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....
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Friday 29 September 2023

Elvis rocks -- OK?


Don't you just love the garbled nonsense that appears in the media when academics send spectacular and foolish press releases in their direction?  More collector's items with regard to the Altar Stone having "possibly" come from Orkney, 900 km or 682 miles from Stonehenge.  Assorted website articles have of course seized on the "Orkney connetion" as the latest great Stonehenge story.  Not only do they regurgitate the outrageous claims made in the press release text (and the comments of one of the authors), but they invent all sorts of other stuff as well, including, in this one, a mention of the bulk of the bluestones coming from the Presley Hills in Wales.

Well, we always knew that the Presley family came from around these parts, but it's news that the family is so old that before it started on singing the bluestone blues,  it was originally involved in the stone haulage business, all those millennia ago.

Wednesday 27 September 2023

When is a bluestone not a bluestone?

From article (1).  Twenty-two groups of non-dolerite Stonehenge igneous debitage (or is it seven? or maybe eight?  or maybe thirty or more?)

Two new papers have kindly been brought to my notice -- each written by Bevins and Ixer together with assorted geological colleagues.  They don't currently seem to be behind paywalls, but I have copies which I can supply as Email attachments on request.

Here are the details:

(1)  Treasures in the Attic: Testing Cunnington’s assertion that Stone 32c is the ‘type’ sample for Andesite Group A
by Rob A. Ixer, Richard E. Bevins, Duncan Pirrie and Matthew Power.
Wilts Archaeol & Nat Hist Magazine, vol. 116 (2023), pp. 1–15


In 1881 William Cunnington excavated and sampled buried Stone 32c from within the Stonehenge Circle and described it as a ‘calcareous chloritic tuff’. He suggested that it was the source (type material) for similar looking debitage within the Stonehenge Landscape. Last described fifty years ago his original thin sections have been rediscovered and their investigation has shown that it was a reasonable conclusion based on his limited sampling. However, twenty first century investigations of thousands of pieces of this debitage, now defined as Andesite Group A (formerly Volcanic Group A), show it to possibly comprise two sub-groups, one being calcite-rich and the other being calcite-poor. Thin sections from Stone 32c show many of the characteristics of the calcite-bearing sub-group, but fewer of the calcite-poor sub-group but, for the present, Stone 32c is assigned as the type material for all Andesite Group A. However, Stone 32c may be the sole parent to all Andesite Group A debitage or only its calcite-bearing sub-group or it may share parentage for some or all of Andesite Group A with at least four other, as yet unsampled, stones (33e, 33f, 40c and 41d) buried within the Stonehenge Circle. Further research will answer these questions.


(2)  The Stonehenge Altar Stone was probably not sourced from the Old Red Sandstone of the Anglo-Welsh Basin: Time to broaden our geographic and stratigraphic horizons?

by Richard E. Bevins, Nick J.G. Pearce, Rob A. Ixer,  Duncan Pirrie, Sergio Ando, Stephen Hillier, Peter Turner, Matthew Power. 
Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 51 (2023) 104215

Stone 80, the recumbent Altar Stone, is the largest of the Stonehenge foreign “bluestones”, mainly igneous rocks forming the inner Stonehenge circle. The Altar Stone’s anomalous lithology, a sandstone of continental origin, led to the previous suggestion of a provenance from the Old Red Sandstone (ORS) of west Wales, close to where the majority of the bluestones have been sourced (viz. the Mynydd Preseli area in west Wales) some 225 km west of Stonehenge. Building upon earlier investigations we have examined new samples from the Old Red Sandstone (ORS) within the Anglo-Welsh Basin (covering south Wales, the Welsh Borderland, the West Midlands and Somerset) using traditional optical petrography but additionally portable XRF, automated SEM-EDS and Raman Spectroscopic techniques. One of the key characteristics of the Altar Stone is its unusually high Ba content (all except one of 106 analyses have Ba > 1025 ppm), reflecting high modal baryte. Of the 58 ORS samples analysed to date from the Anglo-Welsh Basin, only four show analyses where Ba exceeds 1000 ppm, similar to the lower range of the Altar Stone composition. However, because of their contrasting mineralogies, combined with data collected from new automated SEM-EDS and Raman Spectroscopic analyses these four samples must be dis- counted as being from the source of the Altar Stone. It now seems ever more likely that the Altar Stone was not derived from the ORS of the Anglo-Welsh Basin, and therefore it is time to broaden our horizons, both geographically and stratigraphically into northern Britain and also to consider continental sandstones of a younger age. There is no doubt that considering the Altar Stone as a ‘bluestone’ has influenced thinking regarding the long-held view to a source in Wales. We therefore propose that the Altar Stone should be ‘de- classified’ as a bluestone, breaking a link to the essentially Mynydd Preseli-derived bluestones.


