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Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Pembrokeshire megalithic culture and the erratic supply chain

 Carreg Samson, an erratic architectural statement.........

I have been reading the huge chapter (167 pp) by Tim Darvill and Geoff Wainwright in Volume 1 of the Pembrokeshire County History.  That chapter is almost a book in its own right, superbly illustrated and nicely laid out -- and packed with detail.  I'll leave a more considered review till a little later, since I still haven't quite finished the text.  But as I suspected, it really could have done with proper peer review (including scrutiny from the geologists!) and with some effective editing and pruning.......

But the thing that really strikes me, having now read the bulk of the text that deals with stones (monoliths, standing stones, stone circles, cromlechs, tools, weapons, etc) is the extraordinary lengths that the authors go to in order to avoid stating the obvious -- namely that the users of stone in the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age were operating in a landscape littered with stone blocks or glacial erratics.  There is a mention somewhere of glacial till spread across the landscape, but I have only seen two fleeting mentions of glacial erratics in more than a hundred pages of analytical text.  This is quite extraordinary, given that the authors were perfectly familiar with my work on the glaciation of Pembrokeshire and with the work of Kellaway, Richard Thorpe, Olwen Williams-Thorpe and others:

Even archaeologist Steve Burrow, in his book called "The Tomb Builders", argues that all of the cromlechs in Wales were simply built from glacial erratics or from loose bedrock slabs collected in the immediate vicinity:

The authors of this big chapter discuss literally hundreds of megalithic structures in Pembrokeshire, and not one of them was built of stones transported from anywhere else by the builders.  Where there were glacial erratics, they used them by levering them up, wedging them and propping them, or sliding them into sockets.   They arranged them by lining them up or moving them into circles or ovals.  But in no case can it be shown that big stones have been moved a kilometre or more from a place or origin to a place of use.  Small stones were gathered from a radius of 100m or more in some instances, but I know of no large stone weighing a tonne or more being moved even 50m.  In fact, I would argue that we can forget about astronomical alignments, spring head locations, ley lines, auspicious positions and pretty views in the matter of monolith placements -- stone location was the prime determinant in deciding where the Pembrokeshire monoliths were put into the ground.

So why have Darvill and Wainwright apparently existed in a state of denial about this perfectly simple matter?  Well, we don't have to search too far for reasons.  For a start, one of their central theses is that big stones of particular lithologies (especially spotted dolerite) were inherently valuable, either because of their supposed healing properties (TD and GW) or because they were deemed to contain within them the spirits of the ancestors (MPP).  So if they were valuable, they had to be worth fetching and carrying.  That means they had to be worth quarrying.  And it also means they had to be worth carting all the way from Pembrokeshire to Stonehenge. So the Darvill / Wainwright text is full of references to quarrying, stone transport, stone veneration and so forth, as fantasy is built on fantasy.  What is completely lacking is evidence that withstands scrutiny.

So let's repeat the following points.

1.  There are abundant assertions, but there is no hard evidence in this long text of  any particular stone type being valued, or being accorded veneration, over and above any other stone type in prehistoric Pembrokeshire.  Stones of all lithologies, shapes and sizes were used wherever it was handy to use them. (That, by the way, is exactly the case at Stonehenge as well.)  If more spotted dolerite pillars and slabs appear to have been used in north Pembrokeshire, it is because there were simply more of them lying around as glacial erratics.

2.  There is no hard evidence, as far as I know, of any large stone in a Pembrokeshire monolithic setting being transported more than a few metres from its place of origin to its place of use.

3.  Because of the abundance of glacial erratics littered across the landscape, there was no need for any quarrying of stone from "bluestone quarries."  So there are no bluestone quarries, and the obsession with searching for them and "finding" them them is nothing more than a rather charming fantasy.

4.   Although I am a geographer who quite enjoys looking for patterns and arrangements in the landscape, I can see no "siting preferences" with respect to monolithic settings based on proximity to springs, views of the mountains or the sea, alignments, transition zones between boggy and and rocky land, or anything else.  The only thing I would concede is that some fortified sites and burial sites are located on hill summits.

