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....
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Saturday 29 October 2016

The myth machine in good working order -- and who needs facts anyway?

 Photo: English Heritage
Here is the latest weird and wacky story relating to Stonehenge -- courtesy the Telegraph and Katy Whitaker, who is currently a research student at Reading University.  At one level it's all good fun, since research students who are worth their salt are required to push boundaries, test exciting ideas and (preferably) say something new.  So it's almost acceptable, I suppose, for her to suggest that the sarsens used in the Stonehenge stone settings might have come from very far away, and not from Salisbury Plain at all.  She will have a jolly time presenting this idea to her peer group, and it will all be debated at the research student's conference with gusto. 

But at another level this illustrates the obsession with archaeological myth-making, and the manner in which the scientific method has been subverted or even abandoned.  There is, as far as I know, no evidence whatsoever (to do with petrology, surface characteristics or morphology) that the big sarsens have come from far distant territories,  and what Katy is doing here is throwing out an hypothesis which will presumably, at some stage, be tested by a search for evidence.  Create the story first, shunt it off to the media -- and no matter how wacky it is, is then becomes invested with a degree of respectability.  Look at the Telegraph headline, and look how "supporting information" is pulled in to suggest that the thesis has some credibility.......... and from now on Katy will no doubt be looking at field evidence through her rose-tinted spectacles and citing it in support of a wildly premature hypothesis.

I venture to suggest that a geology or a geomorphology research student would NEVER operate in this way -- and indeed would not be allowed to by his / her supervisor.  It all tells us a lot about archaeology, and helps to explain why MPP,  Josh Pollard and the rest of them thought it would be OK to tell the world that there had to be Neolithic bluestone quarries in Pembrokeshire, to announce within a few days of starting their first dig that they had found one at Rhosyfelin, and then to spend six digging seasons looking for and describing "evidence" which does not actually exist.


Massive 25 ton stones of Stonehenge may have come from further afield

by StonehengeNews

The builders of Stonehenge are known to have sourced the smaller bluestones used in the 5000-year-old monument from Wales.

But a new theory suggests that the entire monument might have come from elsewhere, even the huge 25 ton Sarsen stones which make up the large circle of the Wiltshire megalith.

The huge sarsens at Stonehenge could have come from elsewhere

Katy Whitaker, of the University of Reading, will present a new paper at symposium at University College London next month suggesting that the sarsens could have come from sites as far away as Ken. (Kent?)

“Most people are aware that some of Stonehenge’s stones came all the way from south-west Wales,” she said.

“The really huge sarsen stones at Stonehenge are assumed to have come from sources on the Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire, about 30km to the north of Stonehenge. Sarsen stone, however, is found in other locations across southern England.

“There are sarsens in Dorset, spread about dry chalk valleys similar to the locations on the Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire, and as well as locations in Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Hampshire and Sussex, there are even sarsens in Kent.

“The distribution is quite broad, there are sarsens in Buckinghamshire and even across to Norfolk.”

People in the Neolithic are known for trading stone across large areas, including from the Lake District to the East of England.

Huge Sarsen boulders from outside of Wiltshire are known to have been used in other prehistoric monuments including Kits Coty House in Kent, and Wayland’s Smithy, a burial mound, in Oxfordshire.

“People were clearly aware of, and using, these stones in prehistory.” said Miss Whitaker. “Why not think about the possibility that sarsens came from further-afield too?”

The idea could also challenge that Stonehenge represents a peak of monument construction which could only have been achieved through organisation by a hierarchical leadership.

Instead, it may show that smaller groups had banded together to bring meaningful stones to a central area.

“Maybe it wasn’t a large group of people under the control of a tribal leader ‘cracking the whip’ to move all the rocks from one location down to Stonehenge as has been suggested before,” added Miss Whitaker.

“What about groups of people related in different ways, working collaboratively to move a special stone from one area to another? “

The source of the Stonehenge stones was first determined in the early 1920s by H.H. Thomas, an officer with the Geological Survey of England and Wales.

