Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my new book called "The Stonehenge Bluestones" -- available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
To order, click

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Historic document from 2000

Ah -- this brings back happy memories! A Western Mail press cutting from April 2000, in the early stages of the Millennium Stone Pull.

This reminds us that when the pullers started with the project, all wore yellow gloves and PULLED on the ropes.  But many found that very hard work, getting rope burns and blisters on their hands -- and so after a while the organisers developed a sort of harness for each puller, with a bar in front of the chest and a connection behind onto the main haulage rope.  So those who were drawing the stone along were facing forward and PUSHING --  and were able to use their body weight much more effectively.  The men with the levers who walked along behind the stone were there to lever the loaded sledge back into position when it slid sideways -- as it did with alarming frequency.

In spite of these innovations, and the use of modern ropes and friction-reducing Netlon to increase sliding efficiency on asphalt roads, the stone pull was still an unmitigated disaster, proving without a doubt to all of those involved that the hypothetical human haulage of 80 bluestones from Presell to Stonehenge was just about as reliable as the "aliens from outer space" hypothesis.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Meanwhile, in the Brecon Beacons

Thanks to Phil for 4 images of the cirque called Craig Cerrig-gleisiad (glitter-stones crag) in the Brecon Beacons.The top one looks south into the Taff Valley; the second one looks out of the cirque, over the lip, towards Brecon and Hay on Wye in the distance; the third looks into the cirque, with the headwall in the distance.  The last photo, below, shows the inside of the cirque with Pen y Fan and Corn-du in the distance.

There are some very spectacular glacial features in the Beacons, all well recored and studies over the years. The ice divide in this area seems to have been very mobile -- apparently shifting about in all compass directions during the course of the Devensian.

Monday, 11 June 2018

More from the ice divide

Purely by chance, this was posted on Facebook today by Stephen John (no relation).  Fabulous image -- taken on the remote upland road to the Elan Valley.  Again, this is typical ice divide terrain, maybe covered by relatively stagnant and cold-based ice for most of the Devensian cold episode.  That means maybe 50,000 years of ice cover, with remarkably little landscape modification.

Craig Rhosyfelin -- "the monolith extraction point" -- again

Fracture scar left when a small slab (maybe 5 cms thick and c 20 cms wide) fell away relatively recently.  The scar edges are sharp and fresh.

I applied some close scrutiny to the "monolith extraction point" at Rhosyfelin on my last visit -- referred to by Mike Parker Pearson and colleagues as located in a "recess."  There isn't any recess there, and there is no evidence at all that a single stone might have been taken from the point at which MPP has charmingly posed for a thousand photographs.

As I have pointed out before, the rock face here has several prominent fracture scars which must have been created when small slabs of foliated rhyolite fell away and accumulated at different times at the foot of the crag.   If they were present in 2011, these must all subsequently have been carted away and dumped by the archaeologists, who were interested above all else in the 5 years of digs in looking for monoliths capable of being carted off to Stonehenge or to "proto-Stonehenge".  It's possible, of course, that some of the slabs broke away while the site was affected by glacier ice and torrents of meltwater;  they may have been incorporated into overriding ice, or moved downstream before being dumped.  They must all have been quite small, and easily modified or destroyed.

A very old fracture scar on the same face; note how heavily abraded the outer edge of the scar is.  The slab that dropped away from above it must have parted company wit the rock face many thousands of years ago.

Another clean fracture, also heavily abraded.  A late Devensian feature?

Irregular fracture scars towards the base of the exposure.   Several slabs have fallen away here, one c 6 cms thick and probably another around 4 cms thick.  Again the scars are heavily abraded -- suggesting the action of either ice or meltwater.

The sample that was taken away for cosmogenic exposure dating about 3 years ago must have come from somewhere on this face.  The dating must have been completed long since -- I wonder why the result has never been published?  But then nobody likes to publish inconvenient evidence, do they?

More comments about the book....

Two more comments from senior academics. (By the way, I did not make them up.)   I'm quite encouraged.  Of course, there will be negative and aggressive reviews in assorted journals from people with vested interests and maybe from some who don't wish to take my arguments on board.  Such is life....

"..........your recent book The Stonehenge Bluestones. Excellent! I believe you! I read it from cover to cover.  Your demolition job on the Bluestones did me good. ‘Assumptive research’ is more common than one might expect … and embedded assumptions create vast barriers, dams, holding up research … YET flexibility is unwelcome!"

"Only had a quick browse so far but seems you've done a grand job updating... Excellent stuff." 

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Stonehenge -- rhyolite in a Mesolithic context?

Pit 9580 -- from p 46 of Cleal et al, 1995

On looking through Ros Cleal's mammoth tome the other day, I came across a rather interesting reference to a "rhyolite chip" in what appears to be a Mesolithic context.   This would not, of course, be the first time that a piece of bluestone has been uncovered in a pre-Stonehenge context.......

In Chapter 4 ("Before Stonehenge") Michael Allen makes use of the unpublished notes of Martin Trott, working for Wessex Archaeology at the behest of English Heritage, to study those famous post holes in the old Stonehenge car park.