The first of these papers is yet another in the "dusty box" category, in which the geologists have discovered yet more "lost" or "forgotten" thin sections or rock samples which they now assign to one or another of their rock categories, which keep on being redefined at such a pace that those of us who try to keep up have long since given up in despair........  It's an exercise which no doubt keeps them amused, but one wonders how much use it actually is to anybody else. (Ixer, Bevins and co are not unique in this regard -- in glacial geomorphology there are also individuals and teams who delight in endlessly re-defining lithostratigraphic units, moving some upwards, others downwards, and others sideways, to the utter confusion of other specialists who prefer to get out and do some fieldwork.......)

The article contains some perfectly respectable analytical work, but reminds us that the bluestone assemblage at Stonehenge is so varied that classification schemes are essentially useless in our attempts to find out what happened on the site.  Over and again Ixer, Bevins and their colleagues have re-defined their major categories (for example Volcanic Group A which is now called Andesite Group A) and have had to admit that while some of their samples fall neatly within it, and maybe come from a single source area, others do not.   One of their diagrams seems to show 22 different rock types in the non-dolerite igneous groups, but they cannot tell us whether these have come from 22 different locations (or a smaller number) in the West Wales landscape.  There is nothing in this paper that contradicts my assertion that there are at least 46 different rock types in the bluestone assemblage, and that the sheer variety of lithologies and origins mitigates against bluestone quarrying, conscious stone collection and human stone haulage.

The conclusion of the paper is that "Andesite Group A comprises calcite-rich (including Stone 32c and possibly Stone 40c) and calcite–poor sub-groups. It may be that the calcite- poor sub-group should be reclassified into a separate lithic group(s) Andesite Group B, C etc that exclude Stone 32c (and possibly Stone 40c) as parents."  That's not going to make a headline in the Daily Mail or the Sun newspapers.........
When is a group not a group but a sub-group?  Ah, that is the question.......

This brings me to the fundamental defect in this paper.  Everything is based on the unproven assertion that all of the fragments of andesite bluestone (and all of the other bluestone fragments in the Stonehenge landscape) have come from existing monoliths, stumps or standing stones that have been destroyed.  These are referred to as "the parents".  That is illogical and unscientific.  This paper, which completely ignores the possibility that many of the fragments in the landscape have come from destroyed glacial deposits or from weathered erratics that have nothing whatsoever with Stonehenge, is therefore biased and unreliable, and I am amazed that the Editor of WANHM accepted it for publication in its present form.  Every study done by the geologists seems to throw up rock types that are NOT represented in the monolith assemblage, and the geologists are so obsessed with their ruling hypothesis that they seem to spend much of their time in a haze of classification and re-classification, much to their own confusion.

In refusing to accept that a proportion of the thousands of flakes, fragments, pebbles and cobbles in the Stonehenge landscape might have been there before human beings arrived on the scene, the authors of this article simply demonstrate, yet again, that they are obsessed with the confirmation, at all costs, of their ruling hypothesis of monolith quarrying and stone haulage.


The second paper is similarly obsessed with the human transport hypothesis, and the authors do not even have the good grace to mention the "glacial transport alternative."  Its publication has been accompanied by a press release and PR campaign typified by this wondrous effort from the Daily Mail:

"Stonehenge's Altar Stone did NOT come from Wales: Scientists debunk popular theory and claim the Neolithic slab may have been brought in from Orkney - over 682 miles away."

There is some mystery about what is going on at the moment, because Mike Pitts reported on this paper on Twitter (now called X) and then reported that it had been withdrawn because it contained errors.  All will no doubt be revealed in time.........

Anyway, for what it's worth this is possibly the most bizarre paper ever published by the Bevins / Ixer team, mixing science and speculation in a manner that out-does all their previous efforts.  As indicated in the abstract, they key assumption is that the bluestones have been "sourced" in the Mynydd Preseli area -- ie quarried or deliberately selected, picked up and carried off to Stonehenge.  Human transport of bluestone monoliths is simply assumed to have occurred, without any proper analysis of alternative explanations including the glacial transport theory.  This is unscientific, and it is even more unscientific to ignore the vast numbers of smaller bluestone (ie foreign) clasts in the Stonehenge landscape simply because they are inconvenient.  As mentioned above, every attempt to tie down  bluestone erratics to specific geographical source locations or lithological groups seems to lead to an admission that there are yet more samples that "do not fit".

