Saturday 23 November 2013

Tell Me One More Time, "Who Has Rocks In Their Head?"

Any guesses what this is? Image: Wikimedia Commons
I've known some very wise people in my time. Some of the wisest have confirmed what I've thought all my life.

Who cares if 'science' makes a mistake? Who cares if we can show, empirically, that there's a good deal of subjectivity [notice I didn't say objectivity] in the sciences—both the social and physical sciences? Who cares if complete objectivity is a noble, but ultimately futile goal? The best we can hope for, as Alison Wylie* has told us, is a "mitigated objectivity."

The mitigated 'truth' is that, despite its pratfalls and dead ends, its overturned paradigms and intellectually restrictive schools of thought, science edges humanity ever closer to an accurate account of the world around us and the origins and evolution of our universe.

Mitigated or not, scientific knowledge is this secular humanist's touchstone.

AND  SO IT IS that I proudly announce, without a hint of red-in-the-face embarrassment for ALL of the scientists and all of their failed and futile efforts over the decades,


Stonehenge-ologists have been barking up the wrong petrological tree. The i09 headline reads:
Stonehenge archaeologists have been digging in the wrong place!
A tip o' my long-wished-for Indiana Jones fedora to i09 for briefing us on this amazing news. [Full disclosure: assuming that this is ultimately found to be an accurate empirical claim.]

Carn Goedog. The 'bluestones' of Stonehenge were quarried from this outcrop.
Thanks to Wales News Service.
It seems that an enterprising Welsh archaeologist, Richard Bevins—having spent 30 long years in the hunt—has chemically characterized the rock from the outcrop shown above. It's a perfect match for the 'bluestones' of Stonehenge. That, in itself, would be a great accomplishment, as it would finally put to rest a century or more of speculation, bluster, and boring gab sessions at the Royal Society meetings. But what's really gonna rot your sock. Here's the kicker: Carn Goedog is 2 km from the location where the smart money's been for a very long time! Sooooooo. Can you say "hardly earth-shattering?"
Richard E. Bevins, Rob A. Ixer, Nick J.G. Pearce. "Carn Goedog is the likely major source of Stonehenge doleritic bluestones: evidence based on compatible element geochemistry and Principal Component Analysis," Journal of Archaeological Science In press, 2013.
Moment of silence, please, for the many scholars whose earnest efforts failed to be first to pinpoint the true [blue?] source of the bluestones.

A path proposed for the transport of bluestones from the hypothetical quarry in western Wales. 
[For the geopolitical context of the large-scale map shown above, please consult the political map of Europe at the foot of this page.]
[Autobiographical bit follows. Oh. And, by the way. You see where the bluestone blue route line—d'ya think that was intentional?—crossed the water? Look a little way down from there, on the English coast. See Weston-super-Mare? My great grandpappy, his wife and what children they'd had up to that point, emigrated from there to Canada in the late nineteenth century. A successful oils merchant (for painting pictures) and framer in Weston, he must have thought he'd miraculously transform himself in landed gentry once on Canadian soil. Nobody knows, of course. But somebody should have told him that Manitoba wasn't the best choice for gentry of any sort, landed or otherwise, much less one who only knew which alizarean crimson went with which Prussian blue. Metaphorically speaking, he froze to death, and when he was old enough my Papa moved to the relatively balmy west (wet) coast of BC. So. Somewhere in this roiling mass of cells and undigested red meat called me one in eight genes came from Weston-super-Mare. No wonder I occasionally feel seasick for no apparent reason.]

On the site plan illustrated below the bluestones are shown with cross-hatching. Even though relatively few, those blighters would've resisted every cubit, or Neolithic foot [or whatever], of the way from Wales to the Salisbury Plain.

Plan of the central Stone Structure at Stonehenge as it survives today. Stone numbers are those conventionally used in the recent literature and following Petrie, F. 1880. Note that the Term 'Sarsen' used on the key refers to the hard silicified tertiary rock local to the chalkland of the Stonehenge region, sarsen is an exceptionally obdurate form of sandstone: The reference to sandstone on the key is to other ‘non sarsen’ material. . . . A number of other igneous rocks are represented within the arrays. Those interested in the exact make up of the blustone assemblage are referred to . . . 
Cleal, R.M.J., Walker, K.E., & Montague, R., Stonehenge in its landscape (English Heritage, London, 1995).
Cunliffe, B.,  & Renfrew, C. Science and Stonehenge (Proceedings of the British Academy, 92, Oxford University Press 1997). 
Johnson, A. Solving Stonehenge (Thames & Hudson 2008). 
(Verbatim caption and illustration courtesy of A. Johnson and Wikimedia Commons.) Image: Wikimedia Commons
So, there you have it, my neophytic subversive archaeologist! Problem, as they say, solved! Stick a fork in it. What's that you say? This barely whelming finding warranted a flagship article in JAS?
Alas, Grasshopper. If there's so much of a sniff of high-powered diagnostic machinery involved, those JAS editors are gonna be All. Over. It.

I hope you enjoyed your visit to the Subversive Archaeologist today. Please help the proprietor by exiting through the donation-box forest on your way out. ;-) TIA and a hearty thanks for dropping by. See yous next time!

* Wylie, Alison. “Archaeological Cables and Tacking: The Implications of Practice for Bernstein's 'Options Beyond Objectivism and Relativism',” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 19 (1989): 1-18.

The yellow rectangle deliniates the area depicted in the large-scale map above. Thanks to


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1 comment:

  1. Sorry friend, but you have a lot of this wrong. The photo isn't from Carn Goedog. And the new geological work only relates to one rock type found among the bluestones of Stonehenge -- the spotted dolerites. There are about 30 different rock types identified at Stonehenge thus far -- and the sources of some of them are still not known, even approximately. So one problem might be solved, byt there are plenty of others......


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