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Wednesday, 18 December 2019

The Stonehenge bluestones -- pontification is not a substitute for evidence

There has been quite a discussion about bluestones and glacial transport on on Austin Kinsley’s Facebook page, starting on 1st Dec 2019, with many comments from the great and the good. I won't use any names here, because that would make the discussion rather personal, but below we itemise and discuss the seven points initially posted by somebody who presumes to know quite a lot about Stonehenge and about the supposed human transport of the bluestones.

As we know from our ongoing discussions over the years, on and off this blog, there are still people out there who are prepared to take all this human transport mythology seriously. The trouble is that many of them don't know the territory and tend to read things rather selectively........ as Tony has pointed out in the discussions on Auston's page. And let's remind ourselves -- there is not a shred of hard evidence in support of the idea of long-distance human transport of bluestones from Wales to Stonehenge, either by land or sea.

So here we go:

1. Where's all the other bluestones on the Salisbury Plain? Surely a glacier wouldn't have brought only the precise number of them required at Stonehenge -- numbers that are significant to the structure. The various other examples of full-sized stones in the area have clearly been robbed from the site over the centuries.

Response: this is an absurd point, and I cannot for the life of me understand why people are still making it, after all the advances of recent years. Forget the "immaculate Stonehenge" with 82 bluestones and 82 sarsens. There is no evidence that Stonehenge was ever completed.  I'm not alone in saying this.  As Cleal and others have pointed out over and again, we have no idea how many bluestones or sarsens were originally present at the site. As far as the bluestones are concerned, we know there are 43 -- represented as boulders, pillars, slabs, and stumps. There may be a few more stumps, not yet discovered.   We know that they were moved about and repositioned many times.  It is far more logical to suggest that there never were enough bluestones to finish "the Stonehenge project", and that after playing around with assorted stone settings over many centuries, the builders (maybe the descendants of the originators) just gave up and walked away......   This argues for the use of glacially transported erratics which were systematically collected up and used -- until there were none left in the Stonehenge landscape.

2. While sampling the various types of stone isn't allowed at the site, the volume of chips found in the wide area would easily correspond with the presumed number of present and missing stones. There's lots of visual evidence that points to stone-bashing throughout the life of the monument. See also the 'Stonehenge Layer'.

Response:  The suggestion that the "volume of chips" somehow corresponds with the presumed number of missing stones does not survive a moment's scrutiny. Some mathematics please!  What is the volume of chips that we are supposed to accept?  Remember -- we have no idea how many "missing or destroyed" monoliths there may be. What would be the total mass or volume of those hypothetical missing stones? Figures given by Ixer and Bevins for "debitage volumes" are seriously (and deliberately?) misleading, since they are based on a limited number of excavations and sampling exercises.  About 50% of the surface area within the stone settings has never been excavated, and until that area has been investigated speculation about "debitage volumes" is meaningless.  In any case, we have no idea how much of the debitage may have come from smaller stones -- mauls, hammer stones, packing stones and scattered small erratics -- rather than from destroyed monoliths.

3. The vacant stone-pipe at Rhosefellin more than suggests it was removed by humans -- no glacier would select a single example from that face and leave the others intact. Despite what Dr Johns says, the site was a well-used quarry from as far back as the Mesolithic. The petro-chemistry of that pipe matches Bluestone-44, that stone having been sampled before the present rules applied.

Response:  Ah -- Rhosyfelin!  A lovely spot.  Right on my doorstep.   Now we are seriously into the realms of fantasy.  "The vacant stone pipe" or "monolith extraction point" (as MPP likes to call it) does not exist.  It is a MPP invention, conjured up out of thin air by the good professor when he was told that some of the debitage at Stonehenge was made of a foliated rhyolite which came from within a few square metres of a geological sampling point at the tip of the Rhosyfelin rocky spur.  That piece of "spot provenancing" is hotly disputed, as described in my book -- and I do not know of a single independent geologist or geomorphologist who accepts it.  And of all the senior academics who have visited the site with me, not one of them accepts that the configuration of the rock face at the "extraction point" gives any indication that a bluestone monolith was taken away from here.  On the contrary, detailed surface research shows that there have been several phases of rock breakage off the face, controlled by intersecting fractures, over many millennia.  Some of the fracture edges are fresh, and others are very abraded and weathered.  See this post:

The so-called "extraction point" at Rhosyfelin.  It has had a complex history, with small chunks and slabs of rock breaking off on many different occasions.  In this respect this site is no different from any other part of the rock face. Click the image to enlarge.

On my blog, if you enter "monolith extraction point" into the search box, you will find other entries as well.

The assertion that this was a well-used monolith quarry back into the Mesolithic is, as Mr X knows perfectly well, hotly disputed in my book and in two peer-reviewed scientific papers which he and all of the MPP team know all about, but have studiously ignored.  This is not just bad manners -- it is bad science too, on the part of a group of academics who now have so much invested in their spectacular quarrying hypothesis that they cannot abide the thought of anybody questioning -- let alone disproving -- their "evidence".