He determined that the so-called ‘spotted dolerites’ matched a small number of outcrops in the Mynydd Preseli district in south-west Wales

Latest theories about Stonehenge also suggest it was once an impressive Welsh tomb which was dismantled and shipped to Wiltshire.

An experiment this summer by University College London found that mounting huge stones on a sycamore sleigh and dragging it along timbers required far less effort than was expected.

They discovered that a  one tonne stone could be pulled on a raft by just 10 people at around one mile per hour, far faster than experts believed.

MS Whitaker is presenting her work at the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Research Student Symposium at University College London from 18th to 19th of November.

Katy Whitaker (
What is the impact of the historical exploitation of sarsen stone on the understanding and interpretation of the prehistoric archaeology of southern England?
Supervised by: Dr Jim Leary ,  Josh Pollard (Southampton University) 



We are happy to announce that the 2016 Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Research Student Symposium (NEBARSS) will take place at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London on Friday 18th and Saturday 19th November 2016.

NEBARSS is an annual symposium organised entirely by postgraduate students, to showcase innovative research by postgraduate and early career researchers.


11:20 Katy Whitaker, University of Reading
What if…none of the building stones at Stonehenge came from Wiltshire?

Over the past 20 years archaeologists have been exploring the idea that Neolithic monument construction provided conditions in which social differentiation could develop. This is in contrast to earlier interpretations of cursus, barrow, enclosure, mound, henge, and stone circle building in which perceived growing complexity of construction through time, and thus of inferred complexity of resource-management, were seen to indicate an increasing centralisation of prehistoric political authority. The henge earthworks, stone settings, and avenue at Stonehenge (Wiltshire, UK) play a prominent role in these contrasting interpretations.

This paper presents a discussion, by means of a thought experiment, of the role of Stonehenge’s stones in some 60 years of debate about Neolithic and early Bronze Age social structure. The paper starts with the revolutionary proposition that not only the Welsh bluestones, but all of Stonehenge’s building stones are ‘foreign’ to the monument’s locality. It goes on to explore the implications of this proposition by examining those of Stonehenge’s rocks that have in general been taken for granted, geologically-speaking, in the archaeological literature – sarsen stones: and others that have been almost completely ignored – packing stones to the sarsen settings.
Drawing in particular on work by Colin Richards, and Mark Gillings and Josh Pollard, to interpret these unsung components of the internationally-important monument, the paper suggests that an alternative to the dominant twentieth-century discourse in which Stonehenge represents the culmination of Neolithic social evolution, is possible.

Friday 21 October 2016

Archaeology and the fog of corporate delusion

Over the past week or so there has been vast coverage in the media for the latest big archaeology story -- namely the decision to axe Archaeology as an A level subject.  Tweets galore from the great and the good, TV personalities up in arms, petitions, letters of protest, and statements from professors galore to the press and the broadcasters.   Of course it is an absurd move by the government and the one examination board that was offering an Archaeology A level exam course --  but a part of me thinks that archaeology has had it coming, since it clearly does not know what sort of subject it really is. 

There are hordes of excellent archaeologists out there, doing meticulous and highly specialised work -- but the obsession with the media that we see in some quarters, and the propensity of senior archaeologists (those who are featured heavily on this blog) to be more concerned with storytelling than with careful evidence-based science has really brought into question the academic standards of archeology departments in our universities.  Over and again on this blog I have asked the question "Whatever happened to scholarship, and whatever happened to the scientific method?"  One can argue that both have gone down the drain because of the activities of a few very high profile individuals whose fantasies seem to get more colourful with every year that passes. Too many wild goose chases and too little quiet, systematic fieldwork.

