Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my book called "The Bluestone Enigma" -- available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
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Monday, 19 June 2017

Darvill and Wainwright on Neolithic and Bronze Age Pembrokeshire (review, part 2)

Tim Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright (2016) "Neolithic and Bronze Age Pembrokeshire", Ch 2 in Pembrokeshire County History, Vol 1, pp 55-222


Preseli and Stonehenge 2500 - 1600 BC

This section of the chapter runs from p 156 to p 181.  As indicated on the first page, the authors make no attempt at a balanced discussion of pros and cons or at an even-handed assessment of conflicting theories.  This is simply a promotion effort on behalf of the human transport theory.  A pity -- in a chapter such as this we should have seen something more academically robust.

At the outset, Darvill and Wainwright refer to the research surrounding the bluestones and say it is their intention to dwell on “the landscape from which they were taken.”  They couldn’t be much clearer as to their particular belief system!  After a summary of the character of the Preseli uplands in which they flag up the “special” character of the area (for obvious reasons), the authors turn to the nature of the rocks.  I’m not sure what “geomorphic pressures “ are (p 159) but we’ll let that pass.  They then come to their SPACES project, designed to “provide an archaeological context for the sources of the Stonehenge bluestones.”

On the geology of the bluestones, there is an interesting and mostly accurate assessment of the various rock types represented at Stonehenge, including the work of HH Thomas, Olwen Williams-Thorpe and colleagues, and Richard Bevins and Rob Ixer.  The main types of bluestone are referred to following the Bevins / Ixer system of classification -- dolerites in Groups 1, 2 and 3 (spotted and unspotted dolerites from a number of different outcrops in eastern Preseli); six basic types of rhyolite including three that appear to have come from the Rhosyfelin - Pont Saeson area; two basic types of hard volcanic rock from unknown locations; and two types of sandstone also from unknown sources -- one of them (the Altar Stone sandstone) having come possibly from the Senni Beds of the Old Red Sandstone series.  The authors omit to mention the shapes and characteristics of the 43 known bluestones at Stonehenge, and they omit to flag up the fact that bluestone monoliths, slabs and boulders and recovered fragments have clearly come from at least fifteen (and possibly many more) different sources -- all of which militates against the idea that certain stone types were quarried because they were deemed to be “sacred”. 

In their assessment of the work of Parker Pearson et al at Rhosyfelin over a period of five years, the authors note that no standing pillars at Stonehenge have been sourced to this so-called “quarrying” site -- the evidence all comes from debris found during excavations on Salisbury Plain.  Then comes this very strange statement:  “...there appear to be conflicting views on what exactly was found in the excavations that critics suggest might have been opened up in the wrong place (cf John et al 2015a, 2015b).”  D & W appear to have completely misunderstood the point which I and my fellow authors were making -- namely that there is a rather interesting sequence of Ice Age deposits at the site, and that no matter how hard we searched, we could find no evidence at all for Neolithic or Bronze Age quarrying activity.    We never said that Parker Pearson was digging in the wrong place -- we simply said that he was determined from the outset to find a quarry, and claimed to have found it, in spite of the fact that it does not exist.

In referring to the work of the MPP team at Carn Goedog, the authors accept at face value all of the so-called man-made features (whatever happened to academic scrutiny?) while pointing out that the radiocarbon dates are extremely inconvenient......

There is a summary of the SPACES work led by the two authors of the chapter.  Their purpose is clearly to demonstrate from excavations at Carn Meini and Croesmihangel that these “special places” were the focal points of a great deal of activity in the later Neolithic and early Bronze age.  Over ten pages or more they repeat much of what is already in print.  The evidence of quarrying was not convincing when it was first published

and it is no more convincing today.  They refer several times to the “Carn Menyn Quarry” as having initially produced meta-mudstone for some unknown purpose, and then dolerites presumably destined for Stonehenge, and then finally meta-mudstones again.  The evidence from the excavations suggests occupation over a long time-span, and the authors take great pride in seeking to demonstrate, for the first time, late Mesolithic quarrying activity. However, no hard evidence is presented to suggest actual quarrying activity, and there is nothing anywhere in these pages to suggest that this SPACES research has anything at all to do with Stonehenge.  The radiocarbon dates do not fit, and the authors choose to ignore the work of Bevins and Ixer which suggests that none of the spotted dolerite bluestone monoliths at Stonehenge have come from Carn Menyn / Carn Meini. 

