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Was Stonehenge built for rock music?

5 MAR 2014

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One of the mysteries of Stonehenge is why our ancestors chose to use bluestones that had to be hauled hundreds of kilometres from the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire to the site in Wiltshire. But new research from London’s Royal College of Art suggests sound might have played a role. Researchers tested thousands of stones on Carn Menyn in the Preseli Hills, and found a large number of the rocks ring when they are struck. Usually, stones produce a disappointing clunk when hit, with microscopic cracks making it difficult for vibrations to travel within the rock. But certain bluestones have the right microscopic structure – and sound like a metallic gong.

They also found a few of the rocks remaining at Stonehenge rang as well. The challenge they now face is providing good evidence that the bluestones were used for their musical quality. Sound is ephemeral, and disappears as soon as it is made, so it is difficult to know for sure that our ancestors used the stones as percussion instruments.

Other instruments from other sites, however, provide solid evidence for ancient music-making. The oldest musical instruments are 40,000-year-old flutes made from mammoth ivory and bird bone discovered in Geissenkloesterle, a cave in southern Germany. Besides flutes, there is evidence of 30,000-year-old percussion and scraping instruments. And there are stones all over the world that create musical notes, including many with good archaeological evidence of prehistoric use.

Rock gongs in the Serengeti emit harsh metallic clangs when they are struck with another stone. Some boulders are covered in hammered indents that evidence use, though it is difficult to date the music-making from these marks. At Kupgal Hill in Southern India there are ringing boulders of dolerite that display both percussive marks and Neolithic rock art. In a cave at Fieux à Miers in the south of France, there is a large, two-metre-high stalagmite that rings like a gong. Fractures from when it was struck have been dated to 20,000 years ago using the prehistoric artefacts found inside the cave and the layer of calcite that has slowly grown over the percussive marks in the intervening years.


Read full article: The Guardian