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....
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Monday 29 April 2019

Carn Goedog and the question of the "bluestone megalith quarry"

Here is the short paper on which I have been working for some time.  It was high time for an unbiased description of the geology and geomorphology of the site, together with a scrutiny of the claims made by Ixer and Bevins on the geology front and Parker Pearson et al on the matter of the imaginary quarry.

It's a preprint which has not been peer-reviewed -- so I hope I get some creative feedback both here and on the Researchgate platform.  I may submit it later for journal publication,


Carn Goedog and the question of the "bluestone megalith quarry"

Brian John


Geological analyses show that the dolerite sills of the Fishguard Volcanic series on the north flank of Mynydd Preseli are geochemically heterogenous, with substantial lateral and vertical variations. Many sills are still inadequately mapped and sampled. The Carn Goedog sill is exposed at the surface at Carngoedog, Carn Breseb and Carn Ddafad-las and at multiple other locations, with a surface outcrop extending over at least 450,000 sq m. While geological differences have been demonstrated between the three main tors, claims of “precise provenancing” of certain Stonehenge fragments to the Carngoedog tor are of questionable validity. Even more dubious is the claim that nine of the Stonehenge bluestone monoliths have been quarried at Carn Goedog, since eight out of the nine are heavily abraded boulders and slabs which look like ancient glacial erratics rather than sharp-edged and fresh pillars extracted from the parent rock. Geomorphological studies on the extensive Carn Goedog tor reveal that it is dominated by terraces, crags and hollows with very little scree. Pillars suitable for use as monoliths are restricted to a few small areas on the tor, in locations difficult to access. Jumbled frost-shattered blocks of all sizes dominate the tor landscape, with dolerite outcrops in various stages of disaggregation and collapse under gravity. There are many boulders and slabs with sub-rounded edges, indicative of either many millennia of weathering or of abrasion and redistribution by glacier ice. Frequent moulded and smoothed surfaces on the tor also indicate that the influence of over-riding ice (probably during both the Anglian and Devensian glacial episodes) has been considerable. Examinations of the supposed “Neolithic quarry” site on the south flank of the tor have revealed no traces of quarrying, apart from a few signs of modern activity. All of the features referred to as “engineering features” are found to be entirely natural. Stone tools, if they are correctly labelled as such, owe nothing to quarrying activities, and are present simply because there is a long history of intermittent occupation at this site adjacent to a major routeway across Mynydd Preseli. Soft shale “wedges” supposedly used in the process of extracting fracture-bounded pillars from the rock face are entirely natural; indeed the idea that soft pieces of shale would be hammered into dolerite fractures defies the principles of rock mechanics. Radiocarbon dates ranging from Mesolithic to medieval times do nothing to underpin the quarrying hypothesis. It is concluded that there is no Neolithic quarry at Carngoedog, and that if blocks of spotted dolerite have indeed been extracted and transported away from the vicinity of the tor, the agency was glacier ice.


(PDF) Carn Goedog and the question of the "bluestone megalith quarry". Available from: [accessed Apr 29 2019].

Sunday 28 April 2019

Clifftop till at Ceibwr

I have found another interesting clifftop exposure to the north of Ceibwr, near the house called Pen y Graig, at SN113465.  The alittude is c 65m, on a glorious stretch of coastline where the coast path rise inexorably to c 175m between Pen yr Afr and Cemais Head.

Adjacent to the path there is a small cutting (an ol gravel pit?) into a bank of Quaternary sediments on the clifftop.  The exposures re good, and easy to examine.  There's a lot of spoil, but there must be at least 3m of till here, packed full of foreign and local stones in a sandy and sometimes clay-rich matrix (lower photo above).  Above that, in some places, we see a bed of gravelly glaciofluvial materials c 1m thick (top photo).  Above that, there is a layer of c 20 cm of sandy loess or colluvium, ralatively stone-free, and then close to the surface the modern soil.  There are no traces here of stratified slope breccias -- the topography is not favourable.

The deposits are all friable and easy to excavate -- they must be unequivocally of Late Devensian age.

Saturday 27 April 2019

The book they wanted to burn

I have just realised that it's now almost a year since the publication of "The Stonehenge Bluestones."    Time flies when you are having fun.  It's an interesting experience, publishing a book which will inevitably make a large part of the potential readership furious.   That wasn't my intention in writing it, but I knew that the reaction from the archaeology establishment would be not exactly welcoming, since in the text certain senior academics come in for very heavy criticism.  So it's inevitable that many archaeologists will, on principle, refuse to buy it!  It's been difficult to get reviews in the media, and difficult to get bookshop / museum sales space since in many cases the key buyers are themselves a part of the archaeology establishment which probably sees me as a maverick if not a nutter!

But those who would rather see the book burned or banned will be disappointed, since it has been broadly very well received, especially by those who know something about the earth sciences -- so that give me confidence that my evidence and my arguments stand up well when under pressure.

Most gratifying is that the book has not been cited at all in assorted relevant publications written by MPP and his colleagues -- so that is a clear indication that they feel threatened by it.  Refusal to cite is  scientific malpractice, but it's also the greatest possible expression of respect.........

So the book will sell for years, and will fulfil its function of detailing the development of the twentieth century human transport myth and exposing the twenty-first century hoax of the bluestone quarries.  Truth will out.

Thursday 25 April 2019

More on the Devensian Celtic Sea ice edge

My reconstruction of the outermost position of the ISIS in the Celtic Sea, out on the shelf edge.  The inner red line is the limit as it was accepted a few years ago, prior to the new marine research programme of the BRITICE-CHRONO team.

There is an important new paper from the BRITICE-CHRONO gang, confirming the earlier ideas about the location of the Devensian Irish Sea Glacier ice front out on the Celtic Sea shelf edge.  There is a lot of new information in it -- much of it very detailed and impenetrable for non-specialists.  But I have extracted some of the key info for reproduction below.

The key points are as follows:

1.  The ice reached its maximum extent between 27,000 and 24,000 years ago -- somewhat earlier than many of us have assumed in the past.

