How much do we know about Stonehenge? Less than we think. And what has Stonehenge got to do with the Ice Age? More than we might think. This blog is mostly devoted to the problems of where the Stonehenge bluestones came from, and how they got from their source areas to the monument. Now and then I will muse on related Stonehenge topics which have an Ice Age dimension...
THE BOOK 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 HERE
Thanks to Tony for drawing this to our attention -- it dates from 2013, but it is still interesting as an insight as to what drives our favourite quarryman........
It would have been nice if the interviewers had been capable of critical thought and independent scrutiny, to the extent of asking him about his "evidence" for bluestone quarrying -- but maybe that would have been too much to ask.
Mike Parker Pearson is the Institute of Archaeology’s newly appointed Professor of British Later Prehistory. In this interview he reflects on his experience at the birth of post-processualism, current problems and opportunities in modern archaeology, and the subject for which he is best known: Stonehenge. Williams, T.J.T. and Koriech, H., 2013. Interview with Mike Parker Pearson. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology, 22, pp.39–47.
I just love all this stuff about post-processualism........ it goes some way towards explaining why MPP and his colleagues seem to think that evidence is really rather unimportant, and that narratives are all that matter.......
The current version of my map showing the proposed Devensian ice edge in Pembrokeshire. This was published last year, and I still think it is more or less correct......
The Ballums Bay till exposure which has been examined by John Hiemstra and his colleagues
Erratics from the Ballums Bay till
In the latest peer-reviewed issue of Quaternary Newsletter (June 2019) there is an article published by assorted craggy academics whom I greatly respect:
John F. Hiemstra, Richard A. Shakesby, Geraint Owen and Simon J Carr, 2019. CALDEY (‘KALD EY’ IN OLD NORSE) WAS LITERALLY A ‘COLD ISLAND’, BUT WAS IT UNDER DEVENSIAN ICE?
Quaternary Newsletter Vol. 148 June 2019, pp 21-31
It’s behind a wall at the moment — available only to QRA members, but I hope one or another of the authors will put it onto Researchgate or Academia.edu.
They were responding to a call I made some time ago for some “bright young things” (in other words, enthusiastic young glacial geomorphologists) to take a look at South Pembrokeshire in general and Caldey Island in particular, with a view to sorting out the glacial sequence there. Since they have done a lot of work on the Gower Peninsula — not so very far away — they were understandably intrigued by my identification of a Devensian till on Caldey, since to accept it as such would imply a major realignment of glacial limits in the Bristol Channel region. It’s a detailed and highly professional paper which is also good-humoured, and that’s something one always likes to see. But one very interesting feature of it is the citation of this blog on a number of occasions in the text. The authors have clearly read many of my entries relating to Caldey Island and the Bristol Channel, and they have taken them seriously. So I thank them for that. Finally, an acceptance that a blog like this can be competent and capable of contributing to academic debate......
The paper starts with a summary of the various views on ice limits in the Bristol Channel and the SW approaches; my latest proposed Devensian limit is shown, but it is erroneously labelled as the “Cardigan Bay ice lobe”. I have never called it that, and have referred to it on a number of occasions as the Bristol Channel lobe or the Carmarthen Bay lobe. That’s a minor point. But the authors do correctly refer to my view that the Devensian ice cannot, according to glacial theory and ice mechanics, have reached far to the south of the Scilly Isles without also pushing far to the east in the Bristol Channel and also impinging on the coasts of Devon and Cornwall.
The bulk of the paper deals with the small exposure of reddish till (which I refer to as the ORS facies) in Ballums Bay towards the eastern end of the island. Following a field visit in 2016 the authors subjected the till (or diamicton, if you want to call it that) to a host of analytical procedures, after which they conclude that it is indeed a till. But what sort of till, and of what age? They consider two alternatives: Anglian or Devensian? They argue quite convincingly that the till is probably Devensian, then they argue less convincingly that it might be Anglian, and then come down with the conclusion that the latter (older) age is to be preferred.