In Pit 9580 (the easternmost pit, very close to the old Visitor Centre), there was a very varied fill of sediments about 1.3 m thick.  The pit seems to have been re-cut and modified several times, the most prominent modification being a transformation into a wide shallow pit (purpose unknown) just 70 cms deep.   Trott described primary, secondary and tertiary contexts.  The most interesting thing about the recut tertiary fill at the top of the sequence (context 9581) is that it contained a piece of rhyolite weighing 62g, at a depth of 20 cm.  Then we come to some circular reasoning -- Allen says:  "this latter find is of some significance as it indicates that this layer was not earlier than, and was probably contemporary with, the dressing of the bluestones (phase 3)."  That is one explanation -- the other is that the rhyolite chip was there when the pit was in use, or was being filled in, very much earlier than Bluestones Phase 3. This latter explanation is supported by the radiocarbon date of 8400 +/- 100 yrs BP obtained from charcoal in the tertiary fill layer.  The layer is pretty well homogenous, and there is no reason to think that the rhyolite chip was introduced and buried here more than 3,000 years after the Mesolithic pit was finally filled.  If it had been, there should be signs of some break in the stratigraphy.

Then it gets even more confusing, since detailed work on the molluscan fauna and on pollen analyses from the side of the opened pit indicate a "hiatus" between the lower parts of the pit fill and the "tertiary fill" near the surface.  Allen and other researchers suggest that there was indeed a break of as much as 5,000 years between the Mesolithic and Neolithic activity.  In the Mesolithic (Boreal) period there was a wooded landscape, and when the sediments of the tertiary fill were emplaced the landscape was much more open.  But is that assumption of a long hiatus based upon the assumption that rhyolite cannot possibly have been present in the neighbourhood during the Mesolithic?  Could the clearance of land and its transformation from open woodland to a grassland area have taken place rather quickly -- or over a few thousand years -- during the Mesolithic, as a result of burning?  Should we believe the radiocarbon date, or treat it as an aberration?

This is all very intriguing -- does anybody have more information?

Ice shed country -- Cambrian Mountains

Llyn Cwm-byr, near Pumlumon

I keep on discovering fascinating landscapes.  I discovered another one the other day, while travelling home from giving a talk in Bishops Castle, in the Welsh Borders.  We took  detour off the Newtown - Aberystwyth road and took minor roads via Devil's Bridge to Pontrhydfendigaid and Tregaron.  I had been that way before without seeing much, but this time it was a real hot summer's day, with blue sky and fantastic visibility.

This is part of Wales's empty quarter, with a rolling -- almost prairie - like -- landscape of broad river valleys, wide depressions with lakes in them, and hilly areas with gentle slopes.   This is the core of the Cambrian Mountains and the main watershed of Wales, with some streams flowing west and others flowing east -- but no glaciated troughs.  During the big glacial episodes this area has been at the heart of the Welsh ice cap -- so there has been very thick ice sitting on this landscape -- but it has done virtually nothing in terms of landscape modification.   The ice has been effectively stagnant, and probably cold-based,  maybe with occasional aerial scouring but no streaming.  The whole landscape reminded me of parts of the basalt plateaux of NW Iceland, except that here there are the remnants of a very old fluvial landscape which has been largely unmodified for millions of years.

Must try to get back there soon, so that I can take a more careful look.......

The Cambrian Mountains of mid-Wales, between Aberystwyth and Newtown.  The undulating "watershed plateau" is clearly seen in the centre of the map.  The brown-coloured area is the highest part of the plateau, around Pumlumon.

Typical landscape on the plateau

Extract from the BGS glacial map of Wales, showing Devensian ice movements at the centre of the Welsh Ice Cap.  Note the outlet glaciers flowing away from the ice-shed area -- the Rheidol and Ystwyth Glaciers flowing west, and the Wye and Severn Glaciers flowing NE and SE respectively.  

Friday, 1 June 2018

Herbert Thomas scrutinized

A new review of Herbert Thomas and his work has just been published in Antiquity journal. Was he a brilliant geologist, or a bit of a charlatan?  I'll report on the detail in due course, but in the meantime here is the Abstract and the reference list -- the latter makes a good check-list of the papers by Bevins and Ixer.  With a bit of luck, the hyperlinks will work........
(As we all know, I don't agree with the authors that they have definitively identified the locations from which some of the bluestones and the debitage at Stonehenge have come -- the best that can be said is that they have narrowed things down to the most likely neighbourhoods.)


Retracing the footsteps of H.H. Thomas: a review of his Stonehenge bluestone provenancing study
Richard Bevins and Rob Ixer
Antiquity, May 2018.

Published online: 31 May 2018


The long-distance transport of the Stonehenge bluestones from the Mynydd Preseli area of north Pembrokeshire was first proposed by geologist H.H. Thomas in 1923. For over 80 years, his work on the provenancing of the Stonehenge bluestones from locations in Mynydd Preseli in south Wales has been accepted at face value. New analytical techniques, alongside transmitted and reflected light microscopy, have recently prompted renewed scrutiny of Thomas's work. While respectable for its time, the results of these new analyses, combined with a thorough checking of the archived samples consulted by Thomas, reveal that key locations long believed to be sources for the Stonehenge bluestones can be discounted in favour of newly identified locations at Craig-Rhos-y-felin and Carn Goedog.


