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Tuesday, 9 November 2021

The First Circle of Stonehenge -- review

This 55-minute programme, broadcast as part of the "Secrets of the Dead" series on PBS (the Public Service Broadcasting channel in the USA),  has now been made available on the web.  It was made by Tomos TV, using footage also made for the BBC programme that used Alice Roberts as the interviewer.  So there is a lot of wind and rain, and a lot of Mike Parker Pearson in various states of sogginess.  The Alice Roberts programme was pretty dreadful, and this is even worse.  It has a rather typical American sound track, and seems to have been aimed at people with a mental age of about five.  Apparently it was shown on the Science Channel in the USA, and indeed science and scientists are referred to in reverential tones in the programme narrative, as if we are expected to accept everything trotted out that is deemed to be "scientific"...........  the trouble is that most of "the science" in this programme is pseudo-scientific claptrap, of which more in a moment.  Here is the link.  I suggest you watch the programme, and then read on.

On one of those ephemeral Facebook pages dealing the Neolithic matters, Giles Davies accuses me of shouting and screaming abuse whenever MPP is mentioned.  Far be it from me ever to behave in such a fashion, but I will call a spade a spade.  I will subject anything I read (or see in a TV documentary) to proper scrutiny, and I believe it is the duty of anybody who has a scientific training to do the same. Those who keep quiet just because they love a good story, or because they are too lazy to think seriously about what they are being asked to believe, do a disservice to themselves and to society at large.  They facilitate the peddling of fantasies and lies dressed up as "facts" and disguised as "the truth."  Anything for an easy life, maybe?

Just to make things clear, this is not an archaeological programme and it certainly isn't a science programme -- it is (like the BBC prog with Alice Roberts) a classic "hero narrative" about one man's quest, against all the odds, to find the Holy Grail.  Should we blame Tomos TV, the BBC and PSB for that? To some extent.  They do it all the time, perfectly cynically, since it resonates with the viewers.  However,  I think we might assume that MPP himself might have something to do with it......

To the programme itself.  It is crammed with assumptions, speculations, outrageous claims, misreported scientific findings, evasions and downright nonsense.  Just to home in on a few points.  Contrary to what is claimed, it is not accepted that Stonehenge was a stone monument right from the very beginning.  It is not accepted by all experts that the Aubrey Holes held a ring of bluestones.   The bluestones were not "mined" and they were not even quarried.  The geology work involving Richard Bevins and the geochemistry work involving Jane Evans has NOT established beyond any doubt that some of the bluestone monoliths at Stonehenge actually came from Carn Goedog and Craig Rhosyfelin.  The "zircon research" is misrepresented, and it actually did nothing at all to pinpoint the sources of Stonehenge bluestones.  The idea that there are "detached pillars ready to go" at Carn Goedog is fanciful in the extreme.  The quarrying "evidence" at the two postulated quarry sites is, to put it mildly, hotly disputed.  The idea that there are stone trestles, pillars, pivots, platforms and rails at the two "quarries" does not bear scrutiny.  

In spite of yet another jolly piece of experimental archaeology, assisted by 30 or so willing schoolchildren, there is not a shred of real evidence to support the idea of overland transport of 80 or so bluestones from Preseli to Stonehenge. (In the programme the "heroic journey" is of course presented as fact....) It is admitted in the programme that all of the other known stone circles and Neolithic monuments in the UK are made from stones that were immediately accessible in the vicinity; in order to try and explain why Stonehenge is a bizarre anomaly takes a lot of nerve, a vivid imagination, and a lot of evidence fabrication. 

The famous hazelnuts and their radiocarbon dates are flagged up as being involved in a "Eureka" moment, but the assemblage of radiocarbon dates from Rhosyfelin is so confusing that it "conclusively falsifies" the quarrying hypothesis.  This was pointed out by Prof Danny McCarroll long ago, and I agree with him.  All the dates show is that there was a very long history of use of the site; they tell us nothing at all about quarrying.  There were indeed many prehistoric megalithic structures in the Preseli area, but we don't know how thick on the ground Neolithic features were, and there is no evidence that Preseli had an especially dense concentration of features, let alone a "special emphasis" on stone use.  

As far as Waun Mawn is concerned, we see nice graphics but nothing that can seriously be referred to as evidence.  Some chaps knocking their trowels on the ground and pronouncing hollows as "sockets" is not exactly convincing. As Pitts and Darvill have pointed out, the "stone sockets" are too shallow to have been used for standing stones.  The use of the "110m diameter" circle as a means of making a link between Waun Mawn and Stonehenge is fanciful.  There is no evidence of any monoliths from either Rhosyfelin or Carn Goedog ever having been used at Waun Mawn. The OSL "evidence" simply shows that there was occupation of this area around the time that Neolithic features were being created in the landscape -- that should surprise nobody.  Other less convenient dates are simply ignored.  The idea that one Stonehenge bluestone fits "like a key in a lock" into one of the shallow and irregular depressions in the ground surface is yet another fantasy which has caused much amusement.  

