Acoustic project returns to recreate the sounds of Orkney’s sites

Dr Aaron Watson at work in Maeshowe's entrance passage.

An archaeologist studying the acoustic properties of Orkney’s Neolithic monuments has been back in the county to continue his research.

Dr Aaron Watson, an Honorary Fellow at the University of Exeter, has spent a number of years investigating the effect of sound at some of the county’s best-known prehistoric sites.

After repeated visits to measure and record audio data, the most-recent Orkney trip was in collaboration with John Crewdson, a musicologist at Royal Holloway University. The aim was to look at how sound might have played a part in the rituals and ceremonies surrounding sites such as Maeshowe and the Ring of Brodgar.

Dr Watson’s past research has shown that certain prehistoric monuments exhibit specific sonic effects – effects that would have been impossible for Neolithic people to explain, but were perhaps seen has having an “otherworldly” source.

At Maeshowe, for example, specific pitches of vocal chant, as well as drumming, inside the cairn produced unsettling effects in those present.

In the chamber, the behaviour of sound is considerably different from that of the outside world, with the ancient stone walls amplifying noise to create a variety of audio effects.

One of these is the phenomenon known as “standing waves”. These produce distinct areas of low or high intensity as the sound waves interact – either cancelling each other out or combining.

Experiments with chanting in the cairn saw the volume and intensity of the sound become enhanced, with the noise filling the interior so completely it became difficult to determine the source.

At the same time, some of the test subjects reported the feeling that sounds were also emerging from inside their head and body. They reported feelings of dizziness, flying sensations and that their pulse was being affected.

So were these tombs built with these effects in mind? Probably not – at least not initially. Instead, Dr Watson thinks their acoustic properties were co-incidental – a “by-product” – that came to be exploited and added to the sites’ significance to Neolithic people.

The same applies to the nearby Ring of Brodgar.

Although only 27 of the ring’s original 60 megaliths remain, Dr Watson recorded distinct echoes across the interior.

Sound created at the edge of the circle, for example, produced echoes reflected from the other stones. Sounds made at the centre, however, echoed back and appeared to envelop the listener.

Using handclaps or drumbeats, the delayed echo also made it appear as though the stones were producing the sound themselves.

This year, preliminary research at Skara Brae has hinted at some new possibilities. It seems that the architecture of the stone houses might have their own acoustic effect.

While this analysis has yet to be completed, Dr Watson speculates that the layout – which is identical in each house – might have accentuated the sonic experiences of people moving through the village.

With the completion of these acoustic experiments, the next stage is to see how this data might reveal new insights into life in Neolithic Orkney.

Dr Watson explained: “While the detailed analysis of the acoustic data we have collected is ongoing, I was very interested in how it related to the use of the sites. It’s all very well talking about the physics of sound, but how does this actually convert back to the people who built the structures and how they used them – in essence, I want to put the humanity back into the research.

“I used measuring equipment last time. This time, working with a musicologist, it’s been much more hands on. We’ve been looking at possible methods to take advantage of sound and what those people present may have experienced. At the Ring of Brodgar, for example, is it the stones ‘speaking’ or was it the ancestors? How might they have understood these echoes and what kind of rhythm was used?”

Although the work is ongoing, one thing is very clear. Neolithic Orkney was not a silent place. Instead of the romantic vision of peace and quiet that pervades the sites today, imagine a scene where the ancient Orcadians chanted, danced and beat their drums – the only way they knew how to reach the state that allowed communication with the spirits of their ancestors.

Life in recent centuries was by no means sombre and silent, so perhaps we shouldn’t assume it was in prehistory.

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