In the discussion on bluestone transport the authors demonstrate that they have little understanding of glaciers or glacial processes.  Kellaway did not “revive” an older idea that the bluestones “were carried on glaciers which spread south before they melted and neatly deposited their bluestone burden on Salisbury Plain.”  Kellaway was much more sophisticated than that. He did after all achieve publication in “Nature” - a journal always known for its strict refereeing standards.  He argued -- with much supporting evidence -- that the Irish Sea Glacier had travelled eastwards towards Somerset, carrying erratics from West Wales within it (not on it) before dumping them, not very neatly.  The glacial theory, as we have pointed out many times, does not “flounder” because of the lack of known evidence of glacial activity on Salisbury Plain or because there is no train of “suitable blocks of bluestone” across south-east Wales.  There are big erratics in many locations in SW England, and they do not have “trails” of similar rock types across SE Wales either.  And if the authors are so keen on “evidence”, why is it that they completely ignore the lack of any evidence for the human transport theory?  No sledges  or boats, no ropes, no abandoned monoliths, no evidence of strong cultural links between Preseli and Salisbury Plain, no evidence of long-distance stone haulage from anywhere else.  They want a cultural aberration, and come hell or high water, they intend to have it........

Then we have this statement:  “.......eminent geologists and glaciologists have dismissed the glacial theory (Bowen 2005; Green 1997; Scourse 1997).”   How many times do I have to point out that none of those three gentlemen is an eminent geologist or glaciologist;  all three of them are geomorphologists like myself, no more and no less liable to making serious errors of interpretation.  Where we place them on the scale of eminence is a matter of opinion.

Thus in a single brief paragraph, Darvill and Wainwright dispose, to their own satisfaction, of the glacial theory and return to the matter in hand.  We are instantly back into the realm of fantasy.  Sewn plank boats were apparently available “around 2000 BC” and could have been used on sea-faring journeys carrying heavy cargoes. The authors omit to tell us that the bluestones were already on Salisbury Plain at least a thousand years earlier than that.  Rafts were used on the Eastern Cleddau for carrying timber for the Pembrokeshire coal mines, and so they could equally well have been used in the Neolithic for carrying bluestones from Preseli. In my book, that’s special pleading.  I wonder whether the authors checked the nature of the Eastern Cleddau between its source and, say, Gelli?  They can take it from me that it’s not a good rafting river today, and was probably no better in the Neolithic.  Then we have the argument about overland transport -- and here the authors invoke the history of the “drover’s roads” and invoke the use of sleds or “slipes” back in the days of our Neolithic heroes.  This is all speculation, unsupported by any evidence.

In seeking to develop the theory that the “Ordovician rocks of the Preseli Hills” were somehow revered in the Neolithic, the authors refer to spotted dolerite medieval inscribed stones and the use of spotted dolerite in chapel building. They seek to demonstrate a continuous history of spotted dolerite use, and seem to think that the “extensive relatively modern quarries in this area” is somehow significant.  This is entirely disingenuous -- they are talking about commercial slate and aggregate quarries, not about dolerite quarrying.  And it is  a statement of the obvious that spotted dolerite boulders and pillars were used in the area in the Neolithic and the Bronze Age, since they littered the landscape.  Many other rock types were represented in the erratic litter, and they were used too.

