If your Stonehenge theory is nonsense, is mine rational because it’s not yours?

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Revellers at the solstice in Stonehenge

Sound at Stonehenge

I’m cur­rently work­ing with a group of blog­gers on a site to be launched some­where in the next few months. I’m not sure where yet. One of the fea­tures of the site is an informal rule that we won’t com­ment on news till at least seven days have passed from mak­ing the head­lines. There’s a couple of reas­ons for this.

We’re all busy. Chasing the news is work and takes time. If we get stopped before we can fin­ish it could be a while before we pick up the story again. In the mean­time hot news has become old cold news and the key points have already been said a dozen times by every­one else. The post gets spiked and the time is wasted. Intentionally plan­ning for a longer cycle changes how you approach a story and gives you not just the story to ana­lyse but also the reac­tion too. In the case of the Stonehenge acous­tics story the reac­tion is more inter­est­ing than the base story itself.

As a reminder Stephen Waller presen­ted a talk at a meet­ing of American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver. In it he pro­posed that the design of Stonehenge was related to aud­it­ory inter­fer­ence pat­terns between the sound of two flutes being played. Andy Burnham points out the obvi­ous prob­lem in his com­ment.

Waller rigged two flutes to an air pump so they played the same note con­tinu­ously” OK, fine, so how on earth is this rel­ev­ant to the prac­tic­al­it­ies of an ancient soci­ety? In order to get strong, static can­cel­la­tions in the sound you would need equal and unvary­ing sound pres­sure levels from each instru­ment, and for the sources to be from the same two points in space. How pre­cisely would two flute play­ers do this in prac­tice without an air pump? ie hav­ing to take breaths and carry on this trick for any length of time. This is utter nonsense.

Andy Burnham is pretty much gold in this thread. In reac­tion to the idea this sound could be achieved by cir­cu­lar breath­ing, he also adds:

I don’t thin cir­cu­lar breath­ing is the answer — it’s pretty dif­fi­cult on low res­ist­ance wind instru­ments such as the flute. Didgeridoos and such­like won’t exhibit this effect — you need a high fre­quency pure tone — as close to a sine wave as pos­sible — ie a flute. Bagpipes wouldn’t work either, unless someone inven­ted some sort of ‘flute bag­pipes’. A reedy bag­pipe sound is rich in har­mon­ics. The har­monic fre­quen­cies from the two instru­ments won’t cre­ate stand­ing wave can­cel­la­tions in the same places in space as the fun­da­mental tones, so you won’t get same strong can­cel­la­tion effect. And as I said you also need two fixed amp­litudes and closely fixed point sources for the effect to work.

Sound is a dif­fi­cult sub­ject for archae­olo­gists. Flutes or pipes seem likely, as to drums, but the closest pre­his­toric musical instru­ments, that I know archae­olo­gists have found, are lurs from Denmark. These date to around the 8th cen­tury BC and sur­vived because they were bronze, not organic mater­ial like wood or bone. You can see them in the logo for Lurpak but­ter. It’s been a while since I’ve read about this, so I’d be sur­prised if there weren’t now some­thing older known. There are a couple of can­did­ates for bone flutes that are older, this is the most prom­ising arte­fact, but I don’t know how widely accep­ted they are yet.

Even though there’s scant evid­ence for music in the Neolithic and Bronze Age British Isles, it’s an odd leap to say it didn’t exist. Music in some form seems to be a con­stant in human soci­ety, so this is where a min­im­al­ist approach breaks down. But it’s not just musical instru­ments that are miss­ing. I sus­pect a lot of Stonehenge is miss­ing too.
Bits of it have broken off and it’s easy to spot where stones were miss­ing but refilling these gaps, as many recon­struc­tions do, doesn’t go far enough for me. The stones are the skel­eton of Stonehenge. We don’t know if they were the whole body. We do know that the skel­eton was a lot of work. The hard sar­sen stones are craf­ted like wood, with tenon and mor­tice joints. Archaeologists cur­rently believe that the blue­stones were trans­por­ted from far Wales. In light of this what else would have been at a liv­ing Stonehenge?

If you visit places of wor­ship in mod­ern times, there’s a bit more than stone. There’s wooden seats, often dec­or­ated rather than plain. The walls are painted, win­dows often dec­or­ated. It’s not unusual to find holy books n plush vel­vet cush­ions and tex­tiles dyed in strik­ing col­ours draw­ing the eye here and there. We also know tex­tiles were used in Neolithic and Bronze Age times. So after the thou­sands of man-hours shap­ing the stones, how likely is it that Gareth turned to Shane and said: “That’s that done. No point in wast­ing time dec­or­at­ing it with tartans or drapes. That’ll just be tedi­ous and gaudy.”?

