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

Revellers at the solstice in Stonehenge
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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.

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

  1. I saw this story last week, and my imme­di­ate instinct was that it was sus­pect. Perhaps unfairly, and it’s inter­est­ing that you men­tion sub­con­scious bias.

    But, on fur­ther read­ing, it does seem that his con­clu­sions are non­sensical. In one exper­i­ment, he has blind­folded people walk in a circle around the flutes/sound gen­er­ator. Apparently, their response was that it soun­ded as if there were altern­at­ing objects and gaps that blocked the sound, or allowed it to pass. Fair enough — I’m sure that is sci­en­tific­ally accur­ate. But how does it apply to Stonehenge? They don’t need an acous­tic gen­er­ator to cre­ate the impres­sion of solid objects block­ing the sound, because it’s a henge — it’s made of big stones, in a very reg­u­lar pat­tern, in this case. Perhaps he means to sug­gest that ancients people walked around it with their eyes closed, while dream­ing of the day that man­kind could rig up a couple of flutes to a leaf blower, and do away with huge con­struc­tion pro­jects altogether.

    Seriously, though, what is his actual con­clu­sion — I’ve not read a tran­script of his sem­inar, and the news stor­ies were pretty vague on it.

  2. My Farther thought it was a spoof; — I have told about post-porocessual archae­ology — but he finds it dif­fi­cult to believe that Universities would let people make stuff up [he is an engin­eer].
    Incidentally, I can prove object­ively that Stonehenge was a build­ing; you have nice pic­ture of a rep­lica load bear­ing wall — what do think it sup­por­ted?
    That Stonehenge was a tim­ber build­ing is bey­ond doubt in an empir­ical sense, you can prove it simply enough, but with a faith based sub­ject like Academic Archaeology, you be bet­ter off telling cre­ation­ists about DNA.
    It can be any­thing you like as long as it is not a build­ing; what people want, and get, is belief and mys­tery — oooh its so spooky man!

  3. Alun

    I’ll try to answer both com­ments at once, though it’ll be more like avoid­ing both com­ments at once.

    I’m wary of any attempt at work­ing the mean­ing of Stonehenge. It’s a site that gets altered over cen­tur­ies. At best that could mean it had a dif­fer­ent mean­ing at dif­fer­ent times and at worst it had mul­tiple mean­ings. Around phase 3 of the monu­ment everything goes hay­wire and the site is rebuilt over and over in the course of around a lifetime.

    Mike Pitts has a good sum­mary of the claims, which is basic­ally the site is mod­elled after an aud­it­ory pat­tern. That’s all you’ll get from the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. I agree, it simply doesn’t work here.

    My dif­fi­culty is recent news from Stonehenge is released in a sur­pris­ingly sim­ilar way. Here’s a story on a cere­mo­nial path­way, with no ref­er­ence to any paper, from last year. The sig­ni­fic­ant solar align­ment is from the middle of the cursus to the centre of Stonehenge — except on other occa­sions when its from the Heel Stone to the edges of the cursus. Why? Well, it could be because you have to fudge it to get a right answer or they could have sound reas­ons why one align­ment is here and another there. Darvill and Wainwright put their ideas out on the BBC if I recall cor­rectly before pub­lish­ing their excav­a­tion res­ults. I don’t agree with Darvill’s the­or­ies but I wouldn’t call him a crank, not least because he’s made his report pub­licly access­ible.

    They could also have good reas­ons for going to the press without a paper. Mike Parker Pearson ended up releas­ing news on Bluestonehenge early because of a leak. But if we accept this, then a paper at a major pub­lic meet­ing has to be fair game for reporting.

    So here’s the puzzle. We accept that British archae­olo­gists can issue press releases with unsup­por­ted asser­tions, but we can’t accept an American researcher who pub­lishes reg­u­larly on acous­tics, includ­ing a chapter in a volume from the McDonald Archaeological Institute. Is this because his idea is demon­strably wrong, or did people just see he’s not an archae­olo­gist and are uncon­sciously demon­strat­ing double-standards?

    I’ve got to admit I’m not very happy with this post. It’s strad­dling two ideas. One is the acous­tical the­ory, and one is the pro­fes­sional response to out­siders. I’m not sure I’m cov­er­ing either very well with this. British archae­olo­gists are not uni­formly hos­tile to out­siders, but I think there’s a tend­ency towards a bin­ary response that this is bad prac­tice, there­fore tak­ing a stand against it makes what I do good practice.

