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Monday, 14 August 2017

The strange blacked-out world of the archaeologist....

Now here is an interesting question.  Do archaeologists always wander about in the countryside with boxes on their heads?

I have been thumbing through a few of my books looking for some info, when I came upon a page or two in Prof Mike Parker-Pearson's big book on Stonehenge which left me gobsmacked.  OK --I have read it all before, but now it has struck me ever more forcibly that certain senior archaeologists know absolutely nothing about the forces that have affected the landscape.  For them, geomorphology is just a long word with an unknown meaning.

On p 289 MPP is seeking to flag up the wondrous routes available to our Neolithic ancestors who wanted to carry all those lovely bluestones across country all the way to Stonehenge.  He refers to "potentially excellent transport links" and goes on to say:  "The glaciated valleys of Preseli have U-shaped profiles, with wide, flat, stone-free bottoms.  There is plenty of room for moving megaliths along a valley bottom without having to negotiate its stream....."

Don't lets mince words here.  This is complete and utter nonsense.  Which landscape has MPP actually been looking at?  There are no glacial troughs / glaciated valleys with flat bottoms in Pembrokshire.  I repeat.   THERE ARE NO GLACIAL TROUGHS IN PEMBROKESHIRE.  He must have been reading some ancient text book or other, and got all confused.  The topography is all wrong for glacial troughs, and this was an area of areal scouring, not concentrated ice flow.    There are no U-shaped profiles and no wide, flat, stone-free valley bottoms.

What we do have are a number of spectacular sub-glacial meltwater channels, especially in western Preseli, including Cwm Gwaun which MPP knows very well since that's where Bessie's pub is located.  These valleys do have wide flattish floors, but they are by no means stone free.  And these valleys are of no use for the bearers of large stones, since they are all to the WEST of the territory in which MPP keeps on seeing Neolithic quarries.  These latter so-called quarry sites are in EASTERN Preseli, from which he wants the stones to be transported EASTWARDS.

He then goes on to talk of the Nevern Valley as one of the "hotspots of Britain's Early Neolithic."  That again, if I may say so, is unsupported by the evidence.  There is a little group of portal dolmens in and around the valley, but the density of features is no greater than anywhere else in West Wales, and it is fanciful in the extreme to refer to it as a cultural "hotspot".

Then he goes on to talk of the valley sides being densely wooded and the valley floors being more easy to move about on.  "These wide-bottomed valleys would have formed ideal droveways for taking the cattle on to the high pastures, past Craig Rhosyfelin and on to Waun Mawn and Carn Goedog." (p 289)   That again is complete nonsense. For a start, there is nothing whatsoever to link these named sites apart from MPP's fertile imagination.  Secondly, all the evidence that I have seen suggests that the valley floors were just as densely wooded as the valley sides in the Neolithic -- and maybe even more difficult to move about on, given that they would have contained many boggy areas and pools on those parts of the valley floor where gradients were low.  Look at Esgyrn Bottom, Criney, Cwm Gwaun and the Brynberian Valley even today, after centuries of land clearance and land drainage..........

I sometimes despair, but must press on.....

Quickly on to page 290.  "Recent archaeological investigations in advance of new pipelines have found evidence of many Neolithic sites in south Wales' valleys...."  He cites Louise Austin as his source on this, but I wonder what she really thinks?  It's news to me.  All of the distribution maps for Neolithic features in South Wales show that our Neolithic ancestors avoided river valleys like the plague -- they always settled and built their structures on interfluves, upland swells, dryish areas on hilltops and on promontories where visibility was good and where waterlogging was not a problem.

Quote:  "Neolithic traders would have used these glaciated valleys not only to avoid the thickly wooded hillsides but also to pass through the many settlements.  The principal routeways would have followed the valleys such as the Taf, the Towey (sic) and the Usk.  These flat-bottomed valleys were the Neolithic equivalent of the motorways, cleared of forest by the earliest Neolithic farmers and facilitating long-distance movement of people and their goods.  For the movers of bluestones, the route was relatively straightforward..........."  And so on and so on.  The Neolithic motorway bit is quite wonderful, thrown in there for the delectation of journalists and others with vivid imaginations.

Who says that the flat-bottomed valleys were cleared of forest in the Early Neolithic? I know of no evidence to support this contention.   Darvill and Wainwright, in the recent Pembrokeshire County History chapter, do not refer to any process of valley floor woodland clearance in the pre-metal period.  There was very little settled farming at the time; clearances were ephemeral, with slash and burn being used here and there in the forest by people who kept moving.  And why would they want to clear valley floors, at a time when forests held valuable resources in a hunter / gatherer society?  The valleys may have been used for shelter, to get away from the wind and the rain, and it was always far easier to move animals in the uplands, where the forests would have been more scrubby and intermittent.  If there were "droving" movement routes, they would have been on the interfluves and plateaux, not on the valley floors.

I have been looking up the literature by Mike Walker, John Evans, Martin Bell and others to see whether there is evidence of extensive valley floor forest clearance in West Wales in the Early Neolithic, around 5,000 yrs BP.  As far as I can see, there is none.  The Elm Decline is much debated, and there are traces of it in West Wales,  but land clearance associated with permanent settlement and agriculture in West Wales came much later.  I have described what the valleys probably looked like here:

I sometimes despair at the apparently infinite capacity of certain archaeologists simply to invent evidence where there is none.  That is scientifically reprehensible, and people who invent evidence should be hauled before the Inquisition and charged with scientific fraud.  Having been found guilty, they should be cast into everlasting darkness, well away from Bessie's pub.  Why do their peers put up with it?  Will they ever change?  Not in West Wales, I suspect.  They are in too deep.

But it would help if every now and then they could take those cardboard boxes off their heads, read a good geomorphology textbook, and start looking at the landscape.


