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

Thursday 30 March 2023

New Altar Stone article

The labelled sample, purportedly from the underside of the Altar Stone.  
Source:  Salisbury Museum.

There is a new article from Richard Bevins et al about another old sample found in Salisbury Museum -- numbered Wilts 277 and 2010K 240.  It appears that the sample was taken in 1844.  According to the authors, this sample matches others examined in the past which were taken from fragments found in the vicinity of the Altar Stone but which could not be attributed to the stone with any degree of certainty.

Tim Daw has done a brief post on this, on his blog, with the usual throw-away lines -- for example "hopefully we are a bit closer to finding the outcrop it was dragged from" and  "the bluestones which were brought from west Wales in Neolithic time".  As ever, Tim sees himself as the chief apologist for the human transport theory, and cannot resist reminding us all of that fact whenever he gets the chance............  Anyway, moving swiftly on, here are the details:

Assessing the authenticity of a sample taken from the Altar Stone at Stonehenge in 1844 using portable XRF and automated SEM-EDS. 2023.  
Richard E. Bevins, Nick J.G. Pearce,Duncan Pirrie, Rob A. Ixer, Stephen Hillier, Peter Turner, Matthew Power.  Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Vol 49,  Elsevier, June 2023, 013973

I'm interested that the authors of this article refer to the bluestones as "a diverse range of lithologies exotic to the Wiltshire Landscape."  Well, there are 46 of them at the last count, in the full assemblage of standing stones, stumps and other rock debris at or near Stonehenge.  So is common sense breaking out at last?  That would be nice.....

Sadly, the article is stuck behind a paywall, so it is accessible to only a privileged few.......


Megalithic Stone 80 at Stonehenge, the so-called Altar Stone, is traditionally considered to be part of the bluestone assemblage, a diverse range of lithologies exotic to the Wiltshire Landscape. However, the Altar Stone, a grey-green micaceous sandstone, is anomalous when compared with the other (predominantly igneous) bluestones, in terms of its lithology, size and weight, and certainly in terms of its provenance. Recent investigations into the character of the Altar Stone have focussed on excavated fragments now attributed to be derived from the Altar Stone, as well as non-destructive portable XRF (pXRF) analysis on the Altar Stone itself (re-analysed as part of this investigation). In this study we have investigated a sample from the collections of Salisbury Museum, 2010K 240 (also referred to as Wilts 277), which bears a label recording that it was collected from the underside of the Altar Stone in 1844. We examined the sample petrographically and also by using pXRF and automated SEM-EDS techniques. Like the excavated fragments, this sample from the Altar Stone shows a distinctive mineralogy characterised by the presence of baryte and kaolinite along with abundant calcite cement. The presence of baryte leads to relatively high Ba being recorded during pXRF analysis (0.13 wt%). Combined, these results validate the history recorded on the specimen label and, as far as we know, makes this the only specimen taken purposely from that megalith. As such sample 2010K 240 provides a ‘go-to’ proxy for future studies of the Altar Stone as well as validating those samples recently assigned to the Altar Stone. In addition, this study demonstrates the vital importance of historic collection specimens and their preservation, conservation and documentation, as well as the role pXRF can play in the analysis of sensitive cultural artefacts and monuments that cannot be analysed using invasive or destructive techniques.

Tuesday 28 March 2023

Boles Barrow 2023 Dig -- official photos

Some fantastic photography from Exercise Bluestone, under the auspices of Nightingale Archaeology, Wessex Archaeology and MOD.  The photographer was Harvey Mills.

Most of the photos -- with high definition and beautifully composed -- are of the dig, with Julian Richards slaving away manfully along with a small group of diggers. But these are the photos that took my eye.  We await further info on these finds and their surface characteristics.

The two above are recorded as sarsen and "burnt sarsen".

This is an image of a Roman coin found in the dig. Presumably front and back.

No doubt we will soon see further images of the egg-sized pebble reported on Twitter.......

Monday 27 March 2023

The Boles Barrow pebble


It's a pity to see the shallow dig at Boles Barrow coming to an end after just four or five days -- it looks as if the dig was quite literally just scraping the surface, without examining the interior of the long barrow.  So we are not going to be any the wiser about the famous Boles Barrow bluestone boulder (or half boulder)..........

It looks as if the dig has turned up lots of chalk debris and bits of flint, and a few small flint artefacts.  But from the material published on Twitter, this looks to be the most interesting find -- a very well rounded pebble that is currently being interpreted as either a rounded flint nodule (vanishingly unlikely, I should have thought), or else a deliberately rounded worked nodule (also very unlikely).  Richard Osgood speculates that it might be a hammerstone, and that might of course be confirmed if percussion scare are found on it after it has had a good wash.

But to me, if it looks like a rounded pebble, it probably is a rounded pebble -- and that means it comes from a sedimentary deposit, probably in the neighbourhood.   But before we get too excited, let's hear more about its context  -- and I hope that photos showing the pebble in situ will shortly become available........

It was press day today at the dig site, with the Defence Minister being shown around -- and also a visit from our old friend Mike Pitts......

PS  29.3.23

Tin Daw has put a piece on his blog about this pebble.  Let's see whether it's flint or not. I see that he has pulled a certain geologist in for his opinion -- and that he thinks it might be a flint nodule or an echinoid fossil.  Without having seen and handled the pebble, I have my doubts on both suggestions.  Flint nodules are notoriously lumpy and irregular -- and if it is flint it must have been subjected to a considerable amount of abrasion in a suitable environment.

