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Sunday, 27 November 2016

Those bluestone quarries -- on the way out?

Here is a report on the NPA Archaeology Day by our roving reporter Chris Johnson, to whom we offer thanks and felicitations.

I'm particularly interested in the signs that the archaeologists are beginning to withdraw from the proposition that Rhosyfelin is a Neolithic quarry.  It appears that they too have come to recognize that there is not actually any evidence in favour of it...... and that maybe it's best to quietly dump the idea.

There are other things in this report too, which are of interest.  I have inserted some numbered references and added my notes at the end.


Chris's report on the NPA Archaeology Day:

Crossing the Cleddau and approaching Haverfordwest from the south-west, the Preseli ridge garlands the horizon with its four gentle peaks, looking down on the farmlands and the town in a firm but friendly way. On a clear day like Saturday the hills look closer than the 30 kilometer distance and I am struck, not for the first time, how significantly the hills must have figured in the lives of the farmers in the Neolithic who were working these lands and the Mesolithic hunter gatherers who preceded them.

The Preseli mysteries loomed large too in the Annual Archeology Day organized by the National Park in which Volume 1 of the Pembrokeshire County History was launched with major contributions from Tim Darvill, Heather James, Kenneth Murphy, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Elizabeth Walker.

Among the several interesting presentations was a glimpse into recent work done upstream on the Cleddau where considerable finds of stone tools have been made dating back to the Mesolithic. Previous concentrations of Mesolithic activity have been identified on the coast, but now it looks like early inhabitants were using the river valleys too. I was pleased to hear that investigations are in progress to establish the presence of rhyolite as a material for the Mesolithic tools, flint of quality being rare in this area (1).

As we know, the Eastern and Western Cleddau have their origins in the spring waters and rainfall from the Preseli. Tim Darvill presented results from his excavations on Carn Menyn, one of the four peaks, in which he has convinced himself that early man was engaged in "quarrying" for thousands of years beginning in 7000 BC. First metamudstone was sourced, then spotted dolerite, and finally, in the run up to the Bronze Age, metamudstone again (2). There is convincing evidence for Mesolithic people building lives and traditions around the rivers flowing from Preseli and the mountains themselves (3).

Prof. Darvill comes in for some criticism on this blog, and did indeed rise to the bait regarding the healing properties of Preseli stones with an audience member who has convinced himself that his heart attacks have resulted from NOT having stood underneath the capstone of Pentre Ifan in the years of his attacks. Everybody listened politely. Tim's thesis for healing seems to reside in the observed general proposition that beliefs can cure when held sincerely, the stones themselves having no intrinsic properties apparently. He keeps talking about folk memory and I must say as someone with folk who have memories in the locality I wish he would be more specific because we have no idea what he means.  (4)

Still, Darvill managed to remain on the scientific side of the fence while giving a thoroughly informative and entertaining talk, venturing into "Spaces" and quoting Waldo Williams "It is the pearl pledged by time to eternity". There are few academics who can get away with saying "We should not shy away from magic in archaeology" but he managed. He also gave a first class classification of the "tomb" monuments in Pembrokeshire which I will save for another day. (5) Suffice it to say that Carn Alw is worth a visit. Apparently a massive boulder there has been raised 60 centimetres in dolmen times (5th millenium)  (6) and there are field systems where crops were grown on the heights in iron age and perhaps before.

