Archive for September, 2008

Stonehenge snake oil?

September 28, 2008

Update Nov 08: It turns out that the excellent website (and book) have come to similar conclusions on this one. They’ve recently posted news from the main competing team (via the Telegraph) that debunks this stuff. Better yet, they called it themselves back in April! And best of all, the healing “hypothesis” has made it into their nominations for the Counter Knowledge Award 2008! Nice one chaps, although that’s some pretty stiff competition they’re up against. And now, my original post from September, which seems tardy now!:

There’s a new theory about Stonehenge in town, and it’s a doozy. Professors Timothy Darvill and Geoff Wainwright believe (emphasis on the “b” word) that Stonehenge was a centre for healing. This is based upon the first new excavation at the site in 50 years, but the actual evidence has yet to be spelled out. On the face of it, it’s a pretty extraordinary claim in terms of being specific. Complicating the matter is that the dig was funded by BBC Timewatch, meaning that as far as the Beeb were concerned, this was going be THE definitive and singular interpretation of what happened at Stonehenge, reinforced with exaggeration and flashy CG (which by the way, WAS rather good). The major drawback of TV-funded work (and this was true of the recent “Dino Mummy” Discovery Channel prog) is that you see the sensationalistic flashy hyperbole first, before the real meat of the work is written up. It’s tough to tell how much the filter of the media may be skewing what’s really being claimed.

In this case, though, I see that at the Open University forum, both Darvill and Wainwright have been baited into replying to some sceptical posters. I was hopeful that they would cut to the chase. I don’t think they have. Forgive my criticism, Professors (and these guys are real, experienced, respected archaeologists), but if you step out of academia and into the popular sphere (TV and now the internet) you have to expect a little non-peer review! Firstly, I wasn’t too impressed to see that Darvill’s first response amounts to “let’s see YOU do any better”.

But there is more of substance. My assessment is that this is the package of evidence that’s being put forward;


  • People seem to have travelled to Stonehenge locally and from abroad (granted, something of great importance was certainly happening there)
  • The bluestones came from a long way away (South Wales, though whether from one site has yet to be established)
  • There are three times as many chips of bluestone from this new dig as sarsen stone (surely this is evidence that the chips were NOT thought special – were left behind)
  • Chips of bluestone were found in the nearby grave of a man who’d been shot in the back and unceremoniously buried with fragments of bluestone.
  • Other burials in the region of the henge contain pieces of bluestone (see below).
  • One quarry site in Wales has later (medieval period onwards) folkloric connections with healing due to the springs there (note that there are springs all over the region and indeed the UK).
  • Stonehenge has similar connections (controversial source being medieval writer Geoffrey of Monmouth)

Speculation (i.e. unproven assumptions);

  • The quarry site(s) contain springs used in healing practices, one (at least) with cup and ring marks on a rock at its head (
  • The Amesbury Archer burial (of a very sick and very important man less than 5 miles away) is directly associated with healing ritual at Stonehenge.
  • The volume of stone chips means that they were being used/taken as amulets for healing. (So why where they left behind in such numbers?).
  • The man shot and buried was trying to steal stone chips from the site (if so, why where they left on his body?)
  • Bluestone chips in graves like the man who was shot (there are others apparently) are all from Stonehenge.
  • Bluestone chips in graves were retained for healing reasons.
  • Some chips of bluestone were shaped a talismans/amulets (highly subjective)
  • Because Stonehenge was used for healing in the medieval period, it was in the Bronze Age also (non sequitur).

I think there is enough in the public domain now to suggest that this hypothesis is very interesting, but largely speculative. It seems to be built on the pre-supposition that the healing centre idea is the case. The importance of the bluestones is beyond question, but the evidence for a specifically healing role is thin. For me, the reliance upon Geoffrey of Monmouth and in fact folklore in general is the most worrying. This monk was writing what was essentially fiction, albeit based upon “real” folklore as far as anyone can tell.

