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Monday, 12 June 2017

Darvill and Wainwright on Neolithic and Bronze Age Pembrokeshire (review, part 1)


Tim Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright (2016) "Neolithic and Bronze Age Pembrokeshire", Ch 2 in Pembrokeshire County History, Vol 1, pp 55-222

This is an extremely long and detailed chapter, carrying the reader through from the time of the earliest farmers to the time of metalwork and the beginnings of hilltop defences around 700 BC.  For the most part it is well organized and easy to follow, as the authors systematically work through all of the key Neolithic and Bronze age phases and describe the main cultural features associated with each of them.  It's rather self-indulgent, since the authors place great stress on their own work, repeating in great detail the contents of assorted published papers -- it could have been more tightly edited and dramatically reduced in length.  That having been said, it is a very useful reference work, with many excellent new maps and diagrams which will no doubt be widely cited.

Interestingly enough, the authors choose to flag up the Stonehenge bluestone connection right from the beginning of the chapter.  This brings me great joy, but looking at it objectively, they would have been wiser to apply a more rigorous and fact-based approach rather than entering into the realms of speculation when that was not strictly necessary.  So on the second page of their text the authors state that the Preseli bluestones at Stonehenge "gave that monument its power and purpose."  Not in my book it didn't.  And on the fourth page we read that HH Thomas in 1923, with his famous paper on the bluestones, "established a robust cultural linkage between south-west Wales and Salisbury Plain."  Oh  no he didn't -- he showed that the bluestones were mostly from Preseli -- no more and no less.  The cultural linkage was and is fanciful, and ironically much of the evidence in this chapter militates against the idea that there were close contacts between west Wales and Stonehenge  at the time that the monument was built.  More of that anon.......

Let's get into some of the detailed points in the chapter. 

On page 62 the authors remind us that the distribution of recorded Neolithic and Bronze Age sites (as shown in the maps based on Dyfed records) "is not necessarily the same as the pattern of prehistoric activity."   I fully agree with that -- I have made those point many times on this blog, while pointing out that we must be very careful about assuming some sort of "special status" for NE Pembrokeshire simply because there are many prehistoric sites that have survived there today, mostly in the uplands.

On p 62, in describing the physical environment of the Neolithic in Pembrokeshire, the authors seem to think that the main valleys were carved by ice, which they patently were not.   They correctly state that there is " a smearing" of glacial drift in the north of the county, but they are not correct in stating that the south of the county is free of these deposits.  They should have looked at the geological maps.  They also omit to mention that one of the most striking of the legacies of the Ice Age is the scatter of many thousands of glacial erratics right across the Pembrokeshire landscape.  These erratics are the basic raw materials for Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments, and the authors appear not to have noticed them.  Maybe they have been too busy looking for quarries,

On page 67 the authors claim that they have found quarries for the exploitation of metamorphosed mudstone at Carn Menyn / Carn Meini.  Their 2014 paper does not support that contention.  Neither does it support the thesis that Carn Meini was one of the area's "persistent places" which was invested with special significance.  It's a little too obvious that this is one of the "persistent theses" of the authors -- but repeating it often does not make it true. It is a statement of the obvious to say that many locations will have traces of many different cultural phases.  Some of them have been dug up by archaeologists, but the vast majority have not.  The dug sites are not necessarily any more important than the undiscovered ones.

There is an interesting section on the early settlement enclosures, at Clegyr Boia, Rhos-y-Clegyrn, Carningli and Banc Du.

The section on megalithic tombs (p 77) is very useful, with a classification by shape and structure: propped stones, simple dolmens and portal dolmens.  There is a passing reference to glacial erratics being used in the case of simple dolmens, but the authors should have stated that almost ALL of the megalithic monuments in the county are made from glacial erratics, and they should have addressed the question of whether the occurrence of these erratics was a prime locational determinant.  Instead, they ponder on siting close to springs, streams and the heads of streams and rivers, and on a preference for views of the sea and of mountains.  This is all fanciful stuff -- one might as well say that the Neolithic tomb builders preferred sites that gave them nice views of the countryside.......

