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Listening to the Stonehenge Story

The story of the sounds at Stonehenge becomes fascinating as one goes along; getting lost in time and space.

Who would have thought that one of the most studied archaeological sites in the UK would still have secrets hidden from view?

However, most of the studies on the megalithic monument of Stonehenge focused on looking at the site, rather than listening to it.

Stonehenge 1960 por Annabeaull
Stonehenge 1960 por Annabeaull

Stonehenge is one of the greatest wonders of the world. It is unique among surviving stone circles because of the formation of post and lintel (constructions that use vertical supports and horizontal beams instead of arches or vaults).

It is estimated that its construction probably began in the 3rd century BC, and that it was carried out in six stages, over a period of 1200 years, during the transition between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. The builders were not a single people but a series of villages that followed one another in the south of England.

The construction of Stonehenge has been attributed to the wizard Merlin, to the Druids, to the Romans, the Danes, the Phoenicians and the Egyptians, also to giants and goblins, to refugees from Atlantis and to a wide spectrum of people responsible according to the day and time of the source consulted.

The Druids

For the English, Stonehenge is an icon of the British past connected with the Druids, members of the upper, professional and priestly classes of Great Britain, Ireland, Galicia, Gaul (France), and possibly other parts of Celtic Europe during the Iron Age.
These characters appear in a series of stories from Celtic culture as well as in other Indo-European cultures, but there are also only short or concise descriptions of them.

Nothing is known yet about the cult practices of the Druids, except for the ritual of the oak and mistletoe that appears in the book Naturalis Historia by the Roman imperial procurator Pliny the Elder.

The English doctor William Stukley, a lover of Stonehenge, claimed that the space had been built by the druids and that they were a sect of Phoenicians who came to Britain in the time of Abraham.

He held that the homeland of the Druids was the same as that of Abraham: Canaan, that they worshipped the same God as the Hebrews and Christians and that their temple, Stonehenge, was the forerunner of the English cathedrals.

But today we know that Stonehenge predates the Druids.

The Hidden Footprints of Stonehenge

Among the writings about Stonehenge in the 19th century, the English writer Thomas Hardy stands out. He lived very close to the ruins and on several occasions expressed his concern that the Industrial Revolution would bring about a drastic change in the archaeological site.

Hardy’s fears for Stonehenge were well founded. On the one hand the agricultural change in the town was spreading, on the other hand Stonehenge was crumbling due to human interference visiting the ruins without care or supervision, a situation which was rectified in the 20th century.

Tess-of-the-D'Urbervilles---Vintage-Hardy----Ilustración-Owen-Gent

In Thomas Hardy’s novel published in 1891 Tess of the dUrbervilles in the final chapter the protagonists arrive at Stonehenge:

-What will this be? -exclaimed Angel.
-Watch it buzz, Angel, -said Tess.

He listened. The air, as it brushed against the mole, produced a buzzing sound similar to the note of a gigantic single-stringed harp. No other sound was heard, and raising his hand and taking a few steps forward, he felt the vertical surface of what appeared to be a seamless monolith. Walking along it with his fingers, he could see that it was a colossal rectangular pillar; and extending his left hand, he saw that beside it there was another one like it. At a great height above their heads was what appeared to be the broad architrave that connected the two pillars horizontally. The young men stepped cautiously into the space in between, and the walls echoed the faint rumor they had caused, but they still had the feeling of being out in the open. There was no roof.

Tess sighed in fear, and Angel, perplexed, said:
-What will this be?

Walking sideways, they came upon another pillar in the shape of a tower, as square and massive as the first one. Beyond it were two others. Everything became doors and pillars, some of the latter joined by continuous architraves.

-A true temple of the winds,» said Angel.

The immediate pillar was completely isolated. Others made up a little trilogy, and some were fallen over forming a roadway wide enough to allow a carriage to pass.

It did not take long for the fugitives to realize that this was a veritable forest of monoliths, clustered in the green expanse of the plain.

They went further into that pavilion at night and stopped there.

-This is Stonehenge, -exclaimed Angel.
-The pagan temple?

-Yes. -Older than time; older than the d’Urbervilles.

Tess de D’Urberville- Trad M. Ortega y Gasset

Thomas Hardy was not only interested in Stonehenge, but in archaeology in general. He was friends with several local antique dealers, which sparked his interest in the subject and he often talked to them about new archaeological finds in England. This topic was significant for the Victorian period as archaeology shook the very foundations of 19th century society with its findings.

Thomas Hardy perceived particular sounds at Stonehenge, sounds that many still perceive.

Many people say they experience something special when they gather at Stonehenge and play instruments inside the stone circle.

Acoustic Analysis

The sound that Stonehenge originally had 3,000 years ago was lost. However, using technology for video games and architectural simulations, a few years ago Dr. Rupert Till of the University of Huddersfield created, with the help of some ancient instruments, an application that simulates what the sound of Stonehenge would be like 3,000 years ago with all the stones in place.

The mathematical acoustic analysis of the Stonehenge archaeological plans was complemented by the acoustic analysis of a digital model using software designed for architectural simulations.

The results of this analysis exceeded all expectations. The final stage of construction of Stonehenge had acoustic figures as good as those of today’s top concert halls, which were perfectly suited for loud rhythmic music, just like a rock concert hall.

