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When I first heard, some months ago now, that Brian Graham was going to exhibit a set which integrated archaeology, music and art, I immediately thought of Stonehenge, as I recalled reading something not too long ago of a theory concerning the acoustic properties of Stonehenge.

Coincidentally, this cropped up in my Facebook ‘Memories’ feed last week (‘Memories’ is one of my favourite features of Facebook). It was a 2012 paper by a doctoral researcher at Rock Arts Acoustics USA, one Steven Waller, who specialises in the sound properties of ancient sites, – the science of archaeoacoustics.

To understand this, one needs to appreciate that sound propagates through a medium (solid, liquid or gas) by means of waves. As a Science teacher, I used to demonstrate the properties of waves by means of a ripple tank. If standing water is disturbed on one side of a barrier containing a small gap, the waves are seen to fan out on the other side. This effect can be seen in real life at Lulworth Cove in Dorset (Fig.1).


Fig 1. Diffraction of waves at Lulworth Cove

When the barrier contains two gaps, the waves fanning out from each interfere with one another, causing the wave heights to be amplified in some places, and cancel out at others, creating ‘interference patterns’. This same effect occurs with sound. Thus Stephen Waller experimented by asking blindfolded volunteers to walk into a field as two pipers played. He then mapped where the volunteers said they could hear reduced or even no sound – so called ‘dead spots’.  The volunteers experienced quiet patches created by acoustic interference, leading to the ‘auditory illusion’ that massive objects stood between the listener and the instruments being played. Waller said that the volunteers “drew structures, archways and openings that are very similar to Stonehenge”. He speculated that the people who built Stonehenge may have become aware of this sound-cancelling effect during ceremonies involving musicians and would have thought it mystical – even magical, thus motivating them to build a stone circle whose design mimicked this acoustic illusion.

Interestingly, one of the legends concerning the ‘Merry Maidens’ neolithic stone circle, near St Buryan in Cornwall, says that some nineteen maidens, accompanied by two pipers, were dancing and making merry on a Sunday, and, as punishment for this sacrilege, they were all turned to stone –  petrified in a perfect circle – with the two pipers standing by themselves a little way off. This legend is reflected in the local name for the stone circle, Dans maen, meaning ‘dancing stones’.

There are also two other stones associated with the Merry Maidens, ‘The Fiddler’ to the west and the ‘Blind Fiddler’ to the north.

Such petrification legends concerning dancers and pipers (or at least, musicians) are frequently associated with stone circles throughout Britain, another example being ‘The Pipers Stones’ or Athgreany Stone Circle in County Wicklow. The Merry Maidens stone circle was depicted several times in Salisbury Museum’s 2017 exhibition, ‘British Art: Ancient Landscapes’, for example, in Ithell Colquhoun’s painting ‘Landscapes with Antiques, Lamorna’ (1955) (Fig 2).

Soundwaves 2

Fig 2. ‘Landscape with Antiques, Lamorna’, showing the Merry Maidens stone circle and ‘The Pipers’ (Ithell Colquhoun, 1955).

In view of this I find myself slightly disappointed that Brian Graham’s exhibition does not explicitly feature Stonehenge.

I shall return to the subject of waves in a future blog.