Flint nodules -- anything but smooth and egg-shaped

 If this is an echinoid fossil, then there will be fossil characteristics that are unmistakeable. The other suggested origin is that it is a river pebble "brought in" by our worthy ancestors as a hammer stone.  I don't see how a 5 cm pebble could be used as a hammer stone, except maybe by a Neolithic jeweller making delicate ornaments for his darling wife.........  But as usual with our old friends, they studiously devalue natural processes and choose to ignore the possibility that this pebble is a rounded clast derived from a local degraded sedimentary layer -- for example a local till deposit. 

But don't let's get too excited -- let's see first of all what it is made of.

Friday 24 March 2023

Boles Barrow bluestone briefing


This is a nice pic which was put onto Twitter -- showing Julian Richards on the briefing at the beginning of the dig, showing volunteers the difference between "bluestone" and flint and sarsen.   There is a substantial chunk of spotted dolerite at the far end of the table.  I assume that is what the diggers are hoping to find, or not find, as the case may be......

The other bits and pieces on the table, might, I suppose, include bits of foliated rhyolite, unspotted dolerite, volcanic ash and Lower Palaeozoic sandstone.

 Given that there are around 46 types of bluestone known from Salisbury Plain, I hope the diggers are being briefed to recognize that anything which is not sarsen or flint might have considerable importance.  They should also be keeping an eye open for rounded pebbles, rather than sharp-edged fragments or shards, which could tell us a lot about any Quaternary or Holocene sediments at this site. 

Anyway, may they have an enjoyable 10 days or so!!

Thursday 23 March 2023

Stonehenge -- the calendar sceptics

Tim Darvill's calendar.  Magli and Belmonte don't believe a word of it........

This is a direct attack on Tim Darvill's recent article about the Stonehenge "calendar" -- also published in Antiquity journal.  But the article is behind a paywall -- so there is no way that we can check it out unless we belong to the privileged few.........  but we do have a press release that tells us what the article is all about.  It is mercifully free of purple prose -- but nonetheless, this is a perfect illustration of the point I made the other day in proposing another Razor designed to uphold academic standards.

Magli, G., & Belmonte, J. (2023). Archaeoastronomy and the alleged ‘Stonehenge calendar’. Antiquity, 1-7. doi:10.15184/aqy.2023.33


In a recent Antiquity article, Darvill (2022) proposed that the mid third-millennium BC Stage 2 sarsen settings of Stonehenge (comprising the Trilithon Horseshoe, Sarsen Circle and the Station Stone Rectangle) were conceived in order to represent a calendar year of 365.25 days—that is, a calendar identical in duration to the Julian calendar. In the present article, the authors argue that this proposal is unsubstantiated, being based as it is on a combination of numerology, astronomical error and unsupported analogy.

Here is the Press Release:

PRESS RELEASE - 23 MARCH 2023 15:52
Stonehenge: a new study by Politecnico di Milano unveils one of the mysteries surrounding the archaeological site

Stonehenge is still attracting the attention of scholars and researchers more than four millennia after its building. An academic study by Politecnico di Milano has proposed a scientific explanation of Stonehenge's original function - debunking some current theories about the mysterious monument from the Neolithic period.

One of the most recent theories to be debunked is that Stonehenge is a giant calendar based on a numerological interpretation of Egyptian and Julian calendars with 365 days and 12 months of the year. According to professors Giulio Magli of Politecnico di Milano and Professor Juan Antonio Belmonte of Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias and Universidad de La Laguna in Tenerife, this assertion is incorrect.

In their article, published in Antiquity, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in archaeology, the authors demonstrate that the theory is based on a series of forced interpretations of the monument's connections to astronomy.

Firstly, Magli and Belmonte analysed the astronomical element. Although the solstice alignment is accurate, the authors show that the slow movement of the sun on the horizon on days close to the solstices makes it impossible to ascertain the correct functioning of the supposed calendar, as the structure, made up of huge stones, should be able to distinguish very precise positions, less than 1/10 of a degree.

Secondly, they analysed the numerology. Attributing meanings to numbers on a monument is always a risky procedure. In this case, a key number of the supposed calendar, namely 12, can not be found in any element of Stonehenge, nor can any means of accounting for the additional intercalary day every four years. While other numbers are not taken into account - the Stonehenge portal, for example, was made of two stones.

Finally, they looked at the cultural patterns. An early elaboration of the 365-day plus one calendar is documented in Egypt only two millennia after Stonehenge (and came into use centuries later). Therefore, although the people who built it took the calendar from Egypt, they perfected it themselves. Furthermore, they also invented a structure to keep track of time, as nothing similar ever existed in ancient Egypt. Finally, a transfer and elaboration of notions with Egypt that took place around 2600 BC have no archaeological basis.

"All in all, the supposed Stonehenge Neolithic solar calendar is a purely modern construct, with a poor archaeoastronomical and calendrical basis. As repeatedly happened in the past. For example, with the claims (proven untenable by modern research) that Stonehenge was used to predict eclipses, the monument reverts to its role as a mute witness to the sacred landscape of its builders, a role which - Magli and Belmonte stress - in no way detracts from its extraordinary fascination".

More on cattle traction

This is and interesting new open access article,  about the use of cattle to do "work" in the Neolithic period -- based upon the damage done to their bones as compared to the lack of damage on comparable animals that have not had working lives.  I enjoyed reading this; it's based largely on studies of bones found in a Neolithic context at Kilshane, County Dublin in Ireland. 

