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Sound in the prehistoric landscapeOne of the wonderful advantages of walking is that we can fully experience where we are. Most Western people are so dominated by their visual experiences that they rarely fully engage their other senses. Yet even with the limited sensitivity of the human nose a walk through woodland on a damp autumn day can offer a feast of olfactory experiences. Even when in the countryside few actively listen to the sounds around them. Only the most striking of bird songs or burbling brooks consciously register. The changes in the sounds of our footfalls as we pass from grassland to the dry soil of an arable field, over a timber footbridge, on to a gravel path, splash through a puddle, kick up some dead leaves, swish past some undergrowth rarely break through our cognitive filtering processes into conscious awareness. We generally walk through our surroundings with the soundtrack turned off.
Vision is the dominant perception of modern culture. When we say 'I see what you mean' we do not necessarily mean this literally. Yet the dominant aim of rationalism and science is to make things visible – from graphs and flow diagrams through to telescopes, microscopes, X-rays, nuclear magnetic resonance, chromatographs and much, much else. It is as if the ultimate dream of rationalism is to see all human knowledge laid out, arranged in order – just as a landscape painting presents the scene from an idealised viewpoint (and this is not a casual comparison but reveals how the visually-dominated metaphor of 'seeing = understanding' is causal in our culture).
Despite the dominance of vision, our hearing is nevertheless essential to develop a 'sense of place'. Sounds fill our surroundings (whether natural or built) and give places a specific character or 'presence'. However, unlike vision we cannot readily map sounds. Neither do we customarily record sounds in the same way photographs or drawings quite commonly 'freeze' our vision. This means that sound is typically experienced directly. And, equally importantly, if we notice sounds at all we tend to 'experience the moment' more intensely than with visual stimuli. And, unlike vision, our sense of hearing is not diminished in the darkness (indeed, in the absence of distracting visual stimulation, our hearing may appear more acute in low light).
Before the invention of writing all verbal communication was part of our sound world rather than an aspect of our visual experiences.. Because we cannot 'close our ears' in the same way as we can close our eyes and because our hearing is omni-directional we always hear our complete acoustic environment, even though our cognitive processes have devised sophisticated ways of filtering out non-threatening and 'background' sounds.
Hearing is believingSound is different to vision in three profound ways. We do not need an equivalent of light to hear – our ears work just as well after dark. We do not need a direct 'light of sight' to hear, at least for moderately loud sounds. And we do not have to be facing the direction of a sound to hear it.
The Inuit, who need to hunt in the dark, use the sounds of places to denote landmarks and resources, in the same way we would refer to a fence or hedge. Similarly people who live in dense jungle cannot visualise the space around them. Whereas Westerners might think 'I thought I heard a monkey – Ah, yes! I can see it over there', Amazonians would only believe there was a monkey if they heard the monkey, and would regard a sighting in the same way a Western would respond to the sound alone. For the Amazonians 'hearing is believing', in contrast to the Western 'seeing is believing'. The Suya of Brazil use the expression 'it is in my ear' where we would say 'I see what you mean'. Keen hearing is the mark of a 'fully socialised individual' and sight is considered by Suya people to be anti-social, cultivated only by witches. For the Songhai in central West Africa vision is often less important than taste, smell and hearing. In the Songhai language one tastes kinship, smells witches, and hears the ancestors.
In such societies aural landscapes share with visual ones the concepts of landmarks and boundaries. For the Umeda of Papua New Guinea the auditory horizon is a tall ridge around the knoll where their village stands. The words used to encode these features and the traversing of the jungle create an auditory map which can only be understood dynamically, as movement.
Hearing is fundamental to knowledge for Australian Aborigines in a subtly different way. According to Bruce Chatwin, they only believe the country exists when they could both see it and sing it by chanting the relevant 'Dreaming track' or so-called 'song line'. There must be a mental concept – the words of the song – before the landscape can be said to exist.
