For years archaeologists have been mystified as to why giant 'Preseli' bluestones from Mynydd Y Preseli in Pembrokshire, south-west Wales ended up at Stonehenge, almost 200 miles away. But now researchers from the Royal College of Art think they may have found the answer, along with a surprising new role for Britain's most popular heritage site: the bluestones may have been sought for their unique acoustic properties, which together made up a prehistoric soundscape at Stonehenge. The findings have been published today in the Journal of Time & Mind, and come at a timely moment with the opening of the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre later this month (18 December).
The College's Landscape & Perception Project (L&P) is a pilot study into the 'raw' visual and acoustic elements of the Pembrokeshire landscape, on and around the Carn Menyn ridge, on Mynydd Preseli, south-west Wales – the area where many of the famous Stonehenge bluestones originated.
Sound specialist Jon Wozencroft, Senior Tutor in Visual Communication at the RCA and the author, photographer and 'archeo-acoustic' expert Paul Devereux have been leading the project, working with a diverse team spanning archeology, neurology, aerospace engineering, music and percussion from institutions including Bournemouth University, Bristol University, English Heritage, the University of Wales and Princeton University.
The study was conceived in order to demonstrate to design students how direct sensory material for their digital work can be used – tasking them to look and listen as if with Stone Age eyes and ears. In the process, the investigators uncovered the remarkable fact that the source area of the Stonehenge bluestones is a natural soundscape, and that sound might be a much more significant factor in our understanding of Stonehenge and prehistory generally.
Sonic or musical rocks are referred to as 'ringing rocks' or 'lithophones'. A significant percentage of the rocks on Carn Menyn produce metallic sounds like bells, gongs or tin drums when struck with small hammerstones. Where suspected Neolithic quarries are located, there’s an even higher localised percentage.
The Preseli village Maenclochog, which itself means bell or ringing stones, used bluestones as church bells until the eighteenth century. While the Preseli area has long known of lithophones, the L&P project has confirmed why so many Neolithic monuments exist in the region, and provided strong evidence that the sounds made the landscape sacred to Stone Age people. The study quantifies the comments of the British archeologist and early 'rock gong' pioneer, Bernard Fagg, who suspected there were ringing rocks on or around Preseli, and suggested the link between these and the sacredness of Neolithic monuments and landscapes.
In July, English Heritage gave the L&P investigators unprecedented permission to acoustically test the bluestones at Stonehenge. Accompanied by archaeologists from Bournemouth and Bristol universities, the research team set to work testing the megaliths.
They didn’t expect much, as lithophones require ‘resonant space’ – space, in which, sound waves have sufficient room to vibrate to produce the pure sounds that can be experienced on Carn Menyn. The bluestones at Stonehenge are set deep into the ground (some having been supported in concrete), which can also dampen acoustic potential.
To the researchers’ surprise, however, having tested all the bluestones at the monument, several were found to make distinctive (if muted) sounds. This was a sure indication they would have been fully lithophonic if they'd had sufficient resonant space. Furthermore, a number of bluestones at Stonehenge show evidence of having been struck. This have been in order to create an acoustic environment, according to Wozencroft. A full understanding of the nature of these markings will require further archaeological investigations, however.
The L&P team believes the bluestones came from a mysterious soundscape, imbued with special magic and sanctity in the eyes of the megalith builders. This may have been the prime reason behind the otherwise inexplicable transport of these stones nearly 200 miles from Preseli to Salisbury Plain. There were plentiful local rocks from which Stonehenge could have been built, yet the bluestones were clearly considered special.
Today, lithophones are considered as mere curiosities, but it’s a mistake to project modern prejudices on to prehistory. We know from cross-cultural studies that in much of the ancient world echoes from rocks, cliffs or inside caves, or rocks that made musical or unusual sounds when struck, were thought to contain spirits or magical forces. Lithophones, in particular, were held in high regard. The architects of Stonehenge may well have held similar beliefs.
Stonehenge 'was a prehistoric centre for rock music': Stones sound like bells, drums, and gongs when played
- Rocks make metallic and wooden sounds, in many different notes
- Monoliths were moved by Stone Age man from Wales to Stonehenge
- Researchers believe their musical make-up could be why they were moved
Stonehenge may have been built by Stone Age man as a prehistoric centre for rock music, a new study has claimed.
According to experts from London's Royal College of Art, some of the stones sound like bells, drums, and gongs when they are 'played' - or hit with hammers.
Archaeologists, who have pondered why stone age man transported Bluestones 200 miles from Mynydd Y Preseli in Pembrokshire, South West Wales to Stonehenge, believe this discovery could hold the key.