First evidence for cattle traction in Middle Neolithic Ireland: A pivotal element for resource exploitation
Fabienne Pigière, and Jessica Smyth

Plos One: January 26, 2023

The power harnessed by cattle traction was undeniably a valuable asset to Neolithic communities. However, data are still lacking on the timing, purposes, and intensity of exploitation of draught animals. This paper sheds new light on a region of Europe–Neolithic Ireland–for which our knowledge is particularly restricted as evidence from both Ireland and Britain in this period has been so far patchy and inconclusive. Using a suite of methods and refined criteria for traction identification, we present new and robust data on a large faunal assemblage from Kilshane, Co. Dublin that strongly support cattle traction in the middle 4th millennium BC in Ireland. Bone pathology data combined with osteometric analysis highlight specialised husbandry practices, producing large males, possibly oxen, for the purpose of cattle traction. This new technology has important implications for early agriculture in the region since it provides a key support for more extensive land management practices as well as for megalithic construction, which increased considerably in scale during this period. We argue that access to draught animals and the exploitation of associated resources were at the heart of wider changes that took place in Neolithic Ireland in the second half of the 4th millennium BC.

Already there are some speculations on social media about draught animals being used for the transport of the bluestones from West Wales to Stonehenge.  That idea is of course not new -- but what is new is this piece of research, which shows that there were draught animals in Neolithic Ireland, and that they seem to havge worked hard before they were killed and eaten.  But to go any further than that, without any further evidence, is rather dangerous.  The authors speculate about the use of draught animals fopr megalith construction, but they provide no evidence.

Here are the relevant parts of the article:

Wheeled transport

Elements from wheeled vehicles have been identified in several places in the Middle East and Europe in the second half of the 4th millennium BC, with recent chronological refinement as well as typological dissimilarities suggesting wheeled vehicles appear simultaneously in both areas [53]. In western continental Europe, wooden wheels and axles from vehicles have been recovered in wetland environments from Switzerland (Vinelz, Zurich), Germany (Waldsee/Aulendorf, Moorweg, Lengener Moor, Profen), and the Netherlands (Eese) [7, 15, 54]. In Britain, a Bronze Age wheel was recovered at Flag Fen [55]. To date, the earliest evidence for wheeled transport in Ireland is an alder block wheel fragment recovered from a Late Bronze Age trackway in Edercloon Bog, Co. Roscommon [56] (c. 1200–970 cal. BC). Prior to this find, the earliest known wheels were a pair of Early Iron Age block wheels recovered from a bog in Doogarymore, also in Roscommon [57, 58] (c. 520–390 cal. BC). With a gap of more than two millennia between the Edercloon wheel fragment and the Kilshane evidence for cattle traction there seems no link to the appearance of wheeled transport in Ireland, at least based on current evidence.

Construction of megalithic monuments—Enabling passage tomb architecture?

Ireland, like several northwest European regions in the 4th and 3rd millennia BC, is characterised by its megalithic architecture, and the link between megalith construction and the use of cattle for traction deserves consideration. In the Funnel Beaker (TRB) culture of northern Europe, evidence includes wheel tracks associated with the megalithic tomb at Flintbek [59, 60], engravings of cattle teams yoked to two-wheeled vehicles at the Züschen I megalithic tomb [61, 62], and the four-wheeled wagons with drawbars and yokes depicted on the pottery vessel from Bronocice [63]. In the later TRB, c. 3500 cal. BC onwards, it has been argued that land clearance for cultivation with the cattle-driven ard went hand in hand with the use of the retrieved material–mostly small and medium-sized glacial erratics—for megalith construction [64]. In 4th millennium BC Ireland, the picture is somewhat different and certainly more fragmented. As outlined above, based on the current state of knowledge, ard cultivation, wheeled transport and cattle traction seem not to appear simultaneously, and the size ranges of stones utilised in the construction of megalithic monuments frequently exceed those in TRB tombs.

Recent programmes of radiocarbon dating and mathematical modelling have also resulted in considerable blurring of traditional tomb typo-chronologies [6569], with early passage tombs, court tombs and portal tombs all conceivably contemporary with one another and the Kilshane cattle. Nevertheless, the small amount of pottery from the Kilshane enclosure ditch, comprising a Middle Neolithic broad-rimmed globular bowl and a single sherd from a second globular bowl [22], links our traction data more closely to passage tomb horizons. The absence of evidence for cattle traction (and oxen) in the Irish Neolithic has created an understandable reluctance to speculate on the construction methods of passage tombs and megalithic monuments in general [7074]. In the light of the Kilshane data, some well-recognised aspects of passage tombs as a monument class can be re-evaluated, namely their tendency to be sited at higher elevations than earlier monuments [75, 76] and with a high degree of inter-visibility, argued to reflect more extensively networked Middle Neolithic communities [75]. The earliest passage tomb activity recorded to date, at Carrowmore, Co. Sligo and Baltinglass, Co. Wicklow [67, 69], at c. 3700/3600 cal. BC, is in upland landscapes, with the Baltinglass tomb at an altitude of nearly 400 metres above sea level. So-called ‘developed’ passage tombs c. 3300–3000 cal. BC, such as those found 25 km to the north of Kilshane in the Boyne Valley, have long been recognised as incorporating kerbstones, orthostats and other stone elements sourced from long distances, up to 75 km in the case of quartz and granite cobbles from Newgrange [75, 7780]. In these scenarios, cattle may have been used and even enabled the transport of both large and small stones over long distances and to higher terrain, as well as considerably easing efforts at a more local scale. Once on site, manoeuvring large structural stones into position would presumably have been easier with animal traction.


