I couldn’t quite believe it when I saw this “story”. It seems to be constructed partly from quotations from Webster’s Universal College Dictionary and “Wickipedia” (sic) and is based on research using Google Earth. In fact, it’s written by the “Oregon Nature Examiner” for The Examiner (the “insider source for everything local”), one Dave Sandersfield, who has a degree in Technical Journalism, so we can excuse the lack of archaeological knowledge displayed by the article.
It’s actually quite difficult to understand what the article is really about. It seems that, somewhere in Pike Creek Canyon, north-west of Alvord Hot Springs in Oregon (USA) (the article says that Pike Creek is west, but it’s clear from Google Earth that it isn’t), there is a dolmen that can be seen as “a big pile of rocks”. It is in the canyon, close to Baltazar Spring. Trawling Google Earth, there are plenty of piles of rock in the canyon, but I can’t make out one that resembles a dolmen. What is interesting (to me, at any rate) is that in the canyon, there’s a photograph by timland (a photographer with an eye for interesting landscapes), showing glacial erratics.
Unfortunately, Dave Sandersfield doesn’t include a screenshot of the right bit of Google Earth, so I can’t be certain that I’ve located the right area. Mind you, he does say that it’s best “to physically walk along side this oddity and touch these unmovable rocks placed together by some prehistoric hands”, so that might well be why I can’t see anything. However, he does include a photograph showing “the round red rock pinched by the horizontal roof stone against the orange boulder on left to make the roof rock shed rain water”. Most of the photographs on the website appear to have been taken with a camera phone, to judge from the poor quality and camera shake, so there isn’t a great deal that can be judged about the nature of the alleged dolmen.
However, the one decent photograph, reproduced at the start of this post (and originally named, bizarrely, Copy_of_Celtic_shack.JPG), shows a group of reddish rocks with a larger flat slab perched above several others. This fits the definition quoted from Webster’s Universal College Dictionary that a dolmen consists of “two or more large, upright stones set with a space between and capped by a horizontal stone”. However, the photograph doesn’t really resemble anything that might be regarded as a dolmen by a European archaeologist (quite what Dave Sandersfield’s “Palaeo-archaeologist” is supposed to be isn’t explained in the article). Dolmens are found in a number of locations in western Europe and were once thought to be evidence for the diffusion of farmers from Syria-Palestine into Europe. Radiocarbon dating demolished that particular hypothesis back in the 1970s, but the monuments remain as a phenomenon of the earliest Neolithic and are part of the wider phenomenon of collective burial in stone-lined tombs.
So far, so good. Dolmens are the denuded remains of such tombs, whose original coverings of earth or stone have long since been lost. There is a possibility that some were built as free-standing structures, but this remains unproven. It is untrue to suggest, though that “later they were built for seasonal, especially winter equinox, observation stations”, as many early examples incorporate astronomically significant alignments; none was built principally as an “observation station” as they were always tombs. The fourth photograph, showing “Dolmen’s View looking east towards winter solstice” is presumably meant to reassure us that, like other dolmens, this one incorporates the most important of these alignments. There is no evidence, as Dave Sandersfield claims, that they were “placed near geothermal pools”.
According to the author, dolmens “are associated with an ancient Celtic culture that built Stonehenge and other odd standing rock structures” and his quotation from Wikipedia gives us a slightly old-fashioned view of Celtic culture. There are two problems with this view. Firstly, even the latest phases of Stonehenge pre-date a recognisably Celtic culture by almost a thousand years; it’s even worse for dolmens, which pre-date it by more than two thousand. The equation of dolmens with Celts might have been put to entertaining use by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo in the Astérix comic books, but it’s utterly unhistorical. It belongs to a time before prehistorians were able to date the pre-Roman monuments of Europe and is thus more than a century and a half out of date.
The second problem is with the entire concept of the “ancient Celtic culture”. Yes, there was a common élite culture across western Europe during much of the first millennium BC and the label given to it by art historians and archaeologists is “Celtic”. However, that is simply a descriptive label. A century ago, when prehistoric cultural change was thought to be associated with the migrations of ethnically distinct groups of peoples, that “Celtic culture” was assumed to be associated with a group of peoples described by classical authors as living north and west of the Alps. There are enormous problems with associating material culture forms with ethnic identity, which I summarised in an article published ten years ago. The so-called “Celtic culture” includes too much diversity to be associated simply with one single ethnic group. A simple example will suffice: we know that the people called Celts by their contemporaries in the classical world lived in rectangular houses; the Britons and Irish, whose descendants think of themselves as “Celts”, lived in round houses, as their ancestors had done for several thousand years. No classical author ever describes the inhabitants of the British Isles as Celts (indeed, the late fifth-century writer Zozimos actually contrasts the Britons with the Celts) and it was on purely linguistic grounds that the identification was first made.
This does not worry popular writers, such as Peter Berresford Ellis, who treat “Celtic culture” as if it is a monolithic phenomenon. It also rouses the anger of self-identifying “Celts” in Britain, Ireland and Brittany, who see any attempt to examine the concept critically as a phenomenon of English imperialism or, worse, as racism. However, it is clear to the disinterested observer that the claims made for a unified “Celtic Empire” are just plain wrong: there never was any such entity, just lots of warring tribes and kingdoms, who spoke closely related languages, valued similar artistic styles but whose basic cultures were quite distinct.
There is a more sinister and worrying aspect to the author’s identification of a purported “Celtic” monument in North America. Similar claims are made by white supremacist groups (only follow the link if you are prepared to read falsifications of the past promoted by racists; here is a resource for dealing with this type of hate-mongering). Some of the claims seem innocuous enough and often quote Professor Barry Fell as an authority. Fell was an invertebrate biologist who became enthused by epigraphy, claiming to detect traces of ogham inscriptions across the United States of America, and he developed a wide following. His work has not been well received by academics but is accepted uncritically by many amateurs as well as by those with a religious or political interest in seeing European settlers in North America millennia before Columbus. The plain fact of the matter is that there is not a shred of credible evidence for the settlement in North America of large numbers of people from western Europe before 1492.
So, are these rocks in Oregon the remains of a “Celtic dolmen”, if we leave out the bit about astronomical observations and the bit about the Celts? It should be obvious by now what my answer is going to be. The solution comes in the second paragraph. timland’s landscape photographs demonstrate what this “Celtic dolmen” really is: it’s a group of glacial erratics, left after the ice that carved out Pike Creek Canyon had melted. It wasn’t “ancient Celts” who put the “capstone” in place, but Mother Nature.