transportation rivalry

19 Dec 2015

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A week ago archaeologists were cock-a-hoop as they claimed they had found the quarry where the blue stones were cut out of the rock (and this story is now in the January issue of British Archaeology and is in the newsagents in time for Christmas) but the response of the geologists may be stealing some of their thunder. We know that some of the stones originate in the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire. The big question is how they got to Stonehenge, transported by humans (the favoured archaeological explanation) or by glaciers (the favoured explanation of the geologists). In a peer reviewed article in the Archaeology of Wales journal, Brian John, Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd and John Downes dispute the idea of the proposed two sites were actually quarries, where stone slabs were prized from bedrock. They go so far as to say there are 'no traces of human interactions in any of the features that have made the archaeologists so excited ...'. Brian John is the author of 'The Bluestone Enigma' (Greencroft Books:2000) which was reviewed by SIS a couple of years ago. He goes on to say the bluestones were transported by ice four fifths of the way to Stonehenge and one fifth of the way by Neolithic period farmers. We should also note the so called bluestones come from up to 15 different localities as they are not uniform in type or point of origin, and those rock types mostly occur in western or southern Wales - a few have an unknown point of origin. It is stretching the imagination to think that a series of stone collectors went forth to forage for stones that could be quarried or prised out of their position in more than just a couple of locations. Hence, it is a reasonable proposition to think the bluestones were erratics left behind by glaciers or meltwater outflow somewhat closer to Salisbury Plain than Pembrokeshire.

The archaeologists feel they have found something important - evidence of human activity. The next question is - was it evidence of a camp site or human habitation or was it evidence of quarrying activity in the Preseli Hills. Also, they have something in the bag for 2016. At the moment the geologists are saying their evidence so far is limited and the two sites in the Preseli Hills display natural erosion rather than human handiwork. Mike Parker Pearson and his team homed in on the so called quarries because geologists Richard Bevins and Bob Ixer had made a connection between stone fragments found in the soil at Stonehenge and an unusual type of foliated rhyolite found on the crag. Archaeologists assumed there must be a quarry as a quarry fitted their agenda.

Brian John and colleagues are prepared to accept that Mesolithic and Neolithic people may have used the area of the so called quarries in the past as it provided a certain amount of shelter from the elements, a prime consideration in choosing a camp site or temporary living quarters. Is that all the archaeologists have discovered?

The glacier argument is something of a dampener on the exuberance of the archaeologists last week. There is good evidence that a glacier occupied what is now the basin of the Irish Sea and glaciers existed on the hills and mountains of Wales at various times in the past. However, erratics can be moved by ice - and by water (in this case meltwaters). The problem here is that the glaciers had a N to S orientation (as it was colder in the north than it was in the south) and therefore meltwaters would have flowed south - not eastwards in the direction of Salisbury Plain. At this point we are firmly ensnared in Ice Age theories and the idea of multiple glaciations - which may have allowed meltwater to flow in a different direction.

In spite of all the arguments there is no reason why erratics could not turn up in southern Wales, for example, or along the Severn River valley system (including the estuary), or even the Wye Valley perhaps. However, if such erratics had existed why have they not been found in such locations - could the Neolithic farmers have transported them all, every last one. The answer is wide open to conjecture - and discovery. Will either party establish the high ground?