Stonehenge’s lost sounds

Stonehenge

There are many questions surrounding the ancient stone circle of Stonehenge but might sound help in the search for answers?

Thomas Hardy said it had a strange “musical hum”. Tess of the d’Urvbervilles ends at Stonehenge and features the “sound”. Modern-day druids also say they experience something special when they gather at Stonehenge and play instruments within the stone circle.

However, Stonehenge is a ruin. Whatever sound it originally had 3,000 years ago has been lost but now, using technology created for video games and architects, Dr Rupert Till of the University of Huddersfield has – with the help of some ancient instruments – created a virtual sound tour of Stonehenge as it would have sounded with all the stones in place.

Media captionListen to Stonehenge’s hidden sounds

Arriving at 07:00 on a decidedly chilly January morning, I was sceptical. Dr Till had arrived with a horn, a drum and some sticks to try to show me that, even in its partially deconstructed state, there was still a distinctive echo.

Perhaps it’s the mystique of the stones but it’s easy to hear something. However, sound is always going to bounce off huge standing stones: how can we say that was in any way meaningful for people 3,000 years ago?

Dr Till says there’s a great deal of evidence that ancient people were intrigued and drawn to places that had a distinctive sound and Stonehenge had a “strange acoustic”. Even today, the wind or drumming can, he says, help generate a 47hz bass note.

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Dr Rupert Till uses a drum to demonstrate Stonehenge’s acoustics

He first got a taste of what the circle might do to sound when he visited a concrete replica of the original intact Stonehenge in Maryhill in the US state of Washington.

He has now developed an app which will help people blot out the sounds – including those made by tourists, and cars on the nearby A303 – and go back to the soundscape of 3,000 years ago.

He’s used instruments that were used at the time, such as bone flutes and animal horns, to give people a sense of what music would have sounded like within the reverberation of the intact stone circle and says the site has some of the characteristics you might expect of a rock concert venue.

Dr Till explains that there’s there’s strong evidence that people several thousand years ago had an interest in acoustic environments. He’s worked on caves in Spain in which instruments have been found deep underground.

The echoes of the tunnels and cave systems may have had a special meaning for people. There are also, what appears to be, human markings on certain “musical” stalactites. Strike the stalactites in the right way and they give off a deep resonant note and can be played like a huge vertical xylophone.

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Virtual reality allows new ways to examine Stonehenge’s history

Stonehenge is a magnet for strange theories but this reflects a wider movement within archaeology to try to recreate the past with the rapidly growing technology of virtual reality (VR). Dr Aaron Watson is a research archaeologist and specialises in visualising the past.

VR, he says, opens up a new way of researching history.

“The material record can’t give us all the answers,” he explains.

“The moment we start creating a virtual reality world it begins to ask questions, especially about people. What were they wearing, what were their postures, were they highly coloured, tattooed? As soon as we create the immersive experience it demands those answers.

“It gives a new sensory experience to looking at the past that might take us beyond what we describe in books.”

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