The edge of the Trowel

12 Mar 2010

The April issue of Current Archaeology had a feature, 'From the Trowels Edge' where news editor Chris Catling mentions attending a meeting of The Society of Antiquaries that included a talk on the life of the archaeologist, Jacquetta Hawkes. Geoff Wainwright, chairman of the society, shed some light on modern archaeological group-think. He revealed that Hawkes, like himself, had no time for numerologists and measurements such as the Megalithic Yard - or any interest in a hypothetical prehistoric calendar. This may display their basic ignorance of mathematics and geometry, I don't know, but it speaks volumes of the current state of mind of the society. Obviously, it's been open season for a couple of decades on ridiculing Alexander Thom's fieldwork, his ideas,  and his complicated field notes and books that few people appear to be able to analyse in a detached manner. If Thom is regarded as batty, an engineer who thought prehistoric people had engineering and geometrical abilities that many people in the modern world do not possess, so be it. He may well have over-estimated the abilities of Neolithic and Bronze Age people - but how many archaeologists have the ability to erect Stonehenge - or even some of the lesser stone circles. I would have thought a measuring rod of some kind was an absolute neccessity - and being snobbish about numbers is simply prejudice. The fact is, Thom thought he understood the practical obstacles to confront somebody setting out a stone circle - and he presented one way of dealing with that. I would have thought that Geoff Wainwright, one half of probably the whackiest Stonehenge theory yet, that it was a place of healing and pilgrimage and a stone circle had been uplifted in situ from the Preselis and re-erected on Salisbury Plain, an even bigger engineering challenge than anything envisioned by Thom. Burl (2006) is quite adamant that the blue stones came from different locations and were in all likelihood erratics. In addition, the fact that people were able to chip pieces of blue stone from them in quite such an easy fashion (many chippings were found around the stones suggesting souvenir collection) was precisely because those stones were soft through frost and and weathering and unlike the hard sandstone sarsens they could be pecked at with knives and small metal instruments. This is in fact what Burl indicates. However, the piece does illustrate that astronomical alignments are out of bounds to archaeologists in general at the moment - but Burl is a man who has been around for a long time and can say what he thinks without damaging a career. In other words, Chris Catling has illustrated another situation where science is being hampered by the consensus view. He goes on to quote in relation to a dotty theory about geometry in the landscape, a story that did appear in mainstream media - which was a bit strange. However, the idea of quoting from a self appointed and opinionated guardian of what is 'good' science and what is 'pseudo' science smacks a little bit of being smug as the most obvious comparison can be made with the consensus on global warming. That is falling apart at the seams because ordinary people out there have rumbled the scientists are frightened to put their heads above the parapet. It seems the same situation is rife in archaeology.

Incidentally, Burl suggested the Megalithic Yard was actually used in setting out the sarsen stone circle - and if this is so then numerology, in a future generation, is bound to return. As for dotty ideas, it was Hawkes that claimed Minoan society was matriarchal ( in Dawn of the Gods)- sounds like she swallowed Marija Gimbutas. She is another innovatory archaeologist and writer that is currently off limits. Funny how that happens. It just takes somebody such as the guy running 'bad science' to inject a bit of venom, poisonous innuendo, or outright dislike of an idea. Simple really. Green activists do it all the time.