The strontium isotope evidence presented by Jane Evans as showing that people from West Wales travelled to Stonehenge is not even supported by her own map shown in the programme.  The solar alignment "evidence" is so vague as to be worthless.  There is not a shred of evidence to link Waun Mawn with Stonehenge.  And then we have the idea that the people of West Wales were attracted to Stonehenge because they liked the look of all those "periglacial stripes", reconstructed vividly with the use of computer graphics........oh dear.......enough said.

I could go on. I haven't even got to the spirits of the ancestors and mass migration yet, let alone all that portentious stuff at the end of the programme.  I'm not shouting and screaming.  I'm just feeling rather sad that serious scientists have allowed themselves to get caught up in this sorry business, and that the media have allowed themselves to be used for spreading it far and wide.   We are now, I think, not just looking at a ruling hypothesis and its effect on the thought processes of otherwise intelligent human beings -- we are looking at something more akin to a pathological obsession afflicting a group of people who are in a very deep hole. 



Tom Flowers said...

The striations in the Avenue leading up to Stonehenge are not periglacial. Respecting the 50-degree axis of Stonehenge, those striations were caused by the transport of sarsens. Professor Wolfgang of the Neubauer Ludwig Boltzmann Institute Archpro, proved this when he found that the striations make a turn at Stonehenge Bottom to head for the Avon valley at Hackthorn. “Operation Stonehenge. What lies Beneath Part 2. BBC Friday 10 Nov 2017.”
So, MPP should have made more of these striations to figure out what really made them -- and how. Or perhaps we should ask Phil Harding, who quietly stood aside when MPP uncovered them, and said nothing!

BRIAN JOHN said...

I don't agree with you, Tom. My interpretation of those features is contained in a number of posts on this blog.

ND Wiseman said...

Hi gang -- me again, popping in from lurker status.

Dear Tom, we've had these conversations before; please don't make me get out of this chair.
The vaunted striations along the Stonehenge Avenue are naturally occurring and were created long before there were any people in the area. Probably not glacial, I believe they were created by maybe centuries of freezing, thawing and represent erosion from permafrost meltwater runoff. Anyone who's stood on that sloped approach cannot fail to reach the same conclusion.

I've heard the 'Stone Dragging' argument a number of times, but here's the real story. There is, in fact, a set of rutted wagon tracks on the west side of the Avenue. These were created by a practical farm-to-market shortcut from Larkhill to Normanton, as there was no direct route by road. Look at any aerial of the Henge in dry season and you'll clearly see the trail emerge from the Avenue, skirt the Stones below the North Barrow and blend into the old south-bound Byway-12 trackway. These ruts are unrelated to the natural striations.

Now tell me how logical it would be to physically drag a 25-ton stone along the ground for twenty miles. This would be a fine example of gross, back-breaking inefficiency. Except for the wagon tracks, no combination of gouged patterns are the same width apart, each wandering slightly right or left according to small differences in the lumpy chalk bed. So no sledges either.

Also, the Cursus side of the stripes and the Stonehenge section both descend into Stonehenge Bottom where runoff created that now-dry river or lake. These are two discrete pattern-sets unrelated to each other. Dragged or sledged stone would create even stripes along the entire length.

They are all roughly the same depth. If I were transporting a large series of extremely awkward stones, I would want to use the same ruts my father and grandfather did. These smooth, generational scours would be clearly detectable as human-made to the exclusion of all other explanations, but they don't exist.
Okay -- on to the TV show. It's the same program that was presented the year before, minus a gushing Alice Roberts. I wonder why that is ... American consumption?

Professionally, Brian and I agree on very little. However, on the matter of this television broadcast we do agree on many of the same points.

Mawn Waun is not shown to be a circle. If it Is a circle, its diameter is Not the same as the Stonehenge ditch diameter and wishful thinking cannot make it so.
The Bluestones of which it was comprised could have come from anywhere, and could have wound up anywhere.
There were never 56 of them, and though it's possible the remainder might have been culled from elsewhere, why would any be left behind? Those remainders are easily equal in quality to the crappy 1st-gen Blues on the Plain.
The similarly shaped hole that resembles the base of BS-62 is definitely interesting but hardly conclusive. The commonly seen angular shape of these pipes all begin to look the same after a while.
Is that really a solstice alignment? And if it is, so what? They try to make it sound as though this site and Stonehenge were the only places this occurred. Perhaps you can imagine my response to that!

I also take issue with the conviction with which the conclusion is presented. It's an interesting site, situated in an important location, but to convince me it's the source of the Stonehenge Bluestones will take a little more real evidence than we've been given.


PeteG said...

I photographed the avenue dig extensively and nowhere do the striations turn right.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thank you folks. Neil -- good to hear from you again! And glad that we seem to agree on that TV programme and the dangers of looking at everything through the Stonehenge lense ........

Tony Hinchliffe said...

This nonsense perpetrated by Messrs Parker Pearson & Co.UK & USA about " discovering" the first circle of Stonehenge in SW Wales is akin to the depth of thinking necessary to convince folk of the existence of ley lines.

Jon Morris said...

"Now tell me how logical it would be to physically drag a 25-ton stone along the ground for twenty miles"

A Ceremonial procession where the act of dragging has a ritual importance?