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Thursday, 31 May 2018

Why the "human agency" thesis cannot be the default preference

A stone with a mind of its own.......

I have many discussions with experts off the record, and in one recent exchange of opinions with a senior geomorphologist we have agreed to differ on what the "default hypothesis" should be, given that there is no "smoking gun" or "killer fact" in the glaciers versus humans debate.  His view is essentially that of Prof James Scourse, who said many years ago that since there is no firm evidence of glaciation on Salisbury Plain we must therefore assume that glacial entrainment and transport of the bluestones was effectively "impossible" -- and that no matter how unlikely it might seem, the human agency thesis has to be the one to go for.  (The reason for that is that we know that Neolithic people were rather clever, and if they were clever enough to know quite a lot, they probably knew how to carry large stones over long distances........)

I disagree fundamentally with that.  Nobody should ever say that the glaciation of Salisbury Plain was impossible, especially since modelling shows that it was indeed possible, and since there are glacial deposits in the SW counties including Somerset.  The Stonehenge bluestones themselves look like a glacial erratic assemblage, and if they look like erratics they may well be erratics!  We must also remind ourselves that there is no physical evidence of any sort which supports the idea of either Neolithic quarrying in Pembrokeshire or long-distance human transport of the bluestones, and which withstands scrutiny.

In those circumstances the balance of probability must lie with the glacial entrainment and glacial transport thesis.  Some evidence trumps no evidence, any time.   In summary:

Ten fundamental problems with the human quarrying & transport thesis

1. There is no sound evidence from anywhere in the British Neolithic / Bronze Age record of large stones being hauled over long distances (more than 5 km or so) for incorporation in a megalithic monument. The builders of Neolithic monuments across the UK simply used whatever large stones were at hand.

2. If ancestor or tribute stones were being transported to Stonehenge, why have all of the known bluestones come from the west, and not from any other points of the compass? Were belief systems and "local politics" quite different to the north, east and south?

3. There is no evidence either from West Wales or from anywhere else of bluestones (or spotted dolerite or Rhosyfelin rhyolite in particular) being used preferentially in megalithic monuments, or revered in any way. The builders always used whatever was available to them in the vicinity, and it can be argued that stone availability was a prime locational determinant for stone settings.

4. If long-distance stone haulage was "the great thing" for the builders of Stonehenge, why is there no evidence of the development of the appropriate haulage technology leading up to the late Neolithic, and a decline afterwards? It is a complete technological aberration.

5. The evidence for Neolithic quarrying activity in key locations is questionable. No physical evidence has ever been found of ropes, rollers, trackways, sledges, abandoned stones, quarrymen's camps, or anything else that might bolster the hypothesis. The so-called “engineering features” are entirely natural.

6. The sheer variety of bluestone types (near 30 when one includes packing stones and debris) argues against selection and human transport. There cannot possibly have been ten or more "bluestone quarries" scattered across West Wales.

7. Bits and pieces of experimental archaeology on stone haulage techniques (normally in "ideal" conditions) have done nothing to show that our ancestors could cope with the sheer physical difficulty of stone haulage across the heavily-wooded Neolithic terrain of West Wales (characterised by bogs, cataracts, steep slopes and very few clearings) or around the rocky coast. The one reasonably "authentic" project (the moving of the "Millennium Stone" in the year 2000) was a shambles and a disaster.

8. Neither has it been shown that the Stonehenge builders had the geographical awareness and navigational ability to undertake long and highly complex journeys with very heavy loads.

9. And if there was a "proto-Stonehenge" somewhere, built of assorted local stones and then dismantled and taken off to Stonehenge, where was it? The mooted "Preselite" axe factory has never been found, and neither has the mythical Stonehenge precursor.

10. Analyses of bluestone monolith stone shapes does not suggest that elongated “pillars” were preferred. Slabs, stumps and boulders of all shapes and sizes are highly suggestive of a glacial erratic assemblage.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Bluestones 34 and 35a

Bluestone 35a, exposed in the pit opened by Darvill and Wainwright in 2008.  (Source: Tim Darvill)

I'm happy to draw attention to the 2009 report by Darvill and Wainwright -- dealing with the main findings from the 2008 Stonehenge dig.  Interesting material, written in a lively and accessible style.

Much of the report is about the Stonehenge Layer, but this is what the authors say about the two bluestones which they encountered.

Let us move hastily along to the next period of Stonehenge, where three sockets relate to stones that are still visible above the ground surface. Stone 35a and Stone 34 are both part of the Bluestone Circle that is such a striking part of all the later phases of the monument. Both stones are still above ground. Stone 35a is a massive block, but projects only a few centimetres above ground level (fig 9). Petrologically speaking, this one is very close to the material from Carn Menyn to which Geoff referred earlier. I think that you can see straightaway that this is the natural patina on the rock and it has been smashed up in relatively recent times, sufficient that no new patina has developed on the exposed faces. As we shall see a little later, that is not surprising. But there it is in its place, going down the best part of a metre into the ground.

