Finally... sounding out the secrets of Stonehenge

IT has guarded its secrets for 5,000 years – but now a Yorkshire academic is hoping to answer some of the fundamental questions about Stonehenge.

Archaeologists have argued for decades about what went on inside the ancient stone circle but the insights of a part-time disc jockey from York might help solve some of the mysteries.

The DJ in question is senior lecturer Dr Rupert Till, an expert in acoustics and music technology at Huddersfield University who believes the standing stones of Stonehenge had the ideal acoustics to amplify a "repetitive trance rhythm" not dissimilar to some kinds of modern trance music.

The original Stonehenge probably had a "very pleasant, almost concert-like acoustic" that our ancestors slowly perfected over many generations

Because Stonehenge itself is partially collapsed, Dr Till used a computer model to conduct experiments in sound.

The most exciting discoveries came when he and colleague Dr Bruno Fazenda visited a full-size concrete replica of Stonehenge, with all the original stones intact, which was built as a war memorial by American road builder Sam Hill at Maryhill in Washington state.

The trans-Atlantic trip and long drive to Maryhill proved to be well worth the effort.

Although the replica has not previously gained any attention from archaeologists studying the original site, it was ideal for Dr Till's work.

He said: "We were able to get some interesting results when we visited the replica by using computer-based acoustic analysis software, a 3D soundfield microphone, a dodecahedronic (12-faced) speaker, and a huge bass speaker from a PA company.

"By comparing results from paper calculations, computer simulations based on digital models, and results from the concrete Stonehenge copy, we were able to come up with some of these theories about the uses of Stonehenge.

"We have also been able to reproduce the sound of someone speaking or clapping in Stonehenge 5,000 years ago.

"The most interesting thing is we managed to get the whole space (at Maryhill) to resonate, almost like a wine glass will ring if you run a finger round it.

"While that was happening a simple drum beat sounded incredibly dramatic. The space had real character; it felt that we had gone somewhere special."

Building on previous research, Dr Till believes ancient Britons had a good ear for sounds and shaped the stones to create the best acoustics.

He went on: "Other archaeologists' research shows that Stonehenge has a specific acoustic design. The stones are all curved and reflect the sound perfectly. The lintels are also curved. They must have noticed that when they placed a stone in a particular place it would have sounded different."

Dr Till recently spoke to academics at Bristol University about Stonehenge rituals and a research network is being set up to look closer at Neolithic sites.

"There are two main theories about what Stonehenge was used for," he says. "One is that it was a healing space, the other that it was a place of the dead.

"Both of these imply ritual activity, but very little is actually known about the way people sang, danced or performed rituals there because these things left no trace in the archaeological record.

"However, our research shows that there are particular spots in the site that produce unusual particular acoustic effects, intimating that perhaps a priest or a shaman may have stood there, leading the ritual.

"This kind of ritual may also have been for healing, so this acoustic study may tie the two main competing theories about Stonehenge together."

The data is still being analysed, but it is clear that Stonehenge did have a "very unusual sound," says Dr Till.

"By simulating this sound we can hope to understand more about English culture from 5,000 years ago, and perhaps better understand both our ancestors and our culture today."