    I think, without mak­ing it per­sonal and point­ing at indi­vidu­als as the prob­lem, there’s a sys­temic prob­lem in com­mu­nic­at­ing bey­ond aca­demia, and Stonehenge would be the most obvi­ous case study to start with. It’s not as bad a prob­lem as it has been, but still it would be more con­struct­ive to see this another round where we can rethink archae­olo­gical com­mu­nic­a­tion. That’ll require someone who’s quite happy to tackle the prom­in­ent stor­ies, which will gen­er­ally involve prom­in­ent pro­fess­ors who have con­trol over job secur­ity. With the cur­rent cuts, I don’t see this hap­pen­ing soon.

  4. Alun

    And while I was writ­ing that response, Geoff Carver pos­ted his response. I agree with him 100% on Stonehenge being a tim­ber build­ing. I was sav­ing that for later. :)

  5. Genuinely stunned Alun, I thought I was in a minor­ity of one; thank you for the vote of con­fid­ence.
    It is far more inter­est­ing as build­ing, although slightly less mys­ter­i­ous. In that con­text it has acous­tic prop­er­ties, that could be stud­ied, if an accur­ate CAD or VR model is built.

  6. Gusti Hueber

    • “Just too many maybe’s and could have’s to be called sci­ence.” Was one of the com­ments on the art­icle by in the Guardian titled “Stonehenge was based on a magical aud­it­ory illu­sion, says sci­ent­ist” Because I wanted to find a cause for these demo­tiv­at­ors, I googled with the fol­low­ing words: “prob­ably, maybe, could be, Stonehenge”. I stopped count­ing after one hun­dred answers. And got the word pos­sibly as the usual encore.
    • Evidently many explan­a­tions for early his­tor­ical finds are not based on hard facts, such as they are expec­ted for sci­entific work. By read­ing sev­eral of the inter­net art­icles, My impres­sion was, that they were mostly clear answers to vague ques­tions.
    • During the past 25 years there have been many con­fer­ences and pub­lic­a­tions on cog­nit­ive archae­ology, semi­ot­ics, and struc­tur­al­ism. Particularly the works of Charles Sanders Peirce, Umberto Ecco or Michel Foucault can help us to for­mu­late such ques­tions. I quote Foucault out of memory: “We only see the top layer of a cul­tural sys­tem, their lan­guage, schemes of obser­va­tion, their tech­niques, and the val­ues which con­trolled their lives.
    • The demo­tiv­at­ors can be omit­ted, by using as much of the avail­able inform­a­tion as pos­sible in the for­mu­la­tion of the ques­tions. This requires multi dis­cip­lin­ary action.

  7. Gusti; You have just summed up 20 wasted years of try­ing to explain archae­ology by ima­gin­ing how dead people per­ceived the world.

    You can say it was a tim­ber build­ing with a stone load bear­ing wall, and pil­lars in the cen­ter; I can prove it empir­ic­ally and I can model it. However, as most aca­dem­ics are expert in all the things that archae­olo­gists never find — they would not know a build­ing if it fell on their head.
    It is just a build­ing, like Woodhenge, Durrington Wall, the sanc­tu­ary and Mount Pleasant. and I chal­lenge any­one to pro­duce evid­ence to the contrary.

  8. jon

    Interesting com­ments. How do those of you who believe this struc­ture to have had a roof know what tell-tale signs would be there if that were the case?

    Would you be suf­fi­ciently con­fid­ent in your struc­tural engin­eer­ing abil­it­ies to be able to determ­ine how to design or modify a mod­ern struc­ture to carry a roof?

    If not, what other spe­cial know­ledge do you have that allows you to know what to look for in a past structure?

  9. Alun

    As an admin note, I broke my arm over the week­end. Work has pri­or­ity on my typ­ing time at the moment, so I doubt I’ll be typ­ing much here over the next week.

  10. Gusti Hueber

    @Alan: During the past week­end we har thausends of people on the ski slopes near here because of the beau­ti­full wearther. Were you one of them? I hope you will be bet­ter soon!