5.  Through frequent mentions of other parts of Wales, the Irish Sea arena and Ireland, this chapter reinforces my view that the cultural associations in Mesolithic, Neolithic and early Bronze Age times were predominantly with other parts of the "Atlantic Fringe" and NOT with Salisbury Plain and the Stonehenge area.  There does not seem to be any cultural context for a situation in which people would suddenly want to start gathering up 80 bluestones and carting them off to Stonehenge.

6.  I know it's unromantic and unfashionable to say so, but I think that the prehistoric inhabitants of Pembrokeshire were a pretty pragmatic bunch.  They clearly had their reasons for making "statements" in stone, but they were also driven by utilitarian principles, and always used whichever handy stones were fit for purpose.  They may have been simple folk, but they were smart enough to know about cost / benefit analysis. 


Phil Morgan said...

You say, and have said on several occasions, that ------- "Even archaeologist Steve Burrow, in his book called "The Tomb Builders", argues that all of the cromlechs in Wales were simply built from glacial erratics or from loose bedrock slabs collected in the immediate vicinity:", however, you repeatedly fail to quote the whole of the paragraph (pp 64-65) which says -----
"There are no instances in Wales where it can be demonstrated that megaliths were carried great distances to build a tomb at a specific location. Indeed, there is only one example of transportation of megaliths in the whole prehistory of Wales, and this occurred several hundred years after the construction of the last megalithic tomb. The transportation of the Preseli bluestones from Wales to Wiltshire for the building of Stonehenge was the remarkable exception to the evidence that construction involving megaliths was usually carried out near the source of raw materials."

This gives a totally wrong impression to followers of your blog who have not read Steve Burrow's publication.

Phil Morgan said...

My second and final, (perhaps) grump for this evening ---------

During discussions following your recent item (20th February) on Llansteffan and the Altar Stone, on the 1st of March you posted the following reply -----

"Phil -- you shouldn't believe all you read. There are 43 bluestones, not 80, and they come in many shapes and sizes, and lithologies."

Nevertheless, in point 5 of this current post you say ---- "There does not seem to be any cultural context for a situation in which people would suddenly want to start gathering up 80 bluestones and carting them off to Stonehenge."

Could you clarify the number of bluestones at Stonehenge please?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Phil -- I'm quoting the assumptions of others there. The actual number of stones that we know about is 43. I'm sure that others will confirm that.

Peter Dunn said...

Hi Phil,

Bluestone numbers at Stonehenge, no one has helped you out so off the top of my head.

I haven't checked on the number still there but if Brian says 43 I will go with that, as things stand at present bluestones were present from around 3000BC starting in the Aubrey Holes, some probably all the excavated holes perhaps all Aubrey holes, probably at West Amesbury at the same time (await Brian's objection) how many is that 70-80. However there may have been bluestones at Coneybury too, at the same time who knows at the moment and an arc across the NE entrance before, after, at the same time as the post hole arcs. Then back at Sth. 500years on a small central circle as at West Ames, proposed by yours truly,(await Brians objction) same size and number 24? and with Bluestone lintels, an arc arrangement inside the Sarcen circle with an entrance arrangement towards the small circle and the Grt Trilithon on the mid summer mid winter sun line, then the Bluestone oval/horseshoe and bluestone circle.
So not all at the same time and in lots of different arrangements and different shapes too how many is that? What were they thinking of? Get yourself some plans and ponder, Stonehenge Making Sense of a Prehistoric etc has basic stage plans and good reconstructions so I am told (blatant self promotion).

BRIAN JOHN said...

Re Steve Burrpw's book, he does indeed refer to Stonehenge as "the remarkable exception" -- but he provides no evidence whatsoever in support of that contention, apart from simply assuming that it is true. I have no respect for that sort of cockeyed thinking. I comparison, he does give good support for the contention that stones were always locally derived. In archaeological circles, that was at the time quite a radical thing to be saying -- maybe he added the reference to Stonehenge just for purposes of political correctness! (or maybe the Editor insisted upon it......)