Brian John The Bluestone Enigma:
Stonehenge, Preseli and the Ice Age
Greencroft Books 2008
Ancient man didn’t
transport stones hundreds of miles.
And nor did Merlin.
Brian John, who lives in Pembrokeshire (where much of this study is set), has had a long interest in this whole subject area. A Geography graduate of Jesus College, Oxford, he went on to obtain a D Phil there for a study of the Ice Age in Wales. Among other occupations he was a field scientist in Antarctica and a Geography Lecturer in Durham University, and is currently a publisher and the author of a number of articles, university texts, walking guides, coffee table glossies, tourist guides, titles on local folklore and traditions, plus books from popular science to local jokes. His credentials are self-evident when it comes to discussing Stonehenge.
One of the strongest modern myths about Stonehenge to have taken root is that the less monumental but no less impressive so-called bluestones were physically brought by prehistoric peoples from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales to Wiltshire. The second strongest modern myth is that the whole saga was somehow remembered over a hundred or more generations to be documented by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century as a feat of Merlin. In this self-published title Dr John examines these and other myths and finds them wanting in terms of echoing reality.
His key points include the fact that not only do the bluestones derive from at least fifteen different locales in West and South Wales (not just the Preselis), there is no evidence at all for any stone-collecting expeditions from as far afield as this, let alone cultural links between Wessex and West Wales.
He deduces that bluestones were present “on or near” Salisbury Plain at least a millennium before Stonehenge was commenced, and were not especially selected for their quality, their supposed magical significance or healing properties (he points out that many of the Stonehenge bluestones are defective, and that it is pure speculation that the builders saw a reflection of the night sky in them or saw them as having healing powers). How did the stones get to Wessex? The author’s expertise in geomorphology allows him to discourse authoritatively on how Welsh stones could have been brought by the great Irish Sea glacier as far east as Bath, the Mendips and Glastonbury (though uncertainty still exists whether it reached as far east as Salisbury Plain).
If there was no Grand Designs project to transport the stones from the Preselis (and the author effectively demolishes the case for prehistoric technology being up to the task) then it follows that the famous tale of Merlin moving stones from Ireland to Wessex, much beloved by New Age mystics, is not a reflection of historical reality. Does it not seem more likely that this is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s elaboration of the familiar folktale motif of a demigod or the Devil himself (Geoffrey claims Merlin was the son of the Devil after all) moving landscape features around at will?
While The Bluestone Enigma doesn’t come up with definitive answers to tell us the final story of the bluestones, it does put paid to the imaginative but impractical theories of certain archaeologists and writers of popular accounts of Stonehenge. Whether it will silence the myth-makers is another matter however.
Updates on Brian John’s research are posted here:
This review was first posted June 30th 2012