The strong evidence of the exploitation of cattle for labour in the Middle Neolithic in Ireland fills a gap in our knowledge of the adoption of cattle traction in the northwest Atlantic islands and supports the revision of the Sherratt’s Secondary Products Revolution model by emphasizing the importance of local socio-economic contexts in the adoption of specific secondary products. The exploitation of draught cattle in Ireland appears to drive specialised herding practices producing large males, possibly oxen. Based on the current evidence, we argue that only a few selected individuals were used as draught animals. The acquisition of this technology has important implications for agriculture since it provides a key support for more extensive practices as well as for megalithic construction, which increases considerably in scale during this period. The presence of bones from draught cattle among the refuse of feasting events also raises the question of their status and whether the ownership of working animals was communal or in the hands of a privileged few. Regardless, it seems highly likely that access to draught animals and the exploitation of associated resources is at the heart of wider changes that took place in Neolithic society in the second half of the 4th millennium BC.


I'm not very convinced by the suggestion that draught animals might have been used for the transport of stones to the passage tombs of the area, which are found at a slightly higher altitude than other tombs.  (Is that altitude association real, or just apparent, having something to do with tomb survival rather than tomb creation?)

As far as this is concerned, I am not at all convinced.  "So-called ‘developed’ passage tombs c. 3300–3000 cal. BC, such as those found 25 km to the north of Kilshane in the Boyne Valley, have long been recognised as incorporating kerbstones, orthostats and other stone elements sourced from long distances, up to 75 km in the case of quartz and granite cobbles from Newgrange [757780]. In these scenarios, cattle may have been used and even enabled the transport of both large and small stones over long distances and to higher terrain, as well as considerably easing efforts at a more local scale. Once on site, manoeuvring large structural stones into position would presumably have been easier with animal traction."  For a start, the authors completely ignore glacial transport, although elsewhere in the article they do acknowledge that in the bulk of cases glacial erratics were the basic raw materials for tomb building.  They provide no evidence for the long-distance transport of monoliths over long distances and to higher terrain by human beings, with or without the aid of draught animals.

But in spite of a measure of over-interpretation, an interesting article........

Tuesday 21 March 2023

Boles Barrow bluestone hunt


Well, this looks like fun.  I have mentioned it before.  A small group of volunteers -- mostly military veterans -- from Operation Nightingale has got permission for ten days of digging at Boles Barrow.  Not the best time of year for digging -- it could get very messy.  But I suppose they have to stay well clear of the peak season for MOD operational manoevres on Salisbury Plain, with tanks and explosives and God knows what else.......

I suppose the prime objective of the work is to try and establish whether the Boles Barrow bluestone really did come from here, given the arguments about provenance and "archaeological context" that have raged over the years.  And they are also clearly looking for other bits of bluestone inside the barrow, with our old friends Ixer and Bevins waiting in the wings to examine whatever bits and pieces they come up with.  All good fun.  Watch this space.......

Monday 20 March 2023

John's Razor

Just joking?  No, this is quite serious.......

And this sort of thing is a disgrace -- a result of slapdash research and interpretative inflation on 
the part of archaeologists and sloppy and uncritical reporting by journalists.  
It happens all the time..... with PR hype trumping scientific reliability.

As we all know, we live in an age of pseudo-science and myth-making, in which gullible people are all too often fooled by authority figures into believing all sorts of nonsense:

You have heard about Occam's Razor and Hitchens's Razor -- both rather useful in teaching us about the reliability -- or otherwise -- of claims that are made by scientists about their own research.  Well, on giving some thought to the matter, I hereby pronounce 

My Razor:

Any claim made in a press release or in the media may be ignored unless the original research upon which it is based is freely (ie without limitation) accessible to all who may wish to knowledgeably scrutinize it.

This becomes essential in view of the increasingly outrageous claims made in press releases and in the media by individual researchers or research teams (across all disciplines) who seek "maximum impact." There should be a standard expectation that any author who creates or approves any media coverage should be held personally responsible for the placing of his/her research fully in the public domain.  Research must not be hidden behind paywalls or otherwise restricted to a privileged group of readers.  As mentioned in my last post, all too often nowadays, "open access" journals are often not really open at all -- they are closed to all but a select few.

There are nowadays no real obstacles to full open access -- it is a simple matter for an author to make his/her research available to anybody who has a computer by simply uploading a PDF of an article onto platforms such as Researchgate and Academia.  It takes less than five minutes.  A URL is immediately available for the article, which can then be shared as a hyperlink on social media or via websites or Email messages.

In the good old days researchers were much more circumspect in their announcements of research results, and journalists were more cautious in their reporting.  Nowadays IMPACT is everything, and academics and university press offices have -- sometimes against their better judgment -- been sucked into a system in which truth has dropped down the list of priorities.  So my Razor is in essence something that is required as a result of a modern combination of circumstances. Electric razor rather than the original cut-throat or the disposable Gillette! I would like to see universities, departments and learned societies signing up for a new code of practice with my statement at its core;  if they don't, I can see an inexorable slide in standards, to the point where nobody trusts anything that comes out of academia any more.  That would be a tragedy, since academia is of course mostly populated by good people and experts who know what they are talking about. But their reputations are being placed at risk by the behaviour of the few.  If they personally and corporately sign up to what I am suggesting, at no cost to themselves, maybe the situation can be rescued........

Now it may be argued that research results have never actually been freely available to all, but have always been restricted to an academic elite.  When I was a student, I was able to access most articles that I needed to consult through visits to public libraries, since they almost always took printed copies of the main journals; and there was no charge for access.  In my days as a lecturer, I belonged to a few learned societies, and their journals came in the post as one of the perks of membership.  But I was of course a member of a privileged group.  Now library access has gradually been whittled away with library closures, the excessive cost of journal subscriptions, and the proliferation of new journals.  There are today literally thousands of outlets for research publication, but ironically that has made research results much more difficult to get at for the interested and informed layman.


