It’s a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’. It really shouldn’t be.


Today is a chance for major con­sti­tu­tional change in the UK. If ‘yes’ wins, then the res­ult would be a shock for both sides. Given the choice Devo-Max, Scotland would stay in the UK. A party with one MP in Scotland decided this couldn’t be an option as it would be a win for the oppos­i­tion, so it’s a gamble all or nothing.

Roulette wheel with ball in thirteen slot

Cameron’s Scottish Policy. Photo: BigStockPhoto.

There’s vari­ous reas­ons it’s come to this, but one is that there is no pro­vi­sion for pain­less con­sti­tu­tional change in the UK. This is stupid.

The unwrit­ten con­sti­tu­tion of the UK is a mish-mash of arrange­ments built over hun­dreds of years. The idea that some­thing that worked a couple of cen­tur­ies ago should be immut­able is simply ridicu­lous. Communications, edu­ca­tion, soci­ety have all changed. We are gov­erned in a sys­tem which haven’t con­sen­ted to and have little legal oppor­tun­ity to change unless someone can man­u­fac­ture a crisis. So we let prob­lems fester till we lurch from one place to another.

Plaid Cymru are ask­ing for ideas to gov­ern Wales. I have one, but I’d be happy for any party to take it up for the UK. It’s this: There should be a con­sti­tu­tional con­fer­ence every 25 years.

Too fre­quent and the rules become a free for all, but too infre­quent and there’s no gradual evol­u­tion of the state and every change becomes a trauma. Twenty-five years is up for dis­cus­sion but it’s close enough that a reas­on­ably young adult could have hope of being con­sul­ted on their par­ti­cip­a­tion in a demo­cracy. It also means that there is (rel­at­ively) recent pre­ced­ent so the next con­fer­ence isn’t a com­plete shock to the polit­ical body.

Moving fun­da­mental polit­ical ques­tions, like con­stitu­ency sizes, how often should gen­eral elec­tions be, how to the mem­ber coun­tries relate to the UK, onto a sched­uled basis would remove them from being laid down by an ad-hocracy.

Whatever the res­ult today, it’s the pay­off of a massive gamble by David Cameron who’s put everything on Red (White and Blue) and is hop­ing the right num­ber comes up. There’s got to be a bet­ter way to man­age a con­sti­tu­tion than that.

What does the new henge mean for Stonehenge?

Confusion at Stonehenge

Confusion at Stonehenge

I don’t know.

I think the cov­er­age at places like the BBC are good, David Gregory found it excit­ing and I thought his story was a good read. However there are too many details miss­ing from the reports to come to any con­clu­sions. That’s not a com­plaint about the cov­er­age, the mass-media isn’t an archae­olo­gical journal. It’s not even a gripe about pub­lic­a­tion by press-release because Mike Parker Pearson showed last year that news leaks out, so why not give the brief details out properly?

On the other hand the Birmingham team are look­ing at the land­scape and, from read­ing the reports, I’ve no idea where this new site is in rela­tion to Stonehenge. It’s almost cer­tainly in sight of Stonehenge, but then the land­scape round there is littered with bar­rows, Bronze Age burial mounds. The loc­a­tion will affect how we see the land­scape. This henge isn’t to be con­fused with Bluestonehenge, the site found by the river Avon near Stonehenge last year. It’s also not Woodhenge, des­pite being made of wood, because that’s a dif­fer­ent site near Durrington Walls, which is another site that has been in the news in recent years.

There’s not a lot I can say about the astro­nomy of this henge either. It could be aligned to the sum­mer sun­rise, but I can’t tell because the dia­gram doesn’t say which way north is. Also look­ing at the dia­grams, the stone circle seems to have entrances facing one axis and the tim­ber circle an entirely dif­fer­ent align­ment. In fact, the entrance to the wooden circle seems to be facing stones. To me, that sug­gests at least two phases to the monu­ment. I ima­gine that there’ll be some sort of test excav­a­tion along sim­ilar lines. If you want to take your time plan­ning an excav­a­tion it’s a very sens­ible idea not to flag up the loc­a­tion in the news.

Ground Penetrating Radar by Ben Urmston

Ground Penetrating Radar by Ben Urmston

The con­fu­sion that this find­ing is going to cause will be huge fun for Stonehenge watch­ers. The equip­ment they’re using is Ground-penetrating RADAR. This used to be rub­bish, some­thing you’d only use in an urban loc­a­tion where you got a good sig­nal, but as with everything involving a micro­pro­cessor it’s advanced massively. It means that there’s huge swathes of land where some com­pletely unex­pec­ted things will be found. In some­where as busy as the Stonehenge land­scape there has to be much more than this wait­ing to be dis­covered. It’ll raise some awk­ward ques­tions for archae­oastro­nomers, because des­pite there being align­ments will these newly dis­covered struc­tures have blocked the view?