Prof. Parker-Pearson (MPP) closed the show with a virtuoso performance. He started with a reconsideration of previous generations of experts directed primarily as a hefty swipe at the glaciers as an agent. As Chris Clarke apparently told him, "Glaciers do not move uphill!" (7)  H.H. Thomas apparently called it a "theory contrary to all sound geological reasoning". (8)  There is no room for doubt or compromise or even acceptance of a minority view. (9) The audience seems prepared to suspend disbelief too; why spoil a lovely story that is good for tourism and makes us all feel a bit special to be from Pembrokeshire. (10)

The experts cited by MPP also assume that the bluestones were used undressed in the Aubrey holes around 3000 BC and they were later dressed in the same fashion as the sarsens between 2620 and 2480 BC. (11) He also dropped into the dissertation that the Boles Barrow bluestone has been examined closely and found to have been worked by metal tools (12) which would disqualify it from being an original feature of the long barrow and furthermore undermine the belief that bluestones had been on Salisbury plain earlier that 3000 BC. There is a slight inconsistency in this narrative because of course MPP believes the stones were transported from Preseli for the monument so how could there be a theory that they arrived earlier than needed?

MPP is elegantly withdrawing from the proposition that Rhosyfelin is a quarry. (13)  "Maybe only one lift of a single block". The charcoal under the picnic table - the stone which caused all the excitement - is dated to 2000 BC and so the "quarry" operated for longer, quite clearly according to the evidence :)). Of course it could not possibly have dropped onto an old fireplace. When challenged from the chair Mike admitted that "quarry" is perhaps the wrong word, perhaps extraction would be better or basically the stones were picked up, which explains the lack of tools. (14)  Moving on quickly, the real quarry is at Goedog. And additionally, Ixer/Bevins have identified Cerrig Marchogion as the source of three Stonehenge dolerite pillars - lots more to do! (15) Some more dating will be done at Rhosyfelin but the roadshow has moved on. (16)

MPP spent time explaining how he knows Goedog is a quarry with use of photos. Apparently the pillars could be prised simply from the rock face - hence a minimum of tools. They were then lowered by ropes ( twisted honeysuckle maybe, as at Seahenge) onto wooden sledges parked on prepared terraces. (17)  Apparently the path off the mountain is a two metre wide roadway. (18) I confess I could not see any of this on the slides shown, but then I have never seen a Neolithic quarry, but then again nor has anybody else. Mike did say that Rhosyfelin was the first in Europe and now that is no more. Trust me, I am a professor from London and a jolly nice chap.  (19)

Next year activities are directed to find the proto-Stonehenge circle. Maybe Bedd-yr-Afanc is going to prove to be a Bryn Celli Ddu transformation, and then there is the mysterious circular enclosure north of Goedog which, I believe, Brian and I walked over last year and which Hugh pointed us towards. MPP is keeping it secret. Personally I look forward to the investigations as these are both fascinating sites. (20)

On transportation Mike is super positive. "Only 10 students can move a 1 ton block". "Don't need rollers". (21)  His computer crashed before he could show the video (sic).

This year's adventure at Pensarn was skipped over - perhaps it might be published in my lifetime? To cut a long story short, they thought it might be a passage tomb but it turns out to be a 27m diameter Cairn. There has been some development and reuse of the monument, standing stones, etc but Mike did not dwell on this as it was off-topic - although on another day and in another place it might be considered a spectacular find. MPP also slipped in that the various excavations north of Rhosyfelin have been unproductive too, in the sense of failing to supply the evidence he was hoping for. (22)

Enough for now. I enjoyed the day and the Pembrokeshire County History is a worthy project and worth buying if you like this stuff. Very likely substantial revisions will be made in the next ten years.

Chris Johnson, 27.11.2016


(1)  Interesting point.  This seems perfectly logical too me, and I look forward to reading the evidence when published.  We have said since we started work at Rhosyfelin that the foliated rhyolite is very suitable for the manufacture of disposable blades and cutting tools -- and that this maybe explains why people camped herein the Mesolithic and later.

(2)  We have already examined the evidence for this claim, in earlier posts on the blog.  It is in my view not supportable by the evidence presented.

(3)  I completely disagree with that contention.  It is pure fantasy.

(4)  Ah, who needs evidence when you have faith?

(5)  There are already classifications in print.  It will be interesting to see whether this new one is any different.

(6)  I wonder if there is any evidence for this?

