Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my book called "The Bluestone Enigma" -- available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
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Saturday, 23 September 2017

Small book becomes heavy millstone

Sometimes I sits and ponders, and sometimes I just sits. So goes the old saying.  Anyway, I was pondering a bit today, out in the garden, and I got to asking myself this question.  Why is it that that certain archaeologists are so obsessed with the idea of Neolithic bluestone quarries in north Pembrokeshire that they continue to try and sell them to all and sundry, in spite of the fact that their "evidence" does not stand up under scrutiny?  Not only that, but why to they exist in a state of denial about contrary opinions, to the extent that they refuse even to acknowledge the existence of two peer-reviewed papers that show that their cited "quarrying features" are in fact entirely natural? 

The answer, I have concluded, is that Mike Parker Pearson's book called "Stonehenge: exploring the greatest Stone Age mystery" came at exactly the wrong time.  At the time Mike thought it was the right time, and a wonderful opportunity to enhance his academic reputation.  Let me explain.  The book was published in June 2012.  That means it was probably in production between January and June 2012 -- and that means that Mike had to complete the manuscript probably by Christmas 2011.  Going back a bit further, in August 2011 Richard Bevins contacted MPP to say that he and Rob Ixer had "pinpointed" a match for one of the Stonehenge foliated rhyolite samples to the outcrop called Rhosyfelin.  (Before that, they had published a paper flagging up the Pont Saeson area as a good match for some of the material in the rhyolite collection.)  The archaeologists had planned to dig at Carn Goedog, again after guidance from the geologists that that was a likely source for Stonehenge spotted dolerite samples, and at Waun Mawn, where they thought there might be the remnants of a large stone circle.  But because of this piece of supposed high-precision provenancing, MPP and his colleagues decided to concentrate on Rhosyfelin. 

They seem to have decided, even before they dug the first turf, that this was a Neolithic monolith quarry.  In no time at all they found an "ancient ground surface", so-called hammerstones (which all turned out, of course, to be fluvioglacial cobbles), the big rhyolite block (claimed to weigh about 4 tonnes, whereas it is actually over 8 tonnes) and "rails of elongated stones" set on edge beneath it.  News spread about this amazing discovery, although when I visited the site with friends I could see nothing at all that demonstrated human occupation, let alone quarrying activity.  Anyway, at the end of the September digging season Mike hoofed around, announcing to the world that the "Pompeii of prehistoric stone quarries" had been found.  The first talk was at Newport Memorial Hall on 15th September.  The detailed Rhosyfelin petrography paper came from Ixer and Bevins in December 2011, and there were then press releases from the geologists, followed by a media feeding frenzy featuring "the bluestone quarry" just before Christmas 2011.  There was no need for the geologists to push the quarrying hypothesis, but they chose to do it, presumably because they were convinced of its correctness........... and even geologists just love media attention and fame.  Don't we all?

By this time Mike must have finished the manuscript for his book.  The purple prose is there for all to see, between pages 286 and 291.  After the bit about Pompeii, MPP said:  "We could hardly believe our luck.  This was a smoking gun; the game was up for anyone still trying to argue that the bluestones were not quarries in Preseli during the Neolithic, and then taken to Wiltshire."  And then in June 2012 it was in print, between hard covers, there for everybody to read. Set in stone, as it were.

The trouble with books is that they are so wretchedly permanent and are deemed by readers to contain well-considered views on this and that.  They are not like scientific research reports, or field diaries, or journal articles, or press releases.  These latter forms of communication are all ephemeral by comparison, and although press reports are read by millions of people, they are soon forgotten.  And the things that you might have said in them can be quietly dropped, or changed, without many people noticing......

So there was MPP's extremely premature description of the 2011 dig and his conclusions on it, written before any field reports or journal articles had been worked on, and rushed out on the basis of completely inadequate field evidence.  Act in haste and repent at leisure.  Since June 2012 Mike has been stuck with the quarrying ruling hypothesis, and I think it is now a millstone round his neck.  He can't or won't change his mind about the quarry, and he has persisted in the promotion of it in spite of the fact that no evidence has emerged over six subsequent digging seasons to confirm the hypothesis.  In fact, many people will have noticed that the radiocarbon and stratigraphic information presented for the Rhosyfelin dig in the Antiquity paper of December 2015 is extremely inconvenient, and tends if anything to mitigate AGAINST the quarrying hypothesis.  But still MPP (and his colleagues) trundle on, refusing to admit that the thesis is wrong.  Instead, they have simply modified the theory, claiming now that the quarrying went on several centuries earlier than they would have liked, and that there must have been a Proto-Stonehenge somewhere, which they WILL find, come hell or high water.....

It's all becoming more than a little absurd.


By the way, my review of the MPP book is in the Antiquaries Journal, and is reproduced here:

Phil Bennett

Sad news to report.  Phil Bennett, who was the archaeologist for the Pembs Coast National Park for many years, and later the manager of Castell Henllys, died on 11th Sept.  His funeral was on Wednesday last.  Phil and I crossed swords on a number of occasions (as you will see if you do a search on this site) but he was a kind and rather gentle man and at a personal level I always got on with him very well.  We worked together on various events organized by the National Park.  He was a great enthusiast for the cultural heritage of Pembrokeshire, and did  a sterling job of promoting the county further afield.  He left the National Park staff about a year ago, and it's sad that he did not live to enjoy a long and mellow retirement.  Our condolences to his family at this sad time.

