate to "within a few square metres." The basis of this claim is a close match between the "Jovian fabric" revealed in thin sections of fragments from Stonehenge and another thin section of a sample from point 8 in Bevins's sampling programme around Pont Saeson and Craig Rhosyfelin. The match is close, but the fabrics in the samples are certainly not identical, and all of the geomorphologists who have visited the site have questioned the claim made by the geologists. Examination of the tightly packed foliations, fracture patterns and rock faces at Rhosyfelin reveals that the foliation layer exposed at point 8, carrying a typical and unique "petrographic signature", could also be exposed across c 40 sq m of the adjacent rock face and could also have been exposed in the past across country for a considerable distance -- kilometres, rather than metres. It could also have been exposed on higher parts of the crag that have now been removed by ice action and rockfall mechanisms. In other words, the claim of "spot provenancing" with this extraordinary degree of accuracy was premature, to say the least......
10. The Rhosyfelin quarrying debate. From the beginning, Parker Pearson and his colleagues have demonstrated an unshakeable belief that this is a Neolithic bluestone quarry, worked specifically for the purpose of obtaining and transporting bluestone monoliths for Stonehenge. Over five digging seasons involving the removal of hundreds of tonnes of sediments and the meticulous recording of stone positions within "archaeological horizons", the ruling hypothesis has been that this is "the Pompeii of prehistoric quarries." No geomorphologist has been actively involved in the work, and free advice from geomorphologists has been rebuffed. The significance of the Quaternary sedimentary sequence at the site has been systematically ignored. From the beginning, two features have figured prominently: the so-called recess near the tip of the spur from which a bluestone monolith is supposed to have been extracted, and a large (8 tonne) slab of stone a few metres from the rock face which has been referred to as "intended for export but for some reason abandoned." The "extraction recess" is a fantasy, presumably based upon the guidance given to the archaeologists by geologists Bevins and Ixer. The recumbent slab "fondly referred to as "the picnic table") is bigger than other slabs in its vicinity, and it is so heavily fractured that it cannot possibly ever have been a candidate for removal from the site. It is simply a component of the accumulated rockfall debris, and is in all respects unexceptional. Undeterred, the archaeologists have "discovered" the following features: The quarry face, The quarry spoil bank, The proto-orthostat, Props and pillars, The stone rails, Scratched rock surfaces, The monolith extraction point, The working surface, The haulage pathway, The storage platform, The revetment, The export trackway, The vertical stone fulcrum, Packed sediment supports, Hammer stones, and The standing stone socket. As noted by John, Elis-Gruffydd and Downes in two papers, these features have all been carefully examined by geomorphologists, and all have been found to be perfectly natural features consistent with the sediment sequence and the interpreted sequence of events between the Devensian glaciation and the present day. The landforms and sediments (including rockfall accumulations, Devensian till, fluvio-glacial gravels and slope deposits including colluvium) are typical of those seen in other parts of Pembrokeshire; among the most interesting features are the signs of a high-energy and very unstable ice-wastage environment at the end of the Devensian glacial episode. There are now more than 50 radiocarbon age determinations for the site, from organic materials scattered through the sediments. They show a pattern of intermittent occupation of a camp site since the Mesolithic, but none of the dates does anything to suggest quarrying activity here, and indeed there are no finds of hammer stones, antler picks, pottery, axes or other tools or artifacts that one might expect to find in a "favoured quarrying location."
11. This paper outlining the "discoveries" at Rhosyfelin is heavily criticised, on the grounds that it is not a publication that follows normal research publication protocols but is simply an exercise in ruling hypothesis confirmation: 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. It is surprising that the two geologists have allowed their names to be used as second and third authors, since their own research papers are generally meticulously presented and carefully written............. It is also surprising that the paper was passed for publication by its editor and referees, since it must also damage the reputation of "Antiquity" journal.
12. So now we have four key papers:
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.
.......... and a fundamental disagreement about the interpretation of the same field evidence by geomorphologists on the one side and archaeologists on the other. The geomorphologists have tried to employ the Occam's Razor principle by using the most parsimonious explanations possible for the features on the ground, in the light of their own experience of glacial and periglacial environments and related sites in West Wales. They have seen NOTHING in the features exposed in the dig sites at Carn Goedog and Rhosyfelin to convince them of any Neolithic quarrying activity, and NOTHING in the published reports by the archaeologists to cause them to revise their conclusions.
13. Whatever the archaeologists might say, there remain many fundamental problems with the quarrying / human transport scenario, as summarised here:
★ There is no sound evidence from anywhere in the British Neolithic / Bronze Age record of large stones being hauled over long distances (more than 5 km or so) for incorporation in a megalithic monument. The builders of Neolithic monuments across the UK simply used whatever large stones were at hand.
★ If ancestor or tribute stones were being transported to Stonehenge, why have all of the known bluestones come from the west, and not from any other points of the compass? Were belief systems and "local politics" quite different to the north, east and south?
★ There is no evidence either from West Wales or from anywhere else of bluestones (or spotted dolerite or Rhosyfelin rhyolite in particular) being used preferentially in megalithic monuments, or revered in any way. The builders always used whatever was available to them in the vicinity, and it can be argued that stone availability was a prime locational determinant for stone settings.
★ If long-distance stone haulage was "the great thing" for the builders of Stonehenge, why is there no evidence of the development of the appropriate haulage technology leading up to the late Neolithic, and a decline afterwards? It is a complete technological aberration.
★ The evidence for Neolithic quarrying activity in key locations is questionable. No physical evidence has ever been found of ropes, picks, levers, wedges, rollers, trackways, sledges, abandoned stones, quarrymen's camps, working floors or anything else that might bolster the hypothesis. The so-called “engineering features” are entirely natural.
★ The sheer variety of bluestone types (near 30 when one includes packing stones and debris) argues against selection and human transport. There cannot possibly have been ten or more "bluestone quarries" scattered across West Wales.
★ Bits and pieces of experimental archaeology on stone haulage techniques (normally in "ideal" conditions) have done nothing to show that our ancestors could cope with the sheer physical difficulty of stone haulage across the heavily-wooded Neolithic terrain of West Wales (characterised by bogs, cataracts, steep slopes and very few clearings) or around the rocky coast.
★ Neither has it been shown that the Stonehenge builders had the geographical awareness and navigational ability to undertake long and highly complex journeys with very heavy loads.
★ And if there was a "proto-Stonehenge" somewhere, built of assorted local stones and then dismantled and taken off to Stonehenge, where was it? The mooted "Preselite" axe factory has never been found, and neither has the mythical Stonehenge precursor.
★ Analyses of bluestone monolith stone shapes does not suggest that elongated “pillars” were preferred. Slabs, stumps and boulders of all shapes and sizes are highly suggestive of a glacial erratic assemblage.
★ There is no reason why Neolithic people should have gone to the trouble of actually "quarrying" large monoliths from difficult locations such as Carn Goedog and Rhosyfelin when there were thousands of suitable rocks, of many different types, littering the landscape round about -- just waiting to be picked up.
14. It therefore appears that there is such a determined promotion of the Neolithic quarrying scenario by this team of archaeologists (and geologists) that we are indeed looking at a "myth-making" process. In print, John, Elis-Gruffydd and Downes have already accused the archaeologists of selective sediment removal and of the creation of their own "archaeological artifices" which have then been cited as "evidence" in support of their central hypothesis. How close this comes to malpractice is for other archaeologists to decide.