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Stone Age Soundtracks: The Acoustic Archaeology Of Ancient Sites

By Paul Devereux, published by Vega at £12.99. 160pp. ISBN 1-84333-447-X (Reviewed by Jeremy Harte)

Architecture, they say, is frozen music. If so, then Paul Devereux has taken it out of the cooler and put it to defrost. He sets out to prove, with the aid of meticulous scientific measurements, that prehistoric sites were deliberately constructed for their acoustic properties.

At the heart of this book are two surveys, one by Devereux himself with Robert Jahn, the other by Aaron Watson and David Keating. Both concentrated on megalithic sites in Britain, and both concluded that they were laid out to intensify the sound effects of rituals - effects which included amplification, intensified sound at particular places, resonant humming, and the vague sense of eeriness produced by the deep levels of ultrasound. Investigations at several chambered tombs found that they all resonate at roughly 110 Hz, within the expected range of a baritone male voice.

How did the ancient people become aware of these effects? They may have built on a long-standing acquaintance with the sound properties of natural places. Experiments at Palaeolithic painted caves have found meaningful patterns of resonance in them. It’s not just that you get some strange noises in the heart of the earth: the cave paintings are situated at just the right points to indicate the sounds, with hoofed animals at a place of clattering echoes and other visual hints. The paintings are still there: the sounds have long since died away. Deeper in the caves, stalactites have been marked as lithophones - stones which will produce a ringing note when struck. And even in the open, abstract art of later periods has been found to occupy special echoing places. Rock and roll, it seems, will never die.

Is this just an archaeological curiosity, or is it something more? Devereux sets the research in context with chapters on the anthropology of music and the power of sound over the human mind. It seems that ritual drumming, that old shamanic standby, can alter brain rhythms. A scientific basis underlies mystical theories of sound and the haunted experience of ghostly and fairy tunes. And then there is whole psychology of music, its ability to summon up images too deep for tears: we associate sound with the numinous, just as we associate sight with the rational. Devereux moves deftly through these uncharted waters, linking neurophysiology and trance states to create a picture of the archaic world which is familiar from his earlier books.

Stone Age Soundtracks is unquestionably the best book in its field. OK, so far it’s the only book in its field, but as a preliminary essay it sets a high standard. Acoustic archaeology today is what astro-archaeology was in the Seventies, and if future researchers can contribute anything, it will be a more critical methodology for evaluating the evidence which will come pouring in. Not all acoustics are deliberate - remember the Albert Hall - and when effects are deliberate, we should consider possibilities other than shamanism, or even religion. Could there be an archaeology of sound as an instrument of kingship? Virtually nothing - nothing rigorous, anyway - has been done on the acoustics of historical structures. Do nunneries resonate at a different frequency from monasteries? There’s a lot more to be said on this, but meanwhile Devereux has sounded the first note. It will have repercussions.