2.  Scilly lay on the eastern lateral flank of the Irish Sea Ice Stream  (ISIS) rather than being in a terminal position.  This is exactly the point I made in my short paper on the Isles of Scilly, supported by evidence which James Scourse did not much like.  But it's all very good that we are now in harmony on this!

3.  After a rapid initial retreat of the ice edge from the shelf edge dated at around 25,000 years ago, there was a stabilisation of the ice front in St George's Channel which lasted from around 24,000 - 22,000 years ago.  This interests me a lot, since this will -- if correct -- have influenced the course of deglaciation in Pembrokeshire.  More on this in due course......

4.  The suggestion that there was a FALLING relative sea-level in St George's Channel around 21,000 years ago is rather interesting, since phases of ice-sheet collapse are normally associated with episodes of relative sea-level rise.  However, this phenomenon, shown by the dotted line in the graph below, may be partly related to a lack of synchroneity with global events and partly with isostatic unloading on the flanks of the Channel, associated with rapid ice melting.  In such a case isostatic uplift might, for a while, have outpaced the eustatic sea level rise, leading to a relative sea-level fall..........

5.  At long last, following a great deal of prodding from me and many others, the authors of this paper are beginning to address (in the final para reproduced below) the matter of the ISIS footprint.  As  I have never tired of pointing out, a narrow glacier tongue, not much more than 100 km wide, extending from St George's Channel out to the shelf edge almost 500 km away, does not make glaciological sense.  The authors explain this hypothetical narrow tongue thus: Our chronology of rapid advance and withdrawal is consistent with this (ie very rapid growth and rapid collapse), as are findings of numerical modelling investigations that struggle to simulate a steady state ice stream of this scale.  I disagree with that.  No matter how rapid the advance and then the collapse of the ice stream might have been,  it must have spread laterally more or less as shown in the map at the head of this post.  The authors clearly have a problem with ice impacting on the coasts of Devon and Cornwall  -- but at least they are now confronting this issue, and we look forward to seeing where the new modelling work will lead.

All in all, a very useful new paper.


Advance and retreat of the marine-terminating Irish Sea Ice Stream into the Celtic Sea during the Last Glacial: Timing and maximum extent

James Scourse et al, Marine Geology, Vol 412, June 2019, pp 53-68

The new radiocarbon data from lithofacies package LF8, indicating deposition between 27 and 24 cal ka BP, are consistent with the single determination published by Praeg et al. (2015) of 24.3 cal ka BP, and confirm the timing of the initial advance phase into the Celtic Sea. Geochronological analysis has recently been undertaken by BRITICE-CHRONO of the terrestrially-exposed retreat sequences along the ISIS retreat axis, in the Isles of Scilly using new combined optically-stimulated luminescence (OSL) and terrestrial cosmogenic nuclide (TCN) rock-exposure ages. Results indicate ISIS reached the islands at 25.5 ± 1.5 ka (Smedley et al., 2017b), slightly earlier than suggested by the legacy Bayesian analysis (Chiverrell et al., 2013) and the timing of the deep-sea Celtic Sea IRD signal (Haapaniemi et al., 2010) but consistent with the offshore ages presented here and by Praeg et al. (2015). The timing of the advance into the Celtic Sea is now tightly constrained by both offshore and onshore geochronological data. The distribution of facies offshore and the presence of a clear ice limit on Scilly (Scourse, 1991; Hiemstra et al., 2006) indicate that Scilly lay on the eastern lateral flank of the ISIS advance, and not in a terminal position.

The initial retreat of ISIS from the Celtic Sea was rapid. In eastern Ireland, new OSL and TCN data register the slowing of the retreat rate from 300 to 600 m yr−1 across the Celtic Sea to stabilisation (3 m a−1) between 24.2 and 22.1 ka during Greenland Interstadial 2 in St George’s Channel (Small et al., 2018). The timing of retreat indicated by a Bayesian analysis of the new eastern Irish data indicates the primacy of topographic and internal glaciological controls over external climatic (atmospheric and oceanographic) forcings in controlling ice stream behaviour within the axis of ISIS (Jamieson et al., 2012; Joughin et al., 2014; Mosola and Anderson, 2006; Small et al., 2018), but these controls cannot be responsible for the initiation of ice retreat from the shelf break at ~25 ka. However, the initiation of ice retreat from the continental shelf west of Ireland has also been dated to ~25 ka (Ó Cofaigh et al., 2019). This synchrony may suggest deglaciation driven by rising/high relative sea level as a function of glacio-isostatic depression of theouter shelf during peak BIIS volume. If correct, this implies greater iceloads and glacio-isostatic depression over Britain and Ireland than hitherto considered likely (cf.Bradley et al., 2011). Palaeotidal simulations for the outer Celtic Sea (Ward et al., 2016) indicate high tidal amplitudes during full glacial conditions (Scourse et al., 2018) which would have accentuated deglaciation as a result of high relative sealevel (Fig. 10). Available glacial isostatic adjustment simulations, which do not incorporate the revised ice extent and loads presented here,indicate falling relative sea level in the vicinity of St Georges Channel at 21 ka (Bradley et al., 2011) associated with very low tidal amplitudes (Ward et al., 2016; Fig. 10). Falling relative sea level combined with low tidal amplitudes likely decrease the rate of deglaciation and icesheet retreat (Scourse et al., 2018) and these external factors may have combined with topographic and internal glaciological controls to determine the decrease in retreat rate as the ice front moved northwards out of the Celtic Sea into St George's Channel. The growth and decay phases of ISIS significantly precedes (by 3 ka) the other major ice stream in the system, the Norwegian Channel Ice Stream, most probably due to differences in the timing of ice sheet build up or that one or the other arises from internal glaciological instabilities.

