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Common steps and sub-activities

Hitting obelisks and columns

Some rocks, especially granite ones, can produce musical sounds when struck with another smaller rock.  The technical name for these sorts of stones is a ‘lithophone’.

Not all lithophones produce complex high and low sounds, but there is a lot of evidence that quite a number do – and they are often found in sacred places – such as temples and other sites of worship such as henges.

It is rarely understood that columns and obelisks might have been made from granite or other rock known to be capable of producing sound.  Not all columns do, not all obelisks do, but there are some that quite definitely were chosen for this purpose.  

For example, there is a fallen obelisk in the great temple complex of Karnak in Luxor that if struck near its pyramidical point and the ear is placed close to this point can be just about heard to resonate .

The ruined city of Jeresh in Jordan contains a set of lithophones whose tones are scaled. The site of Jeresh has been occupied since Neolithic times and the lithophones have been incorporated into the architecture of the city with its paved colonnades, plazas, towers and gates.

Some of the pillars within the Vitalla Temple in Hampi, India emit sounds when struck.  Numerous temples in India contain such lithophones and in some it is clear they form a very fundamental part of the overall ceremonies there.  In the district of Vijayanagara, there is an ancient ceremonial city and at least one of its temples contains musical stone pillars.  It is worth noting that the city is formed of granite.  Other temples in southern India possess musical stone pillars, for example Nellaiyapper Temple in Tamil Nadu has columns fashioned out of a single block of rock 1,400 years ago which are able to issue the seven basic notes of classical Indian music when struck.  Again, most researchers tend to focus on the audible range, but it seems that inaudible frequencies may exist too.

Greece also has its lithophone temples.  The travel writer Pausanias in the 2nd century CE reported that the citizens of the city of Megara in Attica, Greece, told him that the god Apollo helped to build the walls of the acropolis and ‘laid his lyre down on the stones’.  Ever since ‘if anyone chances to hit the stone with a pebble, it sounds exactly like a lyre is struck’.

Perhaps the most intriguing example of the use of ‘singing stones’ in temple architecture is closer to home for me, because it is at Stonehenge.

The Bluestones of Stonehenge

Stonehenge was a multi-purpose site.  Its builders  transported stones that had a number of capabilities – they had the ability to produce visionary ‘experiences’,  there are stones there that appear to have healing properties and there are stones that simply provide alignments.  Stonehenge was thus a healing clinic, an astrological and astronomical observatory and a place where visions and odd experiences could be invoked – though not necessarily always at will.  It would seem that the astronomical aspects were key to experience in that it was only when the sun was at a certain angle that some stones were capable of producing their effects. 

The Bluestones of Stonehenge were obtained from the Preselli outcrops of south west Wales.  This area is full of Neolithic monuments indicating that the capabilities of the stones here were well understood.  There is a dolmen at Pentre Ifan for example that has a splendid burial chamber with a huge capstone delicately poised on three uprights. This monument, dating back to about 3500 BC and oriented north-south, stands on the slopes of a ridge. The capstone weighs over 16 tons; it is 5m (16ft 6in) long and 2.4m (8ft) off the ground. The stones of the chamber are all of local igneous rock; and on the portal stone there is a faint cupmark.

Everyone assumes that this was a burial chamber, but of course it could also have been  a mock cave specifically designed to provide experience.  Excavations in 1936-7 and 1958-9 showed that the main chamber originally lay within a shallow oval pit, and that the trapezoidal mound of earth covering it was up to 36m (120ft) long. The semi-circular façade, as in the Irish court-tombs, was marked by two upright stones on either side of the south-facing portal. The forecourt was blocked with rows of tightly wedged stones; some of the original kerbstones around the barrow can still be seen. So it is more of a ceremonial site than a burial place.  Within the cairn were a number of enigmatic features: a slumped stone, deliberately felled before the cairn was built, an irregular line of small stone-holes and a pit with signs of burning.

Local lore says that sometimes fairies are seen here: they are described as 'little children in clothes like soldiers' clothes and with red caps'.

But what we can conclude is that it was already known that the stones in Preselli were lithophones.

The Bluestones were the first stones to be erected at the Stonehenge site, which already had an earthwork.

The Landscape and Perception project run by the Royal College of Art is making a multidisciplinary, detailed study of selected prehistoric landscapes looking at the visual, acoustic and archaeological aspects.