Occam's Razor:

This is known as the scientific principle of parsimony. This is a good definition: "Of two equivalent theories or explanations, all other things being equal, the simpler one is to be preferred".

As far as the science of landscape is concerned, our principle is this: If a past phenomenon can be understood as the result of a process now acting in time and space, do not invent or invoke an extinct or unknown or supernatural cause as its explanation. By the same token, if a landscape can be understood by reference to known physical processes, even if they have varied through space and time because of climate change or crustal movements, do not bring in "invented" processes which are unverifiable through observation.

Stephen Gould (1987): “We should try to explain the past by causes now in operation without inventing extra, fancy, or unknown causes, however plausible in logic, if available processes suffice.”

Hitchens's Razor:

An epistemological razor asserting that the burden of proof regarding the truthfulness of a claim lies with the one who makes the claim; if this burden is not met, the claim is unfounded and its opponents need not argue further in order to dismiss it. It is named, echoing Occam's razor, for the journalist and writer Christopher Hitchens, who, in a 2003 Slate article, formulated it thus: "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence."

See also:


The Sagan standard is a neologism abbreviating the aphorism that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" (ECREE). It is named after science communicator Carl Sagan who used the exact phrase on his television program Cosmos. The Sagan standard, according to Tressoldi (2011), "is at the heart of the scientific method, and a model for critical thinking, rational thought and skepticism everywhere".  ECREE is related to Occam's razor in the sense that according to such a heuristic, simpler explanations are preferred to more complicated ones. Only in situations where extraordinary evidence exists would an extraordinary claim be the simplest explanation.

Brandolini's Law

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Brandolini's law, also known as the bullshit asymmetry principle, is an internet adage that emphasizes the effort of debunking misinformation, in comparison to the relative ease of creating it in the first place. It states that "The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it."


From Wikipedia:

In philosophy, a razor is a principle or rule of thumb that allows one to eliminate ("shave off") unlikely explanations for a phenomenon, or avoid unnecessary actions.

Razors include:Alder's razor (also known as Newton's Flaming Laser Sword): If something cannot be settled by experiment or observation, then it is not worthy of debate.
Einstein's razor: "The supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience."Often paraphrased as "make things as simple as possible, but no simpler."
Grice's razor (also known as Giume's razor): As a principle of parsimony, conversational implications are to be preferred over semantic context for linguistic explanations.
Hanlon's razor: Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.
Hitchens's razor: That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
Hume's guillotine: What ought to be cannot be deduced from what is. "If the cause, assigned for any effect, be not sufficient to produce it, we must either reject that cause, or add to it such qualities as will give it a just proportion to the effect."
Occam's razor: Simpler explanations are more likely to be correct; avoid unnecessary or improbable assumptions.
Popper's falsifiability principle: For a theory to be considered scientific, it must be falsifiable.
Russell's teapot: Is an analogy, formulated by the philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), to illustrate that the philosophic burden of proof lies upon a person making empirically unfalsifiable claims, rather than shifting the burden of disproof to others. He wrote that if he were to assert, without offering proof, that a teapot, too small to be seen by telescopes, orbits the Sun somewhere in space between the Earth and Mars, he could not expect anyone to believe him solely because his assertion could not be proven wrong.
Sagan standard: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

So is my Razor really a razor in the sense of the others mentioned above?  Well, yes, it is, because it is all about the "shaving off" of things that are not really necessary, and the elimination of worthless or wasteful activities.

Sunday 19 March 2023

The bluestone papers -- some available, some inaccessible and invisible

Dialogue and dispute -- a good idea, in principle..... but often blocked in practice by the 
inaccessibility of key documents.  If only one of these splendid fellows has read them, and the other feels excluded, then we have a problem.

As faithful readers of this blog will know, over the years we have published scores of comments from a mysterious geologist (let's call him Dr X) on the matter of peer-reviewed publications.  He has often suggested, under one pseudonym or another, that the only "publications" that have any value are those that appear in peer-reviewed specialist journals.  Because of that, he suggests, my publications that appear online on the Researchgate and Academia web sites are not worthy of serious academic attention.  In effect, he tells me, nobody is going to take me seriously until my evidence and interpretations appear in proper archaeological journals, so I should "put up or shut up".............

Now of course I fully acknowledge that Dr X has a point.  Learned journals are reputed to be the "gold standard" routes for the dissemination of scientific (and humanities) research, since peer review and editorial scrutiny supposedly guarantee quality, shutting off rubbish that might otherwise appear in the public domain and cause mayhem.  That's the theory, anyway. In reality, nonsense articles do appear with frightening regularity in learned journals, since the researchers who submit articles are nowadays allowed to recommend -- or even choose -- their own referees, and since editors who want things published will always find a way, regardless of the quality of the material being considered. This is why fraudulent articles have to be retracted with alarming regularity. 

But things are not that simple.  As we have seen, "Antiquity" journal, which sees itself as one of the top-ranked journals, deserves praise for making its articles genuinely open access  -- but not from the date of publication.  So those who want to read them as soon as they are published are frustrated.  Their editorial standards are appalling too, and they have been responsible for publishing the three papers from MPP and his associates which have done most to disseminate the new mythology of the bluestones.  Not only have they published these articles that should never have seen the light of day; but they have been closely involved in high-pressure media campaigns (in print and in the broadcast media) designed to promote assumptions and even wild speculations as the truth.  That's unforgivable.  Remember the highly orchestrated launch of the "lost circle" nonsense on the telly, with Alice Roberts being astonished by MPP in the rain? 

