Are Stonehenge's Boulders Actually Big Bells?

Some of the structure's 'bluestones' ring when struck with a hammer.
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Stonehenge during last summer's Perseid meteor shower (Reuters)

Not every neolithic site can claim its own ’70s pop classic, but, hey: That’s Stonehenge. Countless theories and tools have attempted to make sense of the set of raised stones and earthworks in the south of England, categorizing it as an astronomical calendar, a healing site, a burial ground, or all of them at once.

Now, a study from the Royal College of Art in London has suggested a new possibility: The monument might make music

Since the 1920s, archaeologists have known that the rocks which make up the inner circle of Stonehenge came from a set of hills in Wales—a set of hills nearly 200 miles from the site. In just the past decade, they’ve located what they believe to be the precise mining site of the stones. Researchers have even found the remains of the men who they think transported them.

They couldn’t figure out why, though, the stones moved in the first place. A 2012 book even hypothesized that the monument was meant to unify Britain—that the apparent arduousness of the construction was intentional, not accidental, a kind of proto-nationalization. 

Researchers at the Landscape and Perception Project at the Royal College of Art suggest a simpler idea. When struck, they say, stones from that part of Wales sound like a bell. 

“The percentage of the rocks on the Carn Menyn ridge are ringing rocks, they ring just like a bell,” Paul Deveraux, an investigator with the project, told the BBC

“In fact, we have had percussionists who have played proper percussion pieces off the rocks,” he added.

They sound so much like a bell, in fact, that churches in the region used them as their bells until the 1700s. A nearby village is named Maenclochog, meaning ringing stones. 

Researchers test the Welsh 'bluestones' at Stonehenge. (Royal College of London)

When the English government gave the team permission to test the rocks at Stonehenge, they expected disappointing results. Many of the rocks have been weathered by millennia of elements, and others are lodged seemingly too far in the ground to make any sound.

So it was to their pleasant surprise when a number of rocks, when struck, made distinctive (if muted) sounds.” They judged that enough made sounds such that once, they all would have rung, and furthermore saw marks on the rocks that might—upon further forensic testing—prove to be strike marks. 

In other words, Stonehenge seems to be made of ringing rocks. Deveraux’s team thinks that the rocks were chosen for this exact feature.

If you’re building a monument, why not build it out of stones that speak? 

“We don't know of course that they moved them because they rang, but ringing rocks are a prominent part of many cultures,” English archeologist Tim Darvill told the BBC. “Soundscapes of pre-history are something we're really just beginning to explore.”

It’s true. Academics and researchers are just beginning to think about what many historic places—both geographic and architectural—sounded like. Just three years ago, architects and humanists teamed up to get a sense for what John Donne’s church sermons would have sounded like at the time. A 2007 study tried to capture the sound of prehistoric settlements in the south of India, accounting not only for music-making but also for loud crop-snapping and axe-clanging. 

And this study, in fact, was conducted by Landscape and Perception Project, an attempt to understand the land in sensory ways. It’s that sensory understanding—and how it shaped what people thought about their building materials—that may help us understand just why they built what they built.

Ringing rocks, by the way, are a feature of many cultures—including some of our own. If you’re in America, you only have to travel to as far as Pennsylvania or Montana to hear fields of resounding rocks, which—just as the Welsh boulders do—chime when struck.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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