Echoes of Stonehenge

by Dennis on May 3, 2012

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.

stonehenge-006.jpg

My grateful thanks once again to MOJO Productions of Minnesota for providing the original image at the top of this post.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Neil May 3, 2012 at 1:13 pm

‘… 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”…’

This reminds me in some ways of a field recording made by Alan Lamb (sadly not the cricketer, this one being an Australian biological scientist), which he released on an album called Primal Image, in which he attached contact microphones to telephone wires that stretched across the desert in the Australian outback. The mics picked up the hums and drones produced by the wires when blown by the wind, kind of like a huge guitar or violin.

I’m sure some field recording enthusiast somewhere must have recorded something similar with stone structures and wind…

DanJ May 3, 2012 at 9:56 pm

“The plains are alive with the sounds of Stonehenge” sounds just about as realistic as the case for Stonehenge being deliberately built for sound. The design finally chosen has a wonderful resonant quality as does any similar structure made of similar materials, such as the concrete replica in America, with a ring of connected concrete pillars in a circle. I’m sure, as is Dennis, that Neolithic people who played drums loudly would have been very well aware of the acoustical effects of resonance, constructive and destructive interference just as they would have known about echoes. So what? They had no labels and theoretical understanding of sound waves to rely on and would have proceeded, as they did with everything, using empirical methods.

Let’s say they built wooden circles with connecting lintels long before they raised the final Sarsen Circle at Stonehenge. The woodworking techniques they used at Stonehenge argue that this wood technology was the basis for the mortice and tendon and tongue and groove connections used to stabilize the Sarsen ring, and explains why any of the monument is still standing after 4,500 years. Let’s also assume they played drums loudly at places like Woodhenge, the Sanctuary and Durrington Walls. Could this have inspired them to build Stonehenge just because of the acoustical benefits of such a ring structure? The short answer is no.

Neolithic timber circles were built using oak, plentiful at the time and extremely durable for wood. Oak, as a hardwood, has an annoying property of being a sound absorber instead of a great reflector like sarsen. Comparing oak as a sound absorber versus something deliberately designed as a noise reducer, such as an acoustic tile, can give us a good idea of just how much of a muting effect a timber circle would have on drums. The means of comparison is a property called the sound absorption coefficient, symbolized by the Greek letter alpha. The coefficient is the ratio between the sound intensity absorbed and the incident sound intensity. The higher the value, the more sound is absorbed by the medium. Acoustic tiles have a range of values from 0.4 to 0.8, depending on materials used and design. This means that the intensity of incident sound would be reduced by 40-80%. Oak has a value of about 0.3 so that oak is a natural acoustic suppressor, almost as good as deliberately designed tiles. Sarsen, on the other hand, has an alpha value of 0.01-0.02 or 1-2%.

If the builders of Stonehenge were using wooden rings as a template for the Sarsen monument, they would have been pleasantly surprised at the wonderful acoustical effects the structure provided compared to wooden counterparts such as Woodhenge. These effects would have been the last thing in the world they would have expected based on the response they got from wooden counterparts. To speculate that they deliberately built Stonehenge just for the sound has no basis in fact any more than believing it was a nexus on the World Energy Grid or a landing marker for UFOs.

Stonehenge’s sound qualities have to be considered as nothing more than serendipity, something the human race has benefited from forever. Many of the technologies we abuse and the wonders of medical science we expect are nothing more than products of serendipity; Stonehenge’s vibe is just another example of how long we’ve been milking our luck.

Dennis May 4, 2012 at 12:45 am

As those of you fortunate enough to have read it will be aware, I explored the matter of Stonehenge as a dance floor in great detail in my book, while I’ve also written about Stonehenge’s connection with rock music and with priests of Apollo playing on lyres in a number of other posts here. I don’t doubt for a moment that Stonehenge was a setting for prehistoric trance music, but I’m far more interested in the content of these musical and spoken ceremonies than I am in simply acknowledging that they occurred.

The idea of getting so much as a glimpse of the content of these ceremonies might seem absurd to some, but as Sir Thomas Browne (1605 – 1682) once wrote, “What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture.”

