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Presented to Scientific & Medical Network, London Group  (
(6th March 2008)

Acoustic archaeology, or Archaeo-acoustics, is a relatively recent development which adds the dimension of sound to the range of research questions about a particular site.

In a presentation illustrated by film and sound recordings Paul Devereux discussed the world wide association of sounds with ritual or sacred places documented by anthropologists and still surviving in some traditional societies. European examples of ancient sites with known acoustic properties include Mycenean tholos tombs, classical Greek theatres, the Maltese Hypogeum and oracular sites. Sounds would have been included in the rituals at such places and sounds are known to affect human body and brain function. Ceremonies in existing societies, used by shamans in their interaction with spirit or other worlds, can include sound in various forms, often in conjunction with other techniques such as fasting, repetitive movement or mind-altering substances. Acoustic archaeologists theorise that sound effects were known and used by prehistoric societies and might be found in some megalithic monuments.

Contemporary sacred places, and presumed ancient ones, are mostly stone structures, natural, modified natural or constructed. Rocks of particular acoustic significance are often marked in some way. Sounds from stones can be produced by striking them, by echoes or by construction that utilises sound waves. Sound frequencies are measured in cycles per second, or Hertz (Hz). Resonances created by sound in chambered tombs were found to cluster most often in 110-112 Hz, the frequency of the male baritone voice, when experiments were carried out at sites in Ireland and Britain. Measurable sound effects were found at other megalithic structures. Results have been published in academic papers while a TV programme and accompanying book have reached a wider audience. British and Irish sites where sound phenomena have been found include Maes Howe, Camster, Easter Aquorthies, Bryn Celli Ddu and Stonehenge among many investigated. Newgrange was the subject of televised experiment in which a sound wave from a source in the inner chamber, resonating at the by now expected 110 Hz, alternated from loud to soft along the passage rather than simply fading as it moved further from the source. Laboratory experiment demonstrated that the movement of the wave, if the passage were filled with smoke or steam, would be visible as the sort of pattern found in the rock art of the monument.

Devereux is currently engaged in the Royal College of Art (RCA) Landscape and Perception Project with Jon Wozencroft of the RCA. They are working in the Preselli area of Wales, source of the Stonehenge bluestones, which Tim Dan/ill and Geoffrey Wainwright have also been investigating. Bluestone is a form of granite with quartz inclusions also known as spotted dolerite; both names are indicative of its distinctive appearance. Equally distinctive are the cams or tall rocky outcrops along a plateau where the bluestones are found. The RCA team initially made audio-visual recordings of the landscape and natural sounds - wind, rain etc. An orderly search is now in progress for ringing rocks which emit sounds when struck, with audio-visual mapping of those found and of any that are marked. A tentative and untested theory is that the amount of quartz may account for the sounds. Interestingly, a village in the area is called Maenclochog, which translates as Ringing Stones.

References: Channel 4, 2001, "Secrets of the Dead: Sounds From the Stone Age"
Paul Devereux, 2001, "Stone Age Sound Tracks", Vega, ISBN1-84333-019-9

Helen McKinlay

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