The next one along is Stone 34. It is a beautiful stone that extends into the ground more than a metre, so that less than one-third of it is sticking up above the ground and the rest is now under the ground. You can also just make out a massive hole next to the stone, which is partly filled with concrete, put there when Atkinson refilled the trench, probably to give it support. It is fairly certain that when Atkinson was digging here Stone 34 was loose and you could move it, and, given the size of the hole, there is no question that material could get into the ground alongside that stone.

Stone 35a is particularly spectacular, showing a very complex history.  It has a flattish base, and sits on the chalk bedrock in quite a stable fashion.  The side facing the camera is clearly a fracture plane which is heavily weathered.   How did the breakage occur, and when did it happen?  We can see several other fractures within the rock, so it is in a dodgy state, and presumably always has been.   The relatively fresh and unweathered upper surfaces show the spotted dolerite in all its glory; these appear to be fresh fractures, and I think Darvill and Wainwright are right in their conclusion that these breakages are relatively recent in the life of the stone -- maybe dating from the "destruction of the bluestone circle."  They say that two - thirds of the bluestone circle has been smashed up, carted away and incorporated into the Stonehenge Layer -- but I think that is an unsupportable statement, since nobody knows how many bluestones were in the circle when it was at its most complete --  and there is no evidence to support the contention that it ever was "complete" as shown in all the Stonehenge publicity material.  I have argued many times that the whole monument was abandoned in an incomplete state, because the builders ran out of stone........

The pic of stone 34 is a nice one too.  This one is apparently complete -- although its base was not fully excavated by Darvill and Wainwright.  As fine a weathered and battered glacial erratic as one is ever likely to see.

Blogger infuriates the bloggers

There is a huge row going on in the blogging community about recent changes made by Blogger / Blogspot by Google, the owner.  I had a few glitsches earlier on, when I could not see incoming comments and received no notifications of them by Email.   I was accused of selecting comments and blocking off those whose comments I did not want to acknowledge, as some will recall.........

I thought the problem had been sorted out, but now the "Email notification" process has been stopped completely, and on the Blogger discussion forum this is by far the biggest cause of anger.  I have complained, as have thousands of other bloggers.  Blogger is not even bothering to respond, which does not do them a lot of good.......

I have a feeling that this is all part of a strategy towards increased "monetisation" by Blogger and Google -- they have "modernised" the way that Blogger works, placing much more emphasis on adverts and the sale of products and services.  Blogger wants every blog to bring with it a revenue stream.  I have steadfastly resisted the pressure to place paid adverts on my site, and will continue to do so.

But in the meantime, apologies to those who want to comment on my posts -- I may or may not see your comments, and they may just get tangled up in the spam which is removed from my mailbox by my preference settings.

We await developments -- at the moment nobody knows whether Blogger will respond to the anger being expressed by most of their blogging clients.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

The conversion of Richard Atkinson

Prof Richard Atkinson in the AP film, dated 1990

 Olwen Williams-Thorpe, one of the leading researchers in the OU study

We learn something new every day.  I have been looking at this old Associated Press film (about 5 mins) produced in May 1990, in association with the big OU study undertaken by Richard Thorpe,  Olwen Williams-Thorpe and others;  and in it I discover that towards the end of Prof Richard Atkinson's life he accepted that he had been wrong for 40 years in arguing vociferously for the human transport thesis and against the glacial option.  So there was a miraculous conversion on the road to Stonehenge.  It appears that in my new book I should have been kinder in my assessment of his work and his contribution to the transport debate -- so I owe him a posthumous apology...........

Atkinson died in 1994, four years after this film was made -- so it must have had his approval.

I particularly love the little clip of the late Geoffrey Wainwright, who says (in a roundabout sort of way) "Forget these geologists.  They know nothing.  We archaeologists are the experts -- trust us and believe what we say....."    Sadly, Geoffrey died not so long ago, but that complacent and patronising attitude is very much alive in the archaeological community.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

New book duly launched

There was a good audience for my book launch and talk last night in Newport.  My talk was entitled "Neolithic bluestone quarries:  the facts and the fantasies."  There were several archaeologists in the hall, and interestingly enough, not one of them spoke up in defence of the archaeologists who have been working with Prof MPP, or in defence of the good professor's narrative.  After that, we enjoyed a good discussion on a range of topics, including some quite detailed glaciology and on the usual question of erratic distributions.

One of the most intriguing questions -- for which nobody had a satisfactory answer -- was this: "How do they get away with it?"  In other words, where is the scrutiny from the archaeology establishment?  Why does funding continue to flow into the Pembrokeshire digs even though over seven years they have told us NOTHING new about either the Neolithic or the Bronze Age in this part of the world?  They have told us nothing new about Stonehenge either.

Anyway, a pleasant evening, and the tea and rock cakes went down well.  (Red wine accompanied by nibbles is so old hat........)

Readers of this blog will be intrigued to know that following the Fox News coverage of the publication of the new book, the story has made the pages of many of the regional newspapers in Australia.  There has also been good coverage in Romania, Croatia, the Arab world, Spain, Italy and many other countries.  The "new and revolutionary" glacial transport angle is the one they have picked up on -- and as one might expect some of the write ups have consisted of garbled nonsense.