While the existence of ISIS is well founded, its exact footprint remains ill-defined owing to few lateral geomorphological indicators such as a prominent edge to a field of mega-scale glacial lineations or shear margin moraines, and on the Celtic shelf there is a lack of obvious topography to constrain the margin. Nevertheless, a striking aspect is the large reconstructed width in comparison to other extant and palaeo ice streams from around the world. A width of the order of 100 km places ISIS at the wider end of the phenomena (Margold et al., 2015) and comparable to the Hudson Strait Ice Stream of the Laurentide Ice Sheet and the Thwaites Ice Stream in Antarctica. To maintain fast flow over such widths requires substantial feeder catchments that were probably unlikely from the BIIS. This suggests the ISIS could only exist as a transitory ice stream that rapidly drew down ice volumes. Our chronology of rapid advance and withdrawal is consistent with this, as are findings of numerical modelling investigations that struggle to simulatea steady state ice stream of this scale (Boulton and Hagdorn, 2006; Hubbard et al., 2009). It has also been a challenge for ice sheet models to simulate ice stream advance to the Isles of Scilly without building up ice elsewhere at locations more extensive than indicated by empirical evidence, such as mid and southern England (e.g.Patton et al., 2017). This problem is exacerbated by the Celtic Sea extent that we now report. Modelling investigations are underway to address this challenge.

Stonehenge was built by immigrants

Found this on Twitter -- not sure whether it is an old sign, or a new one put up in response to all the nonsense in the media about Stonehenge and Brexit........

But the sign does of course have relevance for the debate about the  new DNA evidence and other pointers towards a highly disturbed situation in Southern England -- and maybe over a much wider area -- associated with the waves of immigration from the near continent round about the time that Stonehenge was being built.  So yes -- it seems quite possible that "foreigners" were partly responsible for the building.

But digging a bit deeper, we then ask other questions too.  Could it be that the changes in design -- we might even call it confusion -- which appear to have infected Stonehenge during its stone setting stages may also have something to do with changing cultural priorities and the replacement of older settled groups with newcomers?  And could it be that this is also an explanation for the fact that Stonehenge was never finished? This is a topic which I have explored many times on this blog, and which now needs much closer attention from archaeologists than they have been prepared to give it in the past.

The concept of "immaculate Stonehenge" now seems -- in the light of this new debate -- to be more ridiculous than ever.

It now appears vanishingly unlikely that Stonehenge ever did look like this.  About half of the supposed stones in this reconstruction or fabrication are missing, and might always have been missing.  And all those lovely bluestone pillars are fabrications too, as we now know from examinations of the actual shapes of the stones on, under and in the ground. 

The Yamnaya -- peace-loving travellers bearing gifts?

This is entertaining. After all that exciting stuff about the Yamnaya warriors exterminating everything that they came in contact with, there was bound to be a backlash from archaeological interested parties.   The concerns about the DNA studies -- and their rather exuberant interpretations -- are expressed in this piece by Mike Pitts in Salon........

So what was the scale of destruction / cultural replacement / economic and political change on Salisbury Plain at the time?  This one will run and run.....


Salon: Issue 425
9 April 2019

Let’s forget about all the nonsense about Brexit, and concentrate on this:

Drawing on recent aDNA research, science writer Colin Barras claims that Stonehenge is ‘a memorial to a vanished people … wiped out by incomers,’ the Yamnaya and their descendants from northern Europe, who might be ‘the most murderous people in history’. Media picked up the theme. ‘The most violent group of people who ever lived,’ headlined Mail Online: ‘Horse-riding Yamnaya tribe who used their huge height and muscular build to brutally murder and invade their way across Europe than 4,000 years ago.’ The Sun ran a similar story, and both quoted the archaeologist who was Barras’s main source: Kristian Kristiansen FSA.

The controversy dates back to 2017, when a large aDNA study went online ahead of peer-review publication in Nature (March 2018). As I wrote in Salon at the time, the paper (among whose many authors were at least 11 Fellows) argued that a substantial immigration into Britain from around 2500 BC was followed by the almost complete replacement of the native genome – reported in the press as ‘Intruders forced out ancient farmers that built famous relics such as Stonehenge.’ A debate followed about the extent to which aDNA and archaeological data were revealing different narratives about the same societies, the dangers of creating sweeping theories that relied on small and possibly unrepresentative samples, and ways of interpreting the evidence that did not involve great migrations (such as the movement of women at marriage).

Nuance was not the first concern of the other New Scientist feature. Supported by dramatic illustrations by Simon Pemberton – perceptively analysed in a blog by Katy Whitaker FSA (5 April) – Barras focuses on the idea that genome change, both on the continent and particularly in Britain, was the outcome of a violent annihilation of an earlier native population. ‘I’ve become increasingly convinced there must have been a kind of genocide,’ Kristiansen tells Barras, perpetrated, explains the science writer, by horse-riding people represented in the ground by ‘Yamnaya-like artefacts and behaviour’. David Reich, a lead geneticist in the research, supports this view, referring to an aDNA study in Iberia where he sees ‘males from outside … displacing local males ... almost completely’. Barras also talks to Volker Heyd, an archaeologist who is sceptical of the violent migrants thesis, and qualifies his conclusions (‘Even if they weren’t the most murderous people in history, there is no doubting that they spread far and wide’). But it was New Scientist that upset some archaeologists.

Tom Booth, a bioarchaeologist at the Natural History Museum, argued on Twitter that there are many other possible readings of the data: ‘my view is that all the ancient DNA can say on its own at the moment is that there were large-scale population shifts across Europe resulting from movements of people carrying ancestry originating in the Pontic steppe … certainly in Britain, there is no evidence for a surge in violence at the beginning of the Beaker period’ (@Boothicus, 31 March).

Wednesday 24 April 2019

Was there a Neolithic mass exodus from west Wales?

The Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt -- was there a Neolithic exodus from Pembrokeshire?

In my last post I gave some thought to the cultural / social / economic context of Neolithic Pembrokeshire, with reference to the fanciful hypotheses of Mike Parker Pearson.  Conventionally, the Neolithic is thought to have started around 6,000 BP, when early farming started to replace the hunting and gathering activities of the Mesolithic inhabitants,  and it came to an end around 4,500 BP with the dawn of the Bronze Age, when the use of pottery (in many different styles) and metal tools and ornaments became widespread.  The label "Early Neolithic" is often used for the period 6,000- 5,400 BP, and "Late Neolithic" for the period 5,400 - 4,500 BP.  Some also use the term "Middle Neolithic" for the transition period between these two, covering the time when (according to certain archaeologists) lumps of rock from Preseli were being quarried, set up in stone circles, and transported off to Stonehenge............