  11. Wishing you a speedy recov­ery Alun, enjoy the oppor­tun­ity for a rest!
    I am con­scious that this is Alun’s space, and I don’t want to turn into a forum for my own research.
    However, briefly, Re: build­ings; My ana­lyses is based reverse engin­eer­ing the struc­ture from the pre­cise pos­i­tion of the found­a­tions. Successful build­ings are static machines, gov­erned by mech­an­ics and geo­metry. Consideration has also to given to the mater­i­als, [in this case the nature of oak trees], and the avail­able wood­work­ing tech­no­logy.
    As this is ‘reverse engin­eer­ing’ — ‘mod­ern’ conception/ designs/ meth­ods are not rel­ev­ant, only the under­ling phys­ics applies.
    If you can demon­strate that the found­a­tions have the neces­sary geo­metry and pro­por­tions, and explain how they were connected/assembled in 3d by a con­sist­ent sys­tem of con­struc­tion, you can prove they were a build­ings.
    While this is fairly obvi­ous for rec­ti­lin­ear struc­tures, it is far more com­plex in cir­cu­lar build­ings, but by the same token, much more pre­cise.
    This mod­el­ling of the evid­ence is reas­on­ably object­ive, and requires under­stand­ing, not belief.

  12. jon

    My ana­lyses is based reverse engin­eer­ing the struc­ture from the pre­cise pos­i­tion of the foundations.”

    You believe you can ‘reverse engin­eer’ a struc­ture from the pos­i­tion of the found­a­tions? I wish you the best of luck.

  13. It is not a belief — I have done it.

    It has taken me twenty years of research, and it is not what I set out to find;Stonehenge is an unfor­tu­nate byproduct of my work on postholes.

    It is easier with pos­tholes, and with com­plex roof shapes, such as Woodhenge, with [156 posts] points to recon­cile, there is prob­ably only one way a model can work.
    My prob­lem is people believe pic­tures, but don’t under­stand tech­nical drawing.

  14. jon

    I under­stand Technical draw­ing Geoff. If you have achieved a method of doing this, you should take out pat­ents on the pro­cess: Once you have pat­ents, people might be inter­ested. Many people, in par­tic­u­lar, plan­ning advisers, would love to be able to prove the shape of a struc­ture from ancient found­a­tions: It might allow a large num­ber of plan­ning applic­a­tions to pro­ceed that would oth­er­wise not get consent.

    Good luck with your the­ory! I don’t believe it’s pos­sible to do this because my exper­i­ence of old found­a­tions is that their form depends on the atti­tude, know­ledge and com­pet­ence of the builder. But good luck anyway.

  15. I have pub­lished it on my web­site, but sadly it only works for cer­tain types of pre­his­toric pos­thole struc­tures, which are only of con­cern to archaeologists.

  16. jon

    You should be able to back-engineer mod­ern struc­tures of the same type. Have you tried to work out super­struc­tures from short length tim­ber mini-pile found­a­tions? If you have (such as at the dock­lands in London or near the Royal Arsenal where it was rel­at­ively com­mon), you will find that the known super­struc­ture was fre­quently dif­fer­ent for sim­ilar pos­thole arrangements.

    Good luck with the ideas though.

  17. It is an entirely dif­fer­ent sys­tem, with a dif­fer­ent approach to engin­eer­ing; join­ing trees together using joints cut with ground stone and early metal tools.
    It mod­ern terms, these struc­tures are over engin­eered. For example, in the neo­lithic, it was felt neces­sary to sup­port the ridge roof dir­ectly with posts, [although this also helps with assembly]. There are also no ‘load bear­ing walls of any scale, [so no trusses, and ties sit dir­ectly on posts], which is why Stonehenge is an unusual [for Britain].

  18. jon

    Then your way to prove it will be to find tra­di­tional soci­et­ies who use this method (post holes) and back-engineer their structures.

    Good luck with your ideas.

  19. Why would have to reverse engin­eer struc­tures that already exist?
    Building/ engin­eer­ing is a tech­no­logy, related to an indi­vidual envir­on­ment and cul­tural require­ment; Greek temples exist in their cul­tural dia­spora, Roman forts in their own very spe­cific con­text. You can’t under­stand medi­eval tim­ber ships, simply by look­ing at Chinese Junks, etc.
    Our ancient build­ing are related to our our not so ancient build­ings, which relate to our his­tor­ical tim­ber build­ings — built from the same mater­i­als with sim­ilar tools for a sim­ilar cli­mate, by a related culture.

  20. jon

    Why would have to reverse engin­eer struc­tures that already exist?”