I'm rather intrigued by the thought of a press report in the WaggaWagga Courier (if there is such a thing) in the Australian outback, describing how a Welsh scientist claims that a glacier built Stonehenge, immediately following a report of a dingo chasing half as dozen sheep near the local water hole.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Late Pleistocene environments

Thanks to Chris for sending the PDF of an interesting lecture in the Netherlands about the evolution of the rivers and the landscapes.Rather difficult for non-Dutch speakers to follow, but Chris wondered if there was anything radical in there relating to ice edges etc.  The short answer is "No" -- the above map, which is almost too fuzzy to interpret properly, shows the widely accepted Late Devensian (Weichselian) ice edge for Northern Europe -- which is somewhat redundant in that there are many tweaks around the edges, not least in Western Britain.  This is a point made by Prof Danny McCarroll in his recent review of my new book.

Chris wondered whether the area coloured yellow shows a more extensive glaciated area, incorporating much of southern England including Kent.  No -- that area is the area assumed to have been effected by permafrost, with tundra vegetation.  I think the map actually shows current thinking on the ecology / vegetation patterns of Europe around 20,000 years ago.

This is another interesting diagram, showing climate change in western Europe since the wastage of the last glaciation ice in the Alps, the British Isles and Northern Europe.

Most of what is on the diagram is fairly obvious, even to a non-Dutch speaker.  Note the gradual improvement of climate between 18,000 and 15,000 BP, the complex oscillations between 15,000 and 12,000 with the Older Dryas and Younger Dryas (Zone III) phases, and the relatively stable climate since then.  This time scale does not quite coincide with others that have been published -- I wonder if the author is using BC/AD as his timescale, rather than BP?

Digging then and digging now

Two photos from the album, one from 1913 and the other from 2015.  The black and white one is from an old post-card.

Ah -- how times have changed -- or have they?

Thursday, 24 May 2018

My nice little dykes -- and the geological map

Cataract where the River Clydach cuts through one of the dykes in a narrow gorge

The smaller of the two dykes outcropping above the river

The larger of the two dykes which forms a distinct cliff  above the river

I live in Cilgwyn, not far from the Bluestone Brewery which is much patronised by the archaeologists every September, and on my land there is a very beautiful river valley.  The river cuts through two dolerite dykes which have a major influence on both valley shape and gradient.  Elsewhere we find Abermawr shales and mudstones, and meta-mudstones adjacent to the dykes where there has been a moderate degree of metamorphism or alteration due to baking.  Where the hard rock outcrops, the valley sides are very steep indeed, and the river tumbles down through a series of cataracts.Above and below the dykes, the valley is much more open, with grassy meadows on the floodplain, more gentle sides and a river which is much more placid in appearance.  All good standard geomorphology -- and exactly what one one would expect.

The point of this pleasant little tale (apart from the fact that I am rather chuffed to be the proud owner of two dykes) is that the geology map is highly generalised, and misses out on multiple details of rock distributions and outcrops.   I know of other dykes in the neighbourhood which are not shown at all on the geological maps, as well as other outcrops of volcanic ashes and rhyolites.  And there is great variation within outcrops which are shown as being relatively uniform on the maps.   I have flagged up mapping inaccuracies  on Waun Mawn, on Brynberian Moor and in the Brynberian Valley as well.  I am not criticising the BGS surveyors who have produced fantastic maps over the years -- just pointing out that if the maps are not to appear too complex, there has to be an "appearance" of uniformity if the map is to be of any practical use to farmers, planners and the general public.

Against this background, I have always been critical of the claim from Ixer and Bevins that they have provenanced some of the foliated rhyolite fragments found at Stonehenge to "within a few square metres" on the rock face at Rhosyfelin.  For a start, I have pointed out that none of the thin sections featured in the publications provides an exact match.  And secondly, we have never seen an adequate rebuttal of the point made by me and many others --  namely that if a particular foliated rhyolite petrography is seen at point 8, it must also be observable at multiple other locations where that particular foliated layer outcrops at the ground surface.  Even if rock samples have been taken from 30 sampling points within the Brynberian Valley, we simply do not know enough about the real and complex local geological map to justify what is really rather a wild and exaggerated claim about provenancing accuracy.

Quote of the day

Thanks to Tony for this one:  "The human transport theory is looking increasingly far-fetched."  Nice one!  I wish I had thought of it myself........

While the debate has concentrated on the bluestones for many years, I get a sense that it is now moving to a consideration of where the sarsens came from too.  As I suggest in my book, it's reasonable to assume that ALL of the stones used in the stone settings at Stonehenge were collected from the neighbourhood.

I suspect that as more and more senior academics pour scorn on the so-called "quarrying evidence" from Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog, as they surely will, the archaeologists will be pushed further and further into a corner, from which there may be no escape.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Another quarrying sceptic

This is from another pre-publication review of the book from a senior academic whose specialism is geomorphology.  He hasn't given me permission to use his name, but this is word-for-word!

