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

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

The Spectre, Antarctica

In the news today -- another of those extraordinary peaks in remote locations which has been climbed for just the third time (first climb by a British adventurer).  I'm endlessly intrigued by the manner in which these steep-sided and even vertical pinnacles are formed, and then survive.......

Highly entertaining was one press writeup which reported that the Spectre peak was located "470 kms south of the South Pole."  So there we are then.......

The Spectre (86°3′S 150°10′W) is a prominent rock spire, 2,020 metres (6,630 ft) high, near the center of Organ Pipe Peaks, Gothic Mountains, in Queen Maud Mountains in Antarctica. It was discovered in December 1934 by the Byrd Antarctic Expedition geological party under Quin Blackburn. The allusive name was suggested by Edmund Stump, leader of the United States Antarctic Research Program (USARP)-Arizona State University geological party in the Gothic Mountains, 1980-81.

Monday, 27 January 2020

The Hurlers stone circles, Bodmin Moor

I have been getting quite intrigued by The Hurlers -- a group of three stone circles on Bodmin Moor.  They have -- or had -- diameters of c 35m, 42m and 33m  most of the stones are gone.  There used to be 29 stones in each circle.  The central circle still has 14 stones in it, although there seems to be some doubt about how many were actually standing when a big excavation and reconstruction took place in 1935-36.     All in all, it appears that at least 50 stones have gone missing from the stone settings -- if they were there in the first place.  I have't followed up to see how many empty sockets have actually been identified, and with what degree of conviction....... 

In the same area there are other standing stones and Bronze Age features in the landscape -- so there seem to be strong similarities with the situation at Waun Mawn.  Does anybody have any observations on this site?  And any insights?


Although not set out in a straight line, the centres of the circles trend towards the ridge to the north, with the still impressive bulk of Rillaton Barrow on the near horizon and the summit of Stowe’s Hill with it’s Neolithic tor enclosure and the striking natural granite formation known as the Cheesewring on the skyline. Dating to the early Bronze Age, the Hurlers lie in a remarkable ‘ceremonial landscape’ of stone circles, stone rows, standing stones, cists and cairns. A particular feature of the monuments in this area is their tendency to ‘refer to’ significant tors and horizon features, especially the tor enclosure on Stowes Hill and the group of large barrows on Caradon Hill. The numerous alignments apparent in this area suggest that the Hurlers may have been part of an important processional route.

The area has been extensively disturbed by mining and only the central circle has a large proportion of its stones in-situ, but this is because they were reset after the site was excavated by Raleigh-Radford in 1935-6. Fourteen stone uprights survive in the central circle, with fourteen markers for missing stones, placed in empty stone sockets during restoration works. Originally all the circles are said to have contained twenty nine stones (though the central circle is considerably larger than the other two) and it was Carew who noted the “...strange observation that a re-doubled numbering never eveneth with the first”. The inner faces of the stones are smooth and regular and most of the stones are flat topped and graded so that the tallest stones are to the south, which may support the idea of a processional route through the circles leading towards the north. This is also the case with the north circle and possibly also the south circle - though this is now in a very poor and incomplete condition. It has been noted that flat lozenge shaped stones tend to alternate with more slender uprights and it has been proposed that the former represent the feminine principle whilst the latter represent the masculine. Excavations revealed a quartz crystal ‘floor’ within the central circle and the small granite block currently sited within the circle may originally have marked the true centre.

Two standing stones known as the Pipers lie to the south-west of the Hurlers flanking a modern boundary bank. ‘Outliers’ such as these are a common feature of stone circles in Cornwall and further afield and they are likely to be prehistoric in origin, re-used as a prominent landmark when the boundary was first established. Interestingly, both the Pipers and the Hurlers fall on an approximate alignment between the ‘embanked avenue’ and stone circle on Craddock Moor and the prominent barrow group on Caradon Hill. The Pipers may thus represent a ‘portal’ giving access to the Hurlers from the west.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Icefall Zero: Free Offer for Kindle Ebook readers

More about Greenland, which is much in the news these days as a result of the climate crisis.......