The excit­ing thing about this work is that it shows not only to we not have all the answers, we don’t even have all the questions.

Photo credit: Ground Penetrating Radar photo by Ben Urmston.

Interdisciplinarity and peer-review


Texas State University research­ers fol­low­ing the soggy foot­steps of Caesar.

Tony Keen has been cast­ing a crit­ical eye over the recent ancient astro­nomy stor­ies which have been mak­ing the head­lines recently. I half dis­agree with him, but I think he asks ser­i­ous ques­tions and his con­clu­sions cer­tainly aren’t unfair.

First off he raises ques­tions about the recent ‘dat­ing the Odyssey by an eclipse’ story. I think he’s right about this, it’s really not a viable piece of work. The thing that both­ers me is that while the authors say there are some major assump­tions, the one they seem to have ignored is the exist­ence of a sin­gu­lar Homer. If the Odyssey is a patch­work of tales then dat­ing is futile any­way. The return of the Odysseus could be from an earlier tale. For instance it’s been noticed that the Iliad bor­rows some meta­phors from Gilgamesh. We only know that because we have both texts, which means even if some­thing only appears in “Homer’s” work, we can’t be sure the ori­ginal author was Homer.

The other thing is that it loses some of the mean­ing of an eclipse. The Sun and Moon are not isol­ated astro­nom­ical bod­ies in this period. They’re divine but also entwined with activ­ity on Earth. An eclipse of the Sun is a a sign that some­thing is anom­al­ous with the cos­mos. This could explain how Odysseus gets to slaughter a lot of people and remain a hero. The nor­mal rules of the uni­verse were suspended.

It’s points to a wider prob­lem, in that PNAS is not a minor pub­lic­a­tion, but I’d be sur­prised if it had passed peer-review from a clas­si­cist. If it has that’s, mar­vel­lous news for me. I’ve got plenty of ideas which really wouldn’t stand rig­or­ous scru­tiny which I’d like to shift into pub­lic­a­tion. If it hasn’t then in what sense is the journal mean­ing­fully peer-reviewed? This is not just a prob­lem spe­cific to PNAS. You can flip this back to Classics/Archaeology journ­als too.

Now if I write this up as an art­icle should I give a couple of examples? I have one from archae­ology which says indi­vidu­als are fractals without explain­ing how you’d cal­cu­late the Minkowski-Bouligand dimen­sion of an indi­vidual. I’ve another clas­sics art­icle which says that Chaos Theory says noth­ing about the exist­ence or non-existence of God. This is 100% true. Neither does Delia Smith’s “How to Cook” for exactly the same reason. Neither are theo­lo­gical works.*

So what how do you eval­u­ate inter­dis­cip­lin­ary work? I think inter­dis­cip­lin­ary peer-review is a start. I also think you have to ser­i­ously get to grips with David Whitley’s argu­ments for post-positivism. This is why I have a lot more time for Donald Olson’s work on re-dating Caesar’s land­ing in Britain.

First off it would help to have a bit of con­text. This work fits in with the kind of thing thing Donald Olson’s been doing for Sky and Telescope for a few years. He looks at the vera­city of astro­nom­ical records of his­tor­ical events and how well they fit with mod­ern cal­cu­la­tions. Now, I’d agree with Tony that the cal­en­dar is a mess in this period. I think there’s reason to give it some con­sid­er­a­tion though because of how Olson is con­nect­ing the loose dat­ing with the astro­nomy and the tides.

In the case of the tides, the equi­no­cital tides are unusu­ally high, which is his start­ing point. It has to be before the equi­nox because it’s in the last days of sum­mer, and the phases of the moon allow you to point more at some dates than oth­ers. If that was it I wouldn’t be impressed, but Olson always goes that extra step. For many people doing ‘inter­dis­cip­lin­ary’ work it’s enough if they haven’t found some­thing in the field out­side their expert­ise that con­tra­dicts them. Olson in con­trast act­ively reads round the work of his­tor­i­ans to see if there’s inde­pend­ent cor­rob­or­a­tion for his work, rather than just pulling facts from the stars. That’s a big step up from “I haven’t found any­thing which con­tra­dicts my claims”.

