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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.

1 comment:

chris johnson said...

Interesting article. I find the introduction relevant, discussing how our preconceptions strongly influence what we see as archaeologists and even what we look for. Seems very relevant to our discussions about Prescelly.