1. Parker Pearson, M. et al. 2015. Craig Rhos-y-felin: a Welsh bluestone megalith quarry for Stonehenge. Antiquity 89: 1331–52.

2. Parker Pearson, M. et al. 2019. Megalith quarries for Stonehenge's bluestones. Antiquity 93: 45–62. 

3. Pearson, M. et al. 2021. The original Stonehenge? A dismantled stone circle in the Preseli Hills of west Wales. Antiquity, 95(379), 85-103.
(not accessible?)

If you click on those links you should be able to read two of the three articles on the Cambridge journals web site.  So let's be grateful for small mercies..........

For other journals, things get even more complicated.  Sometimes the CrossRef and Google Scholar links work, and sometimes they don't.  Some journals advertise themselves as "open access", but what they mean is "open access to researchers who are affiliated to approved academic institutions."   So if you are not an approved reader, you either get to see nothing at all, or just a title and an abstract, or maybe some selected snippets from an article with an invitation to buy access to the whole thing for £30 or whatever. So genuine knowledgeable researchers or members of the public who want to scrutinize articles and contribute to debates  are frequently simply shut out of the system.  That's just not good enough, especially if academics who are inside the system start to tell the rest of us that we must believe what they say because they are the experts and we are not.

Some journals operate a system whereby the authors of an article get access to an early (pre-publication) PDF version which they are at liberty to circulate to their friends, colleagues and opponents.  Others give their authors a hyperlink to the article, which can be distributed via Email and which works for a limited period of time.  Once that time period has elapsed, the article disappears behind a paywall and we are back to square one.  I acknowledge that Dr X has sent me many such links over the years, and I thank him for that.

But where journal articles are not freely available to be read by non-affiliated academics, members of the public and journalists, the default source materials for articles and even TV programmes are the press releases from university press offices  -- and almost without exception these inflate the importance of the "discoveries" reported upon, looking for maximum "impact" and making outrageous claims about conclusions that are often not at all supported by the evidence cited.  Over and again we have seen this with respect to journal articles written by Parker Pearson, Ixer, Bevins and others.

As for myself, I fully accept that I could and should have published more in learned journals.  I have offered to submit one or two things to archaeology journals over the years, but you will not be surprised to learn that editors (with rare exceptions) will not touch anything from me with a bargepole. They won't even look at a manuscript.   I wonder why?  Maybe certain powerful individuals may get upset?  Maybe the archaeology establishment itself may feel more than a little threatened by the evidence that I might present?  Anyway, the practicalities of making submissions are also very difficult nowadays.  The larger journals (ie the ones with high ratings) have highly convoluted submission procedures and formatting requirements which are very difficult to negotiate if you are not affiliated to an academic organization or university. Most of them charge publication fees of £1000 or more, even if they promote themselves as "open access".  And some of those who do not charge publication fees impose "hidden fees" instead, for example for colour reproductions in the printed versions of their journals.  

I am not blaming Dr X and his colleagues for any of this  -- they did not create the system.  But they might perhaps be a bit more understanding of the problems faced by "non-academics" who want to contribute to academic debate.

So by default I have taken to using Academia and Researchgate as my publishing platform.  I like the latter best, because it is so efficient and simple to use.  Onto it I have placed not only my papers published in reputable journals but also various "working papers", interim reports, itemised supplementary materials and so forth.  It's all there, accessible to anybody who wants to look at it, with an invitation to all and sundry to get in touch, raising any academic or other points they might think appropriate. Of course this "peer discussion" material may not be deemed worthy by some who sit in ivory towers, but the system utilises the democratising power of the web and it encourages open debate.  On that basis, some of my articles on Researchgate -- for example, on Carn Goedog, Waun Mawn, the Newall Boulder and the Limeslade erratic -- have been revised many times in response to constructive comments received, new published research and new field observations.  I take Dr X's point that you can't cite something that keeps on changing -- but by and large this open and fluid publishing platform has a lot going for it, and I enjoy using it.  It's also perfectly appropriate in a world of changing technology.  Old-fashioned journal publishing is now dominated Springer, Wiley, Elsevier, and Taylor and Francis; maybe it has had its day, since most libraries do not buy hard copies of journals any more, and neither do individual subscribers, and the publishers are playing with various "access" models as they attempt to remain commercially viable.

There we are then.  I'm not criticising anybody here -- but I encourage Dr X and his colleagues to please ensure that ALL of their publications are genuinely open access as soon as they are published.  Journal editors do not have a problem if PDF versions of their published articles are reproduced on Academia and Researchgate.  It is the work of just a few minutes for a PDF to be uploaded by an author on the appropriate website.  Just think how much goodwill can be created from such minimal effort!!


Some of the key bluestone papers -- mostly accessible, but others behind paywalls

Bevins, R.E. & Ixer, R.A.. 2013. Carn Alw as a source of the rhyolitic component of the Stonehenge bluestones: a critical re-appraisal of the petrographical account of H.H. Thomas. Journal of Archaeological Science 40: 3293–301. CrossRef | Google Scholar
(not accessible?)

Bevins, R.E., Lees, G.J. & Roach, R.A.. 1989. Ordovician intrusions of the Strumble Head-Mynydd Preseli region, Wales: lateral extensions of the Fishguard Volcanic Complex. Journal of the Geological Society of London 146: 113–23. CrossRef | Google Scholar
(not accessible?)

