Stonehenge was lauded for holding "prehistoