SciAm and Stonehenge

Scientific American has an art­icle on Stonehenge up this month. My first reac­tion would be dis­ap­point­ment if I’d bought a copy just to read the Stonehenge art­icle. It’s not bad, but there’s a lot of ideas being gen­er­ated by archae­olo­gists at the moment. The lack of space means that the three main pro­jects all get skimmed. I can see that it works for someone who hasn’t been fol­low­ing news at the site, but if you’re a henge nut it’ll add noth­ing new.

On the other hand, I did like the sup­ple­ment­ary mater­ial that SciAm has added online. This goes into a bit more detail about the work by Birmingham University. Adding this to the ori­ginal art­icle makes it a lot bet­ter. Instead of being stan­dalone, the ori­ginal art­icle works well as an intro­duc­tion to the addi­tional mater­ial. Without chan­ging a word in the ori­ginal my opin­ion has gone from dis­ap­point­ment to think­ing it’s actu­ally quite clever. It means the magazine’s web­site is more than a bro­chure for the art­icles, or a copy of them.

It’s also a crafty way of get­ting their advert­ising out on other people’s sites, but the wait (if the pre-load advert plays) is worth­while. The actual video is 5m40s.


When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

4 Responses

  1. Geoff Carter says:

    Alun — it’s more dis­heart­en­ing than dis­ap­point­ing.
    While there is much new sci­entific equip­ment and tech­niques employed, the over­all con­clu­sions are utterly sub­ject­ive, and amounts to little more than — ‘how people you have never met, per­ceived land­scapes and struc­tures they have never seen’.

    From the per­spect­ive of a spe­cial­ist in tim­ber struc­tures, these sub­ject­ive ideas put for­ward by Prof Gaffney and oth­ers, are more appro­pri­ate in reli­gion, than in a sub­ject that aspires to objectivity.

    Our faith in the abil­ity of archae­olo­gical pro­fess­ors to dis­cern the per­cep­tions and the psy­cho­lo­gical motiv­a­tions of people who died 4000 years ago, will ulti­mately bring the sub­ject into disrepute.

    [And yes, there is an object­ive altern­at­ive explan­a­tion — it explains archae­olo­gical fea­tures in tech­nical, rather than psy­cho­lo­gical terms, and like all good sci­ence, it is based on under­stand­ing rather belief].

    • Alun says:

      It was the SciAm art­icle I was refer­ring to, not the actual explan­a­tions. I used to be very scep­tical of Mike Parker Pearson’s ideas, but his recent pub­lic­a­tions make me think he’s got some inter­est­ing pro­pos­als con­nect­ing Durrington Walls to Stonehenge. For the oth­ers, I’ll wait till there’s an art­icle to cri­tique. No art­icle, no long term impact. At least not in academia.

      I think some of the wilder the­or­et­ical spec­u­la­tions covered will date the work as much as the hair­styles or clothes in the pho­tos, but that’s symp­to­matic of wider archae­olo­gical work. Some archae­olo­gists have a clear idea what they mean when they say ritual but I’m won­der­ing if often it’s used as a short­cut for whose mean­ing has been for­got­ten. For com­par­ison there’s Boyer on Religion which I ought to blog.

  2. Geoff Carter says:

    Alun, inter­est­ing art­icle by Boyer; agree. Mike Parker Pearson’s ideas about build­ings and struc­tures are demon­strably wrong, and I amazed he has not been found out. Using obscure and com­plex lan­guage is not a sub­sti­tute for understanding.

    My point was the SciAm art­icle implied that the applic­a­tion of mod­ern sci­entific tech­niques had given rise to the cur­rent ‘under­stand­ing’; while the data may be object­ive, its inter­pret­a­tions very subjective.

    I have pro­posed a model for Class Ei buildings/ aka ‘tim­ber circles’ that explains every aspect of the data, — the pre­cise pos­i­tion, size, and depth of all fea­tures; it works on all such struc­tures and is even to some extent predictive.

    However, in a world of opin­ion based archae­ology, the idea that an object­ive model could dis­prove a sub­ject­ive one is not even a consideration.

  1. February 21, 2011

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