Sunday 30 April 2023

Two Iconic Sandstone Blocks



"The lithology of the Stone of Destiny (or Scone) resembles that of Lower Devonian sandstones from the Perth area. In particular, the texture, mineral assemblage and colour are similar to those of sandstones from the Scone Formation in the vicinity of Quarry Mill, near Scone Palace itself. It is thus possible that this area contains the bed from which the Stone was hewn, although comparable rocks may exist within other exposures of the Old Red Sandstone lithofacies in Scotland." 

A geological perspective on the Stone of Destiny N. J. Fortey, E. R. Phillips, A. A. McMillan and M. A. E. Browne Scottish Journal of Geology, 34, 145-152, 1 November 1998,

1958 Excavation Of Altar Stone,Stone 80

"The Altar Stone at Stonehenge is a greenish sandstone thought to be of Late Silurian-Devonian (‘Old Red Sandstone’) age. It is classed as one of the bluestone lithologies which are considered to be exotic to the Salisbury Plain environ, contrasting with the larger sarsen stones, which are a hard, durable silcrete derived from no more than 30km from Stonehenge. It is well established that most of the bluestones are derived from the Mynydd Preseli, in west Wales. However, no Old Red Sandstone rocks crop out in the Preseli; instead a source in the Lower Old Red Sandstone Cosheston Subgroup at Mill Bay, on the shores of Milford Haven, to the south of the Preseli, has been proposed. More recently, on the basis of detailed petrography, a source for the Altar Stone much further to the east, towards the Wales-England border, has been suggested."

Bevins, R. E., Pirrie, D., Ixer, R. A., O'Brien, H., Pearson, M. P., Power, M. R., & Shail, R. K. (2020). Constraining the provenance of the Stonehenge ‘Altar Stone’: Evidence from automated mineralogy and U–Pb zircon age dating. Journal of Archaeological Science, 120, [105188].

Friday 21 April 2023

The Glacial Transport Theory - What Is Behind It?

There is not a scrap of evidence for any Glacial Transport of Bluestones to Salisbury Plain so what underpins the belief in it?

Dr. Brian John  has just repeated again and expanded on an extract from Chapter 5 of his "The Bluestone Enigma", pp 78-80, and explains.

"There are also real difficulties in imagining the "mental maps" that Neolithic people might have had of seaways and coastal configurations, and hazards including reefs and shoals. What was their capacity for planning long-distance routes? The fact that we know that long voyages were completed in the Neolithic does not necessarily mean that people were actually planning to get from A to B. They may have hoped to go to C, because some seafarer told them there were wondrous things there, fifteen days' sailing towards a particular star in the heavens, and ended up at B instead. There must have been a huge random element in these ancient voyages. And of course for every successful voyage that we may be able to reconstruct, there would have been hundreds or thousands that failed, with seafarers lost without trace...
In retrospect, much of this also applies to land navigation and to the idea of hauling 80 bluestones on the A40 route now postulated by the archaeologists."

There it is - the doubt that Neolithic people had "the capacity for planning long-distant routes".

It is reminiscent of the infamous Atkinson quote about the builders of Stonehenge: "These people were what I call howling barbarians, practically savages.."

It is that simple.  Atkinson apparently later regretted the remark and changed his opinion. So maybe there is hope. 

Thursday 20 April 2023

Temporal Racism, Thor Heyerdahl and Stonehenge

Thor Heyerdahl was a Norwegian explorer and ethnographer who is best known for his Kon-Tiki expedition, in which he sailed a balsa wood raft from South America to Polynesia to prove that it was possible for ancient people to have made the same journey. Heyerdahl was also a vocal critic of racism, and he coined the term "temporal racism" to describe the tendency to view people from different times as being inferior to those from the present.

In his book "The Kon-Tiki Expedition", Heyerdahl wrote:

"The most harmful of all these phantoms is the acrochronism, the belief that our own time is the highest and that all earlier times were inferior. We believe firmly that our time is the time of the greatest progress, the greatest civilization, the greatest humanity, and that far behind us lie the times of savagery and barbarity. We call our time the Age of Reason and behind us we imagine the times of faith and superstition."