Bevins, R.E., Pearce, N.J.G. & Ixer, R.A.. 2011. Stonehenge rhyolitic bluestone sources and the application of zircon chemistry as a new tool for provenancing rhyolitic lithics. Journal of Archaeological Science 38: 605–22. CrossRef | Google Scholar
(not accessible?)

Bevins, R.E., Ixer, R.A., Webb, P.C. & Watson, J.S.. 2012. Provenancing the rhyolitic and dacitic components of the Stonehenge Landscape bluestone lithology: new petrographical and geochemical evidence. Journal of Archaeological Science 39: 1005–19. CrossRef | Google Scholar
(not accessible?

Bevins, R.E., Ixer, R.A. & Pearce, N.J.G.. 2014. Carn Goedog is the likely major source of Stonehenge doleritic bluestones: evidence based on compatible element discrimination and principal component analysis. Journal of Archaeological Science 42: 179–93. CrossRef | Google Scholar
(not accessible?)

Bevins, R.E., Atkinson, N., Ixer, R.A. & Evans, J.A.. 2017. U-Pb zircon age constraints for the Fishguard Volcanic Group and further evidence for the provenance of the Stonehenge bluestones. Journal of the Geological Society of London 174: 14–17. CrossRef | Google Scholar

Ixer, R.A. & Bevins, R.E.. 2010. The petrography, affinity and provenance of lithics from the Cursus Field, Stonehenge. Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine 103: 1–15. Google Scholar

Ixer, R.A. & Bevins, R.E.. 2011a. Craig Rhos-y-felin, Pont Saeson is the dominant source of the Stonehenge rhyolitic debitage. Archaeology in Wales 50: 21–31. Google Scholar

Ixer, R.A. & Bevins, R.E.. 2011b. The detailed petrography of six orthostats from the Bluestone Circle, Stonehenge. Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine 104: 1–14. Google Scholar

Ixer, R.A. & Bevins, R.E.. 2013. Chips off the old block: the Stonehenge debitage dilemma. Archaeology in Wales 52: 11–22. Google Scholar

Ixer, R.A. & Bevins, R.E.. 2016. Volcanic Group A debitage: its description and distribution within the Stonehenge Landscape. Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine 109: 1–14. Google Scholar

Ixer, R.A., Bevins, R.E. & Gize, A.P.. 2015. Hard ‘volcanics with sub-planar texture’ in the Stonehenge Landscape. Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine 108: 1–14. Google Scholar

Ixer, R.A., Turner, P., Molyneux, S. & Bevins, R.E.. 2017. The petrography, geological age and distribution of the Lower Palaeozoic sandstone debitage from the Stonehenge Landscape. Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine 110: 1–16. Google Scholar

Parker Pearson, M. 2016a. The sarsen stones of Stonehenge. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 127: 363–69. CrossRef | Google Scholar

Parker Pearson, M. 2016b. Secondhand Stonehenge? Welsh origins of a Wiltshire monument. Current Archaeology 311: 18–22. Google Scholar

Pearson, Parker, M., Bevins, R.E., Ixer, R.A., Pollard, J., Richards, C., Welham, K., Chan, B., Edinborough, K., Hamilton, D., Mcphail, R., Schlee, D., Schwenninger, J.-L., Simmons, E. & Smith, M.. 2015. Craig Rhos-y-felin: a Welsh bluestone megalith quarry for Stonehenge. Antiquity 89: 1331–52. CrossRef | Google Scholar

Parker Pearson, M., Bevins, R.E., Ixer, R.A., Pollard, J., Richards, C. & Welham, K.. 2020. Long-distance landscapes: from quarries to monument at Stonehenge, in Mataloto, R. (ed.) Megaliths and geology: proceedings of a conference in memory of Rui Boaventura. Mega Talks 2, Redondo: Centro Cultural do Redondo. pp 151-169.  Google Scholar 

Pearce, N.J.G., 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.

Bevins, 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. 362119860_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

Parker Pearson, M., Richard Bevins, Nick Pearce, Rob Ixer, Josh Pollard, Colin Richards, & Kate Welham. 2022. Reconstructing extraction techniques at Stonehenge’s bluestone megalith quarries in the Preseli hills of west Wales, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Volume 46, 2022, 103697,

Bevins R.E., Pearce N.J.G., Ixer R.A., Hillier S., Pirrie D. and Turner P. 2022. Linking derived debitage to the Stonehenge Altar Stone using portable X-rayfluorescence analysis. Mineralogical Magazine , Volume 86 , Issue 4 , August 2022 , pp. 688 - 700

Note:  The Journal of Archaeological Science, and some mainstream geology journals,  does not routinely make articles available to anybody who wants to read them.  This is a matter of regret.

Thursday 16 March 2023

Picture of the day: Carn Goedog


I was sorting out some photos for a presentation, and came across this one in my photo library.   This is exactly the spot where MPP and the other diggers claim to have found a quarry.  Strange, that, because everybody else who has ever been here simply sees a rather fine dolerite tor, no more and no less spectacular than all the others up on Mynydd Preseli........

It's amazing what you can see if you screw your eyes up enough.....

Wednesday 15 March 2023

The Foel Drygarn quarries -- what is the evidence?

The main western Foel Drygarn quarrying area.  The burial mounds are on the skyline.  The hillfort entrance is near the right edge of the photo.  The crags are the "western rhyolite and tuff crags".  Most of the quarrying traces are beneath the crags at bottom left, connected by a substantial trackway to the burial mounds.  Just to the right of centre we can see the trackway on the upper terrace, where there are also quarrying traces.