Much as I respect John Hiemstra and his colleagues, I do not agree with them. They have omitted two very important lines of evidence in their discussion:
1. The regional context from Ballums Bay, other parts of Caldey, and the nearby mainland;
2. The presence of cemented deposits in the neighbourhood, including raised beach and brecciated slope deposits and ancient till which are vastly different in appearance from the unconsolidated sandy till at Ballums Bay.
On the first point, there are other exposures of fresh till on the island, including one near the island landing stage. There are also abundant other exposures of fresh and unconsolidated till on the cliff tops of south Pembrokeshire and in coastal embayments, as I have shown in a series of posts on this blog. (In fairness to John and his colleagues, most of these posts were published last year — maybe after this article was written.). These other deposits have not been analysed in detail, but they lie in the same stratigraphic position as the Ballums Bay till, and share many of the same physical characteristics. They are not clay-rich lodgment tills but flow tills and ablation till subjected to varying degrees of "rearrangement" or redeposition following initial emplacement. If these deposits are of Anglian age, why are they not overlain by Ipswichian interglacial deposits and periglacial and other deposits dating from the Devensian cold period?
See these posts:
The exposure of reddish Caldey Island till near the landing stage. This has similar colouring and other characteristics as the Ballums Bay exposure
On the second point, it’s a pity that the authors have not visited Lydstep and Black Mixen. If they had, I venture to suggest that they would have come away convinced that there are TWO tills in South Pembrokeshire, one cemented with calcium carbonate or iron oxide / manganese oxide cement, and the other unconsolidated. Both tills are visible at Lydstep. If the Ballums Bay till had been laid down during the Anglian Glaciation, I am convinced that it would by now have been solidly cemented, given that it rests on Carboniferous Limestone. Only 50m away, on the south side of the bay, there are solidly cemented brecciated slope deposits which appear — by correlation with other S Pembrokeshire exposures — to be of Ipswichian or Early Devensian age. If the Ballums Bay till is even older, and deemed to be of Anglian age, why is it not also cemented, located as it is in a gully where water flow -- and thence carbonate precipitation -- would have been considerable?
Solidly cemented Anglian (?) till at Black Mixen, Lydstep.
So this is a detailed and welcome paper, which draws attention to an important site — but some of the lines of reasoning are questionable, and I think the authors have got their tentative conclusion all wrong!
Suggested relationships of ice masses during the LGM in the Bristol Channel area (my map, not that of Hiemstra et al)
PS. In 1905 EL Dixon wrote of Bullum's Bay: "..... the glacial deposit appears to overlie the raised beach, although the exposure is obscure, and the evidence of superposition is not so conclusive as in Gower." (Summary of Progress for 1905, Mem Geol Surv, p 70). This is my impression too -- but excavation will be needed to establish where the till lies with respect to the cemented limestone breccia just around the corner towards the south. Is there a cemented raised beach too? I think so, but I must look back at my field notes for reassurance. I'm surprised that the authors of the new paper make no mention of the local sedimentary stratigraphy -- which in itself suggests a Devensian age for the till:
6. Modern soil 5. Sandy loess or brickearth (c 1m thick) 4. Reddish till with ORS and other erratics (c 3m thick). This is the till now analysed. 3. Blocky broken limestone head (up to 2m thick) 2. Concreted raised beach and included angular limestone fragments (up to 50 cms thick) 1. eroded raised beach platform up to 10m above MSL.
There is nowhere where you can see this full sequence, but bits of it (including other patches of till) can also be seen in the cliffs to the south of the main exposure.
