Research Context

It was important when investigating such a well-studied and prominent monument, to work within the context of existing archaeological knowledge. This project aimed from the beginning to consult with archaeologists with detailed knowledge of the site. The Stonehenge Riverside Project is a multi-University large-scale on-running archaeological project investigating Stonehenge and its surrounding landscape. For this project, Professor Mike Parker Pearson and members of his team provided advice on analysing the acoustics of Stonehenge. 

[visit Mike Parker Pearson’s website]

Professor Parker Pearson’s theories suggest that Stonehenge may have acted as a place of the dead rather than the living, and as a centre of funerary and ritual activity. The Stonehenge Riverside project contextualises the stone circle within its landscape, including the Durrington Walls site and others, and it was possible to discuss ideas, theories, principals and various details with members of the team from time to time, as well as to visit their onsite archaeological excavations in August 2008. When results are completed, it is intended that this archaeoacoustics project would provide information for the ongoing research by the Stonehenge Riverside Project, and other archaeologists interested in the site. It is not intended to provide any unique solutions or insights, but to be a part of the archaeological jigsaw of the site, to hopefully contribute a small part to our understanding of Stonehenge and its landscape. It is not thought that sound and acoustics will lead alone to some kind of unlocking of the secrets of the site, but that it will contribute to our growing understanding.

origins of musicThere are many theories about, and issues relating to, the contemporary, historic, and prehistoric uses of Stonehenge. Many of them relate to ritual use of various kinds. Ritual use would be likely to involve music, or at the very least would involve the use of sound. Nettl describes the association  of music and ritual as universal, describing, ‘The importance of music in ritual, and, as it were, in addressing the supernatural. This seems to me to be truly a universal, shared by all known societies, however different the sound. Another universal is the use of music to provide some kind of fundamental change in an individual’s consciousness, or in the ambiance of a gathering… And it is virtually universally associated with dance; not all music is danced, but there is hardly any dance that is not in some sense accompanied by music.’[1]

Ehrenreich agrees. ‘These ingredients of ecstatic rituals and festivities – music, dancing, eating, drinking or indulging in other mind-altering 

dancing_in_the_streets220drugs, costuming and/or various forms of self-decoration, such as face and body  painting – seem to be universal.’[2]

Traditional musical forms are rarely set apart from social and cultural context.  In fact in numerous traditional cultures there is no separate word for music, with  terms instead meaning music and dance, or music and trance.

‘In the African world music has played such a central role in the life of its people  for so long that there is often no separate word for it in indigenous languages.  Like religion, music permeates the societies of sub-saharan Africa in a way  difficult to understand in the west. An essential vehicle for communicating with God and the ancestors, a key determinant in rites of passage from birth to death, a tool for healing the ill, educating the young, settling disputes and entertaining the communities of both rural and urban Africa, music is perhaps the essential foodstuff for the African mind, body and spirit.’[3]

While it is not suggested that Stonehenge necessarily featured music and dance exactly like that in traditional African culture, it is perhaps likely that music was integrated into participatory ritual that included movement (dance).

Recent studies of the origins of music include Steven Mithen’s book ‘The Singing Neanderthals’ and ‘The Origins of Music’ edited by Wallin, Merker and Brown. In the latter work, Freeman makes it clear that cultural music-related activities are hard wired into humanity through biological and evolutionary development.

‘Music and dance originated through the biological evolution of brain chemistry, which interacted with the cultural evolution of behaviour. This led to the development of chemical and behavioural technology for inducing altered states of consciousness. The role of trance states was particularly important for breaking down pre-existing habits and beliefs. That meltdown appears to be necessary for personality changes leading to the formation of social groups by cooperative action leading to trust. Bonding is not simply a release of a neurochemical in an altered state. It is the social action of dancing and singing together that induces new forms of behaviour, owing to the malleability that can come due to the altered state. It is reasonable to suppose that musical skills played a major role early in evolution of human intellect, because they made possible formation of human societies as a prerequisite for the transmission of acquired knowledge across generations.’[4]

Musical skills based practices continue to serve a similar role today. Many writers make it clear that music and dance, often as part of ritual or religious activities, play a key role in building and maintaining community.