Once you add tex­tiles into Stonehenge the acous­tic and visual prop­er­ties change. There are many argu­ments that “If you look out of this gap you can see this star,” but you can’t if Blodwyn’s nifty eth­nic rug is in the way. As sci­ent­ists archae­olo­gists need a min­im­al­ist model of Stonehenge as a found­a­tion to build on, but this min­im­al­ist model is an unfin­ished work. It’s a tool to build an idea of what Stonehenge looked like on. If you’re going to say that it’s the fin­ished model and we don’t need tex­tiles, then all recon­struc­tions should show any­one there naked because there’s no evid­ence for the clothes people wore there either.

As Andy Burnham poin­ted out, Steven Waller’s approach misses the prac­tical use of Stonehenge by ancient peoples, and in this case adding people into the past makes Waller’s pro­posal either unwork­able or an aston­ish­ing Jenga tower of spe­cial plead­ing. It’s safe to say I’m uncon­vinced, but I’ve not been too impressed with some of the reac­tions to the story either. “Crank’ seemed a com­mon opin­ion, If Steven Waller were a crank then by present­ing his work at a sci­entific con­fer­ence he’s still closer to pro­fes­sional prac­tice than archae­olo­gists who issue a press release now before a talk in a few months time.

In fact a browse of his web­site shows he’s not likely to be a crank, just ter­ribly unaware of the dif­fer­ences in approach between US and UK prehistory.

The bulk of his work is on rock art at American pet­ro­glyph sites. The acous­tics of rock art in the US is a new field, but pro­du­cing some inter­est­ing res­ults. Some archae­olo­gists are find­ing archae­oacous­tics much more intriguing than, to pick a ran­dom example, archae­oastro­nomy. But American pre­his­tory is dif­fer­ent to British pre­his­tory. They have a richer rock art record, espe­cially in the south­w­est. They also have eth­no­graphic records and research that can help con­nect mean­ing to sym­bols. It’s not per­fect, and I’d like to debunk one inter­pret­a­tion of a site this sum­mer, but it’s very very dif­fer­ent to the lim­ited things we can say about rock art here. It means that Waller’s American work can rely on cul­tural inform­a­tion that we simply don’t have here. What is accep­ted by US archae­olo­gists about US sites is extremely spec­u­lat­ive when applied to UK sites.

Very few people have com­men­ted on work around archae­oacous­tics in gen­eral in rela­tion to this story. A few com­menters have men­tioned Deveraux’s work, but mainly the thrust has been this story must be debunked. I don’t think for a moment archae­olo­gists have con­sciously decided the out­sider must be expelled, but I won­der if an eager­ness to por­tray this as non­sense indic­ates some­thing more. Subconsciously does reject­ing Waller as non­sense and the oppos­ite of what you do men­tally reaf­firm that your own the­or­ies must there­fore by default be sound reasoning?

For some­thing more pos­it­ive about how sound can be explored in archae­ology, Alan Boyle has writ­ten an inter­est­ing piece on MSNBC’s Cosmic Log.

What lies beneath Achill-henge?

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Achill-henge

Achill-henge. Photo by Seequinn

It’s good to see Achill-henge being picked up by the BBC. This is a story that’s been around for a while. I think RTÉ’s video report is access­ible world­wide. The BBC just has a webpage that’s an intro­duc­tion to the story. You can also listen to the radio pro­gramme (world­wide I think) with the rel­ev­ant seg­ment at 6m04s.

It’s not a bad story, but from an archae­olo­gical point of view it misses the most inter­est­ing things. Firstly build­ing this ertsatz archae­olo­gical site may have dam­aged a real site. Usually before con­struc­tion there will be test digs to check the con­struc­tion won’t des­troy some­thing of his­tor­ical import­ance. Achill is an extremely sens­it­ive archae­olo­gical site. There’s a long run­ning field school there because it has such a rich archae­olo­gical record. If you’re a fan of pre­his­toric remains, it seems a bit mad to risk des­troy­ing one to make a copy.

The second thing is the tem­plate chosen for the site. It’s Stonehenge. It’s a shoddy Stonehenge as any­one who’s been there could tell you, but it’s clearly a ring of tri­lithons. You don’t get those in Ireland. There’s a romantic ideal that the pre­his­toric British Isles were all Celtic but, as we learn more about sites, it’s becom­ing clear that there are dis­tinct­ive dif­fer­ences in tra­di­tions around the islands.

Tomnaverie Stone Circle

Tomnaverie Stone Circle. Photo by Cameron Diack

This is Tomnaverie Recumbent Stone Circle. The recum­bent bit is the low stone in the middle, flanked by two tall stones. There’s plenty of stone circles like this around Aberdeenshire, but you don’t get so many of them any­where else. There is a pos­sible astro­nom­ical align­ment. These circles tend to be set up so that the sum­mer full moon appears to roll across the top of the recum­bent stone every 18 years or so, due to the way the Moon’s orbit wobbles.

Drombeg Stone Circle

Drombeg Recumbent Stone Circle. Photo by Todd Slagter

This is Drombeg Recumbent Stone Circle. It’s com­pact and tidy, but the tallest stones are on the oppos­ite side to the recum­bent stone. This is more typ­ical of Irish circles. The tall stones can be seen as a delib­er­ate a portal for entry. The astro­nom­ical align­ments are dif­fer­ent for Irish circles. They tend to be facing south-westish and this could be an align­ment to winter sol­stice sunset.