Among his wild claims was that the wizard Merlin and some giants had moved Stonehenge from Ireland! This is taken by some as evidence that some truth is to be found in the folklore, since received wisdom is now that the bluestones (NOT the larger stones) were moved from a long way away (Preseli again). This could easily be a conincidence based upon the striking nature of Stonehenge and its apparent alien nature with respect to the landscape. The locals didn’t know who built it, so it must have been moved from a foreign land by non-humans! This need have no bearing on any actual quarry site in Wales.

Geoffrey of Monmouth writes over 2500 years after Stonehenge was abandoned. To suggest that anything of the folk memory of the purpose of the site still exists is an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence. Most critically for this new hypothesis (since Darvill himself says this is the strongest piece of evidence), Geoffrey does NOT specify the bluestones. In fact, he says;

“…not a stone is there that is wanting in virtue of leechcraft”.
(History of the kings of Britain, c1136)

You could explain this away as corruption of past knowledge I suppose. But the fact that medieval people thought of mysterious standing stones as magical and healing says nothing about their original purpose, which may have evolved beyond recognition or even been totally forgotten and reinvented as something else. Yes, it may have been a continuous folk-memory or meme, but the connection itself is just not there and the claim that it is requires evidence. That level antiquity of continuity (with evidence) is unheard of (I stand to be corrected). You might as well claim that a local legend of a giant being buried in a prehistoric barrow is borne out if excavation then happens to show a burial of a 6’8″ man. Depending upon how useful you see folklore in interpreting the reality of the past, you might even say it’s like using modern Neo-Pagan religious activity as evidence of Druidic involvement in antiquity – another coincidence (and one inspired by a false folk-memory as started by an antiquarian!).

The other problem with starting with the folklore as these two seem to have done (the healing hypothesis was first put forward on the same basis by archaeologist Lesley Grinsell in the 1970s) is that you’re working ass-backwards. You’re dreaming up a story, and then setting out to prove it. This is fine in the pure sciences, where properly designed experiments will prove or disprove a hypothesis, but in the ephemeral world of archaeology, what’s needed is an open-minded approach, taking the evidence on its own terms and not over-reaching into the realm of fantasy. Look to historical sources to flesh out the archaeology by all means, but contemporary and reliable ones!

All I could take from this programme and hypothesis, with any confidence, is the possibility that the bluestones maintained special significance of some sort during the lifetime of the site. In the Open University forum thread Darvill does expand on the bluestone evidence, claiming that there is (presumably stratigraphic) evidence for the bluestones being “preferentially broken down” over the centuries. This is more like it. But “for use in healing rituals” would be only one, speculative, interpretation as to why. Darvill also points out that chips of bluestone are found in other burials in the area;

“…including the three pieces associated with the man buried in the Stonehenge ditch at c.2300-2200BC…Other findspots include pieces from the top of Silbury Hill, near the West kennet long barrow, and inside Bowls Barrow where is was probably incorporated within the chamber filling. Our list currently includes a couple of dozen pieces.”

Again, more like it, but sufficient evidence to lend weight to the “Neolithic Lourdes” hypothesis? I still don’t think so. All it shows is that bluestones are significant in some way. And why do these guys go on in that forum thread to plead with laypeople for more evidence of buried bluestone chips, if they are so confident in their work?

Assuming a contemporary healing tradition at a Preseli quarry and at Stonehenge, there is the problem of the geological evidence. The stones are not all of the same composition, and do not all come from the one quarry site (Carn Menin) that the archaeologists have settled on. Some geologists maintain that the stones are likely to have arrived in the region of Stonehenge via glacial movement – making the healing connection totally redundant. The problem with this is that no local deposit still exists, but even assuming human transport, this evidence adds a major complication – that the builders would have to have selected certain stones from certain sites in Preseli, regardless of their suitability for construction. Perhaps this was because certain spots had special healing springs next to them, but where is the evidence for this? We were shown one springhead with cup and ring marks, with no evidence to suggest that a Stonehenge bluestone came from that particular location, and that was it.