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A giant xylophone? Experts tapped the bluestones of Stonehenge to test for sonic sounds for the first time. According to experts from London's Royal College of Art, some of the stones sound like bells, drums, and gongs when they are 'played' - or hit with hammers
The 'sonic rocks' could have been specifically picked because of their 'acoustic energy' which means they can make a variety of noises ranging from metallic to wooden sounding, in a number of notes.
Research published today in the Journal of Time & Mind reveals the surprising new role for the Preseli Bluestones which make up the famous monument, and which were sourced from the Pembrokeshire landscape on and around the Carn Menyn ridge, on Mynydd Preseli, South-West Wales.
Bluestones were used in the village of Maenclochog - meaning bell or ringing stones - until the 18th century.
English Heritage allowed archaeologists from Bournemouth and Bristol universities to acoustically test the bluestones at Stonehenge, effectively playing them like a huge xylophone
Clips of noises made by striking the Bluestones in their natural location in Mynydd Y Preseli
A significant percentage of the rocks on Carn Menyn produce metallic sounds - like bells, gongs or tin drums - when struck with small hammerstones. Such sonic or musical rocks are referred to as 'ringing rocks' or 'lithophones'.
The Landscape & Perception project drew upon the comments of the early 'rock gong' pioneer, Bernard Fagg, a one-time curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum, in Oxford.
He suspected there were ringing rocks on or around Preseli and suggested that this was the reason why so many Neolithic monuments exist in the region – with the sounds making the landscape sacred to Stone Age people.
Stonehenge may have been the built by stone age man as a prehistoric centre for rock music, a new study has claimed
THE STONEHENGE EXPERIMENT
This experiment was the first time researchers have been able to strike - or tap - the monument to explore its sonic noise potential.
They used rounded hammers made from quartz hammerstone to strike the stones - although our ancestors might have used flint.
They tapped the stones 'very slightly' and could tell quickly if they would get a reverberation.
'Different sounds can be heard in different places on the same stones,' said the researchers.
The blue squares seen in the photos are used so that the special hammers do not leave a mark on the Bluestones.
English Heritage allowed archaeologists from Bournemouth and Bristol universities to acoustically test the bluestones at Stonehenge, effectively playing them like a huge xylophone.
To the researchers’ surprise, several were found to make distinctive if muted sounds, with several of the rocks showing evidence of having already been struck.
The stones make different pitched noises in different places and different stones make different noises - ranging from a metallic to a wooden sound.
The investigators believe that this could have been the prime reason behind the otherwise inexplicable transport of these stones nearly 200 miles from Preseli to Salisbury Plain.
There were plentiful local rocks from which Stonehenge could have been built, yet the bluestones were considered special.
The principal investigators for the Landscape & Perception project are Jon Wozencroft and Paul Devereux. Wozencroft is a senior lecturer at the RCA and the founding director of the musical publishing company, Touch.
Jon Wozencroft told MailOnline it was 'amazing' to find that the stones used in the monument make the noises that the researchers hoped for.
'It was a really magical discovery and refreshing to come across a phenomenon you can't explain,' he said.
The researchers tapped the stones lightly with a special round hammer made of quartzstone. The blue square of material protects the surface of the rock. They recorded the sounds with microphones seen in the image on the left
The researchers have looked into geological reasons as to why some rocks make noise and others do not and one theory is that the amount of silica in the rocks could explain why in the future.
'Walking around Mynydd Y Presel you can't tell which stones will make sounds by sight, but in time you get a sort of intuition by the way they are positioned,' he said.
The researchers had feared the musical magic of the stones at Stonehenge might have been damaged as some of them were set in concrete in the 1950s to try and preserve the monument and the embedding of the stones damages the reverberation.
Mr Wozencroft said 'you don't get the acoustic bounce' but when he struck the stones gently in the experiment, they did resonate, although some of the sonic potential has been suffocated.
In Wales, where the stones are not embedded or glued in place, he said noises made by the stones when struck can be heard half a mile away.
He theorised that stone age people living in Wales might have used the rocks to communicate with each other over long distances as there are marks on the stones where they have been struck an incredibly long time ago.
'It is not controvertial to say that prehistoric people would have known of the stone's capabilities. We can see indentations on the rocks - the area is amazingly untouched,' he added.
He believes that Stonehenge can be described as the first real musical instrument - after the voice and basic drums - and it had the potential to be make noise over long distances, a little like a chruch tower.
The researchers believe both Stonehenge and the site where the stones were from were venerated.
They think Stonehenge could have been used to make noises for special rituals.
'It could have been used for periodic special spiritual occasions - the sound is mysterious,' he said.
Devereux is a research associate of the RCA, editor of the academic journal, Time & Mind and is currently working on a book, Drums of Stone, which will tell the full story of musical rocks in ancient and traditional cultures.
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