The Stonehenge Layer and the making of Preselite axes

Not long ago various people on this blog expressed outrage at the very idea that Stonehenge might have been used (in its dying phase, or even earler) as an axe factory, on the basis that there was plenty of raw material there in the shape of bluestones.  One contributor suggested that this was a calumny perpetrated by geologists who did not know much about anything -- but I was sure that archaeologists have said it too.  Now I have found the following -- coming from Profs Darvill and Wainwright in 2011:

Our excavations within Stonehenge in 2008 (see CA 219) confirmed what earlier excavations had hinted at: namely that the Bluestones started to be broken up and chipped away more or less from the time they were set up in each successive arrangement. The great spread of flakes and debris usually referred to in the archaeological literature as the ‘Stonehenge Layer’ is not, as once thought, the debris from a one-off act of dressing the stones prior to their erection. Instead, these flakes have accumulated over millennia and include evidence for the use of Bluestone to fashion axes.

The Stones of Stonehenge

Posted by
March 20, 2011
Tim Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright’s research focuses on the very stones of Stonehenge. Here, they give us an insight into their 2008 excavation at Stonehenge and ten years of fieldwork in and around the Bluestone quarries in the Preseli Hills of north Pembrokeshire.

So there we are then.  You know it makes sense.  But forget the nonsense about the "bluestone quarries" in the previous paragraph -- that's just a puff from the journal editor to try and get more readers.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Parc y Gaer (Pensarn) Roman villa

Possibly the most interesting thing to come out of the work at Pensarn is the discovery (during the search for a Neolithic Proto-Stonehenge) of a Roman villa site.  This was discovered by geophysical surveys in September 2016, and reported to a student conference in April 2017.

It's great to see students working on a project like this, and reporting their work responsibly.  I'm sure we all wish them well, and look forward to seeing what the 2017 dig has revealed.   The name Parc y Gaer means "fort park" or "fort field" -- I'm intrigued to know whether that name is the traditional name used by the farmers of this land down through the years.  Here is the abstract from the spring conference:

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Inebriated archaeologists dig large hole in Pembrokeshire field

Couldn't resist this one -- with due acknowledgement to the Bluestone Brewery Facebook page....... always happy to give a puff for our friends and neighbours!

Seriously though, the diggers were probably all perfectly sober and well organized.  This is a nice pic of the latest Pensarn dig by MPP and his team, showing how thin the sediment layer is here -- not much more than a metre or so before the broken bedrock (looks like foliated rhyolite) is encountered.  It looks to me as if there is a thin layer of till as well.  I wasn't invited to take a look when I called over there the other evening.........

I don't want to sound sour.  It sounds as if there are some really interesting things coming out of this dig, which we can all celebrate.  I have no inside information, and need to check what is in the public domain, as well as separating rumours from facts.  But all being well, I'll be in a position to report on what MPP has said within a few days.

MPP, The National Geographic and the encouragement of pseudo-science

I was interested to see this little phrase in the Antiquity article by Mike Parker Pearson et al in December 2015:

"The theory that the stones were carried by glaciers, transported during an Ice Age to Salisbury Plain or its margins (Kellaway 1971; Thorpe et al. 1991; Williams-Thorpe et al. 1997, 2006), has not been refuted until now..........."

The implication is that the  Rhosyfelin research work, and the assumed identification of that infamous "quarry" has somehow put an end to all this stuff about glaciers.  Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, not least because the evidence for quarrying does not withstand scrutiny.  As we have seen on this blog, the presence of the "quarry" was decided upon even before the archaeologists descended on the site to dig their rather large hole, and all they were actually doing was seeking confirmation of a ruling hypothesis.  Pseudo-science was writ large across the face of the project from day one.  The geologists -- Richard Bevins and Rob Ixer -- were complicit in this, even though they started out by simply referring, in their papers pre-2011, to a rather interesting piece of provenancing which linked Stonehenge to the Pont Saeson - Rhosyfelin area, without expressing any opinion as to how the monoliths and the bits of broken rock might have travelled from here to there. By 2015, of course, they were fully signed up to the quarrying hypothesis, as we can see from a string of statements in their publications.  Like MPP and his archaeologist colleagues, they had clearly decided to go with the flow. The glacial transport of bluestones was impossible, because the following had apparently told them so: 

(Thomas 1923; Green 1973; McMillan et al. 2005; Gibbard & Clark 2011; Clark et al. 2012)

 We don't want to go over all that again, but we might as well remind ourselves that Kellaway, Richard Thorpe, Olwen Williams-Thorpe and their colleagues were by no means isolated or out on a limb as far as extensive glaciation was concerned. MPP et al could have cited my apparently unmentionable little book (2008) as well, on the basis that I actually do have reasonable credentials, and that I know more about the glaciation of western Britain than some of those on their list of sceptics. They could have mentioned Judd from the good old days and Alun Hubbard, Tom Bradwell, Nicholas Golledge, Adrian Hall, Henry Patton, David Sugden, Rhys Cooper, and Martyn Stoker (2009) from the days of high-tech glaciology and glacier modelling.  These guys know what they are talking about, and they all signed up to a statement in a big and much-cited paper to the effect that glacier ice as far east as Salibury Plain was perfectly possible.