In his 2018 paper, MPP speculates that during a period of Neolithic social, economic and cultural decline, with a falling population, places like Salisbury Plain may have bucked the trend, with population growth, large-scale tree clearance and -- by implication, growing economic power and cultural influence.  By contrast, west Wales is portrayed by MPP as a cultural backwater, with a "real absence of people, caused by emigration." Presumably he thinks that there was a full-on folk migration, with the local tribes heading off the Stonehenge, carrying the spirits of their ancestors with them in the form of bluestone monolith offerings. In support of this, he cites some of the recent work on strontium isotope ratios, teeth and bones, and DNA studies --- none of which actually do anything to support his hypothesis, when you look at the evidence in detail.

MPP cites the new work on the cultural implications of the waves of immigrants who came in from the continent during the later part of the Neolithic, while arguing that "regional tomb styles" gave way to "less regionally confined monument types such as cursuses and henges".

So what evidence might there be for a large-scale cultural upheaval in West Wales roughly in the period 5,500- 4,500 BP -- the crucial thousand years in the Stonehenge story? So far as I can see, none at all.  True, there are signs of a decline in the construction and use of megalithic tombs (cromlechs or dolmens) for collective burials, and signs of an increase in the setting up of standing stones, either singly or in "settings".  And Pembrokeshire does not seem to have been affected by the trend of building large and impressive passage graves like Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey and Newgrange in Ireland; but in considering this difference Darvill and Wainwright, in their big 2016 chapter in "Pembrokeshire County History", say that Pembrokeshire was by no means isolated, but simply part of a quite different network of connected politics in which an emphasis as placed on individual graves sometimes covered with round cairns of stone.  In their chapter it is difficult to extract hard facts from a context in which Stonehenge always lurks in the background, with circular reasoning much in evidence -- but suffice to say that there is no suggestion, anywhere, of a major hiatus that must have accompanied a "folk exodus" of people carrying stones or petrified ancestors to Stonehenge.  

In contrast, there are many signs of continuity, with the adoption and abandonment of different traditions of building things and burying the dead.  One tradition that appears to have been neither adopted, used or abandoned is the tradition of erecting large standing stone circles -- which maybe explains why MPP and his merry band have been hunting fruitlessly for "Proto-Stonehenge" for the last eight or nine years.  Another tradition that never was developed, used, or abandoned, was the tradition of quarrying large monoliths from the living rock in designated quarries.  And yet another assumed tradition  for which we have no evidence at all was the tradition of transporting large monoliths across country for great distances. 

So, as far as I can see, there is no evidence to support the hypothesis of a major exodus or series of expeditions eastwards from Pembrokeshire towards Stonehenge for the purpose of political unification or for any other reason.  On the contrary, the evidence suggests a fairly small and relatively isolated community developing some local trends, copying or adapting others, and maintaining trading links with other communities in all compass directions.  The idea that there was a sort of Neolithic "El Dorado" or Holy Land in West Wales is entirely fanciful;  megalithic remains are no more spectacular or abundant here than they are everywhere else.  If there was a threat from the east at any stage, involving immigrants from the near continent,  it would have been strange indeed for local people to have moved TOWARDS the source of the threat, carrying with them assorted symbols of their cultural identity in the form of more than 80 very large stones. 

So if MPP or anybody else wants us to believe that there was a folk exodus from West Wales at any stage and for whatever reason during the Neolithic, let us see the colour of the evidence.



This is typical of the circular reasoning found in a number of recent publications.  The assumption that the human transport of Preseli bluestones is FACT instead of fantasy underpins everything, and distorts the reasoning of otherwise reasonable people.  In their minds, the FACT that the stones were moved proves that the Preseli area was a cultural and even political focal point, that the people were monumental experts, that they were involved in complex inter-regional links, and that they had developed a high degree of social complexity.  Take away the "fact" and everything collapses.

From Madgwick et al., Sci. Adv. 2019

The transport of bluestones to Stonehenge from the Preseli Hills in Wales demonstrates the challenges that communities overcame at these monumental complexes. There has been little research on mobility within Late Neolithic Britain, and the work on the bluestones provides the best evidence for interregional links. ...............  Results demonstrate that the Late Neolithic was the first phase of pan-British connectivity, with the scale of population movement across Britain arguably not evidenced in any other phase in prehistory. These long-distance networks were sustained by the movement not only of people but also of livestock. The complexes represent lynchpins for these networks, and it is not only the famous megalithic centers of Stonehenge and Avebury that were major foci. All four sites show long-distance connectivity, and there is no indication that they served different networks; all drew people and animals from across Britain. After more than a century of debate concerning the origins of people and animals in the Stonehenge landscape, these results provide clear evidence for a great volume and scale of intercommunity mobility in Late Neolithic Britain, demonstrating a level of interaction and social complexity not previously appreciated. 

R. Madgwick, A. L. Lamb, H. Sloane, A. J. Nederbragt, U. Albarella, M. Parker Pearson and J. A. Evans
Multi-isotope analysis reveals that feasts in the Stonehenge environs and across Wessex drew people and animals from throughout Britain
Sci Adv 5 (3), Research  Article, 12 pp.

A grand day out......

Thanks to Alan Wills for the photos from last Saturday's walk around Ceibwr -- a very interesting group of people, and many intelligent questions about geology and Quaternary events as they affected the local area. We raised over £100 for Water Aid.

Because this walk was over-subscribed, quite a few had to be turned away -- and we are repeating it on Sat 25th May.  To book a place, contact Alan Wills (

Tuesday 23 April 2019

Context is everything......

I have been looking again at Mike Parker Pearson's big article called "Science and Stonehenge", published by the Netherlands Museum for Anthropology and Prehistory, in March 2018 (61 pp).

I commented earlier on the apparently radical idea that recent Stonehenge researches (presumably by MPP himself) were based upon the "application of a hypothesis-testing approach."  Strange that anybody should think that to be novel or radical, or representring some sort of great scientific advance -- but maybe it was, and is, for archaeologists........

