Posted by: kaleidophonic | March 1, 2012

If those stones could talk: new theories on Stonehenge

Have you ever visited Stonehenge?

I have. Twice, actually, because the first time was so awesome I needed to fly all the way over the Atlantic Ocean again to see it a second time. Now, Stonehenge might seem a strange topic for a sound-studies blog. But bear with me. It will all make sense in the end. I promise.

When I visited Stonehenge I was awestruck by the mammoth ring of ancient rocks, and I swear I could feel the eerie mystery that surrounds them. Who built the henge, and why, is a question that continues to puzzle archeologists and historians alike. Was it built by Druids? How? And for what purpose? Magical rites? Sacrifices? Burial rituals? No one seems to know for sure.

Now there’s a new theory: that the layout of the giant rocks was designed not for its visual aesthetics, but because it allowed for a unique acoustic phenomenon.

I have a distinctly sonic memory that I connect with my visit to the Henge. There were a number of birds circling ’round and through the ring, cawing and calling to each other as they did so. Their calls echoed in a very eerie and almost percussive way, the sound bouncing between the rocks. It actually made my hair stand on end. Turns out I wasn’t the only person struck by the strange acoustical qualities of the place.

Recently an acoustician by the name of Steven Waller, who works for Rock Art Acoustics USA, presented some thoughts on Stonehenge and sound to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The following is from a news item @ The Raw, written by Muriel Kane, and forwarded to me by my buddy Bobad. Check it out:

Waller described an experiment in which blindfolded test subjects walked into a field where two pipers were playing and were asked to report whenever it sounded as though there was a barrier between them and the music. The result was that “they drew structures, archways and openings that are very similar to Stonehenge.”

Waller did not choose pipers for his experiment arbitrarily. He notes that stone circles are traditionally known in Great Britain as “piper stones” and also cites a legend that “Stonehenge was created when two magic pipers led maidens into the field to dance and then turned them to stone.”

Waller is part of the growing science of what is known as “archaeoacoustics,” the study of the ancient utilization and manipulation of unusual sound effects at sacred sites. Another current article on the subject describes recent findings at the Peruvian ceremonial center of Chavín de Huántar.

According to the leader of that study, “At Chavín, we have discovered acoustic evidence for selective sound transmission between the site’s Lanzon monolith and the Circular Plaza: an architectural acoustic filter system that favors sound frequencies of the Chavín pututus [conch-shell trumpets] and human voice.”

The article explains that “central to the purpose of this careful arrangement of sound and architecture and the resulting dynamics is the sensory effect that the sound is designed to have on humans within earshot, which some scholars theorize creates the intended “state of mind” for religious or worshipping purposes.”

In other words, the intention was to use a combination of sound and stone architecture to produce altered states of consciousness. Perhaps that was the function of the carefully chosen and positioned rocks at Stonehenge, as well.

Whoa. Far out! This is cutting-edge stuff, and as a historian interested in sound, I find this kind of acoustics-meets-archaeology research really exciting. Hopefully findings of this kind will continue to pop up in the news every now and then. I’ll definitely keep my ear to the rocks and let you know if I hear anything.
Stay tuned…

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