Indeed before writing was used by everyone, everything anyone 'knew' had come to them aurally. Knowledge was acquired by hearing – or at least best understood that way. Which is why accountants today 'audit' accounts – for many years these who wanted to know if the books balanced asked their book-keepers to read the accounts out loud, as this way they made more sense that seeing the written record.
Immersive experiencesThe Hal Saflieni hypogeum on Malta, constructed in several phases between 3600 and 2500 BCE, has numerous examples of anomalous 'sound effects'. For example, a voice speaking into a certain recess resonates throughout the vaults, perhaps awing the faithful with disembodied voices capable of a full range of tones from thunderous to whispered. But there was much more to this manmade rock-cut multi-level tomb complex than acoustic oddities. All the senses would have been engaged, as Robin Skeates describes:
I have not been to the Hal Saflieni hypogeum. Nevertheless Skeates' portrayal fits well with my responses to the much smaller spaces of early Neolithic chamber tombs, such as West Kennett.
Skeates' multi-sensory approach to Hal Saflieni is so far something of an exception. Most researchers, if they step beyond the visual and spatial aspects, only venture into the acoustic aspects. Even more of an exception are prehistorians who consider the effects of synaesthesia – where the brain 'blends' the senses, an effect some people encounter as part of normal experience but is mostly encountered while 'stoned' on psychoactive plants or drugs.
While I would like you to bear in mind such an overall 'immersive experiences', this article is mostly concerned with just the sound worlds of the past.
Acoustics and our ancestorsThere are several ways in which prehistoric people 'used' acoustic effects. The first is echoes. The earlist examples of the use of sound to enhance the sacredness of a place have been recognised in the caves at Ariege beneath the French Pyrénées. These contain extensive Palaeolithic wall paintings. At certain places close to significant motifs anyone singing or whistling at the correct pitch will set up dramatic resonances. This is not an isolated example; in later periods temples were designed to amplify sound as part of the ritual procedures.
In the mid-1990s more scientific investigation of the acoustic properties of prehistoric sites began. Three broad acoustic responses at prehistoric sites were investigated. The first reveals that carved or painted rock art, whether in caves or 'rock shelters', is cited at spots where the echoes are more pronounced. So chanting, singing, clapping or drumming calls forth sounds that seemingly emanate from the decorated rock surface – as if the spirits of the image are talking back.
The horseshoe-shaped arrangements of bluestones at Stonehenge would create just such a 'magical' effect. A steady rhythmic pulse of sharp sounds, such as those produced by two hardwood sticks 'clicked' together, would produce complex multiple echoes if the percussionist stood in one of the two foci of the parabolic 'horseshoe'. This would make a series of steady clicks sound akin to the hooves of a whole herd of animals. A similar effect could have been obtained by standing to one side of a more typical stone circle – such as the inner circles at Avebury – though the sound would not project out of the stones in one direction as with the Stonehenge 'horseshoe'.
Native American rock art consistently occupy places which provide abnormally strong echoes or where sounds such as clapping re-echo as the sound of running animals. Similar examples have been found in Australia.
The nearest I have come to a personal experience of such eerie effects is when a group of pagans were drumming in the nave of a high-roofed Victorian church (with the consent of a very ecumenical vicar!). The multiple echoes formed complex sound patterns quite unrelated to the rhythm and pitch of the drums, for all the world sounding like the roof space was filled with Otherworldly spirits fluttering and chattering. The resonant space also created what are known as 'standing waves', meaning the sounds had no clear source and walking slowly around made the sound louder and quieter with every few steps. Had their been even less light, or other factors had created more of an altered state of consciousness, then the illusion of 'angels' would have been entirely real.
Resonant hengesThe second effect discovered so far is anomalous sound reflections at stone circles, especially the Scottish ones with so-called 'recumbent' stones, where the recumbent megalith acts as a 'sounding board' to help project the voice of someone standing in front. Such 'sound reinforcement' works only within the ring of stones, except for some really curious instances where the sound is also remarkably clear at a nearby prehistoric site, even though all-but inaudible between the two. The same effect has been observed between Camster Round and Camster Long tombs in Caithness – drumming in one can be heard in the other 190 metres away, but not in between. In this context we should think of the trilithon 'ring' at Stonehenge, which clearly all-but blocks sound going out from the centre – and the later bluestone horseshoe with its parabolic shape would direct sound in one direction (north-east) to the exclusion of audibility in other directions. So perhaps it is not coincidence that when the Cove in the Avebury henge still had a third large stone that too would have directed sound very effectively in the same north-easterly direction.
