thinking about archaeology

The heart of the Stonehenge bluestone problem

Chronicle 1972.jpg

For some of us old archaeologists last night’s Timewatch film was as much about memories as Stonehenge, but it was great for both (and good to see Salisbury Museum’s new prehistory gallery).

I enjoyed Magnus Magnusson talking to Richard Atkinson and Geoffrey Kellaway about bluestones for a Chronicle film in 1972, like a polite Newsnight interview (love that rug!). Glyn Daniel sits beside Atkinson, struggling to conceal a quizzical smirk. (Photo above is from the film.)

Did the bluestones get to Stonehenge by human transport or glacial action?

The fundamental problem with resolving this issue is clear in the film clip, and it hasn’t changed a bit. Kellaway (a geologist) talks about archaeology and the motivations of people who built Stonehenge. Atkinson (an archaeologist) talks about geology.

Kellaway: What nobody has explained is why were rotten stones that have in fact come out of a peat bog, which are absolutely useless for building, which have come from north or central or south Wales, we don’t quite know which, why those should be gathered together in heaps on Salisbury Plain?

Atkinson: If the bluestones were brought by ice to somewhere on Salisbury Plain, it seems to me highly improbable that what was brought was subsequently sufficient just for the needs of the builders of Stonehenge and left nothing over.

It began like this:

Magnusson: Professor Atkinson, do you think that Mr Kellaway is talking nonsense?

Atkinson: If I were to say yes, that would be rude.

Things are not always so polite now, but it’s an enduring academic shouting match that hasn’t moved on in 40 years. We’ll only progress if geologists and archaeologists work together, rather than lean on their ignorance of the other’s field for support.

3 responses

  1. Reblogged this on Stonehenge News and Information.

    January 28, 2016 at 12:36 pm

  2. ND Wiseman

    Hi Mike,
    Once the BBC reaches its projected broadcast profit ceiling they’ll probably allow we coarse and scruffy Americans to see the program! In the meantime we must rely upon the reviews of others — and there seems no lack in this regard, as many watched it.

    Luckily, I have seen this segment before and still chuckle at the David Frost presentation style popular in those days. Atkinson was, by then, a legendary figure in Stonehenge circles, and knew it. He took questions about many aspects of the site which had little relevance (at the time) to his field of study. John Stone had been dead 17 years and Stuart Piggott had retired from the Stonehenge arena, leaving Atkinson as the final arbiter of the Triad — a legacy he relished and jealously clung to. (A youthful Mike Pitts knew him and can probably confirm this).

    Luckily for today’s researchers, Atkinson made good points with regard to Bluestone transport, using arguments that resound to the present. Now, 44 years later we’re beginning to get a more complete picture of the process. I have suspected for a long time that the process was most likely a cultural one, with one corollary illustrating a fluid social unity. Humans brought the stones from Wales, though the reasons for this were probably lost by the time they got around to planting them inside the Circle.

    Unfortunately, MPP, et.al. and their ‘tempest-in-a-teapot’ dig report from Rhosyfellin leaves a number of unanswered questions, while lending fuel to the opposition. They may indeed find a site in Wales from which the Blues were culled, but it won’t be a so-called Proto-Stonehenge.

    Thus endeth the rambling missive …

    Best wishes,
    Neil

    January 29, 2016 at 4:13 pm

  3. “Things are not always so polite now, but it’s an enduring academic shouting match that hasn’t moved on in 40 years. We’ll only progress if geologists and archaeologists work together, rather than lean on their ignorance of the other’s field for support.”

    It’s an interesting idea Mike, but aren’t archaeologists the primary project managers in this sort of investigation? The project manager usually evaluates whether or not external expertise is required. If later it proves that the project has failed to progress due to inadequate interdisciplinary input, that would usually be put down to a failure of the project manager rather than the expert who was not employed.

    February 24, 2016 at 9:52 am

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