In their final section (p 179), titled “Why were the bluestones brought to Stonehenge?” the authors again make multiple assumptions that are not underpinned by facts.  They ASSUME that around 80 bluestones were “transported to Salisbury Plain for exclusive use at Stonehenge.”  Pure speculation.  They claim that “the demonstrable antiquity of stone extraction on Carn Menyn ..... tells us something about the ancestral significance and power of the landscape from which the bluestones were taken.”  Pure speculation -- nobody has demonstrated Neolithic quarrying in an area where erratics were freely available for use, scattered across the landscape.  Mynydd Preseli as “the home of the gods”?  Nice thought, but........  Then to MPP and his stone embodiments of the spirits of the ancestors, with bluestones carted about the place and set up as memorials to the dead.  We won’t go there just now, and neither will we delve into the idea of political unification, of which Prof MPP is so fond. Already well covered on this blog.  The holy wells and healing springs of Mynydd Preseli?  There aren’t any.  The Stonehenge temple built in part with bluestones revered for their healing properties?  This idea was entirely fanciful a decade ago, and it is no better supported by fact today.

Overall, this section of the long chapter by Darvill and Wainwright is a profound disappointment, partly because it is so unbalanced.  The authors set out to dwell on the research and ideas surrounding the bluestones and their links with Stonehenge, but dismiss the glacial transport thesis out of hand, in just a few lines, while devoting 99% of the chapter to the promotion of the human transport thesis on the basis of special pleading and the flimsiest of evidence.  In addition, they fail to demonstrate that any of the archaeological features of the “right” age in the Preseli area have anything to do with Stonehenge.  The traces of intermittent human occupation at Rhosyfelin, Carn Meini and Carn Goedog are unexceptional, and have nothing to do with Stonehenge.  They just happen to be places where archaeologists have done some digging.  As far as one can see from the evidence, neither Croesmihangel nor any of the SPACES sites investigated has anything to do with Stonehenge. The Preseli upland springs have nothing to do with it either, and neither does Cana Chapel.  All in all, one has to admire the sheer effrontery of two authors who curtly dismiss the glacial transport thesis for a “lack of any evidence” while going on at great length about the human transport thesis which has, on balance, far less of a factual underpinning.



Sadly, as we reported in an earlier post, Geoff Wainwright died on 6th March 2017:


TonyH said...

There is a tribute to Geoffrey John Wainwright MBE [19 Sept 1937 - 6 March 2017] at the front of the new 2017 issue of The Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine, Vol 110. It is by Timothy Darvill.

TonyH said...

Isn't this Chapter of the book to a large extent pandering to the Welsh innate desire to uncover traces of that intangible emotion, "hiraeth"?

Perhaps Bournemouth Uni's Prof Tim Darvill, though not a Welshman to my knowledge, enjoys singing Paul Simon's "Homeward Bound" and applying its sentiment as he sings to North Pembrokeshire/Preseli?

And I thought he was probably responsible for the insertion in the book of the "geomorphic" mentions [including specific geomorphological features he has identified in Preseli landscapes]. These I read in his joint - authored Current Archaeology article several months back.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Not sure that this chapter has anything to do with hiraeth, but there is certainly an attempt on the part of the authors to demonstrate (rather too blatantly at times) that NE Pembs was a sort of Neolithic Mecca. After all, if you want Neolithic tribesmen to have hauled 80 stones from here to there, you have to find sufficient justification for that aberrant behaviour. I think the two authors fail miserably in that regard -- convincing me only that if Preseli occupied a "special" place in the Neolithic world, that was in the context of links with the Atlantic Fringe, and not with the chalk downs of southern England.

TonyH said...

Yeah, what I was getting at was maybe the authors were seeking to appeal to some Welshmen's sense of hiraeth, and thereby writing what they did in the fashion it was written (and with certain of the contentious claims it makes) would go down a 'tsunami storm' with some potential purchasers/ readers.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Not sure that the Pembs County History is ever going to make it into the bestsellers lists. And I suspect the only people likely to read it are archaeologists and historians. I suspect D+W thought they were writing for a rather closed and inward-looking group with a tendency to accept things without too much critical scrutiny....