Even though they look sim­ilar, these stone circles could be telling us very dif­fer­ent things about belief. If we trust the pat­terns emer­ging from study­ing groups of monu­ments, not just the ones we like, then they’re almost oppos­ites. The key event in Scotland seems to hap­pen with the Moon in sum­mer. In Ireland they’re look­ing to the Sun in winter.

There’s an ongo­ing argu­ment about whether sum­mer sun­rise or winter sun­set was more import­ant at Stonehenge. I favour winter sun­set, but to some extent this is just as reflect­ive of how you view pre­his­toric life as it is about the data. In addi­tion there’s plenty of evid­ence show­ing that Stonehenge was repeatedly remod­elled, includ­ing a pos­sible shift from lunar to solar alignments.

In any event whatever the tra­di­tion was at Stonehenge it’s a massive leap to think what happened there was reflect­ive of beliefs across the Irish Sea. Stonehenge is so embed­ded as an iconic brand for pre­his­toric archae­ology in the British Isles, that British pre­his­tory is now col­on­ising per­cep­tions of what a pre­his­toric Ireland would look like.

I don’t know to what extent that’s a good thing. Modern states are recent inven­tions, and some archae­olo­gists will cringe at the idea of a pre­his­toric Ireland or UK. Recognising mod­ern bound­ar­ies don’t apply to the past is a sens­ible fea­ture. At the same time an appeal­ing com­mon past does risk los­ing some of what makes places loc­ally distinctive.

Photos:
Achill-henge. Photo by Seequin. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC licence.
Tomnaverie Stone Circle. Photo by Cameron Diack. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.
Drombeg Stone Circle. Photo by Todd Slagter. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY licence.

Teaching with Social Media

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Road building in Nepal

Road build­ing on the Annapurna cir­cuit, Nepal, surely a path to enlight­en­ment? Photo by rpb1001.

I think I took my PhD at Leicester at almost exactly the right time — if you ignore the cata­strophic down­turn in edu­ca­tion fund­ing. The reason is I’ve had the oppor­tun­ity to work with a few people who have been inspir­ingly innov­at­ive in their teach­ing. Derek Raine intro­duced me to Problem-Based Learning, when he built a new degree in Interdisciplinary Science around it. +A.J. Cann also help by let­ting me help out on some of his numer­acy / study skills courses for Biological Sciences and that’s what he’s blog­ging about today at Of Schemes and Memes and on his own blog at Science of the Invisible.

I’m sure I’ve had plenty of study skills train­ing but I don’t remem­ber much of it. At its worst it was a part of the first year course teach­ing how to use vari­ous sys­tems I might want to use in the third year. By which time the sys­tem might well have changed or else I would have for­got­ten it through lack of use. I don’t do well if I have do some­thing in order to learn how to use a sys­tem. I work bet­ter if I learn how to use a sys­tem in order to do some­thing else.

Alan Cann has a focus on how and why stu­dents want to learn some­thing. To explain the dif­fer­ence, when I was taught I might be shown how to use PubMed. Fill in all the boxes and that’s a pass. In con­trast Alan sets tasks that have a pur­pose and explains PubMed or Web of Knowledge are the easi­est ways to get the inform­a­tion stu­dents need. The cleverest part is that this is wrapped up with social media icing.

Getting cohorts onto Google+ gets them think­ing about pri­vacy, but also makes com­mu­nic­a­tion online a more nat­ural act. Students can build their own sup­port struc­tures. These become more import­ant as the stu­dents move toward inde­pend­ent study later in their degree. Another clever thing work­ing through social media does is it helps dis­solve bar­ri­ers between modules.

In my first degree what I learned in mod­ule A applied to mod­ule A. What I learned in Module B applied to Module B. I wasn’t mak­ing con­nec­tions between the two. On Google+ the work their is for Alan’s mod­ule, but stu­dents dis­cuss more than that. They’ll talk about other mod­ules and make con­nec­tions about why some­thing puzz­ling is hap­pen­ing because we know from this mod­ule that this occurs so when you apply it to that lab exper­i­ment you should expect that and so on.

Another fea­ture is that Alan doesn’t give the same course twice. He’ll drop what thinks doesn’t work and come up with some­thing bet­ter. This shouldn’t be rad­ical. I’ve been on count­less courses as a post-grad that talk about the import­ance of reflec­tion in teach­ing. Usually this reflec­tion in the sense of “how can you bet­ter guide stu­dents along the path to enlight­en­ment?” Alan and Derek have both taken the approach that ques­tions if the path is right in the first place. Even if it’s basic­ally sound, do we need all these wig­gly detours to des­tin­a­tions no one vis­its anymore?

This post is a good entry point to some of what Alan is doing with teach­ing. Science of the Invisible is the place to go if you want to read more.

Photo: Road build­ing on the Annapurna cir­cuit, Nepal by rpb1001. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC licence.

This post also appears on Google+.