Stonehenge (noises off)

Sorry, couldn’t resist that one. I wasn’t going to write about this latest piece of Stonehenge silliness, but it’s had so much coverage (and regular readers of this blog might have noticed comments from me in quite a few of the press stories), that I thought I should at least acknowledge it, and perhaps see if there are any lessons.

“Stonehenge mystery may have been solved”, was the predictable cliché of one headline (in the New York Daily News). “Stonehenge was based on a ‘magical’ auditory illusion, says scientist”, is the more informative headline in the Guardian, and most were in this vein: “Was Stonehenge built for sound effects?” (Telegraph), “Was Stonehenge a sound stage?” (Calgary Herald), “Stonehenge design was ‘inspired by sounds’” (BBC News) or “Stonehenge is magic to scientist’s ears” (Sydney Morning Herald).

The clear winner for me, however (among many, many more), was the Daily Mail’s, “Was Stonehenge the result of an extraordinary hallucination after frenzied flute playing?”

Well, it might have been. But was it?

Behind all this, as you’d expect, lay a press release. I haven’t seen it, but the first I heard of the story was a phone call from a British science journalist who told me that someone called Steven Waller was going to address the annual meeting of the AAAS in Vancouver to reveal his acoustic discovery (ie he hadn’t yet given his talk).

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is not known to be an organisation run by eccentric airheads. It’s an influential non-profit body founded in 1848 with an admirable, and necessary, mission to “advance science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people” – and it publishes Science, the US equivalent to the British Nature. If you get to address an audience at its annual convention, you have a right to expect to be taken seriously. And science journalists around the world took Steven Waller seriously.

According to his AAAS abstract, he is an “independent scholar” from La Mesa, CA. His talk, “Virtual acoustic images and sound-attenuators as objects of ancient veneration”, was in a session with three speakers organised by David Lubman of the Acoustical Society of America and the Institute of Noise Control Engineering. This posed the same general question as Waller’s paper: Archaeoacoustics: Did Ancient Civilizations Use Acoustic Design To Create Powerful Ritual Spaces?

Waller says that if you walk round in a circle, with two sources of the same sound fixed at its centre a little apart from each other, you will hear the sound rise and fall as you progress. His theory is that neolithic people did this, were extremely puzzled by the effect, and were moved to build Stonehenge as a result: the spaces between the stones in the sarsen circle represent the quieter and louder moments respectively.

Here is a video of the effect of walking around two sources of noise. If you don’t listen too closely, it’s just a noise (don’t have your sound turned up high before you click on this). Or you can download an iTunes file from Waller’s website’s short entry on Interference & Stonehenge. This is clearer (if shorter), but again it is just a noise, if slightly modulating. It does not put me in mind of any structure, let alone Stonehenge.

And perhaps that’s why the drawings created by participants in his experiment – contrary to his claims this past week – don’t look in the least like Stonehenge, if we go by the examples he posted in November last year in connection with an address to the 162nd Acoustical Society of America Meeting, San Diego:

This is the best one, though my five-year-old daughter said it looks like a dog bowl:

He has written much more on rock art at Steven J Waller’s Rock Art Acoustics page, where he lists “hundreds of rock art sites with known sound reflection and/or unusual acoustic properties (tested by SJ Waller unless otherwise indicated)” at sites ranging from “Church Hole (Britain’s newly discovered cave art)” to Hawaii.

I know nothing about sound theory (which perhaps makes me neolithic, in Waller’s view of the world). So I’m not going to address the science, just the simple stuff. Two things jump out at me.

First is Waller’s understanding of human societies. I can sum it up with these quotes from his Stonehenge abstract:

“Sound phenomena perplexed pre-scientific cultures lacking wave theory. Echo myths suggest virtual acoustic images were perceived as supernatural non-corporeal agents… Myths around the world attest to beliefs that echoes were spirit voices calling out from rocks… To people unaware of wave cancellation and reinforcement, the pattern of dead zones alternating with loud zones would have been completely mysterious, hence magical.”

How does he know any of that? He is making deep assumptions, not just about the people who built Stonehenge, but about all people whose culture, to use his language, “lacks” science.

The reality of what he implies is the other way around. That is, the view of the world we take that we define as “scientific” (and that is a view held mostly by specialist scientists, and not the population at large) is a post-enlightenment, historically conditioned perspective. In other words, it is unusual. There are endless ways of experiencing the world around us. A great deal of our own understanding was achieved for us by people long ago who did not benefit from “science” – the wheel, for example, or cooking food. I suggest you would only necessarily find the sound phenomenon that Waller is describing as “completely mysterious, hence magical”, if you had his mindset – if you knew about wave theory, but somehow also you didn’t. You’d be just as likely, for example, to think, hey, that’s a cool effect, I can use that in my music.

Then there is the logic that leads to Stonehenge.

“Acoustic measurements support the hypothesis that ancient rock art locations [prehistoric cave paintings, canyon petroglyphs, megalithic monuments] were deliberately chosen for their sound reflection characteristics, and decorated with images that relate to the echo spirits believed to dwell there… These data support the new theory that sound wave interference patterns were attributed to massive invisible objects, and that this “vision” of a ring of magic stones served as a blueprint for Stonehenge.”

This is circular. The argument seems to be, Here is Stonehenge now, Here is a weird sound effect now, Therefore a weird sound effect caused Stonehenge in 2500BC.

Now you might argue that archaeologists play this game, making up ideas about healing stones, ancestors and midwinter rituals. Yes we do. But there’s a difference. We start with what we know about Stonehenge. This is a great deal, and if Waller had begun there, he would have left his bagpipes at home (the key point being that the one structure he singles out for his theory was far from the first, only or last thing there; the acoustics that work in his lab would not have worked on the site, and the design of Stonehenge did not spring out of nothing). And importantly, we don’t bring in complex science that few of us understand (including, to judge from the press stories, many science journalists) and then ignore everything else.


4 thoughts on “Stonehenge (noises off)

  1. This one had me gigling also, and you could also formulate the theory that the Sarcens are actually Giant speakrs for broadcasting ‘Rock Music’ and rant on about the ‘Blues Stones’..And perhaps the Heel stone was once part of a giant blue suede shoe..

  2. Not exactly original work on Stonehenge acoustics. I refer to you to Paul Devereux’s book “Stone Age Soundtracks” 2001, (Vega publisher) where David Keating and and Aaron Watson “with their eyes closed…. could tell exactly where they were in [Stonehenge] simply by using the echoes in the place” when they used their pink noise survey. Alas I do not have the CD that accompanied the book having missed the Channel 4 programme Secrets of the Dead. An entertaining read nontheless and defiantly in the quirky area of archaeological experimentation. It made me smile.

  3. If this theory were to be correct it would require prehistoric people to be aware that sound was vibrations in the air and for them to have a working knowledge of wave theory i.e. constructive and destructive interference.

    I think I’ll go with coincidence.

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