First of all, I enjoyed reading the book. Thanks for the opportunity to do so. Your passion for the subject shines through! I also read The Bluestone Enigma. I can see why you wanted to produce an updated version of the story, in particular because of the excavations at Rhos-y-felin. I agree with you that the archaeologists have over-interpreted the flimsiest of evidence and invented an imagined Neolithic mindset based on very little (if any!) in the way of facts. They damage rather than enhance the transport origin hypothesis as a result. The Rhos-y-felin site itself is unconvincing as a Neolithic quarry, and so far no forthcoming convincing evidence of human industry there has appeared in print as far as I am concerned. You convince me that the Bluestones are actually a rag-bag of rocks of South Wales provenance and not rocks only from one or two locations in the Presell Hills. This does need to be emphasized and is not what most people would have in mind.

I must be honest and state that the above para is followed by an expression of doubt about the glacial transport thesis too, and my reviewer reiterates that there is no "killer fact" which demonstrated that glacier ice might have reached Salisbury Plain.  I agree with that -- and of course, in the book I refer to the balance of probabilitiy.  He cites a number of examples where the evidence of ancient till and ancient erratics is open to interpretation, and refers to assorted technical matters relating to glacier mechanics etc.  I'll do another post on these comments, and those from other reviewers, before too long -- there are many perfectly valid points that deserve to be debated.

That having been said, if one is unconvinced by quarrying and human transport, and unconvinced by the glacial transport theses, what is left?  Merlin the Wizard, or the activities of aliens?

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Fossil ice wedge, Manorbier

This is a very fine fossil ice wedge, seen in the cliff face at Manorbier, overlooking the beach.   There's broken bedrock at the base, then about 1.5 m of pseudo-stratified ORS head, and about 50 - 75 cm of sandy loam and modern soil.  The wedge fill consists of sandy loam and small fragments of soliflucted ORS debris, with one or two larger fragments as well.  Note how many of the fill fragments are arranged vertically.  There is no till exposed here.    But clearly permafrost was present after the formation of the head horizon, at the time of sandy loam / colluvium accumulation.

Were features such as this formed at the peak of the Late Devensian Glaciation -- around 20,000 years ago, or much later, in the Zone III / Younger Dryas cold snap around 10,500 years ago?

Monday, 21 May 2018

New book causes much head-shaking....

The other day I had a very long conversation with Laura Geggel from Live Science in the USA, as a result of which she has now published a piece on the web:

Well, it's more carefully written than the piece in the Daily Mail!  As one might expect with science journalists, they get some things right and some things wrong, and then, having tried to present the views of the main protagonist (in this case, me) they have to balance it with the views of some outraged archaeologists.  So she has spoken to Josh Pollard (who is of course a leading proponent of Neolithic quarrying) and Barney Harris from UCL, who was involved in that lovely little stone-hauling experiment in a London Park, and they have given her all the reasons why glacial transport was impossible.

It will be a waste of time to get too involved in analysing everything that Pollard and Harris are reported as having said, but here are a few thoughts:

1. Pollard says that there are no moraines with big chunks of bluestone in them on Salisbury Plain.  I have never claimed that there are -- and indeed it would be vanishingly unlikely that depositional landforms with a strong surface expression could have survived half a million years of denudation.  Neither he nor I know whether there are patches of denuded or degraded till on Salisbury Plain, from which larger erratics (and maybe smaller ones too) have been collected.

2.  Pollard claims that there are artifacts including stone tools at Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog which indicate that quarrying took place there.  Which stone tools?  Which artefacts?  He knows perfectly well that all of their "evidence" has been examined and disputed.

3. Are the bluestones pillar-like blocks, as Pollard claims? Some of them are, but the great majority are not. He says that smaller rounded boulders would be more likely to come from moraine, while pretending to be ignorant of the fact that most of the 43 bluestones are indeed smaller, rounded, faceted and heavily abraded.  In other words, they are typical glacial erratics.

4. Yes, dolerite is not very likely to preserve striations, but are rhyolites and sandstones more likely to hold striations if transported by ice? Maybe, but can somebody please show me a rhyolite or sandstone monolith at Stonehenge that does not carry striations?

5. "I would think [the rhyolite] would just disintegrate, to be honest, if it was in glacial deposits," said Josh.  Well, since there are no rhyolite monoliths at Stonehenge, maybe that is exactly what happened to them.

6.  "We know where the rocks started from, and we can see the extraction points?"  Excuse me, Josh -- but that is all fantasy.

7.  It's a bit disingenuous of Josh Pollard to claim that Newgrange and the Ring of Brodgar show evidence of long-distance stone transport. At Newgrange we are talking about small bits of quartz for the facing of the mound, and at Ring of Brodgar it is much more likely that the standing stones were for the most part glacial erratics.  The Vestra Fiold "Neolithic Quarry" has NOT been shown to have provided the stones used, as I have pointed out on this blog.

8.  Barney's point is a valid one -- when he says that if there were bluestones on Salisbury Plain at the time of the earliest stone settings, why were they not used?   Well, maybe they were.  Kellaway and many others have suggested that long barrows were robbed of larger stones when stone settings became all the rage -- but I thought it was now assumed that before Stonehenge was built there was no great interest in using large stones?  In the Early Neolithic, if stones had littered the landscape, they might well have been ignored.

