Saturday, February 18, 2012

Archaeoacoustics--sound in archaeology

Never heard of it before? Then here's an introduction to the topic from Steven Waller, making the case for Stonehenge that  "ancient Britons could have based the layout of the great monument, in part, on the way they perceived sound. He has been able to show how two flutes played in a field can produce an auditory illusion that mimics in space the position of the henge's pillars."

Steven Waller's paper is summarized here. He is an independent scholar who has been working on this topic since 1987 with other work here.  A more general overview of the topic is here.

Some reactions from the scientific community concur that the theory is interesting but they have questions about verification and testing. Nadia Drake in Science News, Friday Feb 17th, 2012 says that when Waller concludes:

“Measurements of acoustic shadows radiating out from Stonehenge are consistent with the hypothesis that interference patterns served as blueprints for the design.”
How do we get from this experiment to ascribing intention to the construction of the Neolithic enigma? I’d say that conclusion requires several leaps of unsubstantiated logic. Waller claims to find support for his theory in local myths speaking of “piper stones” and “invisible towers of air,” but I’m unconvinced. The scientific method is missing. Where’s the hypothesis testing? Where’s the control experiment? Admittedly, control experiments are hard to do in archaeology.  But there’s been no rigorous evaluation of the claim behind the purpose of Stonehenge’s construction, something that ought to be acknowledged rather than explained away by additional mythology.

In the meantime, Prof Chris Scarre who teaches at Durham University and who co-edited a book on archaeoacoustics in 2006 also lists it as an area in which he can supervise PhD students. So there are institutional academics who seem to take the discipline seriously. 

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