There are two new bluestone papers (or at least, papers mentioning bluestones) in the WANH magazine recently published. The first one, by Andrew Powell, is about discoveries made beneath the old road surface adjacent to Stonehenge. Rob Ixer was brought in to look at the characteristics of some of the debitage; there is an appendix in which a number of samples are discussed, including some which are of igneous or volcanic origin. Four of the discovered fragments are assigned with complete certainty to Rhosyfelin, but we are not shown any thin sections, and we may therefore dismiss the provenancing as wishful thinking. Not for the first time. Other samples have probably come from other locations within the north Pembs outcrops of Fishguard volcanics, either within Preseli or further afield. There is one lump of rhyolite weighing in at around 500 g -- it does not look like a piece knocked off during the shaping of the bluestones at Stonehenge, and one wonders whether there are abundant other bits of "bluestone litter" lying about which might have come from ancient glacial deposits. This, of course, is one of the scenarios which certain geologists steadfastly refuse to consider.........
In the second paper, Ixer and his colleagues look (again!) at the Altar Stone and related samples and debitage, and admit that the previous emphasis on the infamous sample 277 may well have led to confusion and even erroneous conclusions. They suggest that other samples probably have come from the Altar Stone or from debris related to it. They also push the idea (yet again) that the Altar Stone came from the Senni Beds near the eastern end of the South Wales outcrop, maybe near Abergavenny. But as far as I can see from the article, there is no evidence of any sort to support this contention. Other researchers are also looking into the problem of the Altar Stone -- watch this space........
Along the road to Stonehenge: investigations of the Stonehenge Avenue and within the World Heritage Site by Andrew B. Powell with contributions by Phil Harding, L Higbee, Rob Ixer, Matt Leivers, Inés López-Dóriga, Lorraine Mepham and David Norcott, and illustrations by Rob Goller.
Wilts Archaeology and Natural Hist Mag, vol. 112 (2019), pp. 197–216
Archaeological mitigation works undertaken for the Stonehenge Environmental Improvements Project involved the excavation of two sections across the Stonehenge Avenue within the line of the former A344 road. This showed that while the Avenue’s banks had been levelled during the road’s construction it appears to have had little impact on its ditches, which in form, fills and contents closely match previously excavated sections on either side of the road. Excavation of the edge of the Heel Stone ditch also showed limited impact.
Works in the area of Airman’s Corner, close to the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre, which included the lifting, restoration and relocation of the Grade II listed Airman’s Cross memorial, and of a milestone, revealed a large quarry-like feature. This may have provided embankment material for the Salisbury to Devizes road (A360) at the point where it crossed a dry valley, as part of improvements to the road when it was turnpiked c. 1760. At some later date, the partly infilled quarry was used as a burnbaking site, at which turves were burnt to produces ashes for spreading on land newly turned from pasture to arable, a change in agricultural practice that was to cause lasting damage to many archaeological sites in the Stonehenge landscape.
Alternative Altar Stones? Carbonate-cemented micaceous sandstones from the Stonehenge Landscape by Rob Ixer, Richard Bevins, Peter Turner, Matthew Power and Duncan Pirrie .
Wilts Archaeology and Natural Hist Mag, vol. 112 (2019), pp. 1-13
The six-tonne recumbent Altar Stone is perhaps the most enigmatic of all the Stonehenge bluestones, differing markedly from the others in size, tonnage, lithology and origin. It has therefore had more than its fair share of speculation on all of these aspects and many questions remain: was it always recumbent, was it a singleton or half a twin, where did it come from? Clearly it is not from the Preseli Hills hence the debate as to its geographical origins for over a century. However, any provenancing of the Altar Stone must rely on a detailed and accurate lithological and petrographical description. New descriptions of material labelled ‘Altar Stone’ held in museum collections and a re-evaluation of suggested Altar Stone debitage using automated scanning electron microscopy and linked energy dispersive analysis using QEMSCAN technology suggests that modification of the published petrographical descriptions is needed. A new ‘typical Altar Stone’ description is provided including the presence of early cementing barite and a better characterisation of the clay content. These new data should continue to narrow the search for the geographical origin of the Altar Stone, one that is expected to be at the eastern end of the Senni Formation outcrop, an outcrop that reaches as far east as Abergavenny in the Welsh Marches. https://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/37280878/38_knock_offs.pdf
This is a strange interim report — with some bits pasted in from a 2017 Report, and other bits clearly inserted just to please the funding organisations and selected parts of the archaeological establishment. The whole thing is delivered with a degree of certainty that borders on arrogance — and as in the other publications from this team, there is no mention of the fact that there is a major dispute going on with regard to the “bluestone quarrying” issue, which is of course crucial to the matter of the supposed Waun Mawn “great stone circle.” (Readers of this blog will recall that the discovery of a circle of bluestones became necessary because the radiocarbon evidence from Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog was so confusing and inconclusive that nobody could make head or tail of it. As far as most of us are concerned, the quarrying hypothesis was actually falsified by the radiocarbon evidence produced from the two sites by the diggers themselves — but they steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that……. So on they plough, in the hope that somebody out there still believes them.)