Rituals serve to break down the individual’s sense of isolation and reconnect him or her with the human community … because they encourage the experience of self-loss, that is, a release, however temporary, from the prison of the self, or at least from the anxious business of evaluating how one stands in the group or in the eyes of an ever-critical God.[5]

Musical activities in rituals, such as may have occurred at Stonehenge are part of what Durkheim terms ‘collective effervescence’[6] and Victor Turner terms ‘communitas’,[7] they are technologies for the building of communities. Events at the site in recent history, even if presented as secular, are still ritual activities, they are what might be described as implicit (rather than explicit) religion.[8]

It may be that music and sound could give us insight into how competing theories about the meanings of Stonehenge can be related to one another. Archaeologist Tim Darvill’s recent theory, developed following a 2008 excavation within the Stonehenge stone circle itself, describes Stonehenge as a place of healing, something that may seem very different to Parker Pearson’s theories of Stonehenge as a place of the dead. However, communicating with the dead or the spiritual world in rituals such as those that feature music based trance practise, can be a healing activity as well as being related to funerary rituals, the ancestral spirits from another world coming to communicate and provide physical or spiritual healing. Thus it may be that discoveries about music and sound at Stonehenge may help to resolve and integrate theories that currently compete and contrast, a fitting analogy for the communal and integrative power of music for the healing of social or emotional health. Considering music as a form of communal or social technology, it should be studied in as much detail and rigour as any other feature of the site.

So we can perhaps predict that this project might find at Stonehenge music that is part of a ritual activity and addresses the supernatural; integrated into its social context; combined with dance; designed to lead to the achievement of altered states of consciousness or trance, or to change the ambience of a gathering. It may be used both to bond the community together and to establish the individual’s position within that community; may involve communication with gods and ancestors; may be part of rites of passage from birth to death; and may be used as part of healing of some sort.

Although we can strongly suggest that there would probably have been music at Stonehenge, it is difficult to define what that music would be like. There is no historical record of British prehistoric music, and there is little information in the archaeological record. We have some ideas of the kind of instruments that might have been played, as can be seen from the work of Simon Wyatt. Aaron Watson’s recent work has involved creating multimedia artworks that aim to give a phenomenological impression of the soundworld of prehistoric Stonehenge. This project has taken another approach, aiming instead to try to find in the acoustics of Stonehenge, echoes of the music that was played there in prehistory, evidence that might help us to describe this music.

One problem with existing archaeoacoustic methodologies, is the nature of what currently exists at Stonehenge. Even if one sets aside the considerable reconstruction carried out at Stonehenge reconstructionStonehenge during the 19th and 20th Centuries, the site is a collapsed remnant of the site that existed in  prehistory. One approach to studying the acoustics of Stonehenge is to undertake  acoustic field measurements of the current site. Useful though this is, it does not  tell whole story. Alone, it is akin to standing in the site of a ruined abbey and  hoping to define the acoustics of an intact cathedral.


Watson’s published pilot study was based on such field tests, focused on  movement from outside to inside the stone circle, rather than investigating the  detail of the centre of the space itself, making the best possible use perhaps of the  most intact section of outer Sarsen[9] stone circle. The use of an acoustics based  field test methodology approach raises further problems. Some methodologies are  designed for indoor enclosed spaces, to address health and safety issues for existing buildings or for architects to consider acoustics in their designs. Acoustic consultants do not generally use their techniques to forensically  examine the acoustics of part-demolished sites or buildings. They are often designed to identify unwanted acoustic effects, however in this kind of study these ‘unwanted’ effects might be what we are hoping to explore and define, rather than identify and remove. Techniques from buildings acoustics are of course useful, however this project aimed to establish a new broad methodological approach involving cutting edge technology.

[1] Bruno Nettl, ‘An Ethnomusicologist Contemplates Musical Universals’, in Nils L. Wallin, Bjorn Merker, Steven Brown (eds), The Origins of Music, (Cambridge, 2000), p. 469.

[2] Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, (New York, 2006). P. 18.

[3] J. Gray, African Music (London, 1991), p. 15.

[4] Walter Freeman, ‘A Neurobiological Role of Music in Social Bonding’, in Nils L. Wallin, Bjorn Merker, Steven Brown (eds), The Origins of Music, (Cambridge MA, 2000), p. 422.

[5] Ehrenreich, p.152.

[6] Ehrenreich, p.14.

[7] Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (London, 1969).

[8] Bailey, E. ‘The Notion of Implicit religion: What It Means, and Does Not Mean’, in The Secular Quest for Meaning in Life: Denton Papers in Implicit Religion, Bailey, E. (ed.), (New York, 2002).

[9] Stonehenge IIIc, generally described as the final phase of the monument, has some stones made of Sarsen, a type of sandstone. In particular the outer circle and its ring of lintels are made of this material.