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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.


chris johnson said...

Thanks for another thoughtful comment. The time has come to review thinking after several years intensive investigation.

Your timeframe is too compressed perhaps. The evidence for farmer migration and associated long barrows is essentially from southern England and dates around 6000 BP - as you say. Perhaps earlier. The dates for stone mortuaries in Brittany, which early Welsh monuments resemble, are earlier. And likely the "Bretons" were farmers too and herders.

In my mind there is a resemblance between huge megalithic monuments in Carnac and those in the Boyne Valley. The spirit is distinctly different to the Long Barrow culture although likely similar wells of inspiration were being drawn upon.

Pembrokeshire, from what I have seen, is on the periphery of several cultural influences. There are modest dolmens in the early years and small stone circles later. There are modest gallery graves too for which the dates are indistinct. There are some cup marked monuments too, but not very many.

Was Pembrokeshire to have been a culturally significant location in its own right we should surely expect monuments with a bigger impact - a Newgrange, a Stonehenge, Orkney, Carnac. Instead we have small cameo creations.
My feeling is that Pembrokeshire was on the trading routes along the western seaboard and open to many cultural influences along the South-North axis. The East-West Axis is much more problematic thanks to geography and there is little or no evidence beyond MPP's magical theory of human transportation of Bluestones.
In my mind the neolithic peoples would have recognised the origin of the Salisbury bluestones and found it wondrous - as do we. Any yet the most likely explanation for their appearance in Wiltshire is the Anglian glaciation, rather than anything more fanciful.

Palden Jenkins said...

Interesting. One little word of warning. I think it's incorrect to assume that, because the monuments in Wiltshire are bigger and more dramatic, they are thus automatically more important than the more modest monuments in places such as Pembrokeshire or the area where I live, West Penwith in Cornwall.

If we look at our own recent times, the civilisation of Britain and America can, from a macro-historical viewpoint, be viewed as different versions of the same essential civilisation - though USA, a later culture drawing on the earlier British/European culture, built things bigger and more dramatically. But the cultural fermentation that gave rise to modern Western civilisation was rooted in Britain/Europe - and USA extrapolated from there.

Similarly, I think, we can look on the Wiltshire monuments as extrapolations and dramatisations of what went before elsewhere. Actually, Pembrokeshire (and West Penwith) were key nodes in the initial and largely maritime megalithic culture of the Atlantic seaboard. Wiltshire grew big, partially, because its chalk-upland forests were easier to live in and eventually to fell and keep clear than much of Britain. Thus, we could say that, in the transition from the neolithic to the bronze age, the agency of long-distance transport and migration was moving from seas/rivers to the land, and moving from the Irish Sea and Scottish coast to inland Britain (with inputs too from continental Europe).

One interesting modern reference lies in the building of high skyscrapers - which are to a degree status symbols of the development level of the country wherever they are being built. I remember reading some research that found that skyscaper building was an indicator of forthcoming decline, levelling or at least maturation of a fast-growth economy. There might be a parallel here with megalithic sites.

Regarding migration, we need to note the modern issue of pull and push factors affecting migration. Disasters and downturns indeed do have a push-factor influence, but economic and cultural upswings have a pull-factor influence that does not inherently necessitate dire problems in source countries. I've been wondering recently (regarding the surprising extent of genetic replacement that seems to have accompanied the incoming of the 'beaker package') whether its migration to Britain was a function of pull-factors - that is, that Britain was potentially on an economic-cultural upswing, drawing in people seeking opportunity. (There's a similarity in recent decades in Britain, where the key to dealing with immigration stresses is not actually so much a matter of 'leaving Europe' as it is a matter of simply depressing our economy and reducing the pull-factors).

Thanks for you blog post and thoughts. Palden.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thank you Palden -- interesting things to mull over.

Chris -- regarding your thought that the Stonehenge people would have recognized the origin of the Preseli bluestones, surely it's much more likely that they just thought that they were "not local"? Until HHT came along, even the old geologists of the 1800'a just suspected that the bluestones had come "from the west" without any basis for being more accurate than that. Why would the Neolithic / Bronze age inhabitants of Salisbury Plain have been better geologists than them? One might say that they knew -- and valued -- Preselite axes -- but no axe factory has ever been found in Preseli, and there are those who think that Stonehenge itself (or the bluestone monolith part) might have been the source of the Preselite axes found there are maybe elsewhere too......