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Saturday, 13 August 2016

Durrington: red herrings and red faces

A reconstruction of the famous "stone row" that never was........  Photo: Ludwig Boltzmann Institute

Remember this image?  It was all over the media in September of last year, when Vince Gaffney and assorted colleagues pushed out the latest "gigantic story" in the never-ending sequence of Stonehenge gigantic stories.  The media loved it, and this and various other images were reproduced worldwide.  There was even a nice little video to help with the visualization process.


“What we are starting to see is the largest surviving stone monument, preserved underneath a bank, that has ever been discovered in Britain and possibly in Europe,” said Vince Gaffney, an archaeologist at Bradford University who leads the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape project. “This is archaeology on steroids.”

Paul Garwood, an archaeologist and lead historian on the project at the University of Birmingham, said the the new discoveries at Durrington Walls changed fundamentally how researchers understood Stonehenge and the world around it. “Everything written previously about the Stonehenge landscape and the ancient monuments within it will need to be rewritten,” he said.

Nick Snashall, a National Trust archaeologist for the Avebury and Stonehenge world heritage site, said: “These latest results have produced tantalising evidence of what lies beneath the ancient earthworks at Durrington Walls. The presence of what appear to be stones, surrounding the site of one of the largest Neolithic settlements in Europe, adds a whole new chapter to the Stonehenge story.”

Anyway, it now appears that it was all a load of nonsense, and that there weren't any wonderful rows of monoliths (either bluestones or sarsens) after all.  This is the report from the BBC, tucked away on the Wiltshire pages of the web site:

'New Stonehenge' at Durrington Walls 'had no standing stones'

12 August 2016
A 4,500-year-old monument experts thought was "another Stonehenge" is now understood to have not contained any standing stones at all.
Archaeologists digging at Durrington Walls - about two miles from Stonehenge - said they now believed the Neolithic site was surrounded by timber posts.
Last year they said a survey showed evidence of "a Superhenge" of more than 100 buried stones at the site.
But no evidence of stones was found during an excavation.
Pits that contained wooden posts have been found.
The Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project has been surveying an area covering 16 sq km near Stonehenge for the past six years using geophysical survey techniques.
National Trust archaeologist Dr Nicola Snashall said ground penetrating radar had revealed "anomalies" that were originally believed to be buried stones.
"The response from the radar was so good that the team thought they were dealing with a whole series of stones lying on their side, buried beneath the bank of this ancient earthwork."
Two of the features have now been excavated, and the stones theory has been disproved.
"What we've discovered are that there are two enormous pits for timber posts. They have got ramps at the sides to lower posts into.
"They did contain timbers which have been vertically lifted out and removed at some stage.
"The top was then filled in with chalk rubble and then the giant henge bank was raised over the top."
Dr Snashall said it was thought the giant timber monument was was put up immediately after a settlement on the site, that belonged to the builders of Stonehenge, went out of use.
"For some strange reason they took the timbers out and put up the enormous bank and ditch that we see today."
The Durrington Walls monument, which is about 480m (1,500 ft) across, is just under two miles (3km) from the famous Stonehenge site in Wiltshire.


The archaeologists involved in the new dig are of course flagging the whole thing up as a wonderful and "incredibly exciting" new piece of work involving a group of diverse specialists and enabling members of the public to visit a real dig and watch and talk to real "experts".  See Dr Nick Snashall's reports here:

It is intriguing to see that over the course of the dig, a wondrous row of a hundred recumbent monoliths that were once upright has been transformed first into an "arc of large solid anomalies, some over two metres long" and finally into a set of postholes.............. with not a sarsen or bluestone monolith in sight.

No doubt some very interesting things will come out of this two-week dig, but there is obvious that the dig itself was a red herring and that there are currently some very red faces around, especially in the Gaffney team.

So what does this tell us about the state of British archaeology?  Well, it confirms that there is a world of difference between technology and science -- the original Gaffney team's PR, about a year ago, flagged up how the great discoveries at Durrington had been achieved through the use of high-tech gadgetry.  Hmmm-- the use of wonderful toys does not, sadly, mean that your results are scientifically reliable.

More to the point, this is yet another illustration of the archaeological obsession with "impact" -- with workers who should know better rushing out wildly premature press releases on the basis of half-baked research, just in order to obtain a few days of global coverage in the gullible media.


Here is the original Ludwig Boltzmann Institute press release:

and the video:


Dave Maynard said...

Of all the remote sensing techniques, ground radar has the potential to be very informative, but also give horrendously unintelligible results. I was told by an engineer that on one site they used it to search for three concrete storage tanks believed to be buried there. At face value, three big lumps of concrete should have given obvious target returns. The radar showed nothing, so they thought they were in the clear. When they excavated what did they find, but three big concrete tanks!

So much of all these techniques depends on the operator skill in setting the equipment up properly and understanding the type of information that may be present. Interpretation also relies on good knowledge of the technique, the background and expected targets.

In this case, I don’t think they were so far wrong. They certainly identified features in precise locations, just that the preliminary interpretation did not stand the test of direct examination.

We may all suffer from that at some stage in whatever field we work, perhaps some more than others.


Neil Wiseman said...

Hi Brian,

Because of this site's potential relationship with the Pile, I followed the excavation closely; in near real-time communication with a few of those who were directly involved.

In my view, the only red-herring here is the presumption that actual rocks would be found. Despite the breathless headlines of last year, I know that only a small number of archaeologists believed that stones would be found. Indeed, the lead investigator never believed it.

