thinking about archaeology

Cold stones

stonehenge gate.jpg

I was down at Larkhill this morning to visit a large excavation. The Ministry of Defence is building a new housing estate for soldiers and their families, and Wessex Archaeology has found all sorts of interesting things, among them the edge of a new causewayed enclosure, which you’ll be able to read about in the new British Archaeology, out next week.

_MP26303.jpgIt was cold, and there’d been a hard frost. Early at Stonehenge you could see scoring in the turf running parallel to the edges of the Avenue earthwork, most clearly between its banks, but also outside them. It’s a curious effect. The Stonehenge Riverside project excavated grooves that run like this in the soil, and interpreted them as natural periglacial structures left over from the ice age, that – because they are aligned on the solstice axis – were partly responsible for where Stonehenge is: neolithic people saw the grooves pointing at the rising midsummer sun and thought, this is where we want to build Stonehenge!

_MP26331.jpgMeanwhile, Tim Darvill and colleagues think the grooves are relatively modern wheel ruts. Their respective evidence is summarised in this diagram. Area 8 (enlarged at left) is a geophysics plot showing lines within the Avenue but not quite parallel to the ditches; these, say Darvill et al, are wheel ruts.

Avenue ruts.jpg

Adapted from diagrams by Darvill et al and Stonehenge Riverside Project

Trench 45 (enlarged right) is the Riverside team’s excavation in 2008. The periglacial stripes, they say, are deeper than many others recorded in the local chalk, and much deeper than the cart tracks which they agree with Darvill et al are what we can see in Area 8. They think there are natural ridges (blue) and a trench (green) on the exact alignment of the Avenue close to Stonehenge, and it all adds up to a “remarkable coincidence of a geological landform on a solstitial axis”.



Adam Stanford’s wonderful photo of Trench 45, from the Antiquity article

I’m not totally convinced by any of this. The alignment coincidence seems too remarkable to me, at least without more evidence to back it up (which would include a full understanding of exactly what these alleged geomorphological features are, how and when they formed, and why they are where they are). And if the grooves in Trench 45 are periglacial stripes, could it be that they are bigger than normal because the area within the Avenue was less ploughed up in recent centuries – which would account for the slight doming effect of the Avenue relative to the surrounding land? On the other hand, the interpretation of the geophysical lines as wheel ruts needs to be supported by excavation. Unsurfaced tracks across chalkland do not typically develop regular, parallel ruts to match the grooves we see in the geophysical surveys.

Down at Larkhill, they’d exposed a nice area of periglacial stripes. These are distinctively narrow, close together, long and thin (running downslope from top left to bottom right):

Larkhill stripes.jpg

As always, at Stonehenge as elsewhere, fieldwork throws up as many questions as it answers: but the new questions are better ones.


“Stonehenge, Wiltshire, UK: High resolution geophysical surveys in the surrounding landscape, 2011”, by Timothy Darvill, Friedrich Lüth, Knut Rassmann, Andreas Fischer & Kay Winkelmann, in European Journal of Archaeology 16 (2013).

“Stonehenge’s Avenue and ‘Bluestonehenge’”, by Michael J Allen, Ben Chan, Ros Cleal, Charles French, Peter Marshall, Joshua Pollard, Rebecca Pullen, Colin Richards, Clive Ruggles, David Robinson1, Jim Rylatt, Julian Thomas, Kate Welham & Mike Parker Pearson, in Antiquity 90 (2016)


12 responses

  1. Kevin G Beachus

    Thank you for a reasoned response to an interesting set of questions!

    November 30, 2016 at 9:19 pm

  2. They are part of an early train system in my opnion. I am being serious – you know those spheres that have been found in their dozens, they went along here.

    November 30, 2016 at 10:00 pm

  3. Pingback: Cold stones — Mike Pitts – Digging Deeper | A CERTAIN MEASURE OF PERFECTION

  4. Pingback: Cold stones — Mike Pitts – Digging Deeper | lonewalkerwessex

  5. Reblogged this on Wessex Guided Tours.

    December 1, 2016 at 7:45 am

  6. I am trying to remember if I have read this…
    maybe I haven’t – in which case I will

    December 1, 2016 at 11:36 am

  7. Hi Mike,
    In reviewing the information you present I must confess to being skeptical of the ‘Cartwheels Theory’ in the Avenue.

