by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition
I have never been to Stonehenge on my several visits to the UK, but hope to get there someday. On the winter solstice, crowds usually gather there to watch the sun set between the uprights of the tallest trilithon although last year and this year it had to be live streamed due to COVID restrictions.
According to Trevor J. Cox in Physics Today, this practice has been taking place since our ancestors erected the sarsen stones about 4500 years ago.
Cox notes that that when people gather for rituals, they speak and make music. To understand the effect of the stone circle on sound, he and colleagues constructed a 1:12 scale model of Stonehenge as it appeared circa 2200 BC and modeled what happened to sound.
It turned out that the stones reflected the sound, amplifying sounds made within the stone circle to those inside it by about 4 decibels. This effect might have been especially noticeable if the speaker was facing the stones, away from those in the circle.
Reverberation time was also increased, despite Stonehenge obviously being open to the air.
As Cox notes:
It is impossible to know what sounds our ancestors were making at Stonehenge, but musical instruments certainly existed when it was built. Archaeologists have evidence of ancient bone flutes, wooden pipes, animal horns, and drums from Neolithic Britain and Europe. And singing, almost certainly, would have been pervasive at the time—although that leaves no archaeological trace.
I’m always a little skeptical of paleoanthropologists trying to figure out what people actually did before recorded history, but at least the acoustic modeling suggests that they had somehow figured out amplification.
And that’s something to brighten the darkness on the shortest day of the year.