(7)  Chris Clark is a good glacial geomorphologist, and he would never have been so stupid as to make such a statement.  Of course glaciers flow uphill if circumstances are right.  In every area affected by big glaciers erratics are found which have been moved uphill from their source areas.  I do wish MPP would stop trotting out this sort of nonsense, and attributing it to others -- who would be apoplectic if they were to hear him!

(8) HHT did his fieldwork about a century ago.  He knew virtually nothing about glaciology and his ideas on glacial geomorphology were seriously out of tune with those of his own peers.  I wish people would stop citing him as some sort of expert on the glaciation of  the British Isles.

(9)  I would be interested to know whether MPP actually acknowledged the existence of the peer-reviewed articles by my colleagues and myself..........

(10)  Sadly, deference instead of scrutiny, yet again.

(11)  Sounds reasonable.

(12) I would like to see the published evidence in support of this contention.

(13)  Is common sense breaking out, I wonder?  Now our friend Myris is going to have to revise all his comments on this blog and refer to "possible extraction sites" instead!

(14)  Quite soon we will see Rhosyfelin referred to as "a source area for some of the foliated rhyolite fragments found at Stonehenge."  When that happens, we will have 100% agreement on the form of words that should be used.

(15)  No they haven't.  Ixer and Bevins have suggested Cerrig Marchogion as a source area, but they cannot be certain about it.  There are other possibilities too.

(16)  Probably this refers to the samples taken for 36Cl dating -- we await news of what those dates are.

(17) Don't believe a word of it.  All fantasy.

(18)  Ditto.

(19)  Same old tactic.  Encourage deference and evade scrutiny at all costs......

(20)  Forgive me for sounding weary, but for how much longer do we have to put up with this flogging of a dead horse?

(21)  Quite incorrigible, isn't he?  See a multitude of previous posts.....

(22)  If he is now admitting this in public, we have some progress.


Tylwyth Teg said...

With regard to point 4 and the chap who had suffered heart attacks, rather than saying he had NOT been under the Pentre Ifan capstone, what he said was ----- he had visited the site on several occasions and had experienced vibrations which over a period of time he believed had stopped him having heart attacks.

Professor Darvill suggested that you 'don't have to believe to be cured', which brought to mind something that Myris of Alexandria once said which was along the lines of -----
"I've spent many years handling Preseli Bluestone and I've felt no beneficial effects". However, what is unknown in Myris's case, and in any other person's case, is what condition the person would have been in without being exposed to the possible healing effect of stones.

We simply do not know.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Dear fairy friend, thanks for this. The other side of the coin is that Stonehenge makes all men mad. Perhaps this is really because of the demonic properties of the bluestones. When perfectly ordinary and sensible people come into contact with them, they are instantly transformed into nutters. It is scientifically proved.

Tylwyth Teg said...

The worrying thing is that some people live in very close proximity to the Fishguard Volcanic Group.
Nutters be damned, and I do know what I'm not talking about. :-)

Tylwyth Teg said...

The following is just my view from the fairy castle and, in the world of mortals, probably has no value whatsoever.

If you have not experienced:

1). a near-death experience;
2). being forwarned of danger by premonitions that have subsequently materialised;
3). occasions where you should have been injured, or killed but you weren't;
4). the movement of objects, and/or events, that defy physical laws, and
5). the healing of injuries or disease that were deemed beyond medical assistance,

then, unfortunately, you are at a disadvantage, and cannot be expected to understand that not everything can be placed into compartments that can be readily labeled by science, and where logic isn't king.

This is not a criticism, for if you've never fallen off your bike, then how would you know it hurts.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Yes, I'm happy to go with all of that, Tylwyth Teg -- having encountered a few close shaves myself and having spoken to many who have had "inexplicable" experiences. My four folk tales books are full of these sorts of stories -- and these 500 or so tales resonate with almost everybody. One problem is of course that the degree to which something is "inexplicable" is dependent upon your knowledge of science, or upon the state of science at the time of your experience. And of course most people like to think that there is an Otherworld out there, mysterious and intriguing, and I'm one of those who believes that there is a great deal still to be discovered.

chris johnson said...

