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Circle henge


Echoes of the past: The sites and sounds of prehistory

Sound recording at reconstruction of Stonehenge in Maryhill Monument, USA........

Did our ancient ancestors build to please the ears as well as the eyes? Trevor Cox pitches into the controversial claims of acoustic archaeologists

"The wind, playing upon the edifice, produced a booming tune, like the note of some gigantic one-stringed harp. No other sound came from it... Overhead something made the black sky blacker, which had the semblance of a vast architrave uniting the pillars horizontally. They entered carefully beneath and between; the surfaces echoed their soft rustle; but they seemed to be still out of doors..."

This atmospheric description of a "temple of the winds" comes from the dramatic climax of Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles. The setting is Stonehenge, arguably the most famous prehistoric monument of all. Its imposing ring of standing stones is visible for miles on Salisbury plain in southern England. On the day of the summer solstice its outlying "Heelstone" is exactly in line with rays of the rising sun. A more perfect example of the visual impact of an ancient monument would be hard to find.

Might we be missing here something that both Hardy and our prehistoric ancestors understood? Some archaeologists have begun to think so. They argue that sound effects were an important, perhaps even decisive, factor in how early humans chose and built their dwellings and sacred places. Caves that sing, Mayan temples that chirp, burial mounds that hum: they all add up to evidence that the aural, and not just the visual, determined the building codes of the past. But is that sound science?

Assessing the claims of "acoustic archaeology" rapidly encounters a fundamental problem: sound is ephemeral. Pottery fragments, coins, bones and bits of buildings can survive for centuries, waiting to be analysed, interpreted- and reinterpreted. The sounds of the past, by contrast, have long since died away. Where historical records make mention of acoustic intent in designing structures, the claims are often based on faulty science (see "Sound design?"). Going back into prehistory, we do not even have the luxury of knowing what our ancestors were thinking- or often a clear idea of the original layout and acoustic properties of the structures we are interpreting.

There is, however, a plausible argument that sound must have been important to our ancestors, perhaps more so than it is to us now. "Today we guzzle sounds and make a lot of noise," says UK archaeologist Paul Devereux, an advocate of the claims of acoustic archaeology. "We are visually very sophisticated, but acoustically very primitive." Our ancestors, by contrast, would have been "acoustically more calm and attentive in a much quieter world", he says. Without artificial light, listening intently would have been imperative to ward off night-time predators. In a time before writing, moreover, information was principally communicated orally. It seems reasonable that prehistoric humans would have paid more attention to their acoustic landscapes than we do today. "Senses as a whole were more fused," says Julian Thomas, an archaeologist at the University of Manchester, UK. "There wasn't the separation of vision from the other senses as there has been over the last few centuries. Nowadays we tend to prioritise vision."

New Scientist

A photo of the 'Stonehenge' Maryhill site;
moss Posted by moss
27th August 2010ce
Edited 5th September 2010ce

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