    But Wait: This just in!

    Take a peek at 2nd Lt. Phillip Sharpe’s 1906 balloon shot series – particularly his oblique from the SW. There’s seems to be a trail coming down the west side of the Avenue toward the site, and though contrast has been enhanced in the original photograph, it crosses the road and becomes a cart-track that skirts the stones and merges with the west spur of the old Byway-12.

    I can’t help but notice the track on the Avenue is pretty close to where the striations are claimed to be wheel tracks by Professor Darvill.

    Curiouser and curiouser …


    December 4, 2016 at 2:24 am

  8. “Michael J Allen, Ben Chan, Ros Cleal, Charles French, Peter Marshall, Joshua Pollard, Rebecca Pullen, Colin Richards, Clive Ruggles, David Robinson1, Jim Rylatt, Julian Thomas, Kate Welham & Mike Parker Pearson”

    I’ve noticed a tendency for archaeological papers to have more authors than might be considered appropriate elsewhere. It is probably not a desirable thing to allow if one wishes to encourage innovation. What has caused the committee type of accreditation to have become necessary Mike?

    December 6, 2016 at 9:32 am

  9. mikepitts

    Yes, it’s happening, though not as much in archaeology as in more technical sciences where the names of co-authors of a peer-reviewed paper can cover more pages than the article itself (DNA research has spawned papers with over 1,000 authors!). The reasons for this are mostly good.

    Research is now more of a team effort than it used to be – “team” is more appropriate than “committee” – with the benefits of larger budgets (often from several institutions), and, at best, an accumulation of more time and thought than earlier projects were able to command. All those researchers want to be recognised as proper contributors to that effort, and not, as often happened in the past, given brief and vague thanks (if that) by one person who may not in fact have done much of the work. And institutions and society have a more respectful attitude to everyone in a team, while being less in awe of lone egos. I think this is good.

    A driving force, however, is a practical matter reflecting university management, funding and career building. Having your name attached to a peer-reviewed article is more important to an academic career than ever it was – partly because there are now more academics than ever and it’s harder to make your mark, but also because it’s a necessary tool in academia. Imagine a hypothetical situation. It’s 1966, and five archaeologists each have their own projects which they write up and publish. Their ideas and objects of study overlap, but it’s in their interests to make their articles look as different from each other as they can. Today the same five archaeologists have more reason to work together. They publish the same five articles, but this time they put all their names at the top of each one. In 1966 five academics published five papers, one each. In 2016, for the same amount of work, five academics each publish five papers. The universities get more out of them, and the academics consequently get more out of their universities. You can be cynical about this, but in itself it doesn’t bear on the quality of work.

    Among professional academics this is now all taken for granted, but it can puzzle those not familiar with university ways, as we saw with the Richard III story. There, many specialists worked and published happily together, while a few people who weren’t part of the university-based team effort argued about whose name should be attached to particular narrow parts of the bigger project, leaving the academics bemused and puzzled. But I wouldn’t worry about it too much. What mostly matters, now as ever, is not the list of names at the top (however long): it’s what comes next.

    December 6, 2016 at 12:07 pm

  10. Thanks Mike. Interesting. As yet, there’s no sign of any of this in any of the journals I subscribe to. Fifteen authors does not seem reasonable to me, but perhaps I’m stuck in the past.

    December 6, 2016 at 4:57 pm

  11. mikepitts

    15 – to say nothing of 1,000 – people sitting down to write together does stretch the imagination. Really you need to think of these name lists as co-researchers, the people who did more or less of the work described, of whom perhaps one or two will have written most of the text.

    December 6, 2016 at 5:52 pm

  12. Aye.. see what you’re saying. Though I prefer to know who really wrote this or that article, as long as all the authors completely agree with all of the text, then large numbers of lead authors are not a problem. But if agreement is not absolute, the true authorship becomes opaque: Opacity of authorship seems to me to be too high price to pay for a few extra quotable citations (having said that, I’m not in academia, so don’t have to worry about it)

    December 6, 2016 at 6:19 pm

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