The spat over the so-called "bluestone quarries" is a case in point, and over the past six years we have seen one fantastical story after another thrown into the public domain, on the basis of "evidence" which simply does not withstand scrutiny.  Not only does the quarrying hypothesis fail to stand up under pressure, but those who are proposing it and selling it to the media completely refuse to admit that there are alternative explanations for the things which they consider to be "engineering features".  By all accounts, Prof MPP does not even mention the glacial transport theory, or the criticisms of the quarrying theory, when he gives his "bluestone quarry" talks.  That is disrespectful and unscientific -- and I am frankly surprised that he gets away with it as often as he does.  The whole world knows that there are two theories about bluestone transport, but MPP apparently does not............

If I was a Government minister responsible for education, I think I might well consider that the version of archaeology apparently being practised and promoted by these senior academics (with the aid of substantial research grants) is not really worth bothering about, since it seems to have more to do with fairy tales, myths and creative writing than it does with scholarship and education.  It's all very well for the members of the archaeology establishment (and thousands of professional archaeologists) to rage against a short-sighted government and a philistine examination board, but until they call certain senior figures into line and stop all this storytelling nonsense, and all the premature ejaculations, their subject will not get much respect from anybody.

Another of the problems faced by Archaeology is that its high-profile individuals are lauded not just by the media but by local authorities including the Pembs Coast National Park Authority (PCNPA).  Every year MPP tells his wonderful tales to an adoring audience at the annual Archaeology Day lectures -- and he is doing it again this year on 26th Nov, with the title "Stonehenge's bluestone quarries at Craig Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog."  I wouldn't mind betting that he won't even mention the glacial transport theory, let alone consder the detailed criticisms made by John, Dyfed and me in the peer-reviewed literature.  PCNPA knows perfectly well that there is a dispute going on, but it prefers to ignore it too, since it is intent on flagging up the message that Pembrokeshire's prehistoric heritage is second to none.  It's called destination marketing...........

It's all a right old mess.  So here's my message to the Education Minister -- please bring back Archaeology as an A level subject, but not before its most prominent spokesmen can demonstrate that they have more respect for scholarship than they do for fantastical stories, press releases and media impact.

Erratic behaviour in the Midlands

 Pic:  Valerie Kedge

Strange goings-on in the Midlands these days.  Suddenly, they seem to have discovered that glacial erratics are rather interesting.  Better late than never.  Once upon a time, before people started messing about with the landscape and built Birmingham and its suburbs, there were vast expanses of glacial and fluvioglacial deposits (and some pro-glacial lake deposits too) in the south Midlands, with some clearly delineated landforms including terraces in river valleys, and thousands of glacial erratics scattered across the landscape.  As in other glaciated areas, most of these erratics were cleared away over thousands of years of land clearance, leaving just a residue of the larger ones that nobody could be bothered to move.  I suppose that some were incorporated into dolmens and round barrows, and some (if they had convenient pillar-like shapes) would have been put up as standing stones too.

There is plenty in the literature about these Midlands erratics, including protracted discussions about ice movement directions and provenances.  Many of the old geologists were good at rough provenancing, although of course their identifications of sources and the names used for rock types have changed over time.

This brings us to the recent fun and games relating to one particular erratic boulder at Northfield in the southern suburbs of Birmingham.  Somebody decided it would be a good idea to flag up its importance and to stick up a plaque in its honour.  It's called "The Great Stone" and it is currently located within the village pound.  Next door is the Great Stone Inn, so no doubt the stony attraction will bring in a bit of extra trade.........

It appears that there was an interest in the probable provenance of the stone, which was assumed to have come from the Arenig volcanic sequence around Snowdon in North Wales.  A sample of the rock was sent to Rob Ixer, and he confirmed the provenance, and in exchange for his hard work he was invited to unveil the magnificent new plaque at a grand civic ceremony earlier this month.

See this:,_Ordovician,_Wales

The media coverage of this magnificent event is so garbled and nonsensical that we had best stay well clear of it, for fear of causing embarrassment........

