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Saturday 7 March 2020

More on sarsens and silicosis

This is a very interesting 2017 short talk from Katy Whitaker on the nineteenth-century (and early twentieth century) sarsen stone cutting industry in Buckinghamshire and Wiltshire:

Well worth watching. She describes how the industry moved from Buckinghamshire (where the sarsens were largely underground, and had to be quarried out of deep pits)  to Wiltshire (where the sarsens were available in profusion on the ground surface.  She gives some interesting detail on how the stones were split into rectangular blocks, using the well-known wedge and feather(plug and feather)  technique.  This is of course the technique that Prof Mike Parker Pearson and others have suggested as having been used at Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog..........well before the advent of metal tools........

Bucks CC photo of a mass of sarsen in the Denner Hill quarry prior to extraction

Bristow photo of large sarsens embedded in "clay with flints" in the Walters Ash quarry, Buckinghamshire.  Note how sharp-edges these stones are.

Since we are on about silicosis, her talk title is very suggestive.  But she does not spend much time on this aspect, apart from mentioning that the two entrepreneurial brothers who started the business of sarsen stone recovery and cutting both dies of silicosis at an early age.   I would have liked more on this,  but in 18 minutes she did pretty well to pack in as much as she did.  She mentions the abundant failures and the decline of the industry because of economic factors, but does not really explore the extent to which the industry was vulnerable because of the high attrition rate in the work-force, with stone cutters maybe going down like ninepins because of lung disease........ and others reluctant to go into the industry because of the perceived health risks.

But this re-focuses our attention on the idea that silicosis could well have been an issue for the builders of Stonehenge.

In situ sarsen stone with drilled preparatory holes for splitting by the wedge and feather method.  For some reason the work on splitting the stone was aborted.  Why?

Another sarsen split with wedges into rectangular blocks -- which were never then taken away and used.  Why?

Two wedge holes on a sarsen block, one maybe never used, and the other with a broken or stuck wedge (made of sarsen?) still in it.  Why was the work never completed?


Summary of conference presentation:

Millions of words have been expended on the archaeology of the north Wiltshire landscape ever since John Aubrey first stumbled across the henge monument and stone settings of Avebury in 1649. New discoveries in old contexts are even now being made – such as the square stone setting inside Avebury’s southern circle (Barker et al 2017). But this whole landscape is covered in archaeological evidence for failure that, to date, has gone unremarked. This paper describes the mass evidence for failure in north Wiltshire’s extensive nineteenth-century sarsen stone quarry. This has been ignored in previous accounts of the stone trade that focus on the family history, and distributed end products, of the business (Crook and Free 2011, Free 1948, 1950, King 1968). Yet the field remains themselves speak almost entirely to failed attempts to extract and cut the stone. As a work-in- progress, this paper illustrates the nature and (partial) extent of this failure: and tentatively suggests that it has implications for both the long-standing narrative of a successful trade developed from small yet enterprising origins, and also for understanding prehistoric sarsen extraction for the construction of those monuments that have enjoyed the lion’s share of archaeological attention. Katy Whitaker (University of Reading)


Dave Maynard said...

Is there a similarity in this family move from digging sarsens out of pits in Buckinghamshire to Wiltshire where they lay in the open to the Neolithic ease of picking loose bluestones off the Preseli hillside rather than quarrying them from a carn?

Do you know of any social histories or rock quarrying on Preseli in recent times? There are certainly signs on some of the carns of historic quarrying, but maybe it is on a smaller, part-time nature than the activity described here.

BRIAN JOHN said...

My friend Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd has studied this topic more closely than I, and I gather he found no evidence of any "organized" quarrying activity. But loose stones were certainly collected off the mountain, and sometimes from the carns, maybe with the permission of the barony of Cemaes if an institution like a Baptist Chapel was involved. I think farmers just went up with their horses and carts and collected suitable gateposts whenever it suited them......

tonyH said...

This is well worth reading and viewing, many photographs as well as thoughts, compiled by Austin Kinsley:-

BRIAN JOHN said...

Yes, nice pics on that site. Interesting that Austin does not make the point that the lack of remaining sarsens in the Stonehenge landscape might be because they have all been removed in the building of Stonehenge....... but that question might shortly be answered when the new research on sarsen provenances is published........

Gordon said...

This may interest you. WANHM Volume 63 1968.