The Cove at Avebury
Back in 2001, the archaeologist Aaron Watson noted that, at Avebury
...The two Inner Circles were likely to have been intense acoustic spaces [as] ... the stones chosen for the Inner Circles seem to have been larger and broader than those employed elsewhere within the monument, and therefor more suited to the reflection of sound. An intriguing aspect of circular spaces is that the nature of echoes changes dramatically depending upon the location of the listener and the sound source. Near to the centre, sounds will be reflected simultaneously from all sides of the circle, thus returning a coherent cho which surounds the listener. Near to boundaries, however, echoes will become increasingly indistinct and directional as the souds are moving various distances across the interior. Thus the centre of these circles would have been major acoustic focuses, distinct from the more chaotic responses in other parts of the circle.
(Watson 2001: 308)
Stonehenge, despite its name, never had a large henge bank to influence the sound. However the later phases include the trilithons – which very effectively block sound and create echoes – and the horseshoe-shaped arrangements of 'bluestones' which, as already noted, is a perfect shape for focusing sound in one direction (probably not coincidentally the same direction as the open side of the Cove at Avebury).
Resonant structuresThe third aspect of the acoustic research shows that Neolithic chambered tombs have a natural resonant frequency that falls within the range of the male voice. Experiments with setting up 'standing waves' in, say, Newgrange have resulted in decidedly odd experiences. Paul Devereux reports being inside a chamber tomb when such a standing wave was created by researchers. Moving away from the sound source the chamber would first fall silent (at the 'troughs' in the standing wave, where the 'echo' cancels out the source) then increase in loudness (at the 'crests', where the echo augments the source). 'To a people who did not understand sound in terms of waves, this would seem very mysterious indeed.' (Devereux 2002: 29) If someone else moves within the chamber this can cause dramatic alterations in the 'distribution' of the sound and its loudness at a particular place. Other effects include 'ventriloquism', that is the sound source seems to be in an improbable place. When a standing wave is set up speech is distorted with extraordinary harmonics.
These are all wonderfully impressive 'special effects' for ritual activities – as if the interior of a chamber tomb (especially while it still contained the bones of one's ancestors and other sacred objects) was not already a powerful setting for ritual activities.
Soundtrack for the supernaturalStanding waves can be set up by chanting, singing or drumming. They can also arise if the wind blows across the entrance to such chambers, creating a lower-frequency version of the eerie sound created by blowing across an empty bottle. Thomas Hardy wrote in Tess of the D'Urbervilles of the wind blowing at Stonehenge and creating 'a booming tone, like the note of some gigantic one-stringed harp.
In recent decades first 'alternative archaeology' and then academic archaeologists have recognised that Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments incorporate complex alignments, astronomical orientations, shadow paths, and such like). Predictably, modern minds are more likely to recognise such visual complexity. However, as prehistoric people probably used all their senses more equally, quite plausibly our ancestors intentionally incorporated equally sophisticated acoustic complexity in their monuments.
If you're singing and making rhythmic noises then – especially if you're getting a bit 'spacey' too – then fairly inevitably you will start dancing too. As Aubrey Burl put it:
(Burl 1979: 210)
'Avebury need be no different,' noted Burl, 'with lines of face-painted men and women circling the sarsens, drums beating, torches burning in the blackness of the night.' Since those pioneering thoughts in the 1970s much consideration has been given to sound in prehistory. Investigations into 'archaeo-acoustics' reported at a conference in June 2003 by about twenty researchers includes studying echoes in Palaeolithic painted caves (including the then recently-discovered paintings at Cresswell Crags in Derbyshire) and Swedish rock art sites. Various Neolithic chamber tombs were also found to resonate at 100 Hz, an audio frequency which significantly affects the pre-frontal and temporal cortex of the human brain.