You can find out more about the Birmingham erratics (mostly reliable info) here:

This is more or less what I sent to Rob, when he asked what the context might be:  In terms of its Quaternary history, the Birmingham area is completely chaotic -- it seems that Devensian ice did not reach south Birmingham, but Anglian ice certainly did.  And some people think there was a third glaciation -- the Wolstonian -- that reached the area too -- but the evidence is hard to interpret.  There have been glacial lakes too -- to add to the confusion.  My best guess is that Snowdon erratics got into the area at some stage in the Anglian -- but towards the peak of that glaciation the most powerful ice stream came in over the Cheshire Plain -- it's called the Eastern Irish Sea Ice Stream.  Snowdon erratics could therefore have been moved several times -- following a somewhat erratic course.  You could also get erratics in that area from the Irish Sea Basin (including Scotland) and also from northern England, because Pennine ice was also coming south across the area at some stage.  That all adds up to an extraordinary mishmash of erratics from all over the place. 

 One interesting sidelight on all of this relates to the Stonehenge Altar Stone.  It will be recalled that it sits rather uneasily with the assortment of other bluestones at Stonehenge, which have come from north Pembrokeshire.  I have argued earlier that the route followed to the Altar Stone probably involved initial carriage by Welsh Ice from a source area in the Brecon Beacons or in one of the South Wales Valleys, and then carriage by a part of the Irish Sea ice stream towards its final resting place.  As in the case of the Great Stone at Northfield, we are talking about the Anglian Glaciation, around 500,000 years ago.  Another erratic route for an erratic boulder.........


New dates confirm Mid Ordovician age for FVG

 Fishguard Volcanic Group outcrops are shown with the grey stipple.  Source:  Phillips, Kerr and Bevins 2016

There's an interesting new paper by Richard Bevins and colleagues, presenting new U-Pb zircon ages for rock samples from the Fishguard Volcanic Series and from the Stonehenge collection of bits and pieces.


"U–Pb zircon age constraints for the Ordovician Fishguard Volcanic Group and further evidence for the provenance of the Stonehenge bluestones."  2016. Richard Bevins, Nicola Atkinson, Rob Ixer and
Jane Evans.  Journal of the Geol Soc. 2016 (online)

Abstract:  New U–Pb zircon ages from rhyolite samples of the Fishguard Volcanic Group, SW Wales, confirm a Middle Ordovician (Darriwilian) age for the group. One of the samples is from Craig Rhos-y-felin, which has recently been identified on petrological and geochemical grounds as the source of much of the debitage (struck flakes) at Stonehenge. Analysis of a Stonehenge rhyolite fragment yields an age comparable with that of the Craig Rhos-y-felin sample. Another Stonehenge fragment, thought to come from orthostat (standing stone) 48 and on petrographical grounds to be derived from the Fishguard Volcanic Group (but not Craig Rhos-y-felin), yields an age also consistent with a Fishguard Volcanic Group source.

This is essentially a paper aimed at geologists, but there are broader and very interesting points in it too.  This is a nice summary of the state of play on FVG identifications and the Stonehenge link:

........Craig Rhos-y-felin has been shown to be the major source of  rhyolitic debitage (struck flakes) in the Stonehenge Landscape (Ixer  & Bevins 2011a). Paradoxically, however, Craig Rhos-y-felin is not the source for any of the four rhyolitic and dacitic orthostats (stones  38, 40, 46 and 48) currently exposed at Stonehenge (Ixer & Bevins   2011b), although Bevins et al. (2012) have suggested, on petrographical grounds, that they too most probably have a source somewhere amongst the outcrops of the Fishguard Volcanic Group exposed in the north Pembrokeshire area. Specifically, these recent studies have shown that Carn Alw, Carn Llwyd and Carn Clust-y-Ci are not sources of Stonehenge rhyolitic or dacitic bluestones (either extant orthostats or debitage).

I keep on telling the geologists this, but they should not keep on saying that Rhosyfelin is THE major source of Rhyolitic debitage in the Stonehenge landscape.  They do not have enough evidence to support that contention, since most of the Stonehenge landscape has never been investigated.  What they should say is this:  Craig Rhos-y-felin has been shown to be the major source of  rhyolitic debitage (struck flakes) in that part of the Stonehenge Landscape which has thus far been investigated.  It may sound like a small point, but it is a very important one.