The bit about bluestone 44 is an invention, as others have pointed out.  Very careless.  The writer should have checked his facts more carefully.

Brian John, Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd and John Downes (2015a). "Quaternary Events at Craig Rhosyfelin, Pembrokeshire." Quaternary Newsletter, October 2015 (No 137), pp 16-32.

Brian John, Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd and John Downes. 2015. OBSERVATIONS ON THE SUPPOSED “NEOLITHIC BLUESTONE QUARRY” AT CRAIG RHOSYFELIN, PEMBROKESHIRE". Archaeology in Wales 54, pp 139-148. (Publication 14th December 2015)

4. In the 1920s HH Thomas was wrong about a possible source being Carn Meini -- they are now known to include Carn Goedog and probably Bedd Arthur. There is a lot of archaeological evidence surrounding these sources.

Response: The geological evidence does indeed suggest that Carn Meini (Carn Menyn) was probably not a source of Stonehenge bluestones -- although Profs Darvill and Wainwright (the latter sadly no longer with us) refused to accept the geological evidence.  The dolerites (spotted and unspotted) are now thought to have come from other outcrops including the Carn Goedog sill -- but most definitely not Bedd Arthur.  The latter is not a rock outcrop but a stone setting including small locally-derived monoliths; nobody has ever claimed that it was a source for Stonehenge monoliths.   More care, please.

5. There is a marked difference in size and shape between the outer bluestone ring and the inner horseshoe. This strongly suggests they arrived at different times -- the outer ring almost certainly near-original, with the taller versions being installed after the Trilithons went up, much much later. How likely is it these were collected from deposits of the near-environs in such precise order?

Response:  I would agree that the bluestones in the outer ring and the inner horseshoe look different.  In the former, there are pillars and slabs, some of them shaped quite carefully.  In the latter the stones are mostly rough, weathered and abraded boulders which look and feel like an assortment of glacial erratics.  Most of them would not look out of place near the snout of a modern Arctic glacier.  I strongly disagree that the stones arrived at different times, as a result of two distinct stone-collecting expeditions.  There is no evidence to support that contention.  There was no "precise order."   I agree that the stones have been rearranged many times, and my reading of the evidence is that in the last re-setting the "best" of the bluestone assemblage (including the tallest and most elegant pillars) were selected for the horseshoe, and some of them were carefully worked and embellished.  I have no problem with these selected stones being more "special" or more "revered" than the others.

6. I'm pretty familiar with the work of Rob & Richard -- Rob being a personal friend, as you know. Neither has published anything that suggests agreement with the glacial transport theory, while both privately scoff the idea. See also Rob's recent work on the Altar Stone.

Response:  I admire the faith that Mr X has in Ixer and Bevins.  Neither of them has published anything in support of the glacial transport hypothesis because they are both embedded in the MPP team that has set its face steadfastly against the use of any geomorphological evidence.  Sadly, it appears that neither of them has any understanding of glacial processes, or of the literature relating to the glaciation of the western parts of Britain.  In all of their articles they have not once cited the 2015 articles written by me, Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd and John Downes.  Quite frankly, that is reprehensible.  If they had bothered to read the abundant research articles which I have been citing on my blog for the last ten years or more, they might have learned something.  I'm sad that they scoff in private; I would prefer a reasoned academic debate.  On the matter of the Altar Stone, much has been written by Ixer and his colleagues, but the origin of the stone has still not been resolved.

7. Show me evidence of a glacially entrained Welsh Bluestone south of Bristol.
The idea of glacial transport has been thoroughly examined and found to be implausible. It's not the conspiracy of prevailing thought -- it's very well established.

Response:  If you don't mind me saying so, that is an arrogant and dismissive statement put out by somebody who does not know the literature.  Can Mr X please tell us which experts have found the glacial transport idea to be implausible?  He can take it from me that among the geomorphology / glacuiology experts qualified to consider the matter, there are far more who consider glacial transport to have been perfectly feasible, as against two (Scourse and Green) who take the "implausible" view.  Mr X needs to do some enlightening Christmas reading.  On the matter of glacially entrained bluestones south of Bristol, he just needs to buy a copy of my book -- or if he wants to read something more "authoritative" he could always go to the official Geological Conservation Review volume for SW England, written by a multitude of expert geomorphologists, who lay out all the evidence for Quaternary glaciation and erratic transport in the Somerset area.
Campbell, S., Scourse, J.D., Hunt, C.O., Keen, D.H. and Stephens, N. (1998) Quaternary of South-West England, Geological Conservation Review Series, No. 14, Kluwer, London, 439 pp.

It appears to me that Mr X, like most of those whose advice he takes, pretends that there is no dispute in progress, and refuses to engage in constructive debate.  Instead, he simply insists on repeating ad infinitum a parallel and very tired narrative that happens to be subscribed to by just a small group of academics who have very powerful vested interests and who seem to be trapped in some fantastical Neolithic bluestone quarry..........

If academics and other Stonehenge enthusiasts are not prepared to have their ideas scrutinized by others, they should be doing something else with their time -- and stop wasting ours.