9.  Let's forget about the "experiment in the park".  It was very jolly, but did nothing whatsoever to enhance our ideas about what happened in the Neolithic.  

All in all, the argument of the archaeologists seems to be this:  "Neolithic people were very clever.  If they had wanted to transport lots of bluestones from Wales to Stonehenge, they would have done it.  Therefore they probably did it...."

Sorry chaps, but that's not science.  It's fantasy, or something akin to religious belief......

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Seymour thesis on vegetation development in Holocene Preseli

I had not realised that this thesis from Philip Seymour had been digitised.  Anyway, it is a useful resource in that it describes environmental change since the last "cold snap", as recorded in the pollen record.  It's very tightly focussed, and I would have like to see a bit more awareness of the wider context; my sense is that there was a concentration at the time on working out what anthropogenic changes there were -- still a reaction, maybe, to the old ideas of environmental determinism......

Some of the sites examined were in the eastern Preseli area -- referred to by the author as the "Bluestone Area".  One interesting thing is the author's unswerving allegiance to the human transport thesis; he says there is so much evidence of human occupation and activity in the area around Foel Drygarn and Caen Meini that Kellaway's glacial transport thesis becomes "unnecessary" !!  Hmmm.... It was a long time ago, and we'll let that pass.

But a useful document nonetheless......

The environmental history of the preseli region of South-West Wales over the past 12,000 years

Seymour, W. Philip
Date: 1985

Seymour, W. P. (1985) 'The environmental history of the preseli region of South-West Wales over the past 12,000 years', Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences, Aberystwyth University

The project involves a detailed palynological investigation into the environmental changes that took place during the Late-Devensian Lateglacial and Flandrian periods in the Preseli district of northern Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales. The approach adopted specifically takes into account the considerable diversity in terms of subenvironments and ecological habitats within the field area, with representative sites on the northern coastal plain, the exposed ridges of the Preseli Hills, sheltered valleys which dissect the uplands, and the flanking plateaux. In this manner and through definition of local pollen assemblages, unrepresentative extrapolations are minimised and an unbiased regional chronology has been produced. Results indicate that the distinctive climatic character of Pembrokeshire was probably manifest throughout the entire period under discussion. Thus, Corylus was locally present during the Late-Devensian Lateglacial Interstadial as it expanded from refugia to the south and west, and its extension very early during the Flandrian is also recognised. Conversely, Betula was relatively subdued during the Lateglacial and Early Flandrian, therefore suggesting that migration across the Cambrian uplands to the east was inhibited, particularly with the prolonged influences of the Loch Lomond (Younger Dryas) stadial on the high ground. The early establishment of mixed oak forest on the coastal plain is also recognised, although with some variation in its distribution within the field area. Apart from iiilocalised occurrences of carr woodland, however, the main Alnus rise did not occur until c. 6800 BP, when it is suggested that the rising sea-level may have been largely instrumental in creating suitable habitats on the littoral lowlands. During the later part of the period in particular, the variable activities of prehistoric populations are evident. Especially notable is the centre of activity during the Late Neolithic - Early Bronze Age near the site associated with the origins of the Stonehenge Bluestones. During the post-Roman period several cycles of increased exploitation and abandonment are recognised and these correlate well with historical evidence.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Blanket peat on Waun Mawn

Exposure in the side of one of the drainage channels on Waun Mawn, on a gentle south-facing slope.  Here we see about 30 cm of iron-stained / gleyed regolith made of broken meta-mudstone debris with signs of cryoturbation.  Above that there is a thin layer with streaks of organic material, and above that about 10 cm of "blanket peat" containing a network of roots from the present-day turf layer at the surface, which is only 5 cm thick.  This is quite typical of the moorland hereabouts.  There is no sign of Devensian till at this location.

I have been taking another look at the "progress report" written by Prof MPP for the Rust Family Foundation:

In the section on Waun Mawn some stress is placed on "the date of peat formation" as a guide to the age of the sockets and the speculations surrounding stone removal.

As far as the biggest recumbent stone in the putative "proto-Stonehenge" circle is concerned, MPP says this: Its former stone socket is lined with many packing stones, and the peat fills of this socket indicate that the stone fell after the onset of peat growth."

On the other hand, "The smaller recumbent stone excavated in 2017 is on the east end of the arc and is just under 1m long (fig.4). The fill of the stone socket contains only brown loam and no peat, indicating that it filled before the growth of peat. Thus this stone came down before peat growth."

Then again:  "Emptied stone sockets with stone packing (but no surviving monolith) were identified beyond both ends of the arc of monoliths. The socket on the west side was a circular pit (0.85 m- diameter and 0.3 m-deep) containing large packing stones set vertically. The emptied socket had filled with brown soil before any peat formation. Deformation of the edge of the pit showed that its former standing stone had been removed towards the north."
"We discovered two empty stone sockets on each end of the arc, suggesting that these stones may well be the remains of a dismantled stone circle (figs.5,6). Megaliths were removed from these sockets before the onset of peat growth on this site, indicating that the stone
circle was dismantled in the distant past."