When I published "Acts of God" five years ago, little did I realise that in no time at all there would be  at least 8 other books with the same title jockeying for position in the marketplace.  Not a good scenario.  In any case, the book sounded more like a theological treatise than a brutal conspiracy thriller with a lot of swearing and gruesome detail in it;  so I am saddened by the thought that there might have been various clerics and philosophers who bought it in the expectation that they would be reading something profound.  Not that I have had any complaints, but people are in general very polite......

Anyway, the book had to be rebranded, and if I have been a bit quiet lately on the blogging front it's partly because I have been unable to shake off a horrible persistent chesty cold, and partly because I have been doing a tight edit on the book, including a reformatting and cover design exercise.  There were lots of mistakes and inconsistencies in the old text -- now hopefully sorted out.

The Kindle version of "Acts of God" has been withdrawn (it is still available as a paperback) and it has been replaced by "Icefall Zero."

I'm currently doing a Midwinter Free Kindle Promotion on the rebranded book, so for the next five days it can be downloaded from the Amazon website at zero cost.  After 26 January, you will have to pay for the privilege of downloading it and reading it.

Here is the link:

Icefall Zero

Please feel free to share this info with friends, and if anybody feels like sticking a review (even a one-liner!) onto the Amazon web site, that would be appreciated.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Stanton Drew Moggalithic Monument

Thanks to Helen for drawing this to my attention on Twitter -- I had not seen it before, although it was posted around the time of the General Election.

Obviously the content of this rather rambling post is relevant to our earlier discussions on the "hijacking" of prehistoric monuments -- and the learned studies related to them -- for the boosting of the Brexit cause.  I hadn't realised that Rees-Mogg had done an electioneering broadcast from Stanton Drew, and that people had actually looked at it.  He obviously did lots of tweeting as well.  Serious, or just a bit of frothy fun?

Quote:     "Was it just an innocent bit of eccentric electioneering fun that just happened to take place with a megalithic backdrop? Or perhaps the film was an appeal to a certain kind of voter who craves the nostalgic fantasies of the English countryside, windswept standing stones, comical ‘scrumpy and western’ bands like The Wurzels, and Brexit?   Or was this short film altogether something more sinister?"

Quote:  "The film is a particularly egregious example of what I have come to call #BrexitPrehistory (for it was not really about the election, it was about ‘getting Brexit done’) and it indicates the increasingly casual ways that prehistory is being used to make arguments for Brexit by leavers. However, the video also became a focal point for a lot of anti-Brexit (‘remainer’) sentiment, something I would also like to unpick here.  My contention is that we should not be using a prehistoric stone circle to make any kind of points about contemporary political and social challenges although it can be tempting to do so.   Stone circles like Stanton Drew, the one chosen by JRM as his backdrop, are neither leave or remain monuments. Yet, problematically, social media reaction to Rees-Mogg’s piece to camera suggests it might be both."

Quote:  "Alice Roberts tweeted: ‘How extraordinary that Rees-Mogg chooses to stand in front of a megalithic monument – which speaks so strongly of connections across prehistoric Europe – to make an isolationist statement!’ "

Quote:  "........stone circles can and should be kept out of our Brexit battles. They are no more an indicator of what Jonathan Last, in another great response to far-right use of prehistoric monuments, has called, ‘a conservative, nostalgic narrative of a lost rural England’, than they are surviving traces of an ancient utopia of free movement and European cultural cohesion.   Stone circles should be testament to the sophistication of Neolithic people. Stone circles should continue to be a source of wonder, mystery, the otherness of the past......"

Sunday, 12 January 2020

The Welsh ice shed

The ice shed area -- around the Teifi Lakes

Further to my posts about the position and the characteristics of the Welsh ice-shed during the Late Devensian glacial episode, I have been thinking about ice-flow characteristics on its flanks.  We can assume that on the western flank there will have been greater accumulation, greater ablation and higher ice turnover -- in other words, conditions were more dynamic, with glaciers flowing in all the main outlet troughs down towards Cardigan Bay and into a "conflict zone" with the ice of the Irish Sea Glacier.  This shows up quite nicely in the BGS map which we have looked at many times before.  It also shows up well on the computer simulation reproduced above, by Henry Patton and others in which the areas coloured black are those of most sluggish ice-flow (in this "episode"in the sequence the ice cap is of quite limited extent.).