For this project, acoustic measurements were made on a complete reproduction of Stonehenge in concrete with acoustics expert Dr. Bruno Fazenda, who together with Ian Drumm, from the Acoustics Department at the University of Salford, researched and reported on the acoustic response of the site:
https://www.academia.edu/5362835/Recreating_the_Sound_Of_Stonehenge

The studies were carried out using the following spatialization systems:

Wave Field Synthesis (WFS)

A sound production technology designed specifically for spatial audio rendering. Virtual acoustic environments are simulated and synthesized using a large number of speakers.

What is innovative about this technology, is that the sound can appear to come from specific virtual starting points and then move through space in many possible defined space paths.
The principle no longer depends on the perception of the «ghost sound» source as all conventional audio procedures do. Here, the sound field is physically reconstructed.

For this purpose, the synthesis emulates the nature of the sound wave front according to the principle of wave propagation analysis called the Fresnel Huygens Principle and it says

Any point on an initial wavefront can be considered as a source of secondary spherical waves extending in all directions with the same speed, frequency and wavelength as the wavefront from which they originate.

Principio-de-Fresnel-Huygens

In the Wave Field Synthesis spatialization system, a computer synthesis independently moves a large number of separately controlled loudspeaker membranes, mostly arranged as a matrix around the listener. From the following link, you can find more information where the system is explained in a detailed and complete way: http://www.holophony.net/Wavefieldsynthesis.htm

Ambisonic System

Ambisonics is a method of recording and reproducing audio in 360 degree environments. The Ambisonic system was created in the 1970s by physicist Peter Fellget and mathematician Michael Gerzon. It is a way of recording and reproducing surround sound in both horizontal and vertical environments from a single point source.

This system has evolved considerably with the advent of virtual reality helmets.

Among the main features of the Ambisonic system are the following

  • Provides height information; most traditional surround formats (5.1, 7.1, etc.) contain only horizontal sound information.
  • Its spatial quality is infinitely extendable; by storing more channels of information, it increases the spatial accuracy of the audio.
  • It is invariable in rotation; arbitrary rotations of the audio do not cause loss of information. This is especially important for VR applications, where the spatial audio must be rotated smoothly while the listener turns their head.
  • It’s a scene based, rather than object based, coding. This means that, as the number of fonts grows in a scene, the data needed to represent the scene remains constant; with object-based coding, the data size typically grows linearly with the number of fonts.

Dr. Rupert Till Sounds of Stonehenge’s project:-https://soundsofstonehenge.wordpress.com/- suggests what people might have looked like at Stonehenge 3,000 years ago, the type of instruments used at ceremonies or gatherings, and what kind of sounds might have been made. It has also allowed tentative steps to suggest that the music may have acted to promote alpha rhythms in the brain and help achieve altered states of consciousness.

With the advent of virtual reality, the look at the past extends its networks and becomes much more complex. The possibilities of immersion and recreation completely change our perspective on history.

A Medium-sized Cinema

Photo by SALFORD ACOUSTICS

Since 2012, the acoustics department of the University of Salford has been developing a new form of acoustic study to find out the acoustics of a prehistoric site. Now, by making a scale model, new ideas about the way our ancestors listened are being opened up. For this new form of research they have chosen Stonehenge.

The 1:12 scale model of Stonehenge allows to explore the acoustics that this space had more than 3000 years ago.
For this research we used a set of laser scanning data from English Heritage made in 2011 and the latest archaeological evidence that helped to model the size and shape of the stones.

Stonehenge was a circular building. In such architectures it would be expected that if a person stands in the center of the space and makes a sound, for example an applause, an echo of that sound will return to that person’s ears. However, at Stonehenge this phenomenon does not occur.

Stonehenge has a circular architecture with a free space between the center and the periphery, surrounded by stones and trilites, which reflect and diffract the sound waves when they move away from the center. These reflection and diffraction effects create something similar to what is known in acoustics as a diffuse field, which means that sound waves at any point in space are likely to travel in many directions rather than one specific direction. This prevents any sound waves from returning to the listener with a unique and defined delay at a high level (what we call an echo).

What is significant about this discovery about Stonehenge is that such a space tends to support speech activity, since a speaker can be heard reasonably well from anywhere in space, even when standing behind one of the outer stones.

Since 2012, it has been known that the acoustics of this former enclosure helped to reinforce the sound of speech, but researchers are wondering to what extent it reinforced it and, above all, how.

The scale model, which incorporates archaeological mapping techniques, helps to better understand the design of the original site. Researchers hope to develop new notions about how our ancestors would have heard in buildings with these characteristics, since this type of circular architecture is repeated in a similar way in many places in the world.

Preliminary results of the scale model show a reverberation time of about 0.6 seconds, something like a medium sized cinema.
Since Stonehenge has no roof and there are many gaps between the stones, the reverberation time is surprisingly long for a place with these characteristics.

Here is a small comparison of sounds to show how interesting the acoustics of this place are.
In the following audio you can hear a series of applauses in the open air without any nearby surfaces:

Same pats but inside Stonehenge:

An excerpt from a recording of a band called «The Imagined Village» playing a popular song called Cold Hailey Windy Night:


Sources consulted:


Author: Sol Rezza
Editor | Corrector: Franco Falistoco
@ 2019

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