Finally, many of the pieces of bluestone surviving (and which are from the same source as the Stonehenge bluestones) have been fashioned not into a shape conducive to use as a healing amulet, but into weapons! This does not exactly support the idea of particular stones having intrinsic healing power. If anything, it would be site that would confer such power – making the idea of moving the stones away from their supposedly sacred healing springs rather pointless (just my opinion there).

In all, I don’t think Darvill and Wainwright have provided evidence that the idea of magical healing is any more significant than any other interpretation, nor that it can be shown to be one function of many (plausible though this seems given our lack of knowledge of prehistoric irrationality). At this point, I still agree with Mike Pitts when he says “as far as I’m concerned, it’s a fairy story“. To the Profs’ credit (and the media’s shame), they do point out that they don’t discount the work of others which shows continuous funerary use of the site. But let’s have more evidence, and less sensation.

“I see no AGW…”

September 20, 2008

Do 18th and 19th century ship’s logs, including Admiral Nelson’s (hence the crap pun) debunk the “myth” of Anthropogenic Global Warming? No, of course they bloody don’t.

No further questions, your honour. Ben Goldacre has this one wrapped up.

The Mock Hess Monster

September 10, 2008

Or: Was Rudolf Hess detained at Inverlair Lodge?

You can’t move for Rudolf Hess conspiracy theories and generally duff interpretations of the history surrounding him. And for once, I don’t blame them. A senior Nazi flying deep into enemy territory at the height of the Second World War to seek peace with the aristocracy is such a whacky idea in itself, there just has to be something deeper going on. Or so the instinctive reaction goes. For decades the speculation ran wild – did rogue elements of authority in Britain want to negotiate peace? Did they seek to lure and then trap Hess? Was there a hit? A body double? And so on. Just try a few Google searches and feel your IQ points ebb away. And, with all the evidence classified, until recently virtually anything might have seemed plausible. Except that by now, the surviving papers are available, and they categorically refute the conspiracy theories. More so than this negative evidence, as it were, there was never any positive evidence to support any of them. But, like the press, conspiracy theorists never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Not least among these theories are claims made by various places in Scotland, including Inverlair, to have played host to Hess for a time following his bail out from a Bf110 fighter. This despite Hess’ stay in Scotland being both well-documented and short-lived (10th to the 15th of May 41). Hess’ movements after landfall went like this;

10th May – From Eaglesham to Maryhill Barracks near Glasgow for initial interview.

12th May – to Buchanan Castle hospital in Drymen for formal identification and medical treatment.

16th May – to the Tower of London for some serious debriefing. 

Hess never returned to Scotland. That’s it. Yes, they moved him from Glasgow, but only 20 miles away. Inverlair is at least 2 1/2 hours drive (in a modern car) and would only have complicated his inevitable removal to London (as would the lack of a telephone there at the time!). There simply wasn’t the time or motive to be ferrying the guy around the Scottish countryside. Inverlair was itself a most unlikely venue to stash Hess, given its actual classified remit (see below). Why draw attention to this when any secure military or government facility would have sufficed? It’s pretty obvious that the Hess story was created to explain the secrecy at Inverlair, and is redundant since the release of the official documents. So why, if no evidence exists to support the idea, and if it’s barely even plausible, is the Scotsman newspaper still claiming that Hess was held at Inverlair?

