thinking about archaeology

Bluestones on News at Ten

Just back from a cold and grey Stonehenge, talking to an ITV crew about the bluestone story I wrote about in my last blog: there should be something on ITV news bulletins tonight.

As I was driving down thinking about it, it struck me that one of the really interesting aspect of this research is the fact that all the samples of rock matched to Pont Saeson come from chips and flakes (debitage), and not from megaliths. What does this mean?

One of the distinctive features of the rhyolitic rocks is that they are flinty – they have a good conchoidal fracture. That makes them relatively easy to break up, if they are standing as monoliths at Stonehenge. But it also makes them pretty good for making tools, or portable artefacts of some kind. There are plenty of flaked bluestone “tools” in museum collections from Stonehenge (some of them from my own dig, as illustrated above, from my PPS report). Which of these are made from debris created when stones were dressed on site? Which are made from broken up megaliths? And which were made in Wales and brought to Stonehenge by people visiting, perhaps on a pilgrimage of some kind? Clearly the distinction has important implications for how we understand Stonehenge.

These are questions that future research can answer, through excavation in Wales and at Stonehenge and study of the debris – that we can do this is a reflection of the quality and utility of the new research. Ixer and Bevins identified five groups of rock amongst the rhyolitic pieces they studied, of which three (by far the bulk of all they saw) they have matched to the Pont Saeson outcrops. There is one buried stump at Stonehenge (stone 32e) that they say could well be from Pont Saeson (to be confirmed), but the four standing rhyolitic stones are different. One of the latter (stone 48) belongs to one of the two very rare classes that Ixer and Bevins identified, which have yet to be matched to a source. One way excavation at Stonehenge would help us, is in allowing modern identification of the stumps and other bits of megaliths at the site.

Just before I set out to Stonehenge, I emailed Ixer to ask how to pronounce “Pont Saeson”. Was it Sayson or Season? He replied that Bevins always calls it Sigh-son. So now we know. (I got his message after the interview, so I used the more specific Craig Rhos-y-felin!)

One of a few things I said that probably won’t make it on air, but interesting nonetheless, are these figures, which I worked out long ago. If we imagine a complete Stonehenge (itself debatable, especially for the sarsen circle), the total weight of rock at the site would have been around 2,000 tonnes. Most of this (some 85%) was sarsen. But if you calculate tonnes/kilometre, based on assumptions about where the sources were, these two rock categories work out about the same, at 50–60,00 tonne/km. All sorts of factors complicate the issue (the sheer bulk of the big sarsens brings exceptional logistical problems, while the shorter distance would have been far less problematic than having to come from Pembrokeshire; most sarsens are likely to have been brought to the site in one go, while bluestone may – or may not – have arrived in different episodes; etc). But it’s this sort of thinking that we need more of, we need to understand the practical Stonehenge as well as the things that are impossible to know, such as why it’s there.

4 responses

  1. The debitage from Craig Rhosyfelin could have came from megaliths and that is what I was suggesting in an earlier post i.e. the latest info is more intriguing from the perspective of what happened at the monument in relation to the debitage and possible Pont Saeson sourced bluestones (including the possible SH 32 E ) whilst it is not “proof for human transport “ . Iconoclasm/destruction of monuments is known from the period at Sion and le Petit Chasseur in Switzerland and there is a relatively local precedent , the central Mount Pleasant earthwork had four sockets which probably had held sarsen monoliths but on excavation what was discovered was the fragmented remains of the sarsens with only one stump left , further sarsen flakes were recorded from shallow pits in the immediate area .

    George

    December 20, 2011 at 7:28 pm

    • mikepitts

      Mount Pleasant is an interesting case, as unlike anything of this type postulated at Stonehenge (where the very idea of prehistoric destruction is currently no more than a hypothesis), it is dated and associated with a distinctive style of pottery – Beakers. There is just one radiocarbon date for this Mount Pleasant event, at 2194–1780BC (I wrote about all of this in Hengeworld). But if we take this slim evidence at face value, that would place the sarsen destruction (apparently involving hammering and fire) in the last “stages” of Stonehenge monument history (see my post at https://mikepitts.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/a-really-new-stage-in-stonehenge-history/), when bluestones were being re-arranged (4th stage, 2280–2030BC) or when the enigmatic Y and Z Holes were dug (5th and 6th stages, 2030–1520BC). It’s also a date comfortably close, for enlarging a hypothesis, to the single (and rightly questioned) date from my 1980 “stone floor” of 2140–1320BC (see Hengeworld, pp 161–3 and footnote 338).

      As I said in my previous post, this pile of rock could be contemporary with stone dressing, or with stone destruction. But we might construct a hypothesis that says, the 1980 floor is evidence for deliberate destruction of megaliths at Stonehenge (in support of which one could point not just to an apparently large chunk of sarsen, but to what looks like a little bit from a carved dolerite megalith) at the same time as the stones at Mount Pleasant were destroyed; and both events are associated with Beaker pottery. There are difficulties with this – the events are very poorly dated, and the tiny bits of Beaker from my stone floor are counterbalanced by a nice, older flint arrowhead typically associated with Grooved ware, the earlier pottery style we might associate with the builders of Stonehenge – but it’s a reasonable idea, that takes us into possible political developments around 2000BC or so.

      December 20, 2011 at 8:53 pm

  2. The destruction of Stelae at the Aosta and Le Petit Chausseur cemeteries are also associated with the Bell Beaker period ,see “The Transformation of Europe in the Third Millennium BC: `Le Petit-Chasseur : Richard Harrison and Volker Heyd . As was the destruction of Berrybrae stone circle although slightly later i.e. 1760 BC .

    George

    December 20, 2011 at 9:55 pm

  3. brianjohn891

    Mike — not sure where this assumption about stump 32e came from — I think one of the geologists gave it the wrong label in one of the Ixer / Bevins papers. Just look at the old Atkinson photos. The only candidates for a Rhosyfelin origin are 32c and 32d. They look like flaky rhyolites or ashes. 32e looks quite different, and if I was to make a guess at it I would say it is a dolerite.

    September 20, 2015 at 9:02 am

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