The biggest glaciers by far were the Teifi Glacier and the Tywi Glacier, each more than 70 km long, while the other western outlet routes were shorter and steeper.

On the eastern flank of the ice shed accumulation rates were lower and ice movement was more sluggish.  On the other hand there was no "conflict" with Irish Sea Ice, at least to the south of Ludlow.  There appears to have been no identifiable "Severn Glacier" but the main ice steams were in the Wye and Usk Valleys.  The glaciers were quite complex, and geomorphologists and geologists have not found it easy to unravel either the sequence of events or the ice movement directions.  The ice which accumulated in the Teifi Lakes area, between Tregaron and Rhyader, seems to have flowed SE in a coherent stream towards Builth Wells, where it split into two, with one stream flowing towards the Black Mountain and the other broadly eastwards south of Radnor Forest.  The southern stream was diverted northwards around the northern face of the Black Mountain before decanting eastwards towards Hereford.  The Usk Glacier was even more complicated, since it incorporated ice flowing southwards from mid Wales and ice flowing northwards from the Brecon Beacons.  The ice initially flowed eastwards, and then the ice stream also split into two because of the topographic barrier of the Black Mountain.  

We should bear in mind that this was the Late Devensian scenario.  During earlier glaciations the ice from the southern part of the mid-Wales ice shed would have been thicker and more powerful, eliminating many of the local twists and turns and flowing broadly SE across the whole of the landscape of SE Wales towards the Severn Estuary and the Cotswold Hills.

It's this latter scenario that interests us when we try to work out what went on during the very extensive Anglian Glaciation.  According to this old map -- which I think is still pretty accurate -- it should be possible to find erratics from virtually anywhere in the SE quadrant of Wales in the Somerset Levels - Salisbury Plain landscape.

Friday, 10 January 2020

Strandflats, skerries, archipelagos and areal scouring

Breidafjordur, west Iceland.  Here there is an extensive archipelago of 2,700 islands.  Click to see this image at higher definition.

Lochmaddy, North Uist, Outer Hebrides, Scotland.  A classic example of a "skerries landscape" linked to a local strandflat

In recent posts I have examined some of the places where areal scouring, dead-ice conditions and maybe cold-based glaciers have combined to create undulating terrain and occasional areas of "knock and lochan" terrain.  The main feature is always sluggish and diffuse ice flow without any concentration of flow into streams, troughs or channels.  These rather beautiful wilderness areas are usually at high altitude, on plateau surfaces where ice cap generation takes place and where -- after ice cap growth -- the highest and most remote ice domes or ice-shed axes are located.  The Glama and Dranga plateaux in Iceland are examples, as are the Teifi Pools area in mid Wales and the Hardangervidda in Norway.  So these are essentially "ice source" areas where very specific glaciological conditions have applied, over and again during the Quaternary as one glaciation has followed another.

There are obvious similarities between these plateau landscapes and the coastal landscapes that fringe some areas of intensive glaciation where fjords have been created.  These are some of the most spectacular landscapes on earth -- for example the fjord landscapes of western Norway, East Greenland and parts of Arctic Canada.  The general principle that seems to apply is that when ice-flow is concentrated within outlet troughs on the fringes of an ice sheet or an ice cap, erosion will make each trough deeper and deeper as long as there are supplements to discharge -- but as soon as the possibility of diffluence occurs (ie when the glaciers reach a pre-existing mountain front) ice-flow will spread sideways and erosive capacity will be suddenly diminished. Then instead of troughs and channels created by streaming ice, we will see the development of wide open plains of undulating bedrock under the influence of areal scouring processes.  This is one of the most spectacular "process transformations" in nature, and when David Sugden and I were writing "Glaciers and Landscape" back in the stone age, we were very fascinated by it!  I have done a number of related posts on this blog......

