What remains of ancient monuments are architectural fragments which can ‘allow us to think through the orientation of the practices which both created that architecture and which were staged within it.’[1] Acoustic analysis is a sonically based architectural analysis that can reveal detail about these practices. Because ‘time is collapsed for the archaeological observer’,[2] even a partial or fractured understanding of the use of music, acoustics and sound in a space can act to animate the information we have from these architectural fragments, as ‘sound is a sensation, and belongs to the realm of ‘activity’ rather than ‘artefact’. Sound brings the world to life, it can appear to fill spaces, create atmospheres, and have an intense emotive power.’[3] It exists in the time domain and can add a third dimension to an otherwise flattened interpretation, like pressing play on a paused DVD. Whilst architecture demarcates space, sound demarcates time.

An archaeological study of a physical space is lifeless without an accompanying understanding of the narratives that developed within it, and the way they move through time, change and develop. As Giddens puts it ‘A person’s identity is not to be found in behaviour, nor – important though this is – in the reactions of others, but in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going.[4] Speaking of traditional cultures he says, ‘Where things stayed more or less the same from generation to generation on the level of the collectivity, the changed identity was clearly staked out – as when an individual moved from adolescence into adulthood.’[5] Understanding these time-geographies of space, these developing narratives and rites of passage, is important so that we can understand how the users of a space felt about it. This can be explored more readily from an understanding of the use of sound in a space than by looking at the physical space, focusing on the visual.

In prehistory sound would have been perceived differently than it is today. We are surrounded by sounds that are not part of nature, noises from machines, loudspeakers, televisions and mobile phones, from aircraft in the sky to ipod earphones in our ears. At a time when stone buildings were rare, spaces with acoustics that were not part of nature would have been very acoustically striking to those who entered them. A man-made acoustic of any note was an extremely unusual thing.

Sound was a primary focus for accumulating knowledge, culture and information in prehistory, as a great deal of transmission happened using language (the acoustic), rather than writing (the visual). ‘Among peoples at an ‘oral-aural’ level of culture to whom writing was unknown, the ear exercised an overwhelming tyranny over the eye.’[6] We can therefore expect to find as much out about the reasons for the layout of a site by investigating its acoustics as by investigating its visual and physical properties. This is perhaps especially the case in a site that does not seem to be designed for strictly functional purposes such as accommodation or defence, as music and sound are often to be found at the core of cultural, communal and ritual activities. Sound gives ‘information about the temporal structure of the event that caused it and the vibratory frequency of this event . . . with great precision’[7], and ‘man likes to make sounds and to hear them’[8]. In early hominid society ‘suddenly or gradually, the voice itself came to be used as a sort of tool’[9], and the acoustic environment of this sonic tool, as a key focus in prehistory of communication and development within an oral and aural culture, merits as much investigation as the context of the use of bone, stone, metal, wood or ceramics.Maryhill_bluecircs_modes As it exists in the time domain acoustics can give us invaluable information about so-called non-material or intangible elements of culture such as music, ritual and religion.[10] ‘When it comes to affairs of the soul, of emotion and feeling, or of the ‘inwardness’ of life, hearing surpasses seeing as understanding goes beyond knowledge, and as faith transcends reason’[11]. ‘Vision in this conception, defines the self individually in opposition to others; hearing defines the self socially in relation to others.’[12] Both Gibson and Ingold discuss how ‘vision and hearing are not so much disparate as interchangeable’[13], are an active single task of perception, as looking and listening. If we accept ‘looking and listening’ is together a fused irreducible act of perception then any analysis of architecture must include analysis of sound.

‘Vision, since it is untrained by the subjective experience of light, yields a knowledge of the outside world that is rational, detached, analytical and atomistic. Hearing, on the other hand, since it rests on the immediate experience of sound, is said to draw the world into the perceiver, yielding a kind of knowledge that is intuitive, engaged, synthetic and holistic.’[14]

Archaeoacoustics is a fairly new field of interdisciplinary study that attempts to uncover information about ancient cultures from a study of the acoustics of specific sites. Work related to this field includes a study group focusing on music archaeology (the International Study Group on Music Archaeology) which has developed from work within the International Council for Traditional Music, and a recent monograph from the McDonald Institute,[15] the first collection of work specifically on this subject. In this monograph (and in another paper[16]), Aaron Watson discusses what he has described as a pilot study of the acoustics of the existing Stonehenge site.[17] In this study he describes interesting acoustic features, and possible evidence that these features were part of intentional acoustic design.

It was clear to Till and Fazenda from a theoretical acoustic consideration of the acoustics of the final phase of the complete site in prehistory that it was likely that there would have been powerful acoustics effects within the site, and that there was a substantial amount of further work to be carried out on the subject. This project aimed to carry out further study of the acoustics of Stonehenge and its landscape.

The project aimed to ask what could be discovered from the study of the acoustics of Stonehenge about life in prehistoric Britain both at the site, and in general. It aimed to investigate to what extent music and sound were a part of ritual activities at the site, and to uncover information about the nature of such activities. It aimed to illustrate what could be discovered about an archaeological site from an in depth consideration of acoustics and sound, even where that site that had already been archaeologically investigated extensively.



[1] John Barrett, Fragments From Antiquity: An Archaeology of Social Life in Britian, 2900 – 1200 BC, (Oxford, 1994), p. 14. 


[2] Ibid, p. 12.

[3] Aaron Watson, ‘Acoustics and Ritual in the British Neolithic’, in Neil Price (Ed.), The Archaeology of Shamanism, (London, 2001), p. 180.

[4] Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, (Cambridge, 1991), p. 54.

[5] Ibid, p. 33.

[6] Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, The Making of Typograhic Man (Toronto, 1962), p. 28.

[7] James J. Gibson, The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems (London, 1966), p. 17.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, p. 25.

[10] Ibid, p. 26.

[11] Tim Ingold, ‘Stop, Look and Listen! Vision, Hearing and Human Movement’, Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill (London, 2000), p. 246.

[12] Ibid, p. 247.

[13] Ibid, p. 245.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Chris Scarre and Graeme Lawson (Eds), Archaeoacoustics (Cambridge, 2006).

[16] Aaron Watson and David Keating, ‘Architecture and Sound: an acoustic analysis of megalithic monuments in prehistoric Britain’, Antiquity 73 (1999). pp. 325-36;

[17] Aaron Watson, ‘(Un)intentional Sound? Acoustics and Neolithic Monuments’, in Chris Scarre and Graeme Lawson (Eds), Archaeoacoustics (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 11-22.