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Wednesday, 31 August 2022

The Lost Circle and the death of due diligence

Now that we have it confirmed (we knew it already, but let that pass) that there was no "lost circle" at Waun Mawn, and that the site had nothing whatsoever to do with Stonehenge, we have a duty to mull over this question:  "How is it that a narrative so unsupported by hard facts and so far removed from reality was accepted by so many people as one of the great archaeological finds of the century?"

The mulling process is all rather intriguing, but also deeply depressing.......

Just a reminder of what happened on February 12th last year.  

On that date we saw one of the largest and most carefully-coordinated high pressure PR / media campaigns I can ever remember. The BBC and the journal "Antiquity" agreed far in advance that an article by Mike Parker Pearson and twelve colleagues on the subject of "the original Stonehenge" would be published on the same day as the first transmission of a "Lost Circle" documentary-drama featuring Prof Alice Roberts. It was titled “Stonehenge: the Lost Circle Revealed”, and was promoted as a "BBC2 special" and as a "world exclusive."    On top of that the journal mounted an aggressive press release and briefing campaign which was accompanied by a parallel campaign (using the same materials) from the university press departments of all 13 of the authors. Then there was a meticulously planned social media campaign involving Alice Roberts herself, English Heritage and other “experts”, following leaks and tweets over the two weeks or more leading up to D-Day......... So the media had plenty of time to prepare their articles, with press images and choice quotes from MPP and Alice Roberts, ready for the day when the press embargo ended.  On the chosen day, there were banner headlines and feature articles galore (just use Google to do a check), and the BBC documentary had very high viewing figures.  Social media (Facebook, Twitter etc) were awash with glowing praise from members of the public and from professional archaeologists -- and all those involved were thoroughly delighted.  Job well done!  Reputations enhanced!

The problem was that it was all based on a vastly irresponsible exercise in interpretative inflation by 13 senior research workers, all of whom should have known better.  They were ultimately responsible for the nonsense in the TV programme, in the article and in the media, but we should not forget the role of a multitude of "enablers" who must ultimately share responsibility for what happened.  The Editor of "Antiquity" journal, Rob Witcher of Durham University, selected the referees for the article and decided to publish it.  He must have been heavily involved in the negotiations with the BBC about linking the publication date to the BBC transmission date. Tomos TV in Cardiff wanted to make the TV documentary, and the director / producer Peter Chinn must have pitched the idea to BBC2.  He was ultimately responsible for the content of the programme, for deciding who to use (including Alice Roberts), and for determining that the programme theme should be a variation on the age-old holy grail / quest story and that MPP should be the hero.  At the BBC end,  somebody at a senior level must have commissioned the TV documentary, and many others must have participated in the liaison with "Antiquity" and in the media campaign.  Press officers in all of the university departments represented on the list of article authors must all have been heavily involved.  In other words,  scores of people were enthusiastically occupied in ensuring that the "lost circle revelations" made the greatest possible impact on the public.

So whatever happened to due diligence?  A responsibility is always placed on both academics and senior people in the media (publishing and broadcasting) to ensure that programmes are truthful, honest and reliable.  But here we have an article that should never have been published and a TV documentary that should never have been transmitted.  Apparently nobody noticed that the article was seriously deficient in hard data and overloaded with speculations and rash assumptions.  Apparently nobody noticed that the TV documentary was similarly defective.  So they all went full steam ahead, gloriously oblivious to the fact that they were spreading a wildly irresponsible myth dressed up as serious research.   Were they all stupid, or were they all just too busy and too swept along by the own hype to seriously examine the content that they were feeding to the public?

Should all these people have known that they were involved in a serious piece of academic mischief?  Of course they should.  Over the past five years the "lost circle" hypothesis so enthusiastically promoted by MPP has been questioned by scores of professional archaeologists on and off the record, and even the briefest of literature checks would have confirmed that there were serious doubts about any sort of circle ever having been present at Waun Mawn. Even the research team's own geophysical investigations had suggested (on at least two occasions)  that the required sockets in the ground were just not there.  And yet nobody had the common sense or the authority to put a stop to this latest "add-on" to the Stonehenge narrative.  Shame on them all!

Of course, following the publication of the two articles in the "Journal of Archaeological Science" in June, the original "Antiquity" article should be retracted, and heads should roll at the BBC for the foolish commissioning of a documentary disaster.  But will there be any corrections on the record, or apologies for the manner in which the public has been misled?  I doubt it.  After all, it's just entertainment, hot news one day and next day quite forgotten.......


Due diligence definition:  “the care that a reasonable person takes to avoid harm to other persons or their property”

Are people actually "harmed" by those who misrepresent or mislead and who make outrageous claims based upon very flimsy evidence?  Of course they are.  It's called deceit or fraud, neither of which should be tolerated in any civilised society.


The two papers which confirm that what some of us have been saying for years is quite correct:

Bevans, R.E., Pearce, N.J.G., Parker Pearson, M., Ixer, R.A., 2022. Identification of the source of dolerites used at the Waun Mawn stone circle in the Mynydd Preseli, west Wales and implications for the proposed link with Stonehenge.  Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 45 (2022) 103556.

Nick J.G. Pearce, Richard E. Bevins, and Rob A. Ixer, 2022. Portable XRF investigation of Stonehenge -- Stone 62 and potential source dolerite outcrops in the Mynydd Preseli, west Wales.   Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 44 (2022) 103525.

It follows that these papers also destroy the credibility of the lost circle / proto Stonehenge hypothesis.


Anonymous said...

Hypothesis: the Stonehengists sense an ideological and existential threat posed by the Ness of Brodgar excavations for the title of ‘most important Neolithic site in the UK’.

BRIAN JOHN said...

That's a reasonable hypothesis. Thanks for the comment -- but please use your name in future!


Big names get listened to. Alice Roberts is not the only famous person to get dragged into this charade, Brian. Pam Ayres was diverted some one hundred miles from her programme about the Cotswolds to help indoctrinate the public with a false hypothesis of Stonehenge. What next? Pam Ayres does Wiltshire and then gets carried off to Oxfordshire to consider the Rollrights?


The buildings on the Ness of Brodgar were almost certainly designed by visitors from Malta. Archaeologists suspected this to be the case years ago.