Anyway, here I want to concentrate on the last few pages of the study, headed "Explaining Stonehenge."  (pp 44-49)

Mike starts off by asking three questions:

1.  Why was Stonehenge built?

2.  What was the social, economic and environmental context?

3.  Why is is such a "singular monument" uniquely utilising stones that were "brought unparalleled distances, dressed and raised as lintels on top of uprights"?

Bias from the outset.  We would agree that it is indeed a "singular monument" -- with some stones dressed and other stones raised and used as lintels resting on uprights.  But we will ignore the bit about stones being "brought unparalleled distances" as unsupported speculation, even though MPP might think he has proved the point in the earlier part of the paper. (His section on Stage 1 of the stone monument - c 5000 BP -- is as replete as ever with wishful thinking and selective citations.)

Let's think about context.  MPP admits that archaeologists and historians have traditionally  accepted that the best circumstances for prehistoric monument building involve surplus production; a large population "freed up" from subsistence activities like hunting and gathering, farming and fishing; centralised structures of authority; long-distance exchange networks; and hospitable environmental conditions.  In his 2012 book MPP was fully signed up to this "traditionalist" style of thinking, following Gordon Childe and many others.  This is one report from 2012:

Stonehenge Built as Symbol of Unity
Analysis by Rossella Lorenzi
Fri Jun 22, 2012
Stonehenge was built as a monument to unify the peoples of Britain, researchers have concluded after 10 years of archaeological investigations.
Dismissing all previous theories, scientists working on the Stonehenge Riverside Project (SRP) believe the enigmatic stone circle was built as a grand act of union after a long period of conflict between east and west Britain.
Coming from southern England and from west Wales, the stones may have been used to represent the ancestors of some of Britain's earliest farming communities.
According study leader Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield, Britain's Neolithic people became increasingly unified during the monument's main construction around 3000 B.C. to 2500 B.C.
"There was a growing island-wide culture -- the same styles of houses, pottery and other material forms were used from Orkney to the south coast," Parker Pearson said.
"Stonehenge itself was a massive undertaking, requiring the labour of thousands to move stones from as far away as west Wales, shaping them and erecting them. Just the work itself, requiring everyone literally to pull together, would have been an act of unification," Parker Pearson said.
According to the researcher, who has detailed the new theory in the book Stonehenge: Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery, the place in the county of Wiltshire where the iconic stones were erected was not chosen by chance.
On the contrary, it already had special significance for prehistoric Britons.

So the bluestones, embodying the spirits of the ancestors, were carried all the way from West Wales to the chalklands of Salisbury Plain, as a great act of political unification and solidarity in a peaceful episode following a period of east-west conflict?

That all sounds wonderful, until you start to look at the context in a bit more detail.  MPP says "Yet there are indications that Stonehenge was constructed in times of economic crisis, social disaggregation and population decline.  He reckons that there was a population decline going on after the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition, after 5500 BP -- at exactly the time that the bluestones were, according to his hypothesis, being carried from Preseli to Stonehenge.  In the next paragraph he contradicts himself, arguing that the population was steady at this time, and was followed after 4,400 BP with the beginning of the Beaker period.  Then he hops back to population decline again, linking it to climatic deterioration, declining soil fertility or the arrival of the plague.

Nonetheless, he speculates that there may well have been great regional variations in this dismal overall scenario, with places like Salisbury Plain still thriving, with population growth, large-scale tree clearance and -- by implication, growing economic power and cultural influence.  By contrast, west Wales is portrayed as a cultural backwater -- and MPP throws out the idea that there was a "real absence of people, caused by emigration."  Presumably MPP thinks that there was a real folk migration, with the local West Walians heading off the Stonehenge, carrying the spirits of their ancestors with them in the form of bluestone monolith offerings.  In support of this, he cites the extremely dodgy work on strontium isotope ratios, which does not withstand any scrutiny.

MPP cites the new work on the cultural implications of the waves of immigrants who came in from the continent during the Neolithic, but argues that "regional tomb styles" gave way to "less regionally confined monument types such as cursuses and henges.  (Did they?  In Wales?  Not as far as I am aware.....)  He says: "The social context in which Stonehenge's first two stages were built was one of increasing island-wide commonality in terms of shared cultural practices."  He then returns the the theme of the unification of the ancestors, referring again to the long-distance transport of large monoliths as "a defining cultural feature."  Then:  "In the case of the bluestones, some or even all of them may have been brought from a stone circle in Preseli, a stone circle that could have been one of the two largest in Britain.  Thus Stonehenge may well be a second-hand monument, incorporating aspects of symbolism relating to one or more earlier stone circles."

So it goes on in inimitable MPP style, with another suggestion that the bluestones represent the ancestry of Neolithic groups who arrived in the far west and that Stage 2 at Stonehenge was an attempt to "reassert unity" in the face of threatening forces coming in from the continent -- in the form of the tribes from the steppes and the carriers of the bell beaker culture.

The new work, involving scientists from other disciplines, paints a very different picture of a Neolithic community that was vulnerable, divided, and economically and culturally rather variable.  There does not appear to be any "cultural window of opportunity" for the mass emigration of people from west Wales towards Salisbury Plain, or for the "political unification" episode on which MPP is so keen. 

It's all as fanciful as ever, and MPP is no closer, at the end of this article to explaining why Stonehenge was built where it is.  His work is based entirely on circular reasoning.  The bluestones were carried by Neolithic tribesmen.  That assumption is never questioned.  Therefore they were technically accomplished, motivated and well organized. They must have had a "settled" episode during which the stones could be carried.   There must have been a sort of political unification going on. And how might that have expressed itself?  Ah yes, by the transport of the spirits of the ancestors from location A to location B.  And so it goes on, ever more fantastical and ever more absurd.

As we all know, there is no evidence for any of the narrative -- and that is why the "quarry hunters" now appear to have given up on their search for more quarries and for "proto-Stonehenge" .  It seems to me that MPP is in a frightful tangle, as a new picture of a chaotic and fractured British Neolithic world emerges from the work of others.