At a complex rock art site created by the Algonkian Indians of the Ontario region of Canada between 600 and 1,100 years ago the main group of carvings are on a deeply-fissured outcrop of marble. At certain times of the year water can be heard issuing from the fissure – and it sounds like a babble of voices. Presumably the Indians venerated the site because they thought these were the voices of manitous or spirits. Other rock art sites in the Ontario region were associated with anomalous echoes. Indeed one set of carvings is in a park known as Bon Echo. 'Had the Indians, like the ancient Greeks, believed echoes to be the sound of spirits calling, mimicking human-made noises to do so?' asks Devereux.
One of the side chapels in Lincoln Cathedral was constructed with columns tuned to a third and fifth. Presumably there are many more examples awaiting discovery.
I have been informed of a solo singer at St Ouen in Rouen who sang close to the columns; his voice caused the columns to resonate resulting in a strangely disembodied sound that had no clear place or origin.
Interesting acoustic effects are not restricted to prehistoric sites. The acoustics of Classical Greek and Roman theatres reveal an exceptional ability to make the voices of the actors heard to a large number of people. Almost certainly Anglo-Saxon plainchant could generate spectacular standing wave effects in the small cave-like stone-built churches of the time, although to my knowledge no one has attempted to replicate this experience – and there is no way of knowing if such effects were intentionally sought by early christians. Later 'polyphonic' plainchant of the medieval era resounding through a cathedral built at the time such music was composed is a wonderful experience although modern singers typically do not attempt to pitch their voices according to the natural resonances of the building.
If this sounds a little far-fetched then consider the clusters of musical stone pillars in the Nellaiyappar temple dedicated to Shiva, the Hindu 'Lord of the Dance'. Gently tapping the columns produces the seven notes of the scale used in Indian classical music. According to the temple's own chronicle these pillars were erected in the seventh century. There is a total of 161 tuned pillars, arranged in clusters with up to 48 smaller columns around a larger pillar. Each cluster is hewn out of a single piece of rock. No other temple has such an elaborate arrangement, although eight other temples in the south of India with musical pillars are known. Such musical pillars are clearly counterparts to the many Indian temples where the columns are decorated with depictions of musicians or dancers.
Elsewhere in southern India, at Hiregudda Hill, are gong-like musical boulders associated with rock art which dates back from recent times to the Neolithic. Other ringing rocks are known from the Karnataka (dated to around 3,000 BCE), Kupgal and Deccan districts of India, and also from South Africa.
Such effects may have also been known in the British Isles. In the Presceli district of south-west Wales (where the 'blue stones' at Stonehenge came from) there is a hamlet called Maenclochog which translates as 'ringing rocks'. The rock type is dolerite similar to that at Hiregudda Hill which makes a ringing sound when struck. The ringing rocks at Maenclochog are thought to have been destroyed by quarrying in the late eighteenth century. However it raise the possibility that the Stonehenge 'blue stones' were originally significant as 'ringing rocks', before being silenced by being stood up in the ground.
If you think hitting rocks would produce a rather limited range of sounds then seek out some recordings of the traditional Basque txalaparta. This comprises two or more long beams of wood, set out on trestles, and struck with two round wooden shafts. In the hands of virtuosi txalapartaris these generate a wealth of 'trancy' sounds. A suitable 'rock xylophone' would have been a less portable version.
Bring back the roaring bullDespite the evidence of modern paganism, drumming or playing a didjeridoo is not the only way to connect with the spirits of place – although they may be effective. There is a more evocative way to 'summon the spirits' – using a flattish piece of wood whirled around the head on a thin rope. Not to be attempted near other people, please note!
