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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Tuesday 24 October 2023

Bragg and "In our Time" -- too little scrutiny and too much complacency?

Back in March, I gave a glowing review of the "In our Time" programme about megaliths......

So I was a bit surprised when I got a very angry message from a long-time follower of my blog.  She had just listened to a recording of the programme on BBC Sounds:

She complained bitterly about the lack of scrutiny on the programme, and about the manner in which Sue Greaney was allowed to trot out the narrative about the long-distance haulage of the bluestones without any interruption or questioning from Melvyn Bragg.  I was a bit surprised by that, and discovered that there is indeed a bit about the bluestones in the "extra material" at the end of the programme as it was broadcast.  I don't know whether I missed it originally, or if it has been recently added.

Anyway, my correspondent is quite right.   Listen to the transmission around 41 - 42 minutes. Sue Greaney is there, in full flow, pontificating without any interrogation from the host.  (That is maybe not surprising, since the programme is almost always rather smug or complacent, with "experts" allowed to explain assorted complex things for the enlightenment of the rest of us, gently guided by Melvyn Bragg, with very little disagreement ever coming to the surface.  The assumption always is that the experts are the ones who know the truth, and that they should be allowed to have their say............)

Anyway, Sue Greaney says, with utter certainty and authority, the following:  "We haven't talked a huge amount about moving stones.  One of the interesting aspects of some of these monuments, for example Newgrange in Ireland - the passage tomb -- and the famous monument of Stonehenge, is that the materials that people are building these monuments out of are not just on the doorstep.  They are transporting them over long distances, and in the case of the bluestones at Stonehenge they are transporting them all the way from the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire, a journey of 240 km or so, probably over a mixture of land and sea      So the construction of these monuments was not necessarily by using the materials that were immediately to hand.  Some of these monuments, particularly the larger and more complex and spectacular monuments, were also demonstrations of being able to persuade enough people to bring your  stones, sometimes weighing hundreds and hundreds of tonnes, down over -- for example the sarsen stones were moved over a distance of 20 miles or so.  That's a significant undertaking and effort and time, which would have required a huge logistical arrangement in order to supply those people with enough equipment and supply those people with food, and look after their children etc, so the construction of these monuments is a huge event, and part of the importance of these monuments is that process of construction.  It would have been a spectacle, and involving as many people as possible in that, and showing off that you can do that, and that you can persuade that many people to act together communally, to construct these monuments is a significant part of what these monuments are all about....."

As my correspondent says, "This narrative is being repeated time and time again in the most broad reaching media outlets and spoken with such authority to respected personalities, being said enough times that it is clearly accepted as fact.  It's a travesty.  To his credit, Mr Bragg does challenge Julian Thomas saying that it seems not much is actually known, that it seems to stems from inference. The 'inference' has now been so wildly extrapolated, there is no evidence, just this repetition of flawed assertion, a fantasy, that frankly moves archaeology from an empirical science into the normative realm.
The telling of a story about a story about a story is a total decoupling of fact from evidence."

I think I might agree with all of that........ wouldn't it have been nice to hear the word "possibly" or "probably" now and then, or to have heard her say "I think" or "I believe" in the context of her pontifications?  Everything Sue says is portrayed as the truth, with not even a hint of uncertainty or doubt, and with no reference at all to the fact that most of her narrative is speculation, hotly disputed by those of us who are prepared to search on the ground for hard evidence.  This is not science.  This is primary school storytelling.


Tony Hinchliffe said...

It would appear from your details of what Sue Greaney said later on to Melvyn that Sue has slipped back into Ruling Hypothesis Without Question mode. Most disappointing, particularly as we thought she'd loosed herself from the chains of the English Heritage Stonehenge kerching - kerching count the naive visitors through the " turnstiles" mode, now she's an Exeter University lecturer. Great shame, Susan. You should stand up and be counted for at least a NEUTRAL stance when it comes to Pembrokeshire Bluestones!

Tony Hinchliffe said...

There is a well - trodden but entirely imagined illusory track from the Preseli Hills to Salisbury Plain that has been vividly described by Believers in human transport since that old - time geologist kicked it all off around the 1920s. As entertainer Jonathan Ross pointed out on his own TV series on the broader subject, the public loves to hear about tales that seem very unlikely to be true...... simply because they like to be entranced and indeed captivated, suspending belief. Max Bygraves earnt a very significant living out of wanting to Tell Us A Story....others have "tiptoed through the tulips" after Max, notably Michael Parker Pearson.

Tony Hinchliffe said...

What we could do with as a future topic on Melvyn's " In Our Time" series is one just on The Stonehenge Bluestones themselves. That would really separate the wheat from the chaff!