A recent report for BBC Radio 4 by By David Sillito, a Media and Arts Correspondent, may shed light on one of Stonehenge’s oldest legends. A curious reference in the Thomas Hardy novel “Tess of the D’Urbevilles“, in which the mysterious stone circle is said to possess a curious ‘musical hum’, appears to be suggestive of another of the monument’s many original uses; as well as holding the key to the earliest written reference to the prehistoric henge.
According to the twelfth century historian Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose “Historia Regum Britanniae” or “History of the Kings of Britain”, written in the century directly after the Norman Conquest, is the earliest surviving written work on the Ancient British monarchy, the stone circle was originally called “The Giant’s Dance“. A title that would tend to associate it with some sort of percussion or music. So far though, study of the Archaeology of Stonehenge has been unable to offer us any proper explanation as to why this should be so, until now.
As revealed in the BBC report, Dr Rupert Till of the University of Huddersfield has ‘created a virtual sound tour of Stonehenge as it would have sounded with all the stones in place’ with ‘the help of some ancient instruments.’ The purpose of this experiment appears not only to confirm Hardy’s previously referred to assertion, but would also be suggestive of there having been some sort of definite musical aspect to the mysterious rituals that were once performed there.
We know from archaeological artifacts such as the Gundestrup Cauldron that in Celtic times a wide range of instruments appear to have been used as an integral part of the religious rituals of the period. The further back we go in time, however, the more scant the hard evidence becomes. Dr. Till’s scientifically based research on the other hand appears to provide a completely different approach to the subject, thanks primarily to new technology.
In addition to developing an app which will enable the user to mask out unwanted sounds, such as those that emanate from the nearby A303, his attempts to recreate the soundscape of 3,000 years ago have been further enhanced by his recreation of certain ancient instruments which archaeology has demonstrated were actually used at the time. These have included bone flutes, animal horns and percussion instruments such as the one he uses in a recent demonstration filmed by the BBC.
Dr Till’s previous research in Spain and elsewhere has led him to conclude that there is extensive evidence that the prehistoric inhabitants of Western Europe had a definite interest in acoustic environments. His theory has been supported by the archaeological excavation of a number of ancient instruments from various sites deep underground. Archaeologists also appear to have found ‘human markings on certain “musical” stalactites’ in some of the subterranean sites that he has previously visited. ‘Strike the stalactites in the right way’, he told the BBC, ‘and they give off a deep resonant note and can be played like a huge vertical xylophone.’
But what of the legendary Giants whose supposed dance may once have been enacted here? Is it a reference to the Stones themselves, or is there another explanation waiting for Dr. Till or somebody else to uncover?
Having begun his career as a junior researcher at Thames Television in London, he has written for a wide range of publications including 'The Brighton Reporter', 'Durham Town and Country', 'The Brighton and Hove People' and 'The New Celtic Review'. As an exhibited film maker he has been a regular contributor and award nominee at the Portobello Film Festival in London; and has seen his work shown at the annual London Film Makers' Convention at the prestigious Round House Theatre.
As well as receiving enthusiastic reviews from BBC Radio 4 and others for his book on Sir Walter Scott, his pioneering work as an Underground Film Maker on the fledgeling Goa Trance Scene has set him in a field of his own amongst many of his contemporaries; both in the UK, where he presently resides, and elsewhere. Current projects presently in hand include a book centred on his 'Legendary London' series of documentary films, which have stimulated an enthusiastic response from the likes of Glenda Jackson and others; and a novel set in France and Edinburgh during the eighteenth century Scottish Enlightenment.
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