PS.  Here is an additional source -- from Nikki Cook, in Pembs Hist Soc Journal, 2006:
"Although the Neolithic is generally thought to be the time of the first farmers, it is highly likely that to start with people still lived a fairly nomadic lifestyle, moving between upland and lowland pastures herding animals. As a result the evidence we have for actual settlements is quite scanty when compared with that for ritual/funerary monuments.  It is clear that people in the Neolithic possessed the ability to build lasting architectural forms, as evidenced by the numerous chambered tombs seen within Pembrokeshire, but their lifestyle meant they had no need to build lasting domestic dwellings.


TonyH said...

Well, he DID have a Geography teacher at school because.....


......."my geography teacher even drove me on the day I left school to an excavation and to begin my full - time life as an archaeologist".

Anyone know if he did "A" level Geography? If so, he will have done some geomorphology back then!

BRIAN JOHN said...

Not particularly enlightening -- but sad that somebody with at least some geographical knowledge should have sidelined it so comprehensively.......

Mind you, I blame the National Geographic. How ironic is that?

TonyH said...

You say, Brian, "I sometimes despair of the apparent infinite capacity of certain archaeologists simply to invent evidence where there is none. That is scientifically reprehensible..."

Well, how about (AND THIS IS not, this time in Pembrokeshire, but in the Stonehenge landscape):-

Mike Parker Pearson: Wikipedia entry:

This mentions his discovery of a henge monument near the River Avon.

It says it was "given the name "Bluestonehenge" or "Bluehenge" because [my capitals] "TRACES OF BLUESTONES WERE FOUND DURING THE EXCAVATION"

A similar claim is also made in the Wikipedia "Bluestonehenge" entry.

But NO pieces of bluestone were found during the dig! Dr Rob Ixer, Stonehenge Geologist has confirmed this on this Blog. It is merely supposition/ wishful thinking that the holes had contained bluestones. I believe the henge is more accurately named "West Amesbury Henge". That is what Dr Ixer calls it.

TonyH said...

Moreover, and more explicitly, the Wikipedia "Bluestonehenge" entry says:

The name "Bluestonehenge" is derived from the discovery of small stone chips in some of the stone settings. The bluestones are also found in Stonehenge and consist of a wide range of rock types [from Pembrokeshire].

This detail in the Wiki entry is WRONG. It needs to be challenged and altered. Rob Ixer would no doubt agree. Why hasn't MPP altered it himself??!

BRIAN JOHN said...

Anybody can change a Wikipedia entry -- all you have to do is sign in and do it. best to cite your sources, or somebody may try and revert it back to the old version. In the Wikipedia writing and editing community, there are some rather strange people......

Myris of Alexandria said...

It is indeed true that no SH bluestones were discovered from West Amesbury Henge and in the MPP Antiquity paper, a better source than Wiki, none is claimed.

Some interesting stones from West Amesbury Henge will feature in the next ferret club news letter by the Pet Rock Boys (2018). The absence of bluestones at West Amesbury Henge has been very clearly stated in print for a number of years I and B 2013 perhaps.

READ the PRIMARY literature. That is why that rule is important and only amateurs do otherwise.


By the Gods some lessons are all but too slowly learned.

BRIAN JOHN said...

No point in going after Tony and telling him to read the primary literature, Myris. His point (a good one) is that the Wiki entry (which is the first thing people come to when they do a Google search) is wrong, and should have been corrected by MPP himself. He has the capacity to change it. Why hasn't he? Can't be bothered?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Lots of dirty business on Bluestonehenge. I had forgotten about this, involving Mike Pitts and his tendency to tread on toes:

BRIAN JOHN said...

Did this get lost?

Myris of Alexandria said...

I am not certain that MPP would consider wiki important enough to alter. I doubt that I would, after all it is only slightly better than The Daily Mail. (It (Wiki) had the nerve to say my wife's entry was too long), a libel.

The argument that most people reach for Wiki first, reminds me that it was not public pressure that stopped public hangings,(there were some fine people in the crowd)but the liberal few.

Talking of the danger of Wiki even I have been (self-)fooled. The discussion on the restricted lithologies of large erratics, that I thought be a universal, was on better reading limited to supra-glacial avalanche erratics. Poorly worded article and overhasty reading. If it seems to good to be true etc.

However name some poly lithological large erratic fields. I might still give the idea that the variety of all the large bluestones at SH 'proves' they cannot be erratics.
Why should the Devil/Darvill have all the best tunes?

I have no idea where the extra t in my Norber erratic spelling appeared from. Other than my fondness for antique names that finish in bert/burt.

TonyH said...

Dead right, Brian (and the person sometimes known as Myris). As a librarian, I always used the motto "get the right information to the right person at the right time". All to do with dissemination of information. Some folk look at Wiki because their mates have recommended it as a quick fix. I believe it to be very little used in what used to be called in my day, Reference Libraries. These days Librarians and Library Assistants are keen to give you access to their Pandora's Boxes, aka the public computers provided for their delectation and misinformation. The main thing about Wiki, for example is it's FREE, it's very accessible too, so it draws in the naive and the unsuspecting........a little bit like MPP.... ooh dear!.. now I've said it!

TonyH said...

Myris, MPP likes to present himself as a Man of the People, so I would have thought he (and/or his wife/ Secretary/administrator) would be DELIGHTED to alter any misrepresentations/ untruths within any Wiki subject in which he's been actively involved.

TonyH said...

I have been repeatedly saying that archaeologists associated with All Things Stonehenge - including the Preseli connection - have dismally failed their Profession, as well as themselves, by paying scant attention to natural processes involved in the making of the landscape, so I concur exactly with Brian's last sentence just before his "P.S."

Humanity has not been the soul contributor to how the Earth's features appear!