I don't want to get into silly numbers games, but I'm confident that of all the earth scientists who have expressed views on glaciers and Salisbury Plain, there are at least as many who say that glaciation was possible as there are on the other side. And of course, if we apply a little logic, even if there is a Neolithic quarry at Rhosyfelin, it tells us nothing whatsoever about how 43 or so bluestones travelled from A to B.

The thing that worries me more than anything about the pseudo-science swirling around the Rhosyfelin debate is the lack of peer-review and scientific scrutiny of the things the archaeologists have been writing and saying.  Let's remind ourselves that over a period of 7 years there is just ONE peer-reviewed paper (in Antiquity in 2015) which presents evidence, discusses its interpretation, and suggests conclusions.  That relates just to Rhosyfelin.  It's a deeply flawed paper, and I remain amazed that it ever found its way into print.  If I had refereed it, it would have been rejected out of hand, with a request for a complete rewrite and resubmission.  Apart from that, nothing.  There has been no peer-reviewed paper on Carn Goedog.  That's incredible, given the huge significance being attached to the site by MPP and his team. We don't count articles in British Archaeology or Current Archaeology, conference papers or "state of play" reports, or even books, because they are not designed for scientific scrutiny and simply repeat assertions and speculations which readers cannot question because they have no evidence to assess.  Over seven years MPP and his team have placed no excavation diaries or annual field reports into the public domain, where they can be examined by their peers.  They may have submitted annual reports to the funding organizations, as required by the terms and conditions, but if they are not made public these documents might as well not exist.  (In contrast, Profs Darvill and Wainwright HAVE followed academic norms by presenting their field evidence in seven annual SPACES reports, all published -- and available for scrutiny -- in Archaeology in Wales.)

I have made a fuss about this on my blog, and am probably therefore viewed as "the enemy" by MPP and his team. But there are big issues here regarding the use of public funds, scientific ethics and university education.  Why is the archaeological community not raising hell about an ongoing and high-profile research project which is apparently not overseen or scrutinised by anybody?

I have been pondering on the whys and the wherefores of this miserable state of affairs.  Could the blanket of secrecy over the Stones of Stonehenge project be down to some mysterious contract which MPP has signed with one of the project funding partners?  I cannot imagine the Society of Antiquaries or the Royal Archaeological Institute insisting on "no unauthorised publication" or "first use of information" clauses in funding contracts, since they want material out there in the public domain, preferably as quickly as possible.  So the culprit has to be the National Geographic -- either the magazine or the TV Channels.  If you look at the Society's web-site, it offers grant aid to exciting projects, and purports to encourage publication everywhere and anywhere -- but Mike has admitted at various times to constraints placed upon him and his team by the National Geographic.  I will speculate, therefore, that Mike has signed an incredibly restrictive contract which gives the National Geographic a "first use" option on anything coming out of the digs in Pembrokeshire.  This is, I think, supported by the manner in which the National Geographic has issued press releases and publicised  spectacular events associated with the digs (you know the sort of stuff) before the rest of the media swings into action.  Is there a very large TV contract also lurking in the background?  Does MPP have to deliver a TV documentary spectacular the like of which the world has never seen before?  Does he have to deliver before he gets paid? To hell with science -- all that matters is IMPACT.

Best Neolithic quarry ever discovered, anywhere in the world.  Heroic ancestors quarrying chunks of rock in a Welsh wilderness and then carrying the monoliths all the way to Stonehenge just because they embody the spirits of the ancestors?  An amazing Proto-Stonehenge in Wales, used and then dismantled  -- yes indeed -- that'll do nicely! Assemble the cast of thousands -- filming starts on Thursday week........

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Is Tim Darvill a quarrying sceptic?

I have been looking back over a few old articles, and on looking at one of the more balanced pieces on the MPP quarrying and Proto-Stonehenge hypothesis, by Tia Ghose, I came upon this snippet which demonstrated a certain scepticism.

.............However, the evidence in support of the theory is scant: a few traces of burnt material and one oddly positioned rock. And not everyone is convinced that these clues point to an earlier Stonehenge-like monument.

"While this work adds some detail, it doesn't change the main picture," said Timothy Darvill, an archaeologist at Bournemouth University in England, who has excavated at Stonehenge but was not involved in the current study. "The Preseli Hills are extensive and geologically very complicated, with the result that matching stones to particular outcrops is fraught with difficulties."

In addition, it's possible that much of the archaeological material uncovered is "entirely natural" — not evidence of human work on the landscape, Darvill said.

I hadn't noticed the quote from Tim Darvill on a previous reading, and it's rather interesting that he says pretty well exactly what Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd, John Downes and I said in those two articles which MPP and his colleagues so studiously ignore!