ND Wiseman said...

The questions look oddly familiar, almost as if I could have written them myself ...

In any case, Dr Johns is a lovely man who's taken the time on several occasions to enlighten me concerning certain aspects of how glaciers work. These things are marvelous engines with more than a few surprises.

Unfortunately, after exhaustive review, I have come to the conclusion that it is unlikely to a high degree of probability that sheets of ice transported the Bluestones to Stonehenge or its near environs.

And while I concur that absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence, I must hark to the first question, which throws that quote to the wind. No doubt about it -- glaciers leave enormous trains of evidence behind, and there simply isn't any for a considerable distance to the north, east, or west of the Salisbury Plain.

So how did the 80+ Bluestones get there?
Well, there's only one plausible explanation.

ND Wiseman

BRIAN JOHN said...

Hello Neil -- of course the comments are yours -- it was just an etiquette thing -- I wasn't sure you would want your name in this particular forum, as against Austin's Facebook page where it all started off (with a very different group of friends). Anyway, all good fun....

I need to correct you on the assumption that glaciers leave enormous trains of evidence behind. Sometimes yes, sometimes no-- and that is why glaciers are rather interesting. All over the world, within the glaciated zones, there are vast tracts of country assumed never to have been glaciated -- Buchan in Scotland and Jameson Land in Greenland, for example -- and where many field workers have failed to find glacial traces. And then -- bingo -- along comes somebody who looks at different localities with a different eye, and the evidence is there -- solid enough to be indisputable. You must also bear in mind that for the older glaciations of the British Isles, the evidence is very subtle indeed, with till and fluvioglacial deposits destroyed and dispersed by slope and other processes, or being buried by later sediments.

So the message is this -- your conclusions on "the high degree of probability" regarding a glaciation at or close to Salisbury Plain don't make much of an impression on me as a scientist. I prefer to think that the modelling by glaciologists like Alun Hubbard and Henry Patton (which is pretty good for other segments of the British and Irish Ice Sheet) suggests that glacier ice could well have reached Salisbury Plain. If you don't mind, I'd rather trust them than you on matters of probability!

BRIAN JOHN said...

Neil -- one other matter, while I'm tapping away here. Do you think it is acceptable that your good friends Ixer and Bevins, and MPP and his jolly digging gang, have steadfastly refused to acknowledge that their ideas are disputed, and have also steadfastly refused to cite the twp peer-reviewed papers in which their theories re Rhosyfelin are subjected to forensic scrutiny? Just wondering......

ND Wiseman said...

I can think of worse places to find my comments published. Welcome and well-met, I say. I hope the season finds you and yours fat and happy, Brian. Another spin around the sun, as they say ...

I can assure you that everyone is aware of the hound baying at the gate.

Best Wishes and Happy Hollandaise

BRIAN JOHN said...

Seasonal greetings to you too, Neil!

Yes, I know from the number of reads on Academia and Researchgate that the quarrymen are all very aware of the articles by Dyfed, John and myself. They are aware of them but still in a state of denial -- maybe one should just feel sorry for them.......

I like the "hound baying at the gate" -- nice metaphor. Mind you, I prefer the "wolf howling from the northern wilderness" idea -- much more appropriate, with snow and ice on all sides, and a shiver down the spine of the listener....

Phil Morgan, Elf and Safety Inspector. said...

As an acknowledgement of this season of good will to all, is there not room for the glacial transport theory and the human transport theory to be combined such that the ice collects and carries for X number of miles and then the people transport for Y number of miles.
No conflict if interest.
'Ti's the season to be a Wally, fa la la la la la.
So pack your arse with sprigs of Holly,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Nadolig Llawen a Blwydden Newydd Dda i chi. To all.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Hello Phil -- yes, of course the answer in the end will be that the ice carried an assortment of stones of many shapes and sizes from A to B, and that assorted ancient fellows picked them up from B and built them into a sort of folly on Salisbury Plain at location C. What remains to be done is to find out where location B was.......

Phil Morgan, Elf and Safety Inspector. said...

And that requires a little time.
Best wishes.

Anonymous said...

Professor Alun Hubbard of Aberystwyth University, who Brian cites in a comment above as one of two glaciologist academics who together promote the notion that Salisbury Plain WAS affected by glaciation. was also involved in the filming of the BBC Series Frozen Planet, and appeared only last week on Radio 4's "World At One". You can listen to his audio diary on BBC Sounds, where he talks about the current state of the Greenland Ice Sheet. A pretty decent, well respected academic to have in your corner, Brian.

Happy Christmas to one and all.

tonyH said...

The anonymous comment about Alun Hubbard was from me.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Yes, I know Alun -- top glaciologist. He was one of a team of seven or eight experts which did some complex modelling of the BIIS, which predicted ice edge locations under a variety of different scenarios. In their discussion they mentioned the bluestones at Stonehenge, and concluded that it was quite feasible for them to have been imported to Salisbury Plain by glacier ice. In other words, they disagreed with those who have claimed that ice transport was "impossible"...........