Friday 19 April 2019

Happy Easter!

I'm leading a geology / geomorphology guided walk around Ceibwr tomorrow, and wanted to check out a few things this morning.  It was almost too hot, with hardly any wind -- and a very low spring tide.  Perfectly serene, as I wandered along the clifftop looking for till exposures.

Here is one of my pics, with Easter greetings to all friends!

Wednesday 17 April 2019

The Neolithic Revolution came from the east, and then was ended from the east.

There is a flurry of research at the moment which is suggesting that the "Neolithic Revolution" came with  immigration from the east, across the English Channel and from the near continent.  Since time immemorial, of course, this has been speculated about by archaeologists and historians, with some thinking that waves of immigrants came in around the coasts via the Celtic Sea or southern Ireland,  and others thinking that the natural routeway was via the shortest sea crossing, on the reasonable assumption that travellers would have preferred to walk rather than row or sail, with all the extra attendant risks involved in using flimsy vessels in stormy waters.

This is one paper, behind a paywall, but featured on the BBC web site:

This is an extract from the BBC report:

When the researchers analysed the DNA of early British farmers, they found they most closely resembled Neolithic people from Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal). These Iberian farmers were descended from people who had journeyed across the Mediterranean.

From Iberia, or somewhere close, the Mediterranean farmers travelled north through France. They might have entered Britain from the west, through Wales or south-west England. Indeed, radiocarbon dates suggest that Neolithic people arrived marginally earlier in the west, but this remains a topic for future work.

In addition to farming, the Neolithic migrants to Britain appear to have introduced the tradition of building monuments using large stones known as megaliths. Stonehenge in Wiltshire was part of this tradition.

Although Britain was inhabited by groups of "western hunter-gatherers" when the farmers arrived in about 4,000BC, DNA shows that the two groups did not mix very much at all.

The British hunter-gatherers were almost completely replaced by the Neolithic farmers, apart from one group in western Scotland, where the Neolithic inhabitants had elevated local ancestry. This could have come down to the farmer groups simply having greater numbers.

"We don't find any detectable evidence at all for the local British western hunter-gatherer ancestry in the Neolithic farmers after they arrive," said co-author Dr Tom Booth, a specialist in ancient DNA from the Natural History Museum in London.

"That doesn't mean they don't mix at all, it just means that maybe their population sizes were too small to have left any kind of genetic legacy."

Note this piece of speculation in the press release: "They might have entered Britain from the west, through Wales or south-west England. Indeed, radiocarbon dates suggest that Neolithic people arrived marginally earlier in the west, but this remains a topic for future work.  In addition to farming, the Neolithic migrants to Britain appear to have introduced the tradition of building monuments using large stones known as megaliths. Stonehenge in Wiltshire was part of this tradition."  I wouldn't mind betting that that particular piece of speculation was put in by Prof MPP (he was one of the authors), but there does not appear to be any evidence in support of it, so I think it can be ignored.  Indeed, the evidence in the paper seems to suggest that in the far west the communities were rather small, scattered and somewhat backward in adopting the new farming practices.  Of course, the MPP theories demand that the people of West Wales were powerful and sophisticated, capable of building a "proto-Stonehenge"somewhere well before 5,000 years ago, and capable of carrying up to 80 quarried monoliths all the way to Stonehenge for some ritual or political reason round about the time that Stonehenge was being built.  Even if some of the cromlechs in Pembrokeshire were built relatively early, there is nothing in the evidence of Neolithic Pembrokeshire to suggest the development of a culture that involved elaborate stone settings using non-local stones. Indeed, there is nothing to suggest that the Neolithic tribes of West Wales treated any stones as sacred or special, no evidence that they were capable of moving monoliths from a place of origin to a distant place of use,  and  no evidence that they made any grand gestures (let alone a spectacular gesture related to "political unification") towards other tribal groups further to the east.

"Ancient genomes indicate population replacement in Early Neolithic Britain"
Selina Brace, Yoan Diekmann, Ian Barnes et al
Nature Ecology & Evolution (2019)
Published: 15 April 2019


The roles of migration, admixture and acculturation in the European transition to farming have been debated for over 100 years. Genome-wide ancient DNA studies indicate predominantly Aegean ancestry for continental Neolithic farmers, but also variable admixture with local Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. Neolithic cultures first appear in Britain circa 4000 BC, a millennium after they appeared in adjacent areas of continental Europe. The pattern and process of this delayed British Neolithic transition remain unclear. We assembled genome-wide data from 6 Mesolithic and 67 Neolithic individuals found in Britain, dating 8500–2500 BC. Our analyses reveal persistent genetic affinities between Mesolithic British and Western European hunter-gatherers. We find overwhelming support for agriculture being introduced to Britain by incoming continental farmers, with small, geographically structured levels of hunter-gatherer ancestry. Unlike other European Neolithic populations, we detect no resurgence of hunter-gatherer ancestry at any time during the Neolithic in Britain. Genetic affinities with Iberian Neolithic individuals indicate that British Neolithic people were mostly descended from Aegean farmers who followed the Mediterranean route of dispersal. We also infer considerable variation in pigmentation levels in Europe by circa 6000 BC.


Then comes another article, kindly drawn to my attention by Alex.    It's in New Scientist,  dated 30 March 2019, pp 29-33.  It's called "The Tribe that re-wrote history" and it's written by Colin Barras.  As we see above, the page heading is "History of Violence."

The basic thesis, proposed by Kristian Kristiansen and others, is that the prosperous, community-minded world of the Neolithic in western Europe was ended rather abruptly around 4500 BP by the arrival of Yamnaya people who originated in the Eurasian steppes.  They reached Britain, bringing with them their Yamnaya beaker-making tradition, around 4,400 BP.  The immigration was rapid, dominated by young males, and it was violent.  The word "genocide" is even used.  (We have mentioned other related articles on this warlike late Neolithic invasion written by David Reich and others, and also by Martin Richards.  The work is based largely on the analyses of DNA samples from human bones found in Neolithic and later burials.)