Here is the summary:
Summary One of the great mysteries of prehistory is why Stonehenge’s ‘bluestones’ came from over 140 miles away in west Wales. While Stonehenge’s sarsen stones are thought to be local to the Avebury area, 20 miles to the north, the smaller bluestones (mostly weighing 1-3 tons) came from the Preseli hills of west Wales. Our aim is to find out why Stonehenge was built of stones from such distant sources. Over the last seven years, the Stones of Stonehenge project has identified and excavated two of the outcrops from which bluestones were quarried in c.3300-3000BC, before these megaliths were erected at Stonehenge in its first stage in c.3000-2920 BC. Archaeologists and geologists have hypothesised that Stonehenge’s bluestones might have first been erected as a stone circle in west Wales, that was later dismantled and moved to Salisbury Plain, rather than being brought directly from their quarries. Archaeological excavations at the partial stone circle at Waun Mawn uncovered stone holes of two of its four remaining monoliths and revealed 12 further features extending beyond the ends of the arc of monoliths. Six of these features were holes for standing stones removed in antiquity. Radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dates are awaited for samples taken from these features at Waun Mawn. Together with the four remaining monoliths at Waun Mawn, the six stone sockets excavated in 2018 form part of a former stone circle with a diameter of c.110m. This makes Waun Mawn the third largest stone circle known in Britain. The empty sockets contained the imprint of the monoliths that had each stood in these holes. They range in size from 0.2m across to 0.6m across and were mostly held in place with packing stones before their removal at some point in antiquity before the growth of peat. The largest of these stones had an unusual pentagonal-shaped base which can be matched with Stone 62 at Stonehenge. A large flake of dolerite that appears to have become detached from the Waun Mawn monolith during its erection or removal, is of the same type of rock as that of Stone 62 at Stonehenge. Further links with Stonehenge are provided by the discovery that one of the former standing stones on the northeast sector of the circle, singled out by its construction on a mound, is potentially aligned from the circle’s centre towards either midsummer solstice sunrise or northern major moonrise. The stone’s location is enhanced by its placement on top of a low artificial mound. Secondly, the diameter of Waun Mawn circle is the same as the diameter of Stonehenge’s perimeter ditch; no other Neolithic monuments in Britain are known to share this diameter. Like the other great stone circles of Britain, Waun Mawn is expected to date to the Neolithic around 3000 BC. Together with a Neolithic causewayed enclosure at Banc Du, a Neolithic palisaded enclosure at Dryslwyn, and seven Neolithic tombs, it forms a major ceremonial complex within the Preseli hills and their environs. This provides a new insight into the significance of the source of Stonehenge’s bluestones, and raises interesting new questions about the relationship of this complex with that on Salisbury Plain, such as why Stonehenge was built out of one or more second-hand monuments.
Let’s ignore that for the moment and concentrate on the meat of the report.