The project’s Pilot Study is examining the source area of the Stonehenge bluestones on Mynydd Preseli.  This project aims to acoustically and visually map parts of the Welsh Preseli hills  and the Neolithic complex of Avebury in Wiltshire, “attempting to look and listen as if with Stone Age eyes and ears”.

The acoustic mapping involved them in identifying “ any natural acoustical phenomena that prehistoric people may have found magically significant”.  They found that some rocks on Preseli have curious resonant properties. A clue is given in the name of the Preseli village, Maenclochog -- “ringing stones”.

The acoustic properties of the Carn Menyn area are quite varied.  Some of the rocks produce quite audible sounds when struck, but depending on their size, the notes go from a bell like pitch to a lower drum sound to an even lower bass sound.  This somewhat implies that there may well be infrasound tones as well.

If we now go back to Stonehenge, yet more interesting results have surfaced about its acoustics.

The Sounds of Stonehenge originated as a workshop of the Centre for the History of Music in Britain, the Empire and the Commonwealth (CHOMBEC), held at the Victoria Rooms, University of Bristol, UK in November 2008.

The 8 papers contain material pertaining to acoustic physics, anthropology, archaeology, architecture, cognitive psychology, English literature, film studies, history, history of art, media and popular studies, musicology, sociology, and creative composition.

……….Using archaeological drawings of Stonehenge, a basic acoustic analysis of the site was carried out. This was done by considering reflections of sound from various sources, calculating delay times of principal reflections, assessing likely reverberation and likely positions and modes of standing waves. It was immediately apparent that the Sarsen stone circle, and in particular the circle of stone lintels of the Sarsen circle, would be a highly significant acoustic feature. Standing just inside the circle would be acoustically significant, as edge effects by the wall would boost low frequencies. 

A basic study was carried out, tracing ray paths for the transmission of sound in the space and considering materials, surfaces and reflections. It was clear that sound would move most freely between the outer Sarsen and the bluestones  circle. …..

A sound made at the edge of the circle would have reflected off each fifth, fourth and third  stone as it moved around the circle. Each reflection would change the quality of the sound, and also delay its travel, causing sound to arrive later than sound travelling directly. This is likely to result in reverberation, or perhaps a series of discrete delays or echoes sounding somewhat like a galloping horse. [so it would result in pulsed sound] ….

Similar calculations illustrated that the centre would act as a particular acoustic focus, reflecting sound back from all directions. Moving to the exact centre of the space would result in the sudden activation of the acoustic, giving a radically different result to that experienced only perhaps a metre away. …..

Knowing the speed of sound, and the distance taken, we can calculate the time taken, the delay time, and its associated frequency.

Speed of sound V = 344m/s = distance / time
Distance from one side of the stone circle to the other and back = 33m x 2
Time delay = 66 / 343 = 0.19s, frequency at Heel = 5.2Hz
5.2Hz is equivalent a rhythm at 156bpm (quavers).
Frequency at Centre = 10.4 Hz,

These kinds of frequency, below 20Hz, are sometimes called ‘infrasound’ ………….It would be heard by human ears if it were at a high enough volume. Sound is not inaudible below 20Hz, but has to be increasingly loud for us to hear it, at 10.4Hz 97dB and at 5.2Hz as much as 106dB. Older people can hear these low frequencies more easily, just as the young can hear higher frequencies.

Watson’s results  have indicated that sound would be contained within the stone circle, creating a sense of envelopment within the space and a change in sound when entering.

What an exciting place it must have been. Imagine you are there, the chief priest. 

Imagine it too to be dark, warm,  near to mid summer, only the flickering flames of torches light the circle of stones, the faces of onlookers are obscured in purple shadows.

There are people hitting the bluestones to produce the sound, which is reverberating round the stones at quite high intensity. It is filling your body with vibrations.

At this level of intensity you can hear the low infrasound notes as a deep rumble of bass notes, getting louder and louder as you move towards the centre of the circle. 

The closer you get to the altar, the more intense it becomes.  The altar is lit with a single flickering candle and the white, gold and purple cloth on the altar dances in the light.   

As you approach the central altar, the sound envelops you and you are there, with the gods, out of body, flying to distant regions.