Stonehenge’s Eerie Sounds

By Alan Boyle

British researchers conducted experiments at a Stonehenge stand-in as well as the actual 5,000-year-old monument to determine how sounds echoed within the ancient circle of stones — and they found that the sounds would have taken on an eerie reverberation.

“We can expect such a space to have a striking effect on someone of that time, identical to what we feel nowadays when we go into a church,” the University of Salford’s Bruno Fazenda, who orchestrated the research project, told me in an email.

The study is described on the university’s website in a technical analysis as well as a news release issued last week, but the upshot is that the Neolithic people who gathered inside the circle could well have had a religious aural experience. That meshes with the view of most archaeologists that the monument on England’s Salisbury Plain took on the trappings of a place of healing — a “Neolithic Lourdes,” if you will.

It’s not easy to reconstruct the sounds of ancient Stonehenge: For one thing, many of the standing stones are missing from what was thought to be their original places, ruining the acoustic arrangement. For another thing, researchers are not allowed to run electrical power out to the site, or bring in a generator. That limits the types of sound equipment and scientific instruments that can be used on site.

Replicating the reverb
Fazenda and his colleagues from the University of Huddersfield and the University of Bristol found a couple of clever solutions to those challenges. They brought air-filled balloons to the Stonehenge site in 2009, then popped the balloons with a needle and recorded the reverb with a microphone and a digital field recorder. The reflected sounds of the pops were hard to make out, but they appeared to follow a pattern of 1-second reverberation time at midfrequencies, for locations that were within the ruins of the stone circle.

To study the reverberation patterns in detail, the team headed off to the Maryhill Museum in Goldendale, Wash., which has a full-scale concrete replica of Stonehenge on its grounds. The monument was built by millionaire industrialist Samuel Hill as a tribute to fallen World War I servicemen. The museum let the researchers make their measurements with more sensitive instruments, powered by on-site generators. The same balloon-popping technique was used, and the readings confirmed the reverberation pattern that the team found at the real Stonehenge.

“For an outdoor space, the stone circle exhibits quite a ‘live’ acoustic environment,” Fazenda said. “In the Neolithic, such an environment was not very common at all. The only spaces that might sustain reverberation were caves and perhaps some natural features such as opposing cliff faces.”

Fazenda said the echo effect would be much more like what you hear in a cathedral than in a concert hall.

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