Stonehenge, the mysterious ancient stone circle constructed up to 5,000 years ago and still standing today in a field in southern central England, has long been believed by scientists to be a prehistoric monument to the sun. Or was it an ancient burial ground? Because the long-vanished civilization that built the awe-inspiring structure left no written history, the true purpose of Stonehenge remains a puzzle.
But a new study suggests a strange and even eerie new possibility that would explain not only why Stonehenge was built, but would also cast new light on prehistoric cave paintings, other, lesser-known stone monuments from the ancient world, and many other works of art created by early man.
Was Stonehenge constructed as an ancient sound studio, where ancient people came to hear the voices of gods, or of their dead ancestors?
Steven Waller, a California researcher, presented exactly that conclusion Thursday at the 168th meeting of the Acoustic Society of America in Indianapolis, Indiana.
"Many ancient cultures attributed thunder in the sky to 'hoofed thunder gods,'" Waller explained. "So it makes sense that the reverberation within the caves was interpreted as thunder and inspired paintings of those same hoofed thunder gods on cave walls."
Not only cave paintings, Waller said in his presentation, but Stonehenge and other stone structures were likely constructed specifically as echo chambers, because ancient people who had yet to understand principles of acoustics believed that echoes were voices that emanate from within caves and stones — voices of awesome gods and spirits of the dead.
"This theory is supported by acoustic measurements, which show statistically significant correspondence between the rock art sites and locations with the strongest sound reflection," the scientist said.
The positioning of the Stonehenge rocks was carefully designed to allow the greatest reflection of sound, allowing ancient visitors to the site to, they believed, communicate with spirits from beyond the grave, or even talk to gods when in the presence of the massive stones.
Waller tested his theory on blindfolded subjects in open fields, finding that under proper conditions, even modern human beings experienced auditory hallucinations when played certain sounds, believing the sounds emanated from inside of rocks or pillars, like those at Stonehenge.
Ancient mythology supports his belief that Stonehenge and similar ancient monuments were in fact sound studios where the spirit world communicated with the world of mortals.
"My theory that musical interference patterns served as blueprints for megalithic stone circles — many of which are called Pipers' Stones — is supported by ancient legends of two magic pipers who enticed maidens to dance in a circle and turned them all into stones," Waller told the conference.
Of course, even with Waller's surprising new theory, the true purpose of Stonehenge will never be known for sure — unless we really can communicate with the spirits of the long-dead worshippers who built the strange and awesome structure.