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Was Stonehenge Built for Prehistoric Rock Music?

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Stonehenge. Image: Frédéric Vincent
Stonehenge. Image: Frédéric Vincent

For many years, archaeologists have wondered why the people who built Stonehenge – a prehistoric monument in the south of England – used huge rocks that came from more than 300 kilometres away.

Now, a team of researchers believes the rocks may have been chosen because they produce musical sounds.

Stonehenge was built between 3000 BC and 2000 BC, during the Stone Age or Neolithic era. Archaeologists think it was originally used as a burial ground and temple.

Stonehenge was made with two types of stones: sarsens and bluestones.

Sarsens were the rocks used to build the outer circle, which is made up of pairs of large standing stones with lintels (one rock balanced across the tops of two other rocks). They were found locally.

The older, inner circle includes bluestones. These are believed to have come from a place called Carn Menyn, in the Preseli Hills in southwest Wales, about 300 kilometres away.

Recently, a team of researchers from the Royal College of Art in London went to the Preseli Hills to study the visual and acoustic (sound) properties of the landscape. They found that there were many “ringing rocks” in the area – rocks that make a musical, bell-like sound when struck with a small hammerstone. (A hammerstone is a rounded rock that fits easily into the hand and was used as a tool by early humans.)

They think this may be the reason Stone Age people brought bluestones all the way from Wales when they built Stonehenge.

One of the researchers, Paul Devereux, said that many prehistoric cultures around the world thought that stones that make interesting sounds were very powerful. They believed ringing rocks or caves with echoes were the homes of spirits.

The area around Carn Menyn has many Neolithic monuments. The researchers think the area may have been sacred to Stone Age people because of all of the ringing rocks found there.

The researchers say that if Stonehenge was used for religious ceremonies, sacred ringing rocks could have been an important element of those ceremonies.

They tested the bluestones at Stonehenge and found several made distinctive ringing sounds. They also found that a number of the bluestones at Stonehenge show signs of having been struck by a hammerstone.

Some bluestones did not ring because they were sunk too deeply in the ground, or in concrete that had been added later to support them. But the researchers believe they would also make sound if there were more space around them for the sound waves to travel.

Related websites

Sounds of bluestones; CBC Radio One’s As It Happens news program

Virtual tour of Stonehenge

About Stonehenge (Wikipedia)

CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS
By Kathleen Tilly

Writing/Discussion Prompt
The article explains the role of music at Stonehenge: “The researchers say that if Stonehenge was used for religious ceremonies, sacred ringing rocks could have been an important element of those ceremonies.”

How is music used today? Discuss all of the roles that music plays in people’s lives.  Is music important in your own life?

Reading Prompt: Extending Understanding
You probably didn’t think that rocks could be musical instruments. People actually use many interesting objects, such as spoons, to make interesting sounds and songs. What unique objects have you used to create music? What else could you use?

Junior
Extend understanding of texts by connecting the ideas in them to their own knowledge, experience, and insights, to other familiar texts, and to the world around them (OME, Reading: 1.6).

Intermediate
Extend understanding of texts, including increasingly complex or difficult texts, by connecting the ideas in them to their own knowledge, experience, and insights, to other familiar texts, and to the world around them (OME, Reading: 1.6).

Grammar Feature: Verb tense
Verbs – action words – are written in different tenses. Often they are written in the present or past tense to show when an action took place. This article contains verbs written in these two tenses. Use red to circle the verbs written in present tense and green for the the verbs written in past tense.