Quote:  "Teams led by David Reich at Harvard Medical School and Eske Willerslev at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark announced, independently, that occupants of Corded Ware graves in Germany could trace about three-quarters of their genetic ancestry to the Yamnaya. It seemed that Corded Ware people weren't simply copying the Yamnaya; to a large degree they actually were Yamnayan in origin."

The "bell beaker" people came slightly later, adding yet more confusion.


"The first thing to appreciate, says Kristiansen, is that Neolithic Europe was in crisis just before the Yamnaya's arrival. Using the poilen record from archaeological sites as a proxy for levels of agricultural activity, archaeologists have concluded that populations in northern and central Europe began shrinking about 5300 years ago. In December 2018, Kristiansen and his geneticist colleagues suggested an explanation. Examining the teeth of Neolithic people who lived in what is now Sweden about 5000 years ago, they found plague-causing bacteria - the earliest known relative of the Black Death. Further analysis suggested the disease began spreading across Europe perhaps as early as 5700 years ago."

One interesting idea is that the spread of disease was facilitated by improving "roads" and trackways, and the use of wheeled vehicles.  (We note that the discussions about bluestone transport have been underpinned by the assumption that there were no wheeled vehicles available for use in Neolithic Britain, or that the terrain was too rough for them to be used.)  But there is a growing consensus that the "Britons" who built Stonehenge were in decline -- and the population of Britain was actually falling -- before the Yamnaya and bell beaker people arrived.  The genetic analysis now seems to show that the Stonehenge builders virtually disappeared within a few generations of the Yamnaya's arrival.  How do we square that with the idea promoted by MPP and others that there was a highly-developed and even sophisticated lifestyle involving long-distance trading, a knowledge of far-distant megalith provenances,  and gigantic feasts at places like Durrington Walls?


It appears that there is a serious and complex discussion right now about what happened in Britain (and the rest of Europe) round about the time that Stonehenge was being built.  This is happening because of the increasing involvement of geneticists working on DNA samples -- and it looks as if some of them, at least, are questioning the assumptions about Stonehenge being the "pinnacle" of a vibrant Neolithic culture centred on Salisbury Plain.  What they seem to be suggesting is that the Neolithic was a time of scattered tribes with rather variable cultural traits, and that they were in a long-term decline partly because of the spread of the plague.   There appears to be no good evidence of any cultural diffusion eastwards from West Wales towards the chalklands of southern England, or indeed of any strong trading links.  On the contrary, most of the immigration and most of the new cultural trends were coming from the east, both in the "Neolithic Revolution" and in the influx of the Yamnaya and bell beaker tribes who replaced the "Ancient Britons" as they died out over not much more than a century or so.

In a recent post I explained why Prof MPP and the rest of the quarry hunters may now have ended their project in West Wales -- based partly on the lack of worthwhile results over eight seasons of digging.  I wonder if the archaeologists have also come to the conclusion -- on the basis of this new DNA research -- that their assumptions about the cultural relations between Stonehenge and west Wales have all been wrong?  There appears to have been no appropriate cultural context. There is no reason whatsoever why Neolithic tribesmen would have wanted to carry 80 big lumps of rock from Preseli to Stonehenge --  even if they had the technical skills that made it possible.  I sense that MPP's fantastical narratives have finally come up against the buffers.  The diggers haven't found any quarries simply because there weren't any.......

Now then, what were we saying about glaciers?

Saturday 13 April 2019

The hunt for Proto-Stonehenge and the bluestone quarries has been abandoned?

On talking to some of my local contacts, it look as as if my earlier speculation about the end of "bluestone quarry mania" in Pembrokeshire was correct. Apparently Mike Parker Pearson and his merry lads and lasses will not be digging in Preseli this coming September. No applications for excavations have been received by the Barony of Cemaes, the National Park or Natural Resources Wales, for further digging at Waun Mawn, Bedd yr Afanc or elsewhere. So have they finally given up, after two years of frantically searching for a giant circle of standing stones at Waun Mawn and finding nothing at all of any interest? It looks like it, although there is some talk of future possible small-scale geophysical work in the area, not involving any excavations.

The lack of planned activity in 2019 is claimed to be down to the fact that MPP is due to have a hip replacement operation later in the summer, which will render him incapable of digging. But it's interesting that out of his team of around a dozen archaeologists -- including some quite senior ones -- not one of them has been prepared to step up to the plate and take over as the dig organizer. It looks as if all of them have gone off to pastures new........ excuse me for having a fertile imagination, but  I have this image in my mind of rats jumping off a sinking ship.

Of course the reasons for the abandonment of the Preseli bluestones project are far more complex. I suspect that funding has dried up, for a start.  It's a miracle that a funding stream has been maintained for eight years on this project, given that MPP and his team have produced no sound evidence for either bluestone quarries or local bluestone settings that might have been linked to Stonehenge.  (They have claimed in a string of articles that quarries have been found at Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog, but as I have said many times on this blog, in my book and in published articles, their "evidence" does not withstand scrutiny, and in any case their quarrying hypothesis is falsified by their own published radiocarbon dates.)  They have also refused to cite publications which are critical of their research, and have existed in a state of denial about the fact that there is a scientific dispute going on.  That is scientific malpractice, and it may well be that other senior archaeologists and those in charge of the research funding stream have noticed what is going on,  have finally lost patience, and have pulled the plug.  No cash equals no dig.

What are the internal dynamics within the digging team?  Last September, by all accounts, there was an air of desperation and despondency on the Waun Mawn dig site, as day after day was ticked off without anything of interest being turned up.  When one bears in mind that this was the seventh or eighth Preseli site which was investigated in the search for "Proto-Stonehenge" -- driven by MPP's insatiable personal pursuit of an archaeological holy grail --  one should perhaps not be surprised if senior archaeologists like Kate Welham, Josh Pollard and Colin Richards have finally become disillusioned, bored or even angry and have moved on to other more fruitful projects.  One should also take note of the fact that prior to each digging season there has been much hype about the great discoveries about to be made -- and even the slowest of impartial observers must eventually have come to the conclusion that the hype is never actually matched by what is delivered. One anticlimax, followed by another, and then another.......