So to the geological investigations. At the outset we see speculative statements dressed up as facts.  Craig Rhosyfelin has NOT definitively been identified as "the source of the main rhyolitic debitage at Stonehenge", and neither has Carn Goedog been identified as "the main source of the spotted dolerites."  These sources are possibilities at best, and the authors simply do not know enough about related rock outcrops and lithologies to allow them to claim definitive provenancing.  Quote:  "........the bluestones in fact represent one of the longest transport distances known from source to monument construction site anywhere in the world."  Excuse me -- "in fact" ??? Another example of  geologists so swept along by their own hubris that they do not know the difference between a fact and a theory. 

The detailed geological analyses (using a number of different techniques) are interesting and informative,  and there is persuasive evidence that Altar Stone samples or Xray readings are substantially different from the majority of studied samples from the ORS of South Wales and the Borders.  Special emphasis is given in the study to the high concentrations of baryte (average over 2750 ppm)  in Altar Stone samples or proxies, as against much lower values in the 58 samples analysed from the ORS outcrops in the Anglo-Welsh Basin.  Only four samples out of 58 ORS samples had barytes concentrations over 1000 ppm. (The highest reading from an ORS sample was 2665 ppm.)   Those four samples, from widely scattered locations, were carefully examined, and they were found to have lithological and geochemical characteristics that were markedly different from the Altar Stone samples.  On this basis the authors concluded that the Altar Stone was probably not derived from anywhere within the area portrayed in their Figure 1.

It has to be pointed out that that conclusion is wildly premature, since it is simply not well enough supported by the evidence base.  Only 58 ORS samples from the map area have been analysed, and there has been hardly any new fieldwork.  Altar Stone readings show Ba concentrations across a wide range, from below 1000 ppm to almost 6000 ppm, suggesting to me that BA may not be a very reliable indicator.  Outcrops from across thousands of square kilometres of "candidate territory" have simply not been sampled at all, and the database shows that there are vast variations in lithology and geochemistry within the areas of outcropping sandstones.  The problem is a common one -- too much speculation and not enough evidence.

Case not proved.

In the latter part of the paper, where the authors speculate on other parts of the UK from which the Altar Stone might have come, they use stream sediment Ba concentrations as an indicator of "candidate locations."  By their own admission Ba concentrations in stream sediments can also be related to the presence of igneous bedrock -- so this is essentially a worthless exercise which need not take up any more of our time.  If we are to take any other Ba readings seriously, they must come directly from candidate sandstone outcrops.

I am interested in the manner in which the press release that goes with this article encourages people to think that the new research shows the possibility of human stone transport over a distance of 682 miles.  From Orkney!! Oh dear oh dear.......

Finally there is a section containing speculation that the Altar Stone "arrived" at Stonehenge later than the other bluestones.  Quote:  Because of its size the Altar Stone would have looked at odds amongst a ring of smaller bluestones so a possibility, to explain its anomalous characteristics, is that it arrived at a different time and from a different source area to the bluestones. ‘De- classifying’ the Altar Stone as a bluestone frees up thinking regarding a potential source for the stone and has led us to consider that it is an appropriate time to broaden our horizons, both geographically and stratigraphically in our search for the source of the Altar Stone.   

Quote ".....we propose that the Altar Stone should no longer be included in the “bluestone” grouping of rocks essentially sourced from the Mynydd Preseli."

This is of course all nonsense. First of all, the geologists define the term "bluestone" so narrowly that it excludes all the inconvenient foreign clasts at Stonehenge, and now they want to define it even more narrowly so that it excludes anything that does not demonstrably come from Mynydd Preseli.  This is not the way to do science.  It's bad enough that the authors of this article completely ignore the possibility of glacial transport or other transport mechanisms, but we are now into the theatre of the absurd.


PS.  29.09.2023.  Sorry -- I was mistaken as to accessibility.  Neither of these articles is easy to get at.  "Treasures in the Attic" can be found if you hunt for it, here:
You can get a draft version as a download.

The Altar Stone paper is behind a paywall, and you can get at it if you are prepared to pay $25 for the privilege.  In such a fashion articles full of dodgy science are protected from effective scrutiny.