The Sognefjord long profile, showing how the trough has been deepened steadily so long as there have been supplements to glacier discharge.  But as soon as diffluence became possible, close to the outer coast of Norway, erosive power was lost, and the fjord bed rises to the trough "threshold".  The skerries occur off the left edge of the diagram, where concentrated ice flow and erosion were replaced by areal scouring.

At the end of each glacial episode, when sea-level returns eustatically to more or less its interglacial level, these low-relief undulating rock platforms are flooded by the sea and are transformed into skerries and archipalagos with a  myriad of small islands, straits and channels with rocks and shoals all over the place.  Because there are no big glacial exit routes across these areas, the water is nowhere very deep, and fractures and other structural controls can generally be picked out in aerial photographs and satellite imagery.  There's a big debate about whether these extensive undulating platforms located at or around present sea-level are really cut by ice, or by other processes including marine erosion or by the cutting of ancient platforms by river erosion in pre-Quaternary times.  Some authors suggest that the Norwegian strandflat is a very ancient feature that has been covered by sediments which were stripped away in pre-glacial times -- suggesting that glacier ice has simply "occupied" an ancient feature without necessarily altering its appearance very much at all.  There is a good discussion here:

The archipelagos around the coasts of the Baltic, in Sweden and Finland, are different again, since here we have one of the world's great Pre-Cambrian peneplains.  There are abundant traces of ice scouring on a large scale across that part of the Stockholm Archipelago which I am familiar with, but there is no doubt that the essentials of the landscape are pre-glacial.  Some archipelagos, like the Bear Islands in Hall Bredning, just beyond the threshold of Nordvestfjord in East Greenland, might be referred to as the products of local rather than regional glaciological conditions, and the same may be said of Lochmaddy in North Uist -- see the photo at the head of this post.

This is an intriguing topic, worthy of greatly extended treatment -- and of course this is another question worth asking:  "Why is it that some glacier troughs that carried vast volumes of ice during the Quaternary glaciations have extensive skerries beyond their exit thresholds, and others do not?"

Another photo of the skerries in Breidafjordur, western Iceland.

Bing satellite image of part of the Stockholm Archipelago -- an area of modest surface relief underlain by the rocks of the Scandinavian PreCambrian Shield.  The area was covered by thick ice flowing directly southwards, but there are no clear troughs or other discharge routes.  Areal scouring affected this whole area. The details of coastal configuration are determined above all else by fracture patterns and lithologoical variations in the PreCambrian basement rocks.

Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay.  One of the strangest archipelagos in the world..........  made of PreCambrian sedimentary rocks which have been heavily eroded by overriding ice across several glaciations of North America.  The rocks are tightly folded and deformed -- if we look carefully we can see several pitching synclines and anticlines.

Archipelago of heavily abraded Shield rocks near Nain, on the east coast of Labrador.

These prominent peaks on one of the Bear Islands, in Hall Bredning, Scoresby Sund, East Greenland, lie within an unusual small archipelago around the outlets of Nordvestfjord and Ofjord.  This area has been affected by laterally spreading ice from these two huge outlet glacier routes, but strictly the Bear Islands should be interpreted as the seriously damaged right flank of the Ofjord glacier trough outlet.    Substantial glacial erosion has damaged and even whittled away most of the trough wall, leaving a few spectacular ridge remnants.

Thursday, 9 January 2020

Ok is no more........

Seasonal snowpatches on the Ok plateau -- a winter photo.  The small crater in the centre of the plateau is the most obvious feature in this image.  This is all snow -- not glacier ice.

There have been a number of media stories over the past six months about the disappearance of Okjokull, a small plateau glacier sitting on top of an old volcanic cone not far from Reyjkjavik in Iceland.  It sure has gone, and there are records of ice over 50m thick here, just a few decades ago........  It was unusual in that it was completely circular, resting atop a symmetrical cone which had lost its tip.

However, the claim made on the BBC Travel Show that this was the first Icelandic glacier to entirely disappear because of global warming was not correct.  A number of small glaciers in Iceland were apparently thriving for a few centuries during the Little Ice Age -- a cold snap that lasted from approx 1550 to around 1890.  The dates and duration varied from one place to another -- and some believe that the Little Ice Age did not properly end until around 1947.