Heyerdahl argued that temporal racism is a form of prejudice that can lead to discrimination and oppression. He believed that it is important to challenge temporal racism and to remember that all people are equal, regardless of their time period. 

Thor Heyerdahl

National Archives of Norway, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

As he laid there [atop the altar stone], drifting off in thoughts about the engineering skills of the masterminds who built Stonehenge, and how wonderful life must have been 4,000 years ago compared to the abominable present, the starry sky was suddenly distorted by the pale beams from gigantic searchlights. A dim, dispiriting light came soaring overhead, followed by a buzzing hum as from an old Ford engine. This was the wonder of current times, the pinnacle of German science. The V-1 flying bomb made Stonehenge’s mossy “slaughter stone” an amateur in the art of killing. Speaking as if he was Jacob the patriarch, and the altar stone was the stone of Bethel, he tells his wife how the irremediable problem with the world is that people are dumb and self-centred. This idiocy and in-group mentality results not only in industrial bloodshed and ethnocentrism, but in the superiority complex of modern civilisation over those past. Praising the genius of the Stonehengers, he ridicules modern man’s proneness to deem his predecessors a moronic bunch.

Thor Heyerdahl’s sleepover at Stonehenge in 1944

Amesbury: Newsletter of the Amesbury Society, 110 (pp. 1–6), quoted by Stokke, E. (2022). Beforeigners, Thor Heyerdahl, and Ludwig Gumplowicz: The concept of timesism, temporal racism, or acrochronism. Academia Letters , Article 4644.  ©2022 by the author — Open Access — Distributed under CC BY 4.0

(Some text from

Friday 14 April 2023

That 81 degree angle

An edited extract from Martin, Andrew. (2011). The Alien Within: The forgotten sub-cultures of Early Bronze Age Wessex.

The Net Down cemetery in Shrewton:

The female inhumation in 5j was found with a necklace of beads including shale, amber and a periwinkle shell. This is one of the finest necklaces to be found in Wiltshire. 

Even more significantly, this necklace had two dumb-bell shaped beads, beads that only occur with burials intrusive into Wessex barrows – that is to say in Durrington G14 and Snail Down G3 and G8. Onto the base of both of these beads were inscribed oblique cruciform symbols, a well known Beaker symbol that occurs on gold sun discs and other items in some Beaker barrows. The obliqueness of these cruciform symbols is odd until you realise that the angle of the trancept, 81 degrees, is the same for many of them 

This angle is also replicated in other Beaker symbols such as the Bush barrow lozenge from Wilsford G5, a barrow adjacent to another anomaly, Wilsford G7. We may never know for sure the significance of this angle, but its presence in contexts of interaction indicates that it held some importance. Many archaeologists have associated it with the angular distance between the midsummer and midwinter sunrise – 81 degrees at the latitude of Stonehenge. Indeed an angle of 82 degrees is found on the Sky Disc of Nebra, the angular distance between the solstices at the latitude of Saxony/Anhalt, where the Sky Disc was found.

Wednesday 12 April 2023

Stonehenge: A History a lecture by Mike Pitts at Gresham College

Our contemporary ideas about Stonehenge and British antiquity were shaped in times of empire and war. They dominate popular histories and inform national identity.

Focusing on how Stonehenge was built, and drawing on a wealth of evidence which includes new archaeology and science, this lecture describes an alternative narrative of ancient communities, and presents a more positive and inclusive story – a Stonehenge re-imagined for modern Britain.

Friday 7 April 2023

Is this the earliest depiction of Stonehenge?

"Among the marginalia of the autograph manuscript of Gervase of Tilbury’s Otia Imperialia, Vatican lat. 933, f. 41rb (1210-1215) there are what Caldwell (Scriptorium 11, 1957, 91) calls ‘primitive looking pictures’, one of which, on f. 41rb, illustrates the Giants’ Ring with the inscription Conposita corea gigantum a Merlino."

