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Wednesday 27 September 2017

The geologists who stepped on the hornet's nest

On this blog we know and love geologists Richard Bevins and Rob Ixer, since they feature in a vast number of posts and have made amazing contributions to our understanding of the geology of the bluestones.   And Rob personally has been prepared to get involved in good knockabout debates on a wide range of issues, and to explore the pros and cons of many theories of geological, geomorphological and archaeological interest.  In the comments sections following a myriad of posts, he is a prominent and learned contributor.  For that, he deserves enormous respect.

But one thing has been puzzling me greatly for the past seven years or to -- why is it that two reputable geologists have turned into evangelists for the Neolithic quarrying thesis so enthusiastically advocated by Mike Parker Pearson and his team?  They claim, whenever you ask them, that they are entirely neutral in their utterances, and that they maintain a certain academic detachment from the grubby business of archaeological disputes, but the evidence is rather strong that they are fully signed up to the quarrying idea -- and indeed  we have speculated on previous posts that as long ago as 2011 they actually pushed our friend MPP into some of his more effusive and picturesque statements about Pompeii, smoking guns and proto-orthostats.  Consider the following statements made by Drs Ixer and Bevins, from their recent published output:

"There is clearly still much to learn here, but as work on the Preseli quarries continues, we hope that our detailed petrology will help to resolve the ongoing debate about how the bluestones arrived at Stonehenge and from exactly where."

"So the contents of a 60-year-old box led to the discovery of the first secure Stonehenge-related quarry site, confirming that man moved the bluestones.”

“.......very recent excavations at Carn Goedog have revealed evidence for Neolithic working of the outcrop.”

“........ archaeological excavations have shown features consistent with ancient quarrying.” 

“The best that can be hoped for is that a number of undisputed Neolithic quarry sites can be found.” 

"It's like an IKEA. You just walk up to it, take what you want and take it away."

“The discovery of a megalithic bluestone quarry at Craig Rhos-y-felin in 2011 marked a turning point in this research. Subsequent excavations have provided details of the quarrying process......”

“Colluvium has buried and protected the remains of prehistoric quarrying from subsequent stone removal and disturbance in the medieval and modern era.”

“Six megalith-quarrying features have been discovered at Craig Rhos-y-felin.”

“There is relatively little debris within the quarry to indicate the methods used for detaching monoliths from the rock face.”

“It is possible that the bluestone monoliths were taken directly from their quarries to Salisbury Plain.”

I know that all of these statements are taken out of context, but they do not contain many signs of neutrality or impartiality, as I think readers might agree.  But how can it be that two senior earth scientists are apparently prepared to ignore the evidence of earth surface processes that various people have presented for Rhosyfelin, Carn Goedog and many other Pembrokeshire sites, and have decided instead that assorted natural features and sediments are not natural, but are man-made? 

One reason might be that many of their papers are published in archaeological journals, and that they have been seduced away from pure geology into saying things that the archaeologists (or maybe just some of them) would quite like to hear?  There have been some strong personalities in the ranks of senior archaeologists who have been arguing for Neolithic quarries for many years now -- think of Darvill, Wainwright, Parker Pearson, Pollard, Richards, Welham, Pitts etc.  Their research agendas and projects, and their hypotheses, pull in other people -- and when joint peer-reviewed papers or popular magazine articles appear with multiple authorships, the principle of corporate responsibility applies.  For example, the big 2015 Antiquity paper on Rhosyfelin (which I still think of as one of the worst I have ever read) had no less than 14 authors, and whatever nonsense there is within that paper now has to be defended by all of them.  Nobody can break ranks and say "Well, actually, I never did agree with what was said on page fifteen......"  I still think that Rob Ixer and Richard Bevins made a grave mistake by ever agreeing to contribute to jointly authored papers like this one --  the millstone that hangs around Mike Parker Pearson's neck hangs round their necks as well.

Another reason why the geologists have been signed up as supporters of this Neolithic quarrying business is, I believe, that they have just not been able to do adequate fieldwork in the area that they are writing about.  Richard Bevins knows the area well, having wandered about all over the outcrops of Fishguard Volcanics over many years, and having collected hundreds of geological samples from useful exposures.  But how much time has he spent in the company of glaciologists or geomorphologists on these field visits?  I just don't know, but I'll hazard a guess that the answer is "Not very much."  He is Keeper of Geology at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, with vast responsibilities, so it's a miracle that he is able to do any fieldwork at all, and to maintain an incredible flow of research publications.  I am lost in admiration for his dedication and his commitment to research.  As for Rob, he lives a very long way away from Pembrokeshire, and is involved in such detailed lab-based petrography, and across such a wide range of topics, that it would be not far short of another miracle if he has ever managed to find the time to wander across north Pembs and simply look at the landscape and the processes that have fashioned it.

And thirdly, I think the geologists have gone with quarrying because they (like everybody else) are attracted by the spectacular, which is always more interesting than the mundane.  Although they are earth scientists, they probably quite like the idea of our heroic ancestors doing wondrous things.  And from an academic standpoint, they probably quite like the idea of fame and notoriety.  You just have to look at the string of press releases to which their names are attached -- in those, caution is thrown to the winds, and IMPACT is everything.  They can't blame university or museum press officers for the purple prose -- they are the ones ultimately responsible.  And hey -- they might even appear in  National Geographic documentary one day.  And how exciting is that?

Finally, I have become convinced that the geologists have gone along with the quarrying idea -- and have ended up promoting it -- because they think that the evidence for glacial bluestone transport is in some way deficient.  They have, I assume, taken on board the idea that "glacial transport was impossible" because, at some stage, James Scourse and Chris Green said so.  So by default they have to accept that human transport WAS possible, and that the quarrying of the bluestones was possible too.  As I have said many times before, that is not very scientific, because it conflates various issues.  There are three issues under debate -- stone entrainment, stone transport, and stone dumping.  If we are trying to be good scientists, we need to examine the evidence for each one of these issues independently, without allowing assumptions about the other two to influence our interpretation of the evidence on the ground.  What the geologists have done, I fear, is to assume that there are quarries at Carn Goedog and Rhosyfelin because there are not enough bluestones scattered about on Salisbury Plain.  Hmm --- how logical is that?

I write this post not in anger but in sadness -- since I have enormous respect for the two geologists involved, and the great work they have done.  So if I was to write a press release about all of this I would put on top of it the title:  "The sad case of two good geologists led astray".



TonyH said...

I suppose we ought to say something like "let he who is without sin cast the first bluestone".

If you check the Good Book I think it was the OLDEST amongst the woman's accusers who, after that statement, walked away from the scene first (as they were the wisest).

TonyH said...

Your Post of September 23rd, shortly before this one, was about the 2012 Stonehenge book by Mike Parker Pearson becoming a heavy millstone around his neck. The statements made by these two geologists, about pinpoint - provenancing of Stonehenge bluestones within the Preseli landscape, almost certainly had a lot to do with what MPP chose to write there.

BRIAN JOHN said...

I dare say the geologists will say "MPP put us up to it!" and MPP will say "Ixer and Bevins put me up to it!" Sad state of affairs.

TonyH said...

Perhaps it needed the Late Michael Winner RIP, to intervene between MPP, Rob Ixer & Richard Bevins in their hyperventilating excitement about quarry provenances? in his TV adverts for eSure car and home insurance around 15 years ago, Michael Winner insisted to highly - alarmed folk. "calm down, dear, it's only a commercial!"