I gave this possibility some thought before agreeing with that opinion. For me at least, the major consideration was the 'cost' of moving and perhaps shaping any stones into those positions -- then knocking them over and abandoning them prior to the henge embankment. That didn't make sense. Those folks didn't waste anything, and leaving perfectly good standing stones behind would have been scandalous.

This would-be wasteful effort is indirectly contradicted in that even the posts that were found there had been removed for use elsewhere. But not only removed, but removed Vertically, minimizing any damage to the pits they stood in, as well as to the posts themselves. This speaks to care for whatever re-purposing the posts were intended. (I suspect Durrington's South Circle, or maybe Woodhenge, but that's just a guess.)

I also think kudos are due those who pursued the theory, to whatever end. This is demonstrated by having only 11 months pass between discovery and excavation -- an almost unheard of speed.

At present the chronology is: There was a house with hearth and midden. This was abruptly abandoned, and we know because ashes from the hearth's last fire are still there. Also found is a chunk of the chalk-wattle lower wall, which indicates that the dwelling was simply knocked over.
Then pits were dug in a line; two of which were excavated. One of these is inside the perimeter of the abandoned house. Erection ramps were gouged out and posts of perhaps 4-meters tall were raised. Some time later -- though not too long -- the posts were removed and replaced by the embankment.
An antler pick was found in one of the ramp gouges, and a pick and scapula-shovel was found in the bottom of a pit. So, having the hearth's ashes and the animal bones, we'll soon have ball-park linear dates for all this.

In short, there's a great deal more information revealed than just a 'Yes/No' to stones. And who comes up with a theory and doesn't want it tested?

I'm pretty sure none of the original theorists are walking around with egg on their faces. In that world, being proved 'wrong' is often more exciting than being proved right. This dig was a perfect example.


BRIAN JOHN said...

The same sort of thing happened in geomorphology a few years ago, in the early days of cosmogenic dating. There was insufficient calibration, and a lack of proper protocols, and so many dates that were quite simply wrong were taken at face value. The difference was that the debate about the errors -- and about the eventual corrections -- took place in the specialist literature, and not in the full glare of the world's media. Stick out wild press releases in haste, and repent at your leisure......

BRIAN JOHN said...

Sorry Neil -- no kudos whatsoever to "those who pursued" the theory about that great line of stones. Are you actually suggesting that the lead investigator never believed what was put into his own press releases and what he said to the media? Was he actually lying? Come along now.......

You can dress up as you like the fact that a group of archaeologists have got together to test a theory at high speed, and have come up with some informative results. But it is completely unscholarly to issue highly premature and misleading press releases, just in order to achieve "impact", when more research and more considered analysis were clearly needed.

I for one am completely underwhelmed by this whole farcical episode. It does nothing whatsoever to improve the credibility of archaeology.

Jon Morris said...

"lead investigator never believed what was put into his own press releases and what he said to the media?"

Aye: That is a problem. Some journalists in the quality outlets appear to be miffed about it. It may become more difficult to get stories about archaeology published in that type of media in the future. Daily Mail don't seem to mind about it though.

Jon Morris said...

I was told by an engineer that on one site they used it to search for three concrete storage tanks believed to be buried there. At face value, three big lumps of concrete should have given obvious target returns. The radar showed nothing, so they thought they were in the clear. When they excavated what did they find, but three big concrete tanks!

Sounds about right. But it often picks up features. And sometimes picks up things that are not there. Better than nothing, so often specified for brownfield sites. However, not something to wholly rely on.

Myris of Alexandria said...

Vince does have a record for finding 'henges' that turn out to be something else and the of course there are the flaming pits at the end of the Stonehenge Greater Cursus.

Unis used to be lovely elite institutions where we were given money and allowed to get on with it (plus a bit of teaching)now it is all about impact and in control of the semi-literate bean counters. Blair of course allowing intellectual hoipaloi to take Continental knitting and rattan production MAs. Thank the Gods after our time.

Remember 4/5 years ago when we given a new henge every six months. Lovely man and (a pretty kind one)but he does not underplay his hand.

Few archies thought there would be a line of buried stones, even from the outset post-holes were favourite. MPP has been (semi)- publically saying so for months.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Of course, archaeologists just love to show that other archaeologists have been wrong. Just as geomorphologists like to prove other geomorphologists wrong -- that's how we all get our PhDs..........

But, I suspect, there is far too much hubris going on right now -- and Jon is quite right -- the media will eventually get fed up when they realise they have been giving vast publicity to nonsense stories that should never have seen the light of day.

Jon Morris said...

and the of course there are the flaming pits at the end of the Stonehenge Greater Cursus.

I remember that one. It's a little known rule that the amount of expert confidence in the results of GPR is inversely proportional to the likelihood of finding unexploded ordnance at any given site. Perhaps Vince didn't adjust the figures to compensate for this.

TonyH said...

Too much hubris?! Of course there is. Me, I blame the introduction of 20:20 cricket and the retirement of Sir Garfield Sobers, a more humble soul never visited Stonehenge (and I don't believe he ever did, but if he did, he'd never have boasted about it like Ixer and his pal. And as for cosmogenic dating, I always made sure I kept my own tally of the runs I scored in me head, and made sure I corrected the Scorers at t'end of my innings' if need be. Archaeologists? Don't make me laugh. Could knock most of 'em down with a Pontefract rhubarb stick.