Wednesday 20 September 2023

Bullet-shaped erratics


A roughly bullet-shaped erratic boulder on Alexander Island, Antarctica.  Photo by Andy Emery, published on the web site

The Newall Boulder, now in Salisbury Museum. (Acknowledgement:  BGS photo.)

This is quite fun -- a large erratic boulder in Antarctica with a shape that is very similar indeed to that of the famous "Newall erratic" much discussed on this blog and elsewhere.  There is a large specialist literature on the mechanisms that come into play in the shaping of subglacial and englacial erratics. I have done many posts on this.  Te see them, use the search box.

 I don't want to pretend that most glacial erratics are shaped like rough bullets, because erratics come in all shapes and sizes. Lithology initially (following entrainment) plays a large part in determining their shapes, as does distance of travel.  But what the literature suggests is that erratics slowly evolve towards an "ideal" shape in which we can recognize a blunt bullet-shaped and heavily abraded snub nose or upglacier end, a broader rough (and less heavily abraded) down-glacier end, and longer faceted flanks affected by streaming ice.  Here there may be striations or even pressure fractures on the flanks, although the number of facets may vary according to the rock's history,  texture and internal weaknesses.

See also:

Thursday 14 September 2023

The conundrum of the coastal erratics

The Ramson Cliff erratic, deposited 80m above sea level by floating ice? I think not........ (Photo courtesy Paul Madgett)

My recent spat with Tim Daw about the possible ice rafting of the large erratics found on parts of the coasts of SW England was quite fun, arising from the fact that he tends to accept some of the things said about ice rafting by other geomorphologists, whereas I do not.  It's actually quite easy to find references to ice rafting in the specialist literature, including the GCR volume on South West England in 1998 and a more recent paper by Phil Gibbard and others in 2017.  Tim cites them both on his blog, and seems to think that I am blissfully unaware of their contents.  Let that pass with a reminder that I have cited both of these sources on innumerable occasions on this blog, sometimes agreeing with the authors on assorted matters, and sometimes not. 

So Tim can be forgiven for thinking that many geomorphologists who have studied the coasts of Devon and Cornwall think that the big boulders at Porthleven, Croyde, Saunton and elsewhere have been "rafted" by floating ice from the north and west.  That may have been true 25 years ago, but now that we understand isostatic and eustatic interactions much better than we did, any current author who proposes an ice rafting mechanism must be challenged.  I cannot see any possible combination of environmental circumstances that would permit the long-distance ice rafting transport of large erratics onto the coasts of the Bristol Channel and the English Channel near or above present sea level. At the beginning and end of each glacial episode, when ice rafting might have occurred, the coastlines of the day were scores if not hundreds of kilometres away from their current positions. We must remember that the epidiorite erratic on Ramson Cliff (near Baggy Point) is 80m above sea level, and we must assume that the "apparent concentration" of big erratics between the present-day high and low tide marks arises simply because that is where large stones are washed clean by wave action and are exposed to view.  It is entirely logical to assume that there are many more such erratics, some above (buried in sediments) and others in deep water below the current intertidal zone.

So this isn't really an argument between archaeologists and geomorphologists.  I think that some geomorphologists in the past have been rather careless in stating that the big erratic boulders of the South-West are possibly or probably ice-rafted, and have failed to take account of isostatic and eustatic oscillations and their timing with regard to climate change.

Clean sea ice off the coast of Antarctica.  Debris tends to be carried in floating remnants of glaciers -- in icebergs and bergy bits.  Other mechanisms for the incorporation of  erratic boulders and other debris are considered in "Coastal Geomorphology of High Latitudes", a monograph written by David Sugden and me, published by Edward Arnold.


New insights into the Quaternary evolution of the Bristol Channel, UK
ISSN 0267-8179.
DOI: 10.1002/jqs.2951

See these posts:

Tuesday 12 September 2023

The mythologising of Stonehenge

Visit Britain refers to Stonehenge as "one of the most prehistoric monuments in the world."   
OMG -- whatever next......?

As mentioned before on this blog, not everybody loves Stonehenge or approves of the manner in which it has been hijacked for political and quasi-religious purposes.  There has been a lot of criticism of the manner in which Stonehenge is promoted as a "British icon" at the expense of other equally, if not more, impressive monuments including Callanish, Skara Brae, Avebury and Silbury Hill. 

