Salford scientists reveal the ‘sound of Stonehenge’
Whatever went on there, it would have impressed the ancient Britons. Even if it was only whispering.
Salford’s clever academics, who once took me shopping in a virtual supermarket – you sat in an armchair wearing a helmet and a glove – have now recreated the sound of Stonehenge.
We are nowhere nearer cracking the mystery of the monument as a result; but who would want to be? Apart from all the mountains of remaindered books of theories, a puzzle solved is never as gripping as a conundrum still under way.
But the four-year project by Dr Bruno Fazenda and colleagues at Huddersfield and Bristol universities, has established how the shouts, speeches, songs or sacrificial screams would have sounded, whatever material they may have contained. The method has been a painstaking piece of ‘archaeoacoustics’, a relatively new discipline which reveals the sound quality of buildings from the past.
Stonehenge is very well known, but people are still trying to find out what it was built for and we thought that doing this research would add an element of archaeology that so far hasn’t been looked at. It’s a new area of acoustic science and it could be very helpful in the archaeological interpretation of important buildings and heritage sites, some of which may not exist in their original form, such as in the case of Stonehenge.
The number of missing bits at the famous stone circle by the A303 in Wiltshire was an obvious problem, and tests there by the team produced only a limited number of weak echoes and no noticeable reverberation. Ancient Britons would not have been terribly overawed by this, if the monument was built to impress. But luckily there is a full-sized replica in the United States.
Built out of concrete and erected at Maryhill, Washington state, as a memorial to US soldiers killed in the First World War, this revealed a wealth of special effects. Fazenda found:
It was possible to make proper acoustic measurements that allow an investigation into striking effects such as echoes, resonances and whispering gallery effects. The data gathered does not unequivocally reveal whether the site was designed with acoustics in mind, like Greek or Roman theatres. It nevertheless shows that the space reacted to acoustic activity in a way that would have been noticeable to the Neolithic man.
The next stage, in the tradition of my virtual supermarket foray, was to create an ‘audio 3D rendition’ of the recorded sounds, using 64 audio channels and bespoke loudspeakers from Salford university based on wave field synthesis. Fazenda says:
This system give us an accurate and immersive recreation of what Stonehenge would have sounded like. We can not only see ourselves surrounded by the stones using virtual reality, but we can also listen how the stone structure would have enveloped people in a sonic experience. It is as if we can travel back in time and experience the space in a more holistic way.
There’s more on the subject on a separate and excellent website called Sonic Wonders which has all manner of acoustic revelations. Here’s a clapping experiment on YouTube courtesy of them – background details are here.
- Secrets of Stonehenge: Scientists find origin of central rocks
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