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Monday, 24 August 2020

The Stonehenge Myth Machine -- high time for a spanner in the works

A stone juggernaut -- another one is the place called Stonehenge.......

There have been a couple of reminders in recent days of just how dangerous the Stonehenge myth machine has become -- running completely out of control and, as far as I can see, deliberately dressing up falsehoods as truth.  It also flattens and demolishes other things that deserve to stay alive.  It may be wonderful as a public relations exercise, and for the commercial interests of English Heritage, but academic rigour appears to have been abandoned.

Reminder Number One.

Thanks to Tony and Dave for bringing this to my attention.  In the latest issue of British Archaeology Gordon Barclay and Kenneth Brophy have been given some space to back up their recent highly influential article on the development of the Late Neolithic "Mythos" of Stonehenge and the Salisbury Plain area being not just a modern "iconic place" but also a place where Neolithic civilisation in the British Isles reached its high point.  The two authors are terribly polite -- and I can understand why -- so they are reluctant to name names;  but it's pretty clear that they have the British archaeological establishment in their sights, and that they are not best pleased by the Stonehenge obsession of Mike Parker Pearson, Tim Darvill, and many other senior academics who have made their careers on the basis that all roads (literally and metaphorically) lead to that ruinous collection of old stones on the chalk downs.

Gordon J. Barclay & Kenneth Brophy (2020): ‘A veritable chauvinism of prehistory’: nationalist prehistories and the ‘British’ late Neolithic mythos, Archaeological Journal,
DOI: 10.1080/00665983.2020.1769399

In their new article, on p 48-49 of British Archaeology for Sept/Oct 2020, the two authors don't mince their words, although they steer clear of mentioning names, and there are no citations of specific articles.  But they complain about the powerful bias of British prehistory, with the greater part of the British Isles treated as "the periphery" and therefore inferior or subservient to the "core" at Stonehenge and Durrington.  They accuse senior archaeologists and the archaeology establishment of ramping up the glorification of the Stonehenge area around ten years ago while marginalising "distant places" as being inferior or underdeveloped.   They also have a dig at "assumptive research" which uses supposedly scientific methods to support, and not to test, the central hypothesis of "Wessex superiority".   They make no bones about it -- they are clearly not impressed by the wild claims of those who have used new technologies to link teeth and bones from far-flung places (or maybe just a few miles away) to Stonehenge and its appendages.  They also have a go at interpretative inflation -- something I have covered several times on this blog.  The blurb at the head of the article refers to "the way in which universities judge academic success" and to the distortion of public understanding of the past.  Yes, the authors do refer to that,  and talk about the sexing up of research because that is what the Research Excellence Framework demands.  And yes, they do the meeting of targets as being nowadays more important than research integrity.  That's a pretty serious charge, which I have made many times on this blog. But this is not the main point of the article, whatever the editorial take on it may be.  The main point is that when people like Mike Parker Pearson and his research team pretend that people came from all corners of Britain "to build Stonehenge" and to "unify Britain", they are talking nonsense.  Yes, they really do use that word........  They complain about endless funding being appropriated to the perpetration and development of the myth, to the detriment of serious research elsewhere, and they make the eminently sound point that when vast sums of money are invested in looking for amazing things on pre-selected places, we should not be too surprised when apparently "amazing things" are found -- even if they do not actually exist.  They could have mentioned the hunt for those imaginary bluestone quarries in Pembrokeshire, or the hunt for proto-Stonehenge, or the hunt for the great Stonehenge sarsen quarry.............

All in all, it's a hard-hitting summary of what is contained in their longer article, and we await with interest the reaction of the establishment.....

Reminder Number Two.

Again, thanks Tony for the alert!  A podcast in the series called "You're dead to me" on BBC Sounds: It's a very jolly radio chat  involving Susan Greaney (who is rapidly becoming "the voice of Stonehenge" -- well, I suppose it is her job, after all),  Greg Jenner and Richard Herring.  OK, it was entertainment and comedy, so there were a lot of smart one-liners and a lot of giggling -- but there was un underlying serious purpose to the show -- namely to popularise history and prehistory and to allow "the truth" about Stonehenge to emerge from a freewheeling jovial chat between three articulate and intelligent people.  That's where the trouble began, because Susan was there as "the expert" who was presumed to know the truth.  But what we got was one small myth after another, and in a broader sense a very crude portrayal of Stonehenge as the "centre of things" -- towards which things (people, animals, raw materials) migrated from the farthest-flung parts of the British Isles.  This is exactly the narrative that Barclay and Brophy are protesting rather loudly about.  Not surprisingly, Susan appears not to have heard of them or their article ...... but if she was aware the criticism of the "Mythos" she carefully avoided any mention of it.


So to her little falsehoods.  There were so many that I gave up on making detailed notes, but these come to mind:

1.  She referred to the"newly discovered bluestone quarries" in Pembrokeshire.  Mythology, not fact.

2.  In talking about the Darvill - Wainwright theory about Stonehenge as a healing centre, she said that bluestones are associated with healing in the folk traditions of Pembrokeshire.  Mythology, not fact.  Darvill and Wainwright invented that -- there is no foundation for it at all.

3.  She said that the only obstacle to the human transport of the bluestones from Pembrokeshire to Stonehenge was a shortage of manpower.  She must know that that is nonsense.  There were immense Neolithic technical and geographical / environmental difficulties that render the human transport of 80 or so bluestones vanishingly unlikely.  She also said that the Millenium Stone project failed because of the shortage of volunteers to drag the stone.  I was there. She is wrong. Even with modern ropes and low-friction netting and with the occasional help of cranes and tractors, and with abundant manpower, it was a nightmare to move the stone on asphalt toad surfaces; it would have been well-nigh impossible if we had tried to move the stone cross-country through fields and woodland.

4.  She said that in her view Stonehenge was completed as an "immaculate monument" -- there is just not enough evidence to support that assertion.  More and more experts seem to be moving to an acceptance that the monument was not finished.

5.  She said that "most geologists" have declared that the glacial transport of the bluestones could not have happened.  Which "most geologists" has she talked to?  They must be a different batch of geologists from the ones I talk to.  In any case, geological opinions are pretty irrelevant here -- most geologists have never even thought about Stonehenge or heard of the bluestone controversy.  Of much greater validity are the opinions of geomorphologists and glaciologists.  In other words, people like me.

6.  She said that it is now accepted that the glaciers of Britain did not move as far south as Stonehenge.  That is still a matter of debate.  The key question is not how far south the glaciers extended, but how far EAST.  She may, like other archaeologists, have a problem with the idea that glaciers can move in any direction, and that as far as the Bristol Channel is concerned, the ice came from the west and flowed eastwards.

7.  She said that the new research techniques (isotope measurements, DNA studies etc)  into bones, teeth etc have established the movement of animals and people from far away to Stonehenge and Durrington Walls, implying that they were drawn from the periphery towards the centre.  As Barclay and Brophy have pointed out, this is a travesty, involving many misreadings of the data and huge interpretative inflation --  with no attempt even to explore the possibility that any one of a multitude of Neolithic and Bronze Age sites in these islands had a similar -- and maybe even greater -- traffic of animals and people from far and wide.

There was more -- but I got a bit fed up after a while.  What I did find concerning was Susan's tendency of pontificate or talk down to her audience, as if to say "Listen to me.  I'm the expert, and what I tell you is the truth -- the other wacky theories flying around are all good fun, but are best ignored by serious people who want the facts."

This new broadcast follows hard on the heels of this:

In conclusion, I am with Barclay and Brophy all the way on this -- and it would be rather useful if the wheels were to come off the Stonehenge juggernaut and if we could have some respect for the facts and a more nuanced interpretation of what went on in the British Isles 5,000 years ago.


chris johnson said...

I listened to the Greaney program, or most of it, before switching off. Another bbc program misusing science for light entertainment aimed at the slightly brighter, like the one with Brian Cox. Glad you could summon up the energy to demolish the Greaney story telling. It was all so incredibly matey and over simplified as if the slightly brighter cannot handle facts

BRIAN JOHN said...

Agree, Chris. There is a general dumbing down of "learned publications" because of the "sexing up" imperative-- with impact valued more highly than reliability. Another trend that seems to be getting clearer is the pretence that the use of high-tech equipment in research projects somehow makes them scientific. So called "scientific" papers are often nothing of the sort, even though they may be replete with complex graphics, tables and appendices of data. Being a good technician does not make you a good scientist. It's good to see B&B homing in on this.....

Tony Hinchliffe said...

I liked your mention, and illustration of, the 'Juggernaut' at the top of the Post. When I "Wiki'd" it, I was amused to see that a more modern, comparative word used nowadays is 'bandwagon'!!
We certainly have seen a trend for archaeologists and their ilk jumping on the bandwagon/ juggernaut, and steamrolling their way across more nuanced interpreters of prehistoric Britain.
The great singer/ songwriter James Taylor has these lines in his early song "Steamroller [Blues]":

"You can bring your enemies to their knees
with the possible exception of the North Vietnamese"!

Equally, the Stonehenge/ English Heritage storyteller narrative may try to do its best/worst to lull or hypnotise the great British/ U.S./World public audience into meekly ACCEPTING their romanticised/ pseudo - scientific version of the 'Story of Stonehenge', but there are always people like us on this Blog, who remain solid and sceptical, using commonsense like Brophy and Barclay, our Scottish compatriots. Together with Barclay and Brophy, we seem to be convincing the likes of British Archaeology magazine into realising that there are usually two sides to ANY 'story.'

Tony Hinchliffe said...

Yes, rabid Radio 4 or Radio 3 archaeology presenters must cease this tendency to "talk down" to their captive audiences. They risk becoming like some so - called celebrity archaeologists of the 'Sir Mortimer Wheelwright/ Geoffrey Wailer' 57 varieties. And as for the convincingly avuncular Monsieur MPP, well, answers on a postcard.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Sorry for my mistake in referring to "Barclay and Beattie" (now corrected) -- I must have been thinking rugby at the time! John Barclay, Johnny Beattie and Kelly Brown were the members of Scotland's "killer back row" about 5 years ago........... good players, all three......

Tony Hinchliffe said...

Dave and I reckon you may have been thinking of the great KEVIN BEATTIE, the Ipswich Town association football [round ball] footballer. His footballer peer group insist he was the best centre back never to have played for England, probably because early injury prematurely ended his career.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Nah -- never heard of him.......... Johnny it has to be.

Tony Hinchliffe said...

I think I will summon up all my powers of politeness,persuasion and diplomacy and WRITE to English Heritage, Stonehenge [it has its own Postcode!!], and suggest to them A LITTLE MORE NUANCE be used in their presentation skills, with particular attention paid to how they portray the link between the BLUESTONES, the PRESELI HILLS, and the role of GLACIATION.