Red Raven May 4, 2012 at 12:41 pm

Whereas I don’t dispute Dan J’s well thought out premise about the acoustic properties of wood and sarsen, the idea that the makers of SH would have ” a pleasant surprise” is implicit in its assumption the builders would have worked in isolation to create SH. I find this to be puzzling. There were other stone structures before SH and a lot of them, as we know, were and are circular. Are we to assume that the acoustic properties of such places were an unknown before the creation of SH?

RR

Dennis May 4, 2012 at 2:56 pm

What I understood by this, Red Raven, was that Stonehenge is and probably was unique among ‘stone circles’ inasmuch as it’s huge, it’s compact, it’s made of dressed stone and it forms to all intents and purposes a space enclosed by what’s nearly a wall, and that’s before you consider the ‘inner enclosures’ formed by the rings of bluestones and the trilithons. It’s a world away from Avebury, for example, where the stones were much further apart.

If there ever were a preceding replica of Stonehenge in wood, then I’d imagine that its (deadened) acoustic properties would have been markedly different from the later stone structure, while I’d also imagine that its acoustic qualities came as a pleasant surprise to the builders, as Dan’s suggested. At least, that’s how I see it all.

Red Raven May 4, 2012 at 5:25 pm

Stone henge is unique now, not sure this was always the case though, there is enough evidence to suggest to me that many structures may be now lost. So I’m afraid Dennis, I don’t believe the state of affairs now-a-days is necessarily historically accurate.

I don’t question what Dan has stated about acoustic qualities, I just don’t hold with the idea that the Stone Henge builders were not aware of stone’s acoustic properties. There may have been many structures in the environment then, that are not now archaeologically available to us today to help them. Then of course, there are steep sided valleys lined with stone that act acoustically. I can’t see myself how they would assume the lintels would add to the acoustics which would create the pleasant surprise mentioned. The lintels to me appear to be purely functional.

Personally, I believe sounds in the environment in prehistory, would have had more significance than we may realise today.

RR

Dennis May 4, 2012 at 6:20 pm

I think the question that’s hanging in the air and the aspect I found unanswered in the links I posted, is simply this: Did the builders of Stonehenge construct their monument with the acoustic properties at the forefront of their minds? Or was it a pleasing after-effect? I’m sure that any resonance there that enhanced their trance states was yet another happy result of the structure being built in the way it was, but there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly striking about it, such as a “Whispering Gallery”, the effects in Greek amphitheatres or even the singing exhibited by one of the Colossi of Memnon.

Having said that, I’ve just found a Daily Mail feature which mentions a whispering gallery effect, but I have to say I was more intrigued by what Thomas Hardy had to say about the ruins. All this belatedly reminds me that I have a sonic post concerning Stonehenge to write up myself, for what it’s worth, while I’d certainly agree with you that sounds in prehistory would almost certainly have had a greater significance for the people of those times than we perhaps realise today.

As I hope I made clear in my post, I’m baffled by this aspect of Stonehenge, but I would positively welcome anything that anyone else has to say on the subject.

JohnWitts May 5, 2012 at 8:52 am

If there was dance then it seems likely there was some form of musical accompaniment and different types of stone and their configurations are known to affect acoustics. One would imagine that the size and compactness of Stonehenge would have had an acoustic effect, but surely this could only have been an outcome of, and not the intention behind, the design?

DanJ May 5, 2012 at 5:43 pm

I’m in agreement with Red Raven that the builders of Stonehenge were aware of the acoustical properties of stone, but my reference to a pleasant surprise involved the orders of magnitude and greater effect Stonehenge would have created, compared to Avebury or Long Meg. I don’t feel they would have anticipated just how great this effect would be based on prior experience.

Red Raven May 5, 2012 at 6:36 pm

Maybe not THE intention, but I would suggest, one of the possible intentions. I just don’t hold with the idea that the effect was not considered at some stage. I am of an age that experienced stereophonic music when it first came out and I remember the slight disorientation that songs such as Queens Bohemian Rhapsody gave when first heard in stereo headphones. Transferring this effect into the living environment, I would suggest, may have been more profound than many visual stimuli.

RR

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