In a useful section on stone axes, the authors refer to the three main Pembrokeshire types, namely Group VIII (silicified tuff), Group XIII (spotted dolerite, sometimes labelled "Preselite"), and Group XXIII (other dolerites, including some that are spotted).  Within these groups of axes, found in many parts of Britain and Ireland, there is considerable variation, and the authors make the sound points that axes or rough-outs were moved about or traded very widely.  This attests to considerable links between Pembrokeshire and other parts of the country -- but there is no evidence of a preferential link with Salisbury Plain.  This is an important point.  The authors also say "The current position regarding the petrological study of stone axes is deeply unsatisfactory"  on the grounds that there is far too much petrological variation within groups and since no quarries have ever been found.  The authors contradict themselves by insisting that there must have been quarries, while also saying that any carn made of a suitable rock was a potential source of axe material.  No quarrying was needed.  They should have added that any convenient and suitable erratic boulder or slab must also have been used, including those located on Salisbury Plain or at any point beween Preseli and Stonehenge. This point has been made forcefully by Olwen Williams-Thorpe and her colleagues, but here it is ignored.  The quarrying obsession is never far away......

On page 112 the authors discuss the decline in the creation of megalithic monuments in the late Neolithic, and they make the point that Pembrokeshire seemingly lacks the spectacular passage graves that occur elsewhere -- for example in Ireland.  Does this mean that Pembrokeshire at this time was more "primitive" or isolated?  This is an issue which they also consider elsewhere in the chapter.

On page 113 Darvill and Wainwright refer to the Carn Menyn Cairn (more later) which they described in print in 2012.  They say the monument occupies  "a significant position on the site of an earlier standing stone and effectively encloses the source of the spring that fed a glaciofluvial channel now known as the Stone River........."   As already discussed on this blog, the idea that there is a "monument " here is really rather dubious; the position is not in the least "significant"; and  the standing stone connection is also dubious.  What on earth do they mean when they say that the site "effectively encloses the source of a spring"?!!  And there is no glaciofluvial channel here either; I have no idea where that statement might have come from.

When they move on to a consideration of the developments after 2500 BC / 4500 BP, the authors argue for a new stress being placed on the value of certain stone types, especially dolerites, that had earlier been used for axe making.  They argue, quite predictably, that dolerite was sufficiently valued for "more than 80 blocks of it to be transported to Stonehenge in Wiltshire".  Experienced academic authors should not make such dubious statements.  They do not know that more than 80 blocks of it were transported; that is pure speculation. In fact, they do not know that ANY chunks of Preseli rock were transported, at any stage in the Neolithic or Bronze Age.  In any case, only some of the bluestones at Stonehenge are made of dolerite.  As we all know, there are many rock types in the bluestone assemblage, including some that could hardly have been of any value in the making of axes. Here we go -- ruling hypothesis again......

In a long discussion of beaker culture, round barrows, cremations, ceremonial sites, stone circles and standing stones we find abundant useful information, although I find myself unconvinced by the assertion that the landscape was "heavily sectored" ( (p 129) with occupation mainly on the coastal plain and a "ceremonial focus" on the upland areas of the north.   I think there is special pleading or circular reasoning going on here, designed to flag up, in the mind of the reader, the idea that Preseli was "special" enough to justify a large-scale bluestone transport enterprise.  Nor am I convinced by the assertion that significance was attached to the removal and re-location of small fragments of stone from Preseli that were considered to be talismans -- leading up to the climax of the story involving the transport of big blocks of bluestone from Preseli to Stonehenge.  The time sequence is not established.  The finding of axes, fragments and big blocks of bluestone on Salisbury Plain is far easier to explain if we assume that the Neolithic and Bronze Age inhabitants of that area simply found them there and used them according to whim and circumstance, sometimes for tool making and sometimes for  making architectural statements. Of course, the idea that the standing or fallen bluestones at Stonehenge were used for tool-making (when the locals got fed up with the monument) has been around for a very long time.

Then comes a very long section (pp 156-181) on Preseli and Stonehenge, which deserves separate consideration.  To be continued.......

1 comment:

TonyH said...

Are you sending a copy of your reviews to Professor T.D., c/o University of Bournemouth? He needs it for his Bibliography to do with his own output, you see.