Research goals as identified by the team:
"The project’s overall goals are: 1. To investigate the source area of Stonehenge’s bluestone monoliths in the Preseli hills, identifying megalith quarries and locating other Neolithic sites and monuments associated with bluestones. 2. To discover whether the bluestones were incorporated initially into one or more Pembrokeshire monuments before being transported to Wiltshire. 3. To explore the quarrying of the bluestones in Preseli and their subsequent use, including their journey to Stonehenge, to clarify the purpose of Stonehenge. In 2017 our specific goal was: 1. To establish whether an arc of four standing stones (Waun Mawn) forms the remains of a dismantled Neolithic stone circle where bluestones were first erected before being moved to Stonehenge."
At the outset there is a bland statement that certain of the Stonehenge bluestones have been accurately provenances to the Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog; that is a falsehood — the geologists have made certain claims, but the provenancing is not at all certain. Then they say: "Remains of megalith-quarrying at these two outcrops have been dated to the period shortly before 3000 BC.” As pointed out above, this is also a falsehood — the dating points to intermittent occupation of the sites over a long period of time, but it does NOT point to megalith quarrying.
There follows a description of the geographical setting of Waun Mawn, carefully engineered to demonstrate a likelihood that something of Neolithic significance should be sited here! There is an assumption that Waun Mawn was once covered by blanket bog — I doubt that. There is reference to the underlying bedrock of Aber Mawr shales or meta-mudstones, but no mention is made of the immediately adjacent outcrops of dolerite — presumably because it is the intention of the research team to demonstrate that all of the large stones on this site were carried in from a long way off, rather than simply being picked up from a few metres away. What is the point of this strange and unscientific obsession? I have been very critical of this “induced blindness” before, here:
This is interesting:
"Magnetometer and earth resistance surveys at Waun Mawn in 2011 failed to identify any sub-surface features that might be stone sockets extending the length of the arc, and these negative results were put down to the problems created by podzolisation. Further surveys in 2018, employing electro-magnetic induction, ground-penetrating radar and earth resistance, also failed to identify any significant anomalies that could be interpreted as stone holes of a dismantled stone circle.”
It does not seem to have occurred to the team that the failure to find a stone circle may have simply been down to the fact that there isn’t one now and that there never was one…………..
Nonetheless, they battle on with utter conviction. and in the following section. Under “Findings” they make no attempt to present their evidence or to interpret it in a scientific or empirical fashion. That’s not their style. Instead, they say that in addition to the holes belonging to two recumbent monoliths, they have found 12 new “features” which are described with complete conviction thus:
"Six of these features were holes for standing stones removed in antiquity. Together with the four remaining monoliths, they were part of a former stone circle with a diameter of 110m. This makes Waun Mawn the third largest stone circle known in Britain."
The “features” are described in turn, with no discussion or analysis of the “evidence”. There are copious references to sockets, ramps, packing stones, infills, imprints and so on, with particular emphasis concentrated on stoneholes 007, 015, 021, 030, 017, 037 and 091. I have examined all of these, and have found them singularly unconvincing — and no attempt is made by the authors to show us that the “sockets” and associated features are in any substantial way different from a multitude of other slight pits and depressions across this moorland — and indeed others exposed during the 2017 and 2018 digs. Where are the controls? And where is the reasoned argument pointing to these features being man-made? As the authors admit, they have discovered no artefacts in the pits and there is no clear archaeology which might help their arguments.
The largest of the 2018 excavations -- is that a stonehole? Some people think so....
With regard to two of the recumbent stones, Richard Bevins has stated that the largest one (of unspotted dolerite) is likely to have come from Cerrigmarchogion. He then says that the smallest recumbent stone (of speckled or spotted dolerite) might have come from Mynydd-bach. Are these simply opinions or has Richard actually undertaken sampling and petrographic analyses? It remains to be seen how strong the evidence might be for these two bits of speculative provenancing.
This is interesting, with respect to “stonehole 091”: "Its extraction hole was then filled with a sequence of secondary fills containing over 40 struck dolerite flakes. One of these was a large stone flake (22.9cm x 8.4cm) aligned longitudinally along the eastern side of the extraction ramp. With its weathered cortex on its exterior face, it may have been an unintentional removal, detached from the standing stone as it was pulled out of the hole. As with all the other flakes from stonehole 091, it is of unspotted dolerite…….” Are these genuine struck flakes, or are they simply dolerite fragments contained within the local till that covers the whole site? Having seen some of the things referred to as “artefacts” at Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog, I admit to a degree of scepticism! It would not be at all surprising to find dolerite fragments and cobbles within the local till. We may or may not ever get to see the evidence.