The sound is decidedly Otherwordly, more so in the dark, and it is easy to see why it was thought to be the voices of ancestors, or spirits, or even deities. As it whirls around the pitch rises and falls as the instrument approaches and recedes from the listener (we now know it as the Doppler effect). By twisting the cord before starting to whirl the wood, a 'roaring' vibrato can be induced. Changing the speed of whirling changes the pitch. Increasing the length of the cord – or extending the arm holding it – also affects the sound. The complex sound which results from this simple device has a low frequency component which carries surprisingly far, especially downwind.
Quite why they are commonly known in English as bullroarers I have not established; the word seems not to predate the nineteenth century. They were still being made for use as toys in Britain less than a hundred years ago. But they are indeed archaic. What seems to be a bullroarer from 17,000 BCE was found in the Ukraine. They were one of the sacred instruments used in the Greek Dionysian Mysteries. They are used for ritual purposes throughout the world – they were part of native American religious rites and continue to be used in male initiation rites by Australian Aboriginal tribes. The altogether rather wonderful Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford has a number of different examples from around the world.
Interestingly, Steve Marshall has found that Neolithic ritual deposits sometimes include a distinctive style of worked flint with no signs of use. Archaeologists term them 'plano-convex knives' but Marshall discovered a replica made a very effective bullroarer. He tested it out in the Avebury henge, near the Cove stones.
Riding the sound wave to the OtherworldBullroarers are used to evoke the Otherworld. Bells, gongs, rattles, whistles, fireworks, drums, shouts, foot stamping, chants, mantras and hymns are used world-wide to banish Otherworldy demons and entities. The early Christian saints carried hand bells for use at key moments in the Mass, although they seem to be a continuation of pre-christian practices for banishing unwanted otherworldly entities, as the 'bell, book and candle' of christian exorcism clearly confirms. The larger bells of church towers were until recent times widely credited with the ability to frighten away the Devil.
And the Devil certainly had a way with words. Or at least those accused of being in league with the Lord of Darkness did. The power of witches was as much in what they said as what they did. In the Bocage area of rural France witchcraft was still a hidden but very influential aspect of community life during the 1970s. Jeanne Favret-Saad was able to 'infiltrate' the communities sufficiently to understand what was happening. She discovered that it worked like 'rumours' – and everyone, herself included, became part of this process. Innuendo rather than curses is what created the fear.
We consider witchcraft to be distinct from healing magic but the reality is that there is no real distinction between cursing and curing. Karen Jolly's study of Anglo-Saxon charms reveals that what was said was at least as important as what was done. The priest with his 'patter' held real power. It didn't matter that only the priest – and perhaps not always him – understood the meaning. As Jolly states:
(Jolly 1996: 118)
Buddhists too make much of mantras and other sacred chants. This is shared with the other dharmic religions such as hinduism – where the sacred word aum or om has especial significance. Does this help us understand the enigmatic symbolic 'opening of the mouth' ceremony in the mummification rituals of ancient Egyptians? If, to an ancient Egyptian, it was obvious that you need to chant your way to the Otherworld, or at least chant to be able to closely encounter the deities when you arrive there, then clearly having your mouth closed off by the fabric and resins used for mummification would be a major hindrance.
Chanting, drumming, clapping and beating together sticks are all time-honoured aids to entering trance. A reductionist approach will see this as certain biological effects 'kicking in'). A more experiential account would note that there is considerable subtlety to the effects. Indeed researchers who have closely studied Australian chanting, stick-beating and didjeridoo playing recognise that this creates 'a multi-layered system of finesse and intricacy of performance that Westerners can scarcely comprehend'.
Indeed modern Westerners are distinctive because of their inability to hear what people in a wide variety of traditional societies readily perceive. The Nigerian Songhay sorcerer who Paul Stoller was apprenticed to for several years reportedly said that '… you must learn how to hear, or you will learn little about our ways.' While I make no claims to be a sorcerer's apprentice, still less a master of such mysteries, reading that passage put me in mind of my own experiences while walking alone around the upper Kennet landscape. 'Learning how to listen' does indeed open up a whole new way of interacting with the landscape – and its land wights or genni loci or 'fair folk' or whatever other name seems to suit.
