Stonehenge was the ultimate venue for ceremonies and rituals when it was built more than 4000 years ago. But what did they sound like? Now a 1:12 scale model of the site, with the stones in their original positions, reveals the surprising acoustic qualities of the monument.
Trevor Cox at the University of Salford, UK, has long been interested in acoustic archaeology – what ancient places would have sounded like. Many of Stonehenges stones have now fallen over or been removed, so Cox and his colleagues decided to find out how sound would have carried across the original 157 stones of the site in 2200 BC.
To do this, they used a technique used to predict the acoustics of new concert halls, which involves building a mini model of the site. Using precise laser scans of stones of the ancient monument, the team 3D-printed and moulded a scaled-down version of Stonehenge. In the mini-model, the tallest of the actual stones is a mere 60 centimetres. To test the reverberation, sounds had to be blasted at 12 times their frequency, into the ultrasound range.
So what did Stonehenge sound like? Even though there are large gaps between the stones and no roof “there’s a sense of being in a room,” says Cox. “You’d think that the sound would just disappear to the heavens, but there are enough stones horizontally that the sound keeps bouncing back and forth so you get this reverberance. You think it would all disappear but it doesn’t.” The tests showed that reverberation lasted 0.6 seconds. “This makes the voice sound more powerful,” says Cox.
To modern-day humans, used to being in concrete or brick buildings, these reverberations might not seem that unusual, he says. “But to our prehistoric ancestors it would have been very remarkable.” Despite this, it’s unlikely that the buildings would have been designed for their acoustics. “But would the people have exploited the acoustics? Or course they would have done. But we will never know for sure,” says Cox.
Next the team plans to test the acoustics of the various configurations of the monument’s stones that existed at different times. “I’ve got Stonehenge lego. I can say ‘what happened when the lintels were taken off?”, those kind of thing,” says Cox. ”It’s quite magical that you could feel what it would have sounded like to have been in that space”.
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