The sceptical reaction 3) above is surprising. On the factual side the evidence is accumulating for human activity in the upper reaches of the Cleddau in the early mesolithic and subsequently. Prof. Darvill has found evidence of human activity around the springs giving birth to the Cleddau from the mesolithic too.

It seems obvious that story telling is part of our human nature and likely then that the mesolithic people made up stories about their environment and the hills and the rocks and the waters. Where I depart from Professor Darvill's narrative, constructed in a different time and cultural context, is that these stories would have been about healing powers. I see absolutely no evidence for this. Wishful thinking maybe?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Well, of course Mesolithic people wandered about -- I imagine that they hunted and gathered all over the place, and that they got water from springs in the hills. strictly utilitarian. To add "meaning" and even "healing" to the equation is entirely fanciful -- I haven't seen any sign of evidence of special reverence in the writings of Darvill and Wainwright.

chris johnson said...

The hunter gatherer meme for the mesolithic deserves challenging. When you appear to have mesolithic communities on the coast (Nab Head, say) and in the river valleys (Cleddau, say) then the amount of wandering about is discussable. They were not on a long walk to nowhere. There might well have been lots of hunting and gathering going on, but perhaps the communities were more settled than we like to imagine.

As a historian I would be more interested at the moment that next years mesolithic focussed digs along the Cleddau get funding than MPPs next shot in the dark. The mesolithic work might actually change our view. Preferably everything gets funded of course, but in Brexit Britain the gruel is to be served thin for a while.

Dave Maynard said...

Would Cleddau mesolithic excavations be the Blick Mead equivalent to the Preselis, as it is to Stonehenge?


chris johnson said...

Blick Mead? The Mesolithic, as we call it, looks to be a reason Stonehenge is where it is.

I always though Pembrokeshire was a bit different because we do not have the causewayed enclosures that are such a mysterious feature of the Wiltshire narrative. Now it appears we do. Darvill has worked on two in the Preseli area, one at Banc Ddu and another near Bayvil farm in the Nevern Valley

BRIAN JOHN said...

Chris -- both of these sites are quite well known, and have been worked on for many years. Should we be surprised if there are Neolithic causewayed enclosures in Pembs? Probably not -- the default position would be to assume that there was a more or less continuous process of settlement and cultural evolution here, as in Wiltshire.

I suppose you could say that any old settlement features would be a reason for newer settlements and other features (including follies!) to be where they are....

chris johnson said...

The Bayvil site was first excavated in 2015 - hardly many years ago.

My default position has been that the mesolithic community in Britanny dispersed in our general direction under pressure from european farmers moving westwards. It might be that environmental factors - rising sea levels - were more important causes than farmer pressure but pressure there was.

The dating in Britanny tends to be earlier than for similar monuments around Preselli. I suspect some British professors are inclined to squeeze the faint evidence in the British momuments into a neolithic window 3800 BC onwards, whereas I would not be surprised when some of the monuments in the general dolmen category are in fact a thousand years older or even more. There is no convincing on-site evidence, and the monuments have been reused and even redeveloped.

When you surmise that there is cultural continuity in Prescelli and Wiltshire then you are navigating against some of the evidence - at least regarding what we could loosely call the mesolithic. In the gospel according to Darvill the neolithic begins in Pembrokeshire in 4000 BC - so megaliths should have a date post 4000 BC ideally speaking. Others see the western lands subject to influences from Iberia and Britanny, while the eastern lands (England) were converted to agriculture by northern european influences post 4000 BC - causeway camps, etc. According to MPP the East-West fusion resulted in Stonehenge around 2500 BC. The proposition that the Welsh neolithic begins in 4000 at the same time as the English neolithic reminds me of Mr Gove's wish that British history should begin in 1066 - too simplistic.