However, as pointed out on this blog,  Glamajokull, the southernmost of the two ice caps on the plateau of NW Iceland, was quite extensive around 1850, at the local culmination of the Little Ice Age -- and it had entirely melted away by the time of the great Danish mapping exercise in 1913-14.  In contrast, Drangajokull, a little further north, covered an area in 1850 that was almost three times as large as its present size.  It had shrunk dramatically by 1913-14, and has shrunk dramatically since then.  How much longer will it last?  Maybe thirty years, if we are lucky.........

The Ok plateau as it is today, close to the core of the old ice cap.

I'm rather interested in the appearance and characteristics of these ex-ice cap plateaux.  They are usually devoid of any morainic features and they may have no definable till either -- just a scatter of boulders that may or may not be erratic or far-travelled, and a patchwork of exposed rock surfaces and areas covered with rock rubble or breccia.  There may or may not be traces of rock smoothing or streamlining -- for in general, ice movement may have been sluggish at best and non-existent at worst.  That is what happens beneath ice sheds or ice cap summits;  the further you are from an ice cap summit, the greater the likelihood of ice moulding and other erosive activity.  For much of the history of an ice cap, the ice beneath the summit may actually be frozen to the bed, and there may not be much activity within the ice mass either.

Satellite image of part of the Glama Plateau, showing typical "knock and lochan" terrain

Rhosyfelin RIGS listing

As my blogging comrades will know, I have expressed my frustration -- several times -- on this blog about the snail-paced progress of the Rhosyfelin RIGS designation onto the assorted statutary documents.  For example, this PCNPA list has not been updated since 2011:

However, things are moving at last, and the relevant NPA officer has kindly sent me the following links:

Addendum to the Regionally Important Geodiversity Sites SPG (adopted September 2016)

On the Welsh Government's "open data" map site called "Lle" (run by Natural Resources Wales) it should also be possible to inspect all of the RIGS locations in Wales.  The site still uses a Beta version of the map, and is clearly still being built.  No doubt there will soon be links to citations,  so watch this space....,51.47832,8&b=europa&l=1020;

Thursday, 2 January 2020

British Archaeology -- corrupted by assumptions of significance

The big lump of foliated rhyolite exposed at Rhosyfelin during the archaeological dig.  If you are a geomorphologist, you see a jumble of rockfall debris beneath a fractured rockface which has been subjected to natural processes of breakdown over many millennia. If you are an imaginative or ambitious archaeologist, you might see a Neolithic quarry, with a large detached monolith intended for shipment to Stonehenge.

My last post, about the celebrated Sir Mortimer Wheeler and his rather dodgy "spectacular find" of a mass war grave associated with a climactic battle between the Romans and the local defenders of the homeland in AD 43, is a reminder of a simple rule.  The more celebrated and ambitious you are,  the more spectacular your finds have to be in order to reinforce your status, and the more likely your peers are to accept your claims without careful scrutiny.  And another rule:  the more celebrated you are, the more you become a media darling, and the more likely the press is to give maximum publicity to any old piece of nonsense you may care to dish out. University press offices know this, and I have complained many times on this blog about the role of press officers in promoting very dodgy research in purple prose and of pretending that every small increment in knowledge is a "major breakthrough" of earth-shattering proportions.    OK -- we know all about the financial and other pressures under which universities operate nowadays, but corrupt research should be exposed for what it is, not supported, and lies should never be repeated on the pretence that they are the truth.

The elegant and dashing Sir Mortimer earned a reputation for extra-marital affairs, and also for his meticulous recordings of digs and for his adoption of "scientific methods".  He promoted himself as a pioneering and modern "scientific archaeologist."  But many of his interpretations were heavily criticised on the grounds that they were "over-interpretations" in which he attached great significance to insignificant things, in pursuit of the spectacular narrative.   He seemed not to worry too much about that, since he saw himself as a great educator with a mission to inform -- and indeed entertain -- the general public.