Something like that cropped up in the doco. Imagine it's post processual thinking.

ND Wiseman said...

The act of arduously transporting big honking stones across miles of uneven terrain may well have attained a kind of ritual stature, yes, but I'm pretty sure they didn't do it for fun or competition.

The remark was intended to illustrate that the grooves in the Avenue could not have been made by the corner of a stone being dragged. Of course they obviously used some kind of mechanism like a sledge on rollers or some such.

Furthermore, I'm not at all committed to the idea that the future Avenue was used for stone transport at all. It's pointed in the wrong direction for one thing. Overall ground contours tend to persuade that the easiest approach would have been from more directly north.

Jon Morris said...

Aye. Ritual is a fun word used to explain any theory that doesn't actually make any sense (to people living today). Only mentioned it because the idea of transporting stuff for the sake of transporting stuff (using the explanation that the journey was more important than the destination) seems to be cropping up quite a bit.

There's another review of this doco here:

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thanks Jon -- yes the review on "Landscape and Monumentality' is not exactly flattering. The author (who makes many of the same points as me) says at the end "Finding Bigfoot is more convincing." Spot on.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Here is the link:

Tony Hinchliffe said...

In my opinion, the notion that what Neil describes as "a 25 - ton stone being dragged across the ground for 20 miles" is another case of how Stonehenge mysteries end up being explained by myths. We DO NOT KNOW that them thar sarsen beasts did in fact all come from West Woods for sure, DESPITE what the Brighton - based scientist is now claiming. I recommend you all read carefully " The Stonehenge Landscape: analysing the Stonehenge World Heritage Site", 2015, by David Field & Messrs Bowden, Soutar & Barber, English Heritage. David Field in particular knows intimately the physical geography of the MOD - controlled Salisbury Plain army SPTA. Plenty of evidence at of the existence of sizeable sarsens in historic times.

Jon Morris said...

"We DO NOT KNOW that them thar sarsen beasts did in fact all come from West Woods for sure, DESPITE what the Brighton - based scientist is now claiming"

Have you read the papers? Looks solid to me. Danger of conflating stuff that is certain with stuff that's just speculation.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Jon -- there is nothing certain about any of this. Tony is quite right to question the West Woods assumptions -- because that is exactly what Ixer and Bevins have done in their 2021 paper on the sarsens.

ND Wiseman said...

Re: West Wood sarsens.
I don't know, fellers, the chemistry seems pretty solid to me. My conversations with Dr Nash lean heavily toward confirmation. Rob and Richard are also as convinced as anyone can be.

But remember: there's still 2 SH Sarsens that have yet to be provenanced, except to say they did Not come from West Woods. So maybe Tony's thoughts on the MOD lands are in the running.
That said, even Dartmoor is possible -- so who knows.

BRIAN JOHN said...

We aren't really going to have any progress on the West Woods debate until David has done much more sampling in the Stonehenge environment, and much more sampling in West Woods in order to establish the variability in sarsen geochemistry in that neighbourhood.

Tony Hinchliffe said...

Jon - I have a mindset that is based upon my training as an Information Librarian. I carefully read a great deal of what Brian puts on this Blog. I also used to be in direct communication with Rob Ixer. I have worked in local government information, and also more specifically for a Welsh local government environmental planning department where I also used my Geography degree background; also that same Welsh authority's architect's department. I have also prioritised visiting the Stonehenge Visitor Centre in order to purchase the Stonehenge Landscape....World Heritage Site English Heritage book recently. I now have 3 books part - authored by English Heritage Field Archaeologist David Field who I have also talked to during a Salisbury Plain walk and at WANHS talks. Similarly, I have been on Salisbury Plain walks with Julian Richards; also with my former Libraries & Museums colleague and friend Roy Canham, MBE, both on WANHS walks AND on inspections of Salisbury Plain MOD SPTA Conservation Group visits.

Tom Flowers said...

Hi all. I seem to have woken up some reviewers of Brian’s excellent Blog. So let me say this. First off, when it comes to human transport versus Brian’s glacial theory, I sit firmly on the fence.
Furthermore, nothing coming out of an archaeologist’s mouth since 1965 can be believed. That is a proven fact.
As far as I can see, no independent individual (Who is David?) is ever allowed to verify archaeologist’s results.
Can anyone prove that a sarsen orthostat was dragged from West Wood to Stonehenge? No!
Does anyone other than an archaeologist have proof that a sample had been taken from that stone, not years ago, but a sample specially drilled out to add to the present surfeit of mysteries? No. And should archaeologists be allowed to drill a few more stones in secret to prove what they say? No!
Has a trench, verified or not, been dug across the cursus to show that the striations do in fact cross it? No!
Despite it all, it is my opinion that a sarsen was dragged along the Avon valley -- I have driven along it enough times on my way to Stonehenge. But hey! What do I know? None of us are privy to such information. Let’s form a union!
On the solstice alignment of postulated Mawn Waun. They say that two of its stones were turned 90-degrees to mark it. Well, two stones leaving or entering Avebury’s Sanctuary are also rotated 90-degrees, but they don’t seem to point at anything other than the Avenue.