As regular visitors to Eternal Idol will be aware, I’m interested in every last aspect of Stonehenge, regardless of what this dimension might be or of who its proponents are. I predictably spend the majority of my time pondering physical properties of the site such as the earthworks and the stones, as well as any timber structures that once stood there. This includes mulling over discoveries made at the ruins and in the landscape by archaeologists, antiquarians and other treasure-hunters over the years, as well as idly trying to guess at the content of official archaeological reports that haven’t yet seen the light of day and aren’t likely to do so within my lifetime.
A mere hair’s-breadth behind the physical aspect of Stonehenge comes the study of language and once again, I must say how grateful I am to Dr Robin Melrose for his many fascinating contributions to this subject over the years here on Eternal Idol. On a par with the study of language, in my opinion, is the study of legends, mythology and folklore, a tantalising but not-so-elusive Otherworld that’s provided some of the most fascinating insights and food for thought as far as activities at Stonehenge in prehistory are concerned.
I rarely have anything to say about the astronomical or mathematical properties of Stonehenge, because I have the greatest difficulty in understanding and making sense of these concepts, let alone in applying them in any meaningful way to the monument in question. There are however many other ways in which we can attempt to look at the ruins through the eyes of our ancestors and one of these methods seems to have garnered a lot of attention recently.
I’m referring to the ongoing studies of the acoustic properties of Stonehenge, but these make even less sense to me than the studies involving astronomy and mathematics. It is beneath my dignity to stoop to a wilful misrepresentation of what others have to say, something that’s long been a bane for those who investigate the monument and its landscape, but while it seems a fairly straightforward matter, I must confess that I have the greatest difficulty in understanding precisely what’s being proposed here.
To begin with, this recent BBC link deals with the Neolithic acoustics of Stonehenge, although I could barely repress a shudder when I saw that these qualities of the monument have been “revealed by academics”. Personal biases aside, the piece informs us that scholars from the universities of Salford, Huddersfield and Bristol used an American replica of Stonehenge, constructed from cement in 1929, to investigate its audio history.
The piece neglected to point out that the purpose of this American replica was as a memorial to soldiers who had died during World War One, which is a pleasing echo of what Geoffrey of Monmouth had to say about the origins of the British Stonehenge. Be that as it may, the BBC piece quoted Dr Bruno Fazenda in saying that the site (presumably the British Stonehenge, even though they were studying the America one) reacted to sound “in a way that would have been noticeable to the Neolithic man”.
Is this not stating the obvious? I’m guessing that Neolithic Man, as well as his Mesolithic and Palaeolithic forebears, would have been well aware of the sepulchral sonic qualities of a cave, for example, as well as noticing that a heavy snowfall deadened sound, that certain locations had an echo, that your voice was less likely to be heard by one of your fellows if the space between you was occupied by a thick stretch of forest rather than if the same intervening distance was open grassland, etc. I would have thought that Neolithic or Bronze Age Man would have instantly noticed that Stonehenge reacted to sound, so it seems I’m missing something here.
Otherwise, this next BBC link goes further in speaking of how the design of Stonehenge itself may have been inspired by sounds. I’m happy to accept that someone walking blindfold in a circle around two pipers playing continuously in a field will conjure up a mental vision of some huge, spoked structure, but just why this would prompt everyone else to go ahead and build the sarsen phase of Stonehenge is something I do not understand. Presumably, other blindfolded people in other places experienced this phenomenon, so I find myself wondering why it was that they only felt compelled to build Stonehenge where the ruins currently stand.
Again, I must stress that I’m not pouring scorn on what this gentleman has to say, although he seems to be stating that the strange acoustical properties produced when two pipers play in a field and others walk around them in a circle produce a mental image of “a Stonehenge-like structure”, which in turn may have prompted them to replicate this mental image in the form of hundreds of tons of some of the toughest stone on Earth. Well, it’s certainly something to consider and music itself is an almost magical phenomenon, but I have to say that the notion has failed to persuade me that it was something likely to have occurred.
There are many other sites on the internet dealing with the acoustic properties of Stonehenge, but for the sake of expediency, I’ll conclude with a third BBC link devoted to the subject, in this case a slideshow with a soundtrack entitled “Hearing the Past“. I liked the recreation of a female soprano in a mediaeval cathedral, but for the life of me, I couldn’t appreciate what was special about the reconstruction of a ritual at Stonehenge around 4,000 years ago.
The soundtrack tells us that Stonehenge may or may not have been designed with acoustics in mind, but that celebrants at the monument would have noticed the acoustic effects inside the stone circle, something I went over at the start of this post. I was very interested to learn on the Sounds of Stonehenge site that the author Thomas Hardy once stated that “if a gale of wind is blowing, the strange musical hum emitted by Stonehenge can never be forgotten”.
I do not recall ever having heard such a thing during the decade I lived on Salisbury Plain, but this must be because I was never at Stonehenge when a gale of sufficient strength was blowing, or else because the traffic from the nearby roads drowned out this eerie sound. Of course, just because I didn’t personally hear the sound doesn’t mean that it doesn’t or didn’t occur, while it was clearly sufficiently unusual for Thomas Hardy to state that it was unforgettable.
I’ve speculated out loud about Stonehenge on many occasions, so if others are managing to get financial backing to do the same thing, I wish them the very best of luck with their research. I cannot help feeling that I’m missing something here, however, so if anyone would care to write in to enlighten me on the subject of the acoustic properties of Stonehenge, I would be most grateful, while such contributions would also surely be welcomed by anyone else who shares my lack of understanding and appreciation of this subject.
My grateful thanks once again to MOJO Productions of Minnesota for providing the original image at the top of this post.