There are several reasons. The first is the persistence of local (Tulloch and area) claims to this effect, dating back to at least the late ’60s (and no doubt back into wartime itself). Wherever secrecy is maintained and counter intuitive things occur, you will get rumour and speculation. If the resulting meme takes hold and survives into the age of mass media, you might even get a full-blown conspiracy theory. It wasn’t just to stop actual secrets leaking out that the UK government put out those “Careless Talk Costs Lives” posters – it was to keep a lid on idle gossip that could damage public and military morale and even waste the time of the security forces. In this case, with Inverlair, you have a holding facility for those who had washed out of Special Operations Executive training. Obliged to live in (fairly luxurious) open prison style, they had picked up too much privileged information to be allowed back into circulation until war’s end. For obvious reasons this facility’s purpose had to remain secret, leaving local people to speculate at the time, and after the fact, at the reasons for this. The much-celebrated capture of Hess in Scotland was an obvious candidate for fireside gossip about the place, and so we have this and other claims (another here) of having witnessed or heard about Hess’ local detention. To say the least, it would have been an impossible effort to get Hess to these different locations. And to what end? His presence (and that of his aircraft wreckage and contents) was needed in London ASAP.

Well-intentioned local pride or misplaced weight lent to anecdote are one thing. Even myth-mongering in the local economy I can understand – tourism certainly can’t suffer from this kind of bogus association. Most topically, the lodge itself is up for sale, and sure enough, it’s being touted by the selling agents as Hess’ B&B.

No, it’s the press involvement in perpetuating this kind of nonsense that I reserve most contempt for. It’s irresponsible of The Scotsman (on multiple occasions), and even The Times, for goodness sake, to uncritically swallow the notion, just to fill column inches and sex things up for the readership. I’m not saying they need to totally ignore these myths, just be intellectually honest and sceptical about them. The insertion of Hess into an article ostensibly about recently declassified National Archives material is completely specious. The mention of inverlair is brief, and in relation to might even be forgivable if the material were actually new! In fact only the release of the National Archives book is new – the section of the book quoted (including the bloke too ugly to be a spy) refers not to newly declassified material, but to another book. In other words the press jumped on something easily “sexed up” (the print version ran with a full page picture of Austin Powers!) that they had already covered, rather than something genuinely new to the book that the article is supposed to be about. Recycled news. Easy news. Lazy news. And damn the facts.

NB on sources: Two reliable books on the subject are “Motive For A Mission” by James Douglas Hamilton (harder to find), and “Flight From Reality” ed. by David Stafford. See also the National Archives’ holdings from which these and other sources have been compiled. On the specifics of Hess vis Scotland, I recommend a trawl of these two forum threads (thanks to the forumites there for speeding up my research!);

Secret Scotland forums
Hidden Glasgow forums


September 2, 2008

I’ll keep this one brief, since I haven’t been able to give this exhibition its fair dues by actually visiting it. Having said that, the very concept strikes me as pretty disrespectful to those that took part in a conflict that is still within living memory, not to mention pretty trivialising.

Essentially it’s a 3D version of the book of the same name, one in a series of light-hearted yet visceral children’s history books. I’ve always found them annoyingly smug and terminally unfunny, not to mention less informative than a vandalised Wikipedia entry. The main problem from an historical sense is that concepts are simplified to the point of meaninglessness, and then often politicised into the bargain. If you’re posh, woe betide your treatment by Deary. Will this joint effort with a national institution set up to commemorate and interpret the First World War be different? This radio interview would suggest otherwise, since it claims that “officers hated” the Christmas truce, and threatened to shoot anyone that “tried this again”. This is nonsense – officers in the trenches reacted much as the other ranks did – some objected on principle, some embraced the idea and even initiated truces, and many others simply took advantage of the respite offered, knowing that it would likely never come again. There were no threats of shooting – even military justice, which did call for court martial in case of “fraternisation”, was largely suspended, partly to allow intelligence to be gathered from the enemy.

Much as I understand the power of a different approach to interpretation, it’s hard to resist my gut reaction that children “who don’t read books” are unlikely to take away much sense of the “dreadful conditions” of the trenches simply by squashing a virtual rat. But I could be letting my prejudice get in the of this one. I’d be interested in comments. Am I wrong to be down on this idea?

The exhibition’s on til early next year in any case. More relevant press here;