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Sounds of the stone age

I was catching up with one of my favourite Radio 4 podcasts yesterday. Inside Science is a wide ranging science review show that introduces me to all kinds of weird and wonderful ideas. In this episode Trevor Cox, an acoustic engineer from the University of Salford, talks to presenter Adam Rutherford about the 1:12 scale model of Stonehenge that he has built.

The model can be adjusted from 30 to 130 stones, reflecting the development of the monument over time. It is the placed inside a studio to experiment on sound waves created inside and outside the model. The podcast shared some recordings of the experiment, which (spoiler alert) discovered a fascinating reverb effect which would have been experienced by listeners inside the monument.

The sounds created were decidedly eerie and definitely got me thinking about the challenges that archeologists and historians must face when trying to picture life in the past.

I tried to imagine a sensory experience that could be shared or recreated with humans from the past. Almost no landscape is untouched by some form of visual development, air pollution has changed the smells that may have been familiar, traffic and broadcasting intrude on our hearing.

Processes of farming and food production means that even raw ingredients such as fruit, vegetables or wheat have been modified so much they would be unrecognisable. Textile production is refined and mechanised, even the purest handspun wool would smell and feel differently due to our modern breeds.

Eventually I did think of a couple of options where we might be able to have a shared sensory experience with humans from the past. A heavy thunderstorm with winds howling and rain lashing down, those who have walked the Rannoch Moor section of the West Highland Way know this well! Also the experience of tidal changes particularly the Spring tides and neap tides.

What other sensory experiences can you think of that we might share with the builders of Stonehenge?

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