Five rock samples were analysed:  one rhyolite from Craig Rhosyfelin, two rhyolites from Fishguard Old Harbour, one ‘rhyolite with planar fabric’ debitage sample from the 2008 excavations at Stonehenge, and one debitage fragment, a blocky rhyolitic ash-flow tuff sample from the 2008 excavation at the Stonehenge Avenue.   The Rhosyfelin sample was dated to 462 million years, and the Stonehenge debitage sample was more or less the same.  The Avenue debitage sample came out as approx 464 million years, and the Fishguard Old Harbor samples came out at c 465 million years, meaning that they came from lower in the volcanic sequence.

The dates confirm that all of these samples have come from the Llanvirn part of the Ordovician volcanic sequence -- as anticipated.  (The relevant part of the stratigraphic column is now referred to as Darriwilian)  So there is a nice match between the petrology work and the dating work reported in this paper.

It's a pity that the paper is spoiled towards the end, in the discussion about possible sources for orthostats 38, 40 and 46,  by this statement:  "Nevertheless, this region (ie the lower land to the north of the Preseli ridge) provides an obvious target to search for further Neolithic quarry sites to add to those identified most recently by Parker Pearson et al. (2015)."    Let the archaeologists talk about Neolithic quarries if they want to, but this geological work is devalued because the authors have allowed themselves to be sucked, yet again, into this area of unsupported speculation and story telling.

My final gripe is about this statement:  Ages for samples SW52 and SH08 offer strong support, in terms of overlapping ‘high-precision’ zircon U–Pb dates and Th/Uzircon values, for the contention that the majority of the rhyolitic debitage in the Stonehenge Landscape is from Craig Rhos-y-felin, in the eastern part of the Mynydd Preseli area, in sympathy with other geological and archaeological evidence.  Yes, there is other convincing geological evidence, but sure as eggs there is not any archaeological evidence that stands up to scrutiny.

Sunday 16 October 2016

Hattifnattar in Norway

We don't often talk about Moomintroll and his family and friends on this blog, but there is something that needs to be reported.  We do occasion ally look at strange natural phenomena associated with glaciers, snow and ice -- and there is something very strange going on in Norway at the moment.

The Norwegian weather service reports that up in the mountains a combination of circumstances (freezing temperatures, adequate moisture, spray from the open water nearby, and spiky vegetation) has given rise to a vast area of strange projecting ice nodules that they refer to as HATTIFNATTAR -- because of their resemblance to the Hattifnattar in  the Moomin stories. (In English they are referred to as "hattifatteners"....)

They are rather intriguing creatures, and are well described in this Wikipedia entry:

Purely by chance, on the day that I discovered this photo on the Norwegian weather web page (best weather forecasts in Europe, by the way) I was working my way through "Tales from Moominvalley" as my bedtime reading.  And the chapter that I came to on that night was -- you've guessed it -- the one about the secret of the Hattifnattar.......

So now you know.

Friday 14 October 2016

The science of the stones

Coming up soon --  my talk entitled "Those bluestone quarries:  the making of a modern myth"  for those who are interested in facts instead of fantasies.  At the Bluestone Brewery, which happens to be just up the road from where we live.  This follows a talk by Prof MPP towards the end of September.

It's a bit late in the season for a talk outside under the canopy, so it will have to be inside, with limited seating.  Anyway, should be fun!  All proceeds go the fund set up to help a little girl who lives nearby and who is having to go to Germany for incredibly expensive cancer treatment........