The unnamed Songhay sorcerer might have had as his apprentice a more able student if Stoller had been brought up a Moslem, as the beauty and perfection of the divine message of the Qur'an needs to be appreciated through listening, not reading. And this is only right because, over the course of twenty-three years, the prophet Mohammad received the word of Allah via the angel Gabriel – which is why it is the Qur'an or 'recitation'. A Moslem – as indeed those of any faith – needs to open not only their heart but their ears to god.
In a previous incarnation the Songhay sorcerer might also have got well with Marsilo Ficino, the Florentine humanist who lived between 1433 and 1499. Ficino, being aware of well-established tradition, thought that 'all realities emit vibrating rays which together compose the harmonious chorus of the universe.' These were ideas which echo all the way back two thousand years to Pythagoras.
And all the way across to Tibet. In a discussion which corrects numerous errors by Western scholars, Lama Anagaraika Govinda provides a detailed insight into how mantras function in the Tibetan buddhist world-view. The whole book is offers an insight into how profoundly different this world-view is from popular understanding of oriental religion. But here I will concentrate on the section where he describes how mantras form 'the key to the riddles of creation and of creativeness'. He states:
(Govinda 1960: 27)
This experience 'can only be acquired under the guidance of a competent Guru' and requires 'self-discipline, concentration, inner experience and insight'.
In quite a different realm of writing, the adventurer Ian Baker describes his expedition into the Tsangpo Gorge, Pemako, Tibet (Baker 2004). This inaccessible gorge is traditionally seen as body of goddess Dorje Pagmo, with different parts corresponding to the five chakras. The entire gorge is the gathering place of dakas and dakinis – 'When observed in their essential nature, all the mountains, rocks, trees, and rivers [here] appear as magical realms or deities' wrote Lelung Shepe Dorje in The Delightful True Stories of the Supreme Land of Pemako published in 1729. No one can go to the Tsangpo Gorge without being accompanied by a lama. Baker 'by chance' encounters a lama with several monks who just happen to want to travel this fearsomely difficult route. He describes how they continually chanted mantras and laughed their way through the various vicissitudes that made the journey physically and mentally exhausting. While Baker goes not seem to recognise the 'theraputic' value of their company, I for one doubt that he would have overcome the physical obstacles without the inspiration of the indomitable resolve of the lama and his monks, for whom their continual chanting was self-evidently a key part of their tenacity.
The August full moon rising from the prehistoric 'causeway' on the south side of Silbury Hill, when seen from the western end of the moat.
Put yourself in these monks' shoes, in their world-view. The journey may be physically demanding but they were walking on the body of a powerful goddess. While they were not one of the shamans who travel to a certain small lake 'on the August full moon to draw power from the clear black waters' (Baker 2004: 27) they would know the places of spiritual power in this fearsomely dramatic landscape. If their world-view of a remote gorge as the manifestation of a goddess and the empowerment of the August full moon seen reflected in water seems somewhat exotic, then think again about Michael Dames' 1970s interpretation of the Avebury monuments as a goddess, and the way the August full moon reflected in the then-watery moat around Silbury Hill. His world-views are not those of Tibetan Buddhism but in other respects the parallels are close.
Based on Chapter 8 of Singing Up the Country, with additions and minor deletions.
ReferencesDevereux, Paul, 2002, 'Soundings', 3rd Stone, 44, 28–32.
Baker, Ian, 2004, The Heart of the World: A journey to the last secret place, Penguin 2004; UK edition Souvenir 2006.
Burl, Aubrey, 1976, The Stone Circles of the British Isles, Yale UP.
Govinda, Anagaraika, 1960, Foundations of Tibetan Mystery, Rider; page references to 1969 edition.
Jolly, Karen Louise, 1996, Popular Religion in Late Saxon England, University of North Carolina Press.
Skeates, Robin, 2008, 'Making sense of the Maltese Temple Period: an archaeology of sensory experience and perception', Time and Mind, 1:2, 207–38.
Watson, Aaron, 2001, 'Composing Avebury', World Archaeology, Vol.33:2, p296–314.
The original chapter has a much more complete list of sources.
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