Tying things up and seeking to demonstrate (even at this very early stage) that there WAS indeed a stone circle here, on the basis of very scanty evidence, MPP concludes:  "It can be assumed that the lack of peat in three of the stone sockets indicates that their standing stones were removed before the growth of blanket bog. This is likely to have started growing around 3,000 years ago, which would indicate that the stones came down in the Neolithic or earlier Bronze Age."

This is all seriously confusing.  MPP suggests that blanket peat formation here did not start until 3,000 years ago, which would place it in the Sub-Atlantic climate phase (pollen zone VIII), well after the elm decline and 3,000 years later that the date normally assumed for blanket peat development in the uplands of Wales.  In most of the texts and in Gallego-Sala et al (2015) it is suggested that in upland Wales blanket peat development probably started early -- maybe as early as 7,000 years ago --  during the Atlantic "climatic optimum" when it was warm and wet.  It's also suggested that around 3,000 years ago, at a time of lower rainfall totals, and an increase in ash and birch cover, blanket peat development might actually have slowed.  After 3,000 years ago, blanket peat initiation occurred only in a smallish number of "less favoured" locations. 

In the Preseli uplands, we can reasonably assume that blanket peat development will have started at the same time as in the other uplands of Wales where there were acid soils and high precipitation rates.

Nothing seems to fit.  So we have a problem........

Could it be that the things being called "stone sockets" are not stone sockets at all, but are simply surface depressions or irregularities that have nothing whatsoever to do with standing stones?


Gallego­-Sala, A. V., Charman, D. J., Harrison, S. P., Li, G. and Prentice, I. C. (2015) Climate­-driven expansion of blanket bogs in Britain during the Holocene. Climate of the Past Discussions, 11 (5). pp. 4811­-4832.
ISSN 1814­9359 
Available at

PS.  The only detailed work on the development of vegetation in the Preseli - North Pembrokeshire area is a thesis by Philip Seymour, completed in 1985.  It can be seen here:

It's essentially a pollen analysis study based on a variety of upland and lowland suites, recording changes in pollen frequencies in sediment sequences.  It makes the point that the development of blanket peat bogs was never very great in this area, partly because of the lack of extensive plateau surfaces where waterlogging could occur.  So drainage -- mostly on gentle slopes -- was generally sufficient to prevent blanket peat development.  This is borne out by the generally thin peat layers which we find across most of the landscape -- 10 cm is a rather typical thickness.  Did all of the peat start to develop at about the same time?  And was that time associated with the Neolithic / Bronze Age increase in land clearance associated with forest burning and increased grazing activity?  Seymour suggests that this was the case, and that peat development before the Neolithic was not very marked, especially on fairly well-drained slopes.  He takes a rather anthropogenic approach, suggesting that peat and soil development was very much influenced by settlement and land use practices.  But there is a danger of circular reasoning -- was the environment causing man to make certain land-use decisions, or were cultural decisions shaping the environment?  Walker and McCarroll (in the QRA Field Guide for West Wales, 2001) take a more nuanced approach, agreeing that periods of peat development are associated with periods of increased rainfall, leaching, iron pan creation and waterlogging  -- while admitting that there is such a wide range of dates for the "onset of peat development" in West Wales that land use practices and settlement pressure must have some role to play.

It will be interesting to see what turns up when Waun Mawn is examined in greater detail.....

The raised beach platform at Lydstep Point

Looking east

Looking west

This is probably the most spectacular raised beach platform in Pembrokeshire -- it's about 100m long,  and up to 25m wide, and is tucked into the little bay between Lydstep Point and Whitesheet Rock.   It cuts across near-vertical strata, and appears to have nothing to do with any faults or fractures in the Carboniferous Limestone.  It's difficult to photograph because it is so extensive -- but everywhere it has quite a gentle gradient down from a distinct notch cut into the cliff slope, and at its outer edge there is a sharp drop down into the sea.

The most fascinating thing about this platform is that it is incredibly chopped up -- criss-crossed with fissures and chasms and undermined by caves.  It is actually quite difficult to walk across it because of these surface irregularities.  This, to me, indicates very great age --  the chasms, pits and collapsed caves are all signs of marine processes currently destroying something formed a long tome ago, at a time when sea level was rather stable, around 15-20 m above its present level.  I think that this raised beach platform is at a higher level than that of Broad Haven -- which is also cut into a limestone coast.

In spite of a thorough search, I found no traces of a raised beach here (cemented or loose) and no trace of any till.  But there is an area of about 10m x 10m where cemented limestone breccia rests on the platform and has survived subsequent erosion -- storm waves certainly get onto this platform when there is a southerly gale combined with a high tide.

Here the breccia is about 1m thick, and about 2m  thick in a few places -- and it has to be related to the limestone breccia on the neck of the small peninsula just 450m to the west.  The other interesting feature of the platform is the presence of a number of widened fissures and "slit caves" cut into the face of the old cliffline at the bach edge of the platform.  These are perfect locations in which animal remains and maybe other organic materials might be found.  These would be invaluable in working out the chronology of this site.

My instinct is that there might be raised beach cobbles -- and maybe ancient till -- beneath the cemented limestone breccia, waiting to be discovered.  The rock platform itself may even predate the Anglian glacial episode -- but it could of course be a composite feature, freshened up during several interglacial high stillstands of the sea.