Thursday 6 October 2016

New Report on Calanais (Callanish)

Thanks to Dave for bringing this to my attention:

Calanais:  Survey and Excavation 1979-88

P J Ashmore 
with contributions by T Ballin, S Bohncke, A Fairweather, A Henshall, M Johnson, I Maté,
A Sheridan, R Tipping and M Wade Evans

This report is dedicated to Fionna Ashmore
Contains Historic Environment Scotland and Ordnance Survey Data © Historic Environment
Scotland © Crown copyright and database rights [2011] Ordnance Survey [100057073]


The PDF is freely available for download.  It's a big report --1246 pages long!  As you might expect, it's a very detailed and careful research report, reporting not only on the excavations that took place between 1979 and 1988 but also on other relevant research.  The overall conclusion is that the stones were put up around 5,000 yrs BP or shortly thereafter, and that after that there was a long history of use of the site for burials and ritual purposes.   Some stones were put up later, and some were moved into new locations on the site.  For about 1,000 years there was contact with other communities -- some of them a great distance away -- but after that, long-distance contacts declined.

It's interesting that Patrick Ashmore devotes no space at all to a consideration of monolith sources or quarrying; as far as he is concerned, the stones are quite unremarkable, and it is taken as read that they have all come from the immediate vicinity.  I have made this point over and again, arising from my own observations at Calanais.  For earlier posts, just put "Callanish" into the search box.  So although there is evidence of cultural contacts and exchanges of material goods (and cultural and engineering traditions) there is no sign at all of any desire to carry stones to the site from far away.  Neither is there any evidence of stone-moving as part of a "tribute stone" or "ancestor stone" cult.

From one of my previous posts:
The rocks used in the standing stone settings all appear to have come from the "native rock"  -- all within 100m of the places where they were set into the ground as vertical monoliths.  The coarse foliated Lewisian gneisses -- white and grey in colour -- may in some cases have been moved by ice, but not very far.  So it would not be a good idea to call them glacial erratics.    This is true of Callanish 2 and 3 as well -- in each case the stones have come for the most part from nearby crags with broken detached blocks and slabs lying about beneath them. (Mostly the source cliffs are west-facing, suggesting an easterly flow of ice maybe close to the Devensian glacial maximum?)  Some "suitable" stones are still to be seen lying around partly covered by turf.  Colin Richards has suggested that many of the flattened elongated slabs used at Callanish have one face that is more weathered than the other, suggested that the slabs were recumbent and that some faces were exposed (and affected by overriding ice) while the lower faces were protected until the slabs were levered upward by Neolithic quarrymen.  On my visit I did not notice any great difference between "fresh" and "old" stone faces, given that for the past 5,000 years or so the west-facing stone surfaces of the standing stones have received a much greater battering from the weather than the east-facing surfaces, and that north-facing surfaces have spent most of their time in shadow while south-facing surfaces have been drier and sunnier.


In the text of this big report I see nothing at all to support Colin Richards's contention (2004) that the final form of Calanais was immaterial and that the REAL reason for its existence lies in the skillful quarrying of the stones from auspicious places and the transportation of said stones to a single place where they could be used as status symbols or for ritual purposes.  He argues that the ACTIVITIES themselves were the things that mattered, creating social coherence and demonstrating the organizational abilities of the leaders and the technical skills of the workers.  He has of course brought this style of thinking into the Rhosyfelin "quarrying" debate as well;  as at Calanais it is a complete red herring, and a fantasy unsupported by any hard evidence on the ground.

That having been said, Patrick Ashmore cannot resist being dragged into fairyland himself, with this somewhat futile statement:

Quote: "Colin Richards’ work on the sources of the stones used to create the setting (Richards 2006, 182) could usefully be expanded through detailed petrological studies of the standing stones and the many outcrops of gneiss in the surrounding landscape. It could be extended to the smaller stone settings. The possibility that stones were sourced amongst the communities which had an interest in Calanais suggests that such studies should not be restricted to the area immediately round Calanais and the other stone settings."

How can a vague and unsupported possibility suggest anything at all?  Hmmmm.....

To conclude, this comprehensive report strongly supports the belief that the collection of stones for the construction of monuments like Calanais, around 5,000 years ago, was an entirely utilitarian matter.  Stones were collected up from as close to the positioning of the monument as possible -- and indeed the availability of stones in abundance may well have been a prime factor in the decision to locate these monuments in locations that do not otherwise appear to be particularly auspicious.