Finally there is the little matter of the  mess that was left behind on Waun Mawn last September, and the failure on the part of the diggers to abide by the terms of their consent from Natural Resources Wales.  I covered this rather embarrassing matter last autumn, in a couple of blog posts.

So the reputation of the diggers (and of MPP himself, as the leader) took quite a hit, and NRW was not best pleased.  I enquired as to the actions that they took, and I gather that there was quite a stiff reprimand.  I imagine that any consents for future work within an SSSI are likely to have much more onerous conditions attached -- and I imagine that there will be much tighter monitoring of what the diggers are up to.

So, in conclusion, we have a demoralised workforce, a failure to deliver on "anticipated results",  and probably a refusal by funding organizations to throw in any more good money after bad.

My guess is that the "Preseli bluestone project" is dead. Mind you, it has generated a lot of column inches and TV and other media exposure -- not bad for something that was, and is, a very jolly scientific hoax.

Digging aftermath -- above, at Waun Mawn and below, at Craig Rhosyfelin

Monday 1 April 2019

Witches Cauldron exposures confirm "two glaciations" scenario

Oblique and vertical photos of the coastal footpath in the vicinity of the Witches Cauldron.  The  best exposures are in the gully downstream of the footbridge.

I've been back to look at the Witches Cauldron, to the west of Ceibwr on the north Pembrokeshire coast.  It's turning out to be a rather important site -- not very easy to examine, except at low tide, and even then, if there is a sea running, you are likely to get soaked by  plumes of spray shooting out of gullies and holes in the wave-cut platform.  The complex network of tunnels, blowholes, caves and stream channels is quite something.......

This is the Quaternary sequence just along the coast at Ceibwr:

Modern soil -- c 20 cms. Uncemented
Sandloess and colluvium -- c 50 cms. Uncemented. Holocene?
Clay-rich Irish Sea Till -- up to 2 m thick. Uncemented. Devensian?
Brecciated slope deposits -- up to 50 cms thick. Uncemented
Clay-rich colluvium -- c 20 cms thick. Uncemented but stained / gleyed. Ipswichian interglacial?
Glaciofluvial gravels -- c 1.5m thick. Stained and cemented. Anglian?
Stony till -- up to 1m thick. Stained and cemented. Anglian?
Brecciated slope deposits -- up to 1 m thick

At the Witches Cauldron there are partial exposures all over the place, but the most complete and interesting sequence of deposits can be seen in the channel downstream of the footbridge, where the stream meets the sea.  There are several footpaths giving access to the foreshore and the spectacular overhangs -- but care is needed when the rocks are wet and slippery.  If you are not careful, you might just slip down a rather deep hole and never be seen again........  risky business, geomorphology........

The stream plunging into a tunnel over a bedrock ledge.  To the left and right there are exposures of cemented slope breccia, till and glaciofluvial gravels -- all stained with iron oxide and manganese oxide.

Projecting mass of cemented and stained Quaternary deposits.  At high tide wave action is eroding away the shale bedrock beneath these sediments, which are more resistant to erosion -- thus creating the spectacular overhang.

Two exposures of stained and cemented till -- so solid that it is difficult to examine.  Erratics of many different shapes and sizes, some rounded and sub-rounded, in a sandy and gravelly matrix.  

The till complex here is up to 2m thick, and it is clearly seen to overlie c 50 cm of slope breccia full of angular bedrock fragments.  Some of these blocks are up to 30 cm long -- with very irregular (frost-shattered?) shapes.  The till also incorporates horizons of bedded sands and gravels -- up to 50 cm thick.  This is important, indicating oscillations in the depositional environment and suggesting that the till is probably not a lodgment till.  Much slope breccia has been incorporated into the lower layer of the till.  On the stream bed there are many large stained boulders that have been released from the till.

In this exposure we see cemented slope breccia at the base, resting on shale bedrock, then a layer (c 40 cm thick) of cemented till, and then above the level of the notebook stratified cemented gravels.

Upstream of the footbridge we can see, in the river banks, various exposures of the cemented till, and there are abundant "conglomerate boulders" -- some over 1m across -- made from the cemented till and glaciofluvial deposits which clearly exist within the steep-sided valley.   There are also very many other rounded and sub-rounded erratic boulders.  These deposits appear to be extensive and thick. 

In many locations adjacent to the footpaths we also see much more recent uncemented Quaternary deposits.  Here are there disturbed slope breccias (usually less than 50 cm thick) are seen beneath fresh till which is up to 2m thick.  The till is very complex, and in many places it is seen to incorporate lumps and patches of cemented (ancient) till.  This is, after all, what we might expect if Irish Sea Ice has come in from the coast and has overridden pre-existing deposits.  There are no fresh glaciofluvial deposits above the fresh till, but here and there we see pseudo-stratified slope deposits around 30 cm thick.  Most of the fragments are small -- up to 10 cm diameter -- and they are made of local soft shales and mudstones which have simply moved downslope.  Above that, we see a thin layer (c 20 cm) of colluvium, sandy loam and modern soil.  

Exposure adjacent to the footpath at the top of the slope above the "cauldron".  This is a sandy till, but in the lower part of the exposure (around the notebook) there is a high percentage of broken bedrock fragments derived from overridden slope breccia horizons. 

Modern soil -- Uncemented
Sandloess and colluvium -- Uncemented. Holocene
Thin brecciated slope deposits ("Upper head")
Sandy and gravelly till -- up to 2 m thick. Uncemented, but inclusions of old cemented deposits. Late Devensian
Brecciated slope deposits -- up to 50 cms thick. Uncemented.  Early Devensian?

Hiatus?  No visible raised beach or other interglacial deposits

Stony till -- up to 50 cm thick. Stained and cemented. Anglian? Glaciofluvial gravels -- c 1.5m thick. Stained and cemented stratified sands and gravels. Anglian?
Stony till -- up to 50 cm thick. Stained and cemented. Anglian?
Brecciated slope deposits -- up to 50 cm thick.  Cemented.  Anglian? 
Black and grey mudstones and shales -- bedrock

I am now convinced that two glacial cycles are represented here at the Witches Cauldron.  Work is ongoing -- watch this space.......