    You would only want to do this to show that your method is not just a product of your ima­gin­a­tion. At the moment your method appears to rely on proof by way of a res­ults that do not actu­ally exist (neo­lithic build­ings no longer exist). It’s best to do the tests it in a way that can show that your tests were “blind” so that you can’t be accused of mak­ing facts up to suit.

    Just what I would do in the same cir­cum­stance. If you think it’s unprov­able under any cir­cum­stance, then it may be bet­ter to con­sider assign­ing the the­ory to the dustbin.

  21. If there were any neolithic/EBA build­ings still stand­ing in N Europe I would not have to model these struc­tures at all.
    As it is, we have only the recovered plan of a struc­ture — this is the evid­ence.
    What I model is a ‘the­or­et­ical struc­ture’ that matches the archae­olo­gical evid­ence, given the tech­no­lo­gical con­text of the archae­ology, using the prin­ciples roughly out­lined above.
    It is, after all, what exper­i­mental archae­olo­gists do at places like Butser, only I do it on paper, because it is cheaper, just as easy to test a model, and no trees get cut down; in addi­tion, I can have many attempts at the same ground plan, refin­ing my model until I can fully account for all of the recor­ded evidence.

    Recording and struc­tural ana­lysis of stand­ings struc­tures is some­thing quite dif­fer­ent which I have done and pub­lished as part of my work as pro­fes­sional archaeologist.

  22. jon

    I can have many attempts at the same ground plan, refin­ing my model until I can fully account for all of the recor­ded evidence.”

    If you had refined it using another set of vari­ables, you might have come to another con­clu­sion which also accoun­ted for all of the recor­ded evid­ence? The sys­tem might provide a likely out­come but it’s unlikely it could be definitive.

    An example: The found­a­tions for a huge braced areal mast would be sim­ilar to the found­a­tions for a set of reg­u­larly arranged tied wind tur­bines. They are also sim­ilar to foot­ing arrange­ments for large pieces of indus­trial kit. They are also sim­ilar to found­a­tions of large multi-storey steel build­ings. In the future, it may not be pos­sible to determ­ine which was which but, given the large num­ber of multi-story steel build­ings, it’s likely that what will be found in the future is found­a­tions of buildings.

    So your sys­tem might pre­dict what might prob­ably have been in place (a steel build­ing) but it’s unlikely to be able to find any­thing else?

    It’s only if you know to look for the hook straps of a tied struc­ture that you’ll know it was tied. Only if you find traces of gal­van­iz­ing will you know if it’s an open air struc­ture or not. Only if the hold­ing down bolts allow for some sort of AV install­a­tion will you know if it might have been industrial.

    And with Stonehenge, if any­one with any prac­tical know­ledge of how to build things would have asked for spe­cific things to be incor­por­ated into the struc­ture so that a roof could be built, things that could have been eas­ily done, it doesn’t appear to me to make a great deal of sense to say that there was a roof, based on the found­a­tion plan, if every one of those simple super­struc­ture fea­tures are missing.

  23. Not a good ana­logy, and com­pletely out of con­text. I am mod­el­ling over a hun­dred indi­vidual fixed points, and can account for the depth, dia­meter, and pos­i­tion of each post.

    The roof model is based on the pos­i­tion of the pos­tholes; each Class Ei build­ings [or tim­ber circles] has a dis­tinct, but related pat­tern of posts, Woodhenge has 156 pos­tholes in 6 rings, and Stonehenge has 142 of them in 4 and the sar­sen ring. The under­ly­ing engin­eer­ing, pro­por­tions and lay­out is sim­ilar in all the examples I have looked at.
    It even explains why pos­tholes are deeper on one side than another, some­thing that has only been noticed recently with mod­ern sur­vey­ing.
    There are plans I have not examined, this are my con­trol group, should any­one ser­i­ously chal­lenge my con­clu­sions.
    Until someone comes up with a bet­ter explan­a­tion for the spa­tial dis­tri­bu­tion of these fea­tures, I will con­sider it proven, since it fits the phys­ical evid­ence.
    It is all explained, and illus­trated in great detail on my web­site, should you wish to under­stand it; I am not inter­ested in belief.
    I do not wish to dis­cuss this fur­ther here, as this is Alun’s web­site, but please feel free to com­ment on any of the spe­cif­ics dis­cussed on my own website.

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