From Ian Short's fascinating study of early Stonehenge literature; Stonehenge en romanz: texts and translations  

Thursday 6 April 2023

Stonehenge: The Little ‘Big Other’ Author: Mike Parker Pearson

Stonehenge: The Little ‘Big Other’

Mike Parker Pearson

Journal of Urban Archaeology 2023 7:, 147-168

The distribution of Late Neolithic henges and stone circles (c.3600 - 2300 BC) in central southern England. Drawing by Irene de Luis. Click to embiggen.


Whilst Stonehenge cannot be considered urban, this famous stone circle was part of a much larger complex which included not only other monuments and significant topographic features but also extensive areas of late Neolithic and Chalcolithic settlement during 2500-2200 bc. The unusually large settlement at Durrington Walls, less than 3 km to the east of Stonehenge, appears to have been occupied primarily seasonally and by people who brought their livestock from many different parts of Britain. With the arrival of Beaker-users, the settlement focus shifted to the west of Stonehenge. There is growing evidence that the Stonehenge complex was not a central place but a ‘peripheral place’, located on what may have been a long-term cultural boundary within southern Britain. 

Sunday 2 April 2023

Who was Captain Beamish, excavator of Stonehenge?

With the confirmation that a Salisbury Museum sample labelled as being from the Altar Stone matches the Altar Stone the circumstances of its collection are worth noting. I have covered most of it before:

Click to embiggen - Photo by Richard Bevins with permission from Salisbury Museum

The sample is from an 1844 excavation by a "Captain Beamish from Devonport" at the instigation of a Swedish gentleman looking for skeletons.

The obvious assumption is that Captain Beamish was a naval officer, especially as distinguished naval officers had that name - Rear Admiral Henry Hamilton Beamish, Rear Admiral Tufton Percy Hamilton Beamish, Lord Chelwood of Lewes (Tufton Victor Hamilton Beamish)

However the earliest Henry Hamilton Beamish was born in in 1829 and didn't join the Navy until 1845 and didn't become a Captain until 1864  (His son, also Henry Hamilton Beamish was a nasty antisemite ) So he isn't the Captain Beamish we are looking for.

Another branch of the Beamish family has a much more likely candidate. Richard Beamish 1798-1873. for his life story - He had been a Captain in the Grenadier Guards.  His obituary:

 The 1844 date hints at a connection to the Ethnological Society of London meeting of 25th May 1844 The members had a great interest in ancient skulls and were heavily influenced by the racist Phrenology theories of the Swedish Anders Adolph Retzius . 

Richard Beamish had become a FRS in 1834 and was interested, wrote and lectured about phrenology, the study of skull shapes. His profession, however, was a civil engineer and he worked for Brunel, and wrote a biography of the great Engineer. In 1844 the first plans for what eventually became the Royal Albert Bridge over the Tamar  were drawn up by Brunel and, of course, the eastern end is in the Devonport area. It seems likely that Beamish would have been in the area helping draw up the plans.

That a civil engineer was asked to lead an excavation at Stonehenge would not be unique.

Richard's brother North Ludlow Beamish had a great interest in Norse and Baltic Antiquities but was a Major and living in Ireland at the time.

So I believe it is highly likely that the Captain Beamish who excavated at Stonehenge in 1844 was Richard Beamish 1798-1873

Richard Beamish by Camille Silvy albumen print, 1 June 1861 NPG Ax54102 Used under © National Portrait Gallery, London

It unfortunate that so much of the Victorian interest in Stonehenge was driven by racist theories, and even more so that temporal racism still drives many theories about the monument, in the words of Thor Heyerdahl after a sleepover at Stonehenge in 1944, "the irremediable problem with the world is that people are dumb and self-centred. This idiocy and in-group mentality results not only in industrial bloodshed and ethnocentrism, but in the superiority complex of modern civilisation over those past. Praising the genius of the Stonehengers, he ridiculed modern man’s proneness to deem his predecessors a moronic bunch."

Some of Richard's correspondence is in the Science Museum

Image used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 Licence

Intriguingly the letter in the photograph to Richard appears to be in a very similar hand to that of the label, but that might just be a coincidence.