This is also interesting: "Artefacts found in close proximity (within 2–3m) of stonehole 091 consist of a flint scraper (SF40), a piece of worked flint (SF1) and a trimmed circular mudstone disc (SF3). The mudstone disc is very similar to three such artefacts found in Neolithic levels at Carn Goedog megalith quarry.” Two bits of flint and a “mudstone disc” may or not be artefacts — let’s see how strong the evidence is when and if it is published.
Other attempts to demonstrate human involvement in the creation of micro-features include reference to an “artificial mound” and a “sunken trackway” which seem no less fanciful than the "engineering features” described at Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog.
Later, in the discussion, we get another gigantic leap of the imagination: "The pentagonal-sided imprint of the standing stone (BJ: presumably that means the one stone still standing) is highly unusual and can be matched in size and shape by just two bluestones at Stonehenge. One of these, Stone 62, is also of unspotted dolerite. Quite possibly, Stone 62 is the stone that stood originally in stonehole 091 at Waun Mawn.”
The "pentagonal" remaining standing stone at Waun Mawn. Was one like this taken from pit 091 and then put up again as stone 62 at Stonehenge? The latest MPP speculative leap...........
Then this: "The fact that Waun Mawn stone circle has the same diameter as the perimeter ditch of Stonehenge is also highly suggestive of a close link between these two monuments. No other Neolithic monument in Britain shares this same diameter.” Well, yes and no — there are many approximate concentric rings at Stonehenge, and many stone settings from other parts of the UK can be “matched” with one or another of them. The Waun Mawn circle — if there was one —was substantially larger than the largest stone setting at Stonehenge.
The conclusion is typical of the MPP team:
"The confirmation of Waun Mawn as one of Britain’s former great stone circles changes our understanding of the considerable significance of the Preseli region during the Middle–Late Neolithic. The importance of north Pembrokeshire in the Early Neolithic has long been recognised on the basis of the extraordinary concentration of portal dolmens and other megalithic tombs in this area (Lynch 1972; Barker 1992), recently enhanced by Darvill and Wainwright’s excavations of a causewayed enclosure at Banc Du (Darvill et al. 2005: 22–3; 2007; Darvill and Wainwright 2016: 75–6) and a palisaded enclosure at Dryslwyn (Darvill and Wainwright 2016: 76).
"Around 3000 BC, there was further activity both at the bluestone megalith quarries of Craig Rhos-y-felin and Carn Goedog (Parker Pearson et al. in press) as well as at the Banc Du causewayed enclosure where its ditch was re-cut in 3105–2915 cal BC (Darvill et al. 2005: 22–3; 2007; Darvill & Wainwright 2016: 75–6; Whittle et al. 2011: 526–7), coinciding with the ending of megalith-quarrying at Carn Goedog and with the erection of bluestones in the Aubrey Holes at Stonehenge. The recognition that Britain’s third largest stone circle was built here in Preseli, a stone’s pull from two bluestone quarries, leaves us in no doubt that this was one of the great religious and political centres of Neolithic Britain when the bluestones were taken to Stonehenge. Whether Waun Mawn stone circle was left unfinished may give us a major clue to the social circumstances that led to the remarkable decision to move up to 80 bluestones to Stonehenge.”
Every sentence in there deserves to be carved up or ripped to shreds — but now I’m fed up. Suffice to say that there may have been a more extensive stone setting at Waun Mawn, a bit like that at Castlerigg or Swinside. Then again, maybe not. The evidence presented thus far is, to put it mildly, less than convincing. And there is NOTHING at Waun Mawn to suggest any link at all with Stonehenge.