The western rhyolite crag at Foel Drygarn.  The main quarrying area was beneath this crag 
at bottom left.

Map of the main features referred to in the text

It occurs to me that by using the term "quarries" in my last post I might be be accused of jumping to desirable conclusions, just as MPP and his gang did when they turned up at Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog. They were convinced (before they arrived) that there had to be Neolithic quarries at those sites because the geologists had told them that there were precise geological matches between certain Stonehenge fragments and monoliths and the rocks that were outcropping at the ground surface. They were also told (by people who should have known better) that glacial stone transport was impossible -- so matter how unlikely the idea of human monolith transport was, it had to be true. That was the context, and look where it has led them.......

At Foel Drygarn, I had no particular wish to find quarries, but on looking at the features on the ground I began to see things that really allowed no other interpretation. If you look at things and can find no natural explanation for them, then human involvement becomes an option. I have laid out the evidence, in a somewhat disorganised fashion, in this post:

In the literature (including the main Coflein site description) there are hardly any references to quarrying.  However, in the 1968 map made by RCAHMW quarries ARE referred to without comment -- but only to the east of the hillfort entrance.

Extract from the 1968 map, showing a dozen or so small quarrying pits to the east of the hillfort entrance. Note that nothing is marked on the map beneath the western crags, and there are no comments about the quarrying features.

I have examined the pits in the slope to the east of the hillfort entrance and agree with the RCAHMW mapmakers that they are probably quarrying or extraction pits.  But I don't think they are on a sufficient scale to have provided all of the 4,000 tonnes of rocks needed for the building of the burial mounds.  Some of the material must have come from a little further afield. 

So let's just systematically summarise the evidence that has led me to refer to quarrying and quarries, particularly in association with the western crags:

1. Along the southern edge of the fortified area on the summit of Foel Drygarn there are four prominent crags and several smaller ones. The biggest eastern crag (one of three) (close to the eastern burial mound) is really a tor made of dolerite, similar in many ways to the other tors scattered across the eastern Preseli landscape. It has obvious traces of ice moulding. The other crags, to the west of the western burial mound, are sharper and more "craggy", and are geologically complex -- made of rhyolite, felspathic tuffs and other rock types associated with extrusive volcanic activity.

2. On the steep slopes on the southern flanks of these rock outcrops there are, as you might expect, rockfall accumulations associated with frost-shattering and other periglacial processes that have operated over many thousands of years.

3. But the interesting thing about these accumulations is that they are composed mostly of boulders and big rock slabs weighing more than 100kg. Where have the smaller sharp-edged fragments gone? Could they have been selectively removed?

The easternmost dolerite tor, with a jumble of rockfall debris from which most of the finer 
material has been removed.  The two smaller dolerite tors (see image at the top of this post) have been substantially "cleaned up" through the removal of debris.

4. Within 150m of these rock outcrops are the three famous Foel Drygarn burial mounds, built of in excess of 4,000 tonnes of rock slabs and small boulders. The eastern tor is only 30 m from the eastern mound, and the westernmost crag is about 130m away from the western mound. Access between all of these features is easy, and there are well defined interconnecting trackways that look as if they have existed for a very long time. The hillfort entrance, and the main access route from the south, are clearly defined and visible on satellite imagery.

The surface of one of the burial mounds.  This is typical scree / rockfall material -- all derived from the adjaacent igneous crags.  The rocks are of dolerite, rhyolite and ash -- suggestive of collection from many different locations around the hill summit.

5. Two well defined trackways run approx west-east along the slope at the foot of the western crags, joining the main access track at the hillfort entrance.

On this image, left of centre, we can see the trackway leading to the hillfort entrance.  It also connects the three burial mounds with the quarrying area, and must have been used as the stone transport route prior to the construction of the hillfort.

6. On a high terrace or bench beneath the group of volcanic ash rags closest to the entrance passage, there are undulating pitted surfaces with slight ridges and mounds which cannot easily be explained by reference to natural processes.  These are interpreted as signs of rubble and stone extraction.

7. Beneath the more spectacular crags to the west, there is a lower terrace which must originally have supported thick accumulations of rockfall debris and scree.  Much of this debris has been removed. The extraction pits are clearly visible, separated by ridges of grassed-over rubble c1m high.

8.  In gullies between the crags we can still see accumulations of scree, with sharp-edges slabs and blocks that are virtually identical to the fragments seen on the burial mounds.

Rockfall debris exposed in a gully beneath the western crags

I have not mapped this site carefully, or conducted any excavations; but I am confident that we have all the characteristics of a Bronze Age (and possibly later) stone quarry -- not used for monoliths, but for rubble and easily transported slabs.  We have a destination for this material, an adjacent source, and a transport route.  We have a motivation, and we have many physical traces that cannot, I think, be explained by reference to natural processes.

Quarrying activity here was much more extensive than indicated on the 1968 RCAHMW map.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, no elaborate engineering and no quarrying tools were needed here.  Stones were just picked up from the scree and rubble derived from rockfalls, and carried away, mostly by individuals and maybe sometimes (for stones weighing over 20 kg) by a couples of men working together.

So this is a quarrying site, and I make no apologies for referring to it as such.  If anybody wants to argue with me, let's have an interesting conversation........


PS.  Now here is an interesting question.  Did the people who built the burial mounds and took the stone from the quarries have access to wheeled vehicles?  They might have done -- apparently wheels first appeared in the Bronze Age in Britain. But if they did, the vehicles were probably very heavy, with solid wooden wheels cut from tree trunks.   They might have been useful on dry flat land -- but for carrying loads of rocks uphill in this challenging terrain?  I have my doubts.