Fast forward to today, and the recent digs involving Prof Mike Parker Pearson and his team of faithful retainers at Rhosyfelin, Carn Goedog and Waun Mawn.  Once again we have a charismatic and forceful individual in charge, with a propensity for making outrageous claims about the significance of his "discoveries" and for grabbing the headlines.   We all know the famous quote about Rhosyfelin being "the Pompeii of prehistoric stone quarries"..........  Mike is more like Indiana Jones than Sir Mortimer Wheeler, but that's fine.   I'm not against researchers selling their ideas and their discoveries as enthusiastically as possible, and communicating with anybody who is prepared to listen.  We all do it...... but.....

I recall my old friend Prof Brian Roberts of Durham University telling me that he is very worried about the propensity, within archaeology, for "assumptive research", in which you presume to know what you are looking for and looking at, even before you start digging, and that all you have to do is describe what you uncover and assign all of the "discovered" features to the appropriate bits of your ruling hypothesis.  That is exactly what Parker Pearson and his team have done at the three sites mentioned above.  At Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog they chose to accept the "guidance" of Ixer and Bevins that they were looking at bluestone monolith quarries, and simply attributed everything convenient to the activities of Neolithic quarrymen. (It's always handy to be able to divert the blame for your cock-ups onto somebody else.)  At no stage do they seem to have considered the possibility that the features they were looking at were entirely natural; and at no stage did they seek to demonstrate, through control digs at other sites, that their so-called "quarries" were in any way exceptional and important. I have challenged them on this many times, but the points I am making have of course been completely ignored.  They are in too deep now to get out of the hole, and they simply keep on digging.......

When it comes to dating techniques such as pollen analysis and radiocarbon dating, we see a similar tendency to read "confirmation" into dates which clearly indicate a long history of occupation -- as at Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog.  At Rhosyfelin the wide scatter of dates is best interpreted as evidence of discontinuous and repeated occupation of the site over millennia, by hunting and fishing parties and maybe by tribesmen looking for small sharp and disposable cutting tools.  At Carn Goedog there are dateable organic materials, but again the date range is so huge that nothing can realistically be cited as being supportive of a monolith quarrying enterprise at the site.  What the dates at Carn Goedog show is that the site has been intermittently used by travellers and hunting parties for millennia -- just like all the other tors of the Preseli uplands.

At Waun Mawn I expect the same thing to happen when the next paper from the MPP team is published.  Again, there are roots, bits of wood and charcoal, and other organic materials showing up on old land surfaces.  Some of them suggest wildfires and others suggest occupation -- but we know already from the abundant prehistoric remains on Waun Mawn that there was a lot of activity here in the Neolithic and the Bronze Age.  But the archaeologists will find clusters of dates, by hook or by crook, and they will claim that the clusters are evidence of (a) the construction of a vast circle of monoliths, and (b) the removal of the bulk of the stones for transport to Stonehenge.  The narrative is, quite literally, set in stone, and is immovable.........

Thinking of digging, it's worth reminding ourselves that one of the characteristics of archaeological excavations is that the archaeologists who open them up are able to describe them as they wish, under conditions of some secrecy, and to then fill them up again, shutting them off from scrutiny by others.  That's a dangerous scenario -- and it places an even greater ethical burden on archaeologists than on geologists and geomorphologists (for example) whose exposures are on open display, available for others to scrutinise at their leisure.  My colleagues and I, in our geomorphology / Quaternary publications, have nowhere to hide;  if our publications are full of bullshit, that will soon be revealed when others turn up and examine the exposures that we have flagged up as being important as "type localities."

So -- corruption everywhere, at least in the small area which I know well.  It would not have been exposed had I not lived within a few miles of the excavation sites and had I not been familiar with all the features given "significance" by the diggers.   How widespread this corruption is, I cannot tell.  But from my conversations with other archaeologists, rather a lot of them have major concerns about the behaviour of certain very powerful members of the archaeology establishment.  Do they have the guts and the self-confidence to write and publish critiques on the lines of those published by Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd, John Downes and me?  Thus far, they are all too timid -- or claim that they cannot comment on other people's work without themselves knowing the sites concerned.  Those of us who observe what is going on are not quite sure whether to laugh or cry.....