Stonehenge’s mythic history

Early print of Stonehenge: the bluestones are the smaller pillars surrounded by the trilithons

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:
http://brian-mountainman.blogspot.co.uk/
This review was first posted June 30th 2012

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14 thoughts on “Stonehenge’s mythic history

  1. Oh, you’ll never silence those who love a myth – some people will continue to believe in what they want to, no matter what evidence there is to the contrary. Someone my husband used to work with doesn’t believe in gravity, though you’d think the fact we don’t just float off into the sky would bring him round to the idea …
    Sounds like a interesting read – why is it that no one else has ever mentioned that the blue stones are found elsewhere, that it’s possible a glacier could have done most of the transporting for the builders of Stonehenge?
    Problem is, supposition becomes fact if it’s repeated often enough.
    A great review.

    1. That’s true, Lynn: myths are an example of what has been called a ‘memeplex’ — memes which have coalesced into an organic complex — and memeplexes have a powerful hold on human thinking, to the extent that these mind parasites are often hard hard to extricate from the imagination. Speculation (even that which starts off with some scientific validity) soon evolves into ‘fact’; denying such factoids seemingly only fuels conspiracy theorists’ paranoia.

      1. I’ve heard of a meme, but not a memeplex – interesting. I wonder why the human brain works this way – was it a way for early man to memorise something important, something that then becomes implanted and unshakeable? Conspiracy theories are just one step further on from this, aren’t they. People feel Elvis or whoever died too young, so want to believe he didn’t – hence a string of unlikely ideas involving a faked death. When the truth is, sometimes people just die painfully young. And don’t get me started on the moon landings…

        1. Memeplex is a term popularised by Susan Blackmore in The Meme Machine (1999) where the UWE lecturer credits Dawkins for the concept of ‘coadapted meme complexes’ — hence the handy abbreviation.

          You’re spot on regarding its function: imagine if we had to reinvent the wheel each time we wanted to go for a bike ride! Or reinvent the rocket when we wanted to be a tourist in space …

          1. Ah, yes, husband has read lots of Dawkins – I remember him mentioning Dawkins and memes. (I have only read the God Delusion – some of his other books sound a little too complicate for me).
            Well, I suppose we should be grateful for memeplexes then, for all their irritating side effects. Without them, we’d all still be in the trees. Though some days, that sounds like a grand alternate lifestyle

  2. The topic of today’s lesson in one of my classes was exactly the blue stones of Stonehenge, so that means that tomorrow I have to go back and tell them that whatever I said it is likely to be “myth”. I should have read it this morning , but you usually publish your posts too early in the morning for me. 😀

    1. Sorry, Stefy, I usually schedule my posts for around 6.00 in the morning so that early birds in Europe and ‘night owls’ in the Americas will catch them! Do have a look at the author’s blog, where he’s currently posting further discussion of supposed quarry sites in the Preseli, claimed as the source of the Stonehenge bluestones.

  3. Your review does, as usual, stimulate mental debate.
    As very often happens with learned accounts aiming to take some of the ‘myth-story’ 🙂 out of things or events said to have supernatural elements, the proofs consist of offering more rational alternatives. They do not, completely and irrevocably, remove the possibility of more romantic versions being valid, at least in part. With flying saucers, magicians, mediums – the whole gamut – many are exposed as fakes, therefore all must be. At that point the practical-minded will prefer to accept almost impossible scientific explanations rather than admit to the alternative of some unexplained agency having entered into the equation.
    I haven’t had the opportunity of reading the full demolition of the theory that ancient man was able to move them from that far afield, but it does strike me that, if they were able to move them into position at all, then given time and determination they could have moved them any distance.

    1. In the 70s and early 80s I was an close observer of a lot of UK New Age thinking — much of it woolly, contradictory, ill-informed and/or wishful — but nearly always found it wanting. I much prefer scientific explanations over factoids, even (or especially) when the theories have to be abandoned because of new evidence; the idée fixe of much New Age thinking — levitation, leylines, extraterrestrial visits, hollow earth, cryptozoology, geomancy and the like — rarely admits to being mistaken.

      I long thought that it was faintly feasible that the Stonehenge bluestones had been shipped, by sea and land, some hundred and fifty miles from Preseli Hill quarries. But consider these points made by the author:
      “No physical evidence has ever been found of ropes, rollers, trackways, sledges, abandoned stones, quarrymen’s camps, or anything else that might bolster the hypothesis [that bluestones were systematically quarried in Pembrokeshire]”.

      In addition, “bits and pieces of experimental archaeology on stone haulage techniques (normally in “ideal” conditions) have done nothing to show that our ancestors could cope with the sheer physical difficulty of stone haulage across the heavily-wooded Neolithic terrain of West Wales (characterised by bogs, cataracts, steep slopes and very few clearings) or around the rocky coast.” No evidence, in the form of broken or abandoned bluestones, has been discovered to date on any of the suggested routes in the century since the theory of physical transport was first proposed.

      I’m open to suggestions as to how the stones migrated, but they had better be good suggestions.

  4. Run that about me again? The technology of how the stones were moved does not add up? Now I have to read this, Chris. It sounds as if Brian John leaves us all up in the air about how Stonehenge came to be…

    1. Good to hear from you, Kate. Yes, even with aid of modern technology and asphalted roads the moving of just one Preseli stone by experimental archaeology in 2000 ended ignominiously with the monolith in 20 metres of water off Milford Haven. (The stone now resides at the National Botanic Garden of Wales.)

      That’s even before any open sea journey. The transport of eighty and more monoliths 5,500 years ago would have been “incredibly difficult, if not impossible,” the author concludes!

      The setting up of the sarsens at Stonehenge of course has been demonstrated by experiment to be within the technology available at the time, but as you know ancient Britons didn’t have so far to go to fetch those …

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