In the vanguard of the attacks on Stonehenge as "the first great focal point in British history" are the Scottish archaeologists Gordon Barclay and Kenny Brophy.  We have discussed their work previously on this blog:

....... and have noted the furious and even vicious response from those whose work they directly and indirectly criticised.
Last year they wrote this article:  

Stop Projecting Nationalism Onto Stonehenge
Two archaeologists respond to the portraits of Queen Elizabeth II beamed onto Stonehenge—the latest attempt to appropriate the monument for nationalist messages.
20 JUN 2022

The article was essentially a response to the rather tasteless and degrading projection of eight images of the late Queen onto the sarsens of Stonehenge.

They said:  "As archaeologists interested in the way contemporary society manipulates the past, we keep an eye open for all sorts of Stonehenge-related nonsense and consider ourselves quite unshockable. But English Heritage’s decision surprised even us in its blindness to nationalist appropriation of the past, as well as its all-round tackiness."   In reality, Stonehenge never was a real English symbol, let alone a British one.   Barclay and Brophy also said that the mythos of an ancient pan-British identity (with Stonehenge at its centre, acting as its symbol for branding or marketing purposes) fails to take into account the variability of life in late Neolithic Britain, evident in the diverse regional styles of monuments, buildings, funerary practices, and aspects of the economy.

Now, in a new article, Kenny Brophy launches another attack, following a visit to Stonehenge which left him singularly unimpressed.

It's essentially a blog post, and an opinion piece.

AUGUST 29, 2023
Little Britain

He has a go at the right-wing press and its obsession withy Brexit and Britishness:  "Stonehenge also has a disturbing history as an icon for English and British nationalists, and has increasingly become a political plaything for right-leaning newspapers in recent years, a symbol of Brexit Britain. The exploitation of archaeological research results in the media and amongst alt-right groups is troubling and should worry us all. Feeding the news cycle, and indulging some aspects of Stonehenge celebrity, have very real risks."

"These stones have been and continue to be used to peddle myths about the past while conserving power and control today – academic power, political power, power over access, an essential celebrity and politician photo opportunity, a place that one has to be associated with. I almost feel sorry for the ageless trilithons, with nothing by concrete to support them, a monument that is so important to some people that it was not allowed to fall into ruination for fear of losing its power-giving qualities."

I AGREE WHOLEHEARTEDLY WITH THE THRUST OF THE ARTICLE.  And it's such a pity that other mainstream archaeologists have been so reluctant to accept that the Stonehenge obsession is immensely damaging to British archaeology as a whole -- not just through the appropriation of funds that could be better spent elsewhere, but through the damage done to the scientific process as groups of senior academics distort and even invent evidence in order to reinforce one ruling Stonehenge hypothesis after another.  

Tuesday 5 September 2023

MPP's new dig near Crosswell

Chris Johnson and the little Crosswell standing stone / scratching post at SN122363, back in 2016.  It's made of foliated rhyolite similar to that exposed at Rhosyfelin

On 10- Sept MPP and his team will be back in Pembs, digging on four ditched circles, traces of which were seen in 2016-17.  It will be interesting to see what turns up.......

Cambrian Arch Soc:

Professor Mike Parker Pearson was awarded £2000 towards costs of excavations in 2023 at Ffynnongroes, Crosswell, Pembrokeshire on four ditched circles, which may be Middle Neolithic ‘formative henges’ rather than ploughed out Bronze Age tumuli.

The team members mooched about in that area south of the main road some years ago.  I suspect they are  now going to dig on some features picked up near Pensarn with earlier instrumental surveys…..  They have referred in the past to a "bluestone ring" in the Pensarn area, but did not prove its existence.  No doubt they will still be searching for a stone ring (or several) made of Rhosyfelin rhyolite, which can be interpreted as the initial parking place for at least some of the Stonehenge bluestones.

Some years ago I reported:
In the western Pensarn pit there are apparently traces of a Neolithic embanked enclosure of some sort -- a very subtle feature, since the sediments are very thin here and no sign of it could be seen on the ground surface.  It was picked up in 2016 by geophysical work including LIDAR.  Apparently there are some "very unusual features" showing up, which are not commonly seen in the British Neolithic.  It may be a henge of some sort.  Organic materials have been recovered, and these will go off for C14 dating.

 Here is the advert for volunteers:



You may be aware that Mike Parker Pearson and his team will be excavating at Crosswell, Pembrokeshire between September 10 and 29 and would like to provide an opportunity for volunteers to come and get involved in the excavation. If you would like to take part, please provide the details below:


  • Name 
  • Contact e-mail 
  • Contact telephone number
  • Emergency contact name and number
  • Any medical issues that the team should be aware of
  • Dates available between 10 and 29 September.