I can also sym­path­ise with Tony’s lack of aston­ish­ment at the minor shift in date. Ancient Historians are so used to not even know­ing what month events occurred in that a shift of a few days is not going to uproot many long-held beliefs. In Olson’s defence I’d say that con­text is import­ant here. The work is appear­ing in Sky and Telescope. It’s a good magazine, but it’s a hobbyist’s magazine, and that hobby is astro­nomy. That’s who Olson is pitch­ing his work at. However there could be a use. Olson’s work would sug­gest that Collingwood’s read­ing of the Gallic Wars is bet­ter in this case than the read­ing of oth­ers. That means we have some more reason to favour Collingwood over other inter­pret­ers when look­ing at other Latin texts.

In the longer term I think Olson’s work can show how dicey some accep­ted ancient dates are. That is a prob­lem for me, because life would be so much easier if I could pin down dates for the battles at Thermopylae and Salamis. More use­fully it shows that mul­tiple routes of inter­rog­a­tion are neces­sary if you’re ser­i­ous about inter­dis­cip­lin­ary work, rather than a simple hypothesis-test post­iv­ist approach.

*If we’re mov­ing to cita­tion indices in the Humanities then I can cite any non-theological piece of work. Should I cite the highest bid­der? Do I hear a packet of chocol­ate buttons?



0:57am Tremor in the Midlands. Definite rat­tling and shak­ing. Fortunately my shelves are still intact else I’d have had repeated head­aches as they fell. Estimate between 4 and 5 on the Richter scale, prob­ably closer to 4. I’ll have to remem­ber to check the news tomorrow.

Update: It’s the lead story on the BBC which sur­prised me. They have the time as 0:56 GMT and the mag­nitude as 5.3 centred on Market Rasen based on a BGS report [PDF]. Those seis­mo­grams seem to run on to 0:57 so I’m quite pleased with my estimates.

The tremor seemed to come in two parts. I was lying in bed and hadn’t fallen asleep yet but was well on the way. At first I thought I had mice in the walls again. Rather than feel­ing it I could hear it. Then I felt my quilt mov­ing and because I’m slow to give up an idea I thought that the mice had cajoled a couple of help­ful rats into pulling some new bed­ding to their hole. Waking up a bit more I could hear the books shuff­ling on my shelves. It went on quite a while and see­ing as I was half awake to begin with I wouldn’t want to give a cer­tain fig­ure, but I’d guess at least ten seconds with the force of a three-year old want­ing to wake someone up so she could have the remote con­trol to watch car­toons on TV.

Then it felt like things shif­ted gear. Suddenly it was like a three-and-a-half year old who’s been told she can’t open her Christmas presents until every­one is up. I’d say this went on for around eight to ten seconds (the BGS says ten) which made it the longest mod­er­ate tremor I’d felt. I wasn’t too sure of my estim­ate because when this kind of thing is going on accur­ate count­ing isn’t the first thing you think of. I was more wor­ried about the books on my shelves which were edging their way for­ward like tent­at­ive lemmings.

I thought it was more insist­ent than ter­ri­fy­ing. It’s annoy­ing that there’s really noth­ing you can do about it while it’s hap­pen­ing. I can see how it would be a worry for people liv­ing closer to the epi­centre. It’s noth­ing too big if you live in California, but it could be the biggest tremor to hit the UK in the past thirty years.

Apparently there was also an after­shock, so per­haps I should use the term earth­quake. That was 1.8, but I wouldn’t have known about that because I slept through it.

Robin Hood’s Stride


Robin Hood's Stride

“A third of a mile SSW the grit­stone crag of Robin Hood’s Stride rises jag­gedly with two stubby piles of boulders jut­ting up at either end of its flat top like the head and pricked-up ears of a wrinkled hip­po­pot­amus.“

Aubrey Burl. A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany. Yale University Press. page 53.

Rotherwas Ribbon — follow up


Out of Ergyng has more com­ment­ary on the Rotherwas Ribbon includ­ing the local polit­ics. One post, Letting Nature Do the Council’s Dirty Work, lead onto the recent pho­tos post-downpour of the Ribbon.

Personally given the choice between malice and incom­pet­ence I usu­ally choose the lat­ter as an explan­a­tion. Hopefully the recent announce­ments that the coun­cil is going to take advice before doing any­thing per­man­ent indic­ates a open approach.

Despite it being a major find, I’m glad I’m not an archae­olo­gist on the site. I think the unit work­ing on it is from Worcester who’ve been dropped into the middle of the local polt­ics. Having your actions examined for ulterior motives from both sides can’t be pleasant.

The Rotherwas Ribbon

The Rotherwas Ribbon before heavy rain.

A couple of weeks ago I went to visit Rotherwas to see the new dis­cov­ery there. The photo above is of what is called either the Rotherwas Ribbon or the Dinedor Serpent. It’s been found dur­ing excav­a­tions to build a new road and it’s all a bit of a mystery.

Roman Ditch in the Rotherwas Ribbon
A Roman ditch cut through the Ribbon.

What you can see is a ditch with a mass of fire-cracked rocks laid over the top of it. It must be at least 2,000 years old because a there’s a Roman ditch cut through it. The best estim­ate at the moment is that it’s Early Bronze Age, around 2000 BC, as this would match the age of the flints and pot­tery found in the ditch. Another clue is the pres­ence of an Early Bronze Age set­tle­ment a few metres away, the old­est set­tle­ment known in Herefordshire at the moment. Dating the site to the Early Bronze Age cre­ates fur­ther puzzles though because of the use of fire-cracked rock.

Usually if you show archae­olo­gists fire-cracked rock they’ll assume you have a evid­ence of cook­ing. The pot­tery of the time wasn’t really very suit­able for sit­ting over a fire, so instead people would heat rocks and drop them into a pot to boil water. This kind of tech­no­logy was thought to date from around five hun­dred years later the date of this settl­ment. Using the rocks to line a ditch adds to the puzzle as it’s a very dif­fer­ent use. Hereford’s county archae­ology Keith Ray has described it as: “…a very excit­ing find not just for Herefordshire, and not just for the UK, but, appar­ently so far unique in Europe — it has inter­na­tional significance.”

Dr Ray and oth­ers ar e mak­ing some com­par­is­ons to the Ohio Serpent Mound but I’m not sure how help­ful that it. The Rotherwas site is a cut into the land­scape rather than a mound, and it’s a long way from the Ohio Serpent in both time and space. Additionally there’s not really much inform­a­tion about the length or route of the Ribbon. Personally I’d be look­ing more closely at the aven­ues found asso­ci­ated with stone circles of the time in the British Isles.

Rotherwas Ribbon Detail
Stones laid onto the soil. Click for a big­ger photo.

However if you look closely at the Ribbon there are good reas­ons to be scep­tical of it being a track­way. The stones are laid into sandy soil. This simply wouldn’t take reg­u­lar use as a track­way. Nor would you want to build a track into the ground. The Roman Ditch cut through the Ribbon seems to fol­low it to the river. The reason prob­ably isn’t that the Romans saw it and decided to hack it open. Rather the filled in cut would have been bog­gier that the sur­round­ing area, mak­ing it an obvi­ous choice for a ditch.

The state of the Ribbon and asso­ci­ated evid­ence of burn­ing at the site sug­gests that it was only briefly open to the world before being covered over. The re-exposure four thou­sand years later is now a big problem.

There are mem­bers of the pub­lic who’d like the whole site opened so that every­one can access it. The pho­tos I’ve taken are after rain the pre­vi­ous week­end. They were how­ever taken before the ser­i­ously heavy rains which made the inter­na­tional news fell. The site looks to be extremely fra­gile and expos­ure to the ele­ments would seem to be a good way to des­troy it, so some sort of cover would seem to be in order. This is the plan favoured by the local coun­cil. Unfortunately the council’s plan also includes build­ing a major road over the site, which raises its own ques­tions about the effects of shock­waves caused by Heavy Goods Vehicles run­ning over the site. Arguably if built cor­rectly this may pre­serve the remains, but would slice across the Ribbon.

It’s this road which is the most press­ing ques­tion over the Ribbon at the moment. There is an extremely frac­tious debate in Hereford at the moment over the value of the road. Additionally there are alleg­a­tions that the site was dis­covered shortly before local elec­tions and its announce­ment supressed to avoid embar­rass­ment for the rul­ing party. The Ribbon there­fore seems to be caught in a clash between those a long-term view and those whose pos­i­tions require deliv­ery of short-term success.

The ques­tion is whether or not work can be delayed so that the decision is made with more facts about the site, or if the eco­nomy of Herefordshire is in such a bad way that the road must be built as soon as pos­sible — regard­less of what the Ribbon is.

Links to other pages.

Herefordshire County Council have a page with news updates.

If you’re inter­ested in the news of devel­op­ment of the site you’ll find more inform­a­tion at Save the Dinedor Serpent.

The Megalithic Portal has dis­cus­sion on the state of the ser­pent and its implications.

There’s also dis­cus­sion at The Modern Antiquarian.

Anthropology​.net repor­ted on this at the start of the month.

My pho­tos are avail­able on Flickr under a CC licence. The BBC has more pho­tos, but they’re copyrighted.