Architecture and Sound: An Acoustic Analysis of Megalithic Monuments in Prehistoric Britain

By Watson, Aaron; Keating, David | Antiquity, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Architecture and Sound: An Acoustic Analysis of Megalithic Monuments in Prehistoric Britain


Watson, Aaron, Keating, David, Antiquity


Introduction

It seems unlikely that the world was silent in prehistory. Sound was present in all aspects of peoples' lives - from speech to the manufacture of stone tools. Artefacts from across Europe have been interpreted as musical instruments and many of these, like carved bone pipes, may date back to the Palaeolithic (Megaw 1960; 1968). In Britain, similar evidence in later prehistory is rare and problematic (e.g. Megaw 1984), possibly as a result of the poor preservation of organic matter. The definition of musical instruments is itself unsatisfactory, and it is perhaps more appropriate to consider what Lund (1981: 246) defines as 'sound-producing devices'. These include any agency that can emit sound, from the use of raw materials such as wood, bone or stone, to the human body itself. It is possible to produce unexpectedly sophisticated sounds from very simple artefacts, and even unworked raw materials (Purser 1997). Fragmentary evidence could also be misinterpreted. For example, Lund (1981) has suggested that the remains of ceramic drums in Scandinavia may be lost amongst the mass of sherds in the archaeological record. Furthermore, it is also feasible that vessels used for storage, or other purposes, may perform as percussive devices with only simple modifications. Experimental reconstruction has demonstrated that later prehistoric ceramic containers could have been adapted to perform as effective drums (Purser 1997).

Despite the possibility that people had access to 'sound-producing devices', there has been relatively little discussion of the contexts within which sound may have been used. While archaeologists have considered the echoes present in decorated caves or rock-shelters across the world (Dams 1984; Reznikoff & Dauvois 1988 (see also Scarre 1989); Dayton 1992), there has been relatively little consideration of the acoustic qualities of artificially constructed monuments in Britain. The few studies in print are encouraging. For example, Devereux & Jahn (1996) suggest that some ancient structures may resonate in response to the human voice, and Lynch (1973) has discussed the 'roof box' at Newgrange in Ireland as means of communicating with the dead.

It is possible that the highly conspicuous nature of many Neolithic and Early Bronze Age monuments has had a substantial bearing upon their archaeological interpretation. Many of these sites physically dominate their surroundings, and research has tended to emphasize their highly visible characteristics. Consequently, there have been studies of the relationships between architecture and natural topography (e.g. Richards 1996; Bradley 1998), intervisibility and spatial relationships (e.g. Bergh 1995; Woodward & Woodward 1996), the aesthetics and meaning of construction materials (e.g. Lynch 1998; Parker Pearson & Ramilisonina 1998) and orientations upon astronomical events (e.g. Ruggles 1984). While these theories add valuable dimensions to our understanding of ancient monuments, they do not consider the possibility that the other senses may have contributed to experiences in the past.

It remained to be seen whether an understanding of acoustics at prehistoric sites could further our understanding of the ways in which prehistoric monuments may have been used. To test this possibility, the acoustic properties of two quite different prehistoric sites in northeast Scotland were explored. The first was Easter Aquorthies, a recumbent stone circle near Aberdeen, where a peculiar echo inside the ring appeared to originate from the large recumbent stone. The project then visited the enclosed space of Camster Round, a passage-grave in Caithness, where a wide range of sound effects were recognized. In combination, the results from these studies suggest that the acoustic properties of these sites should be considered alongside visual and spatial analyses.

Acoustic tests at a recumbent stone circle

The potential for acoustic phenomena at a stone circle was recognized at Easter Aquorthies, where a curious echo was heard during a visit to the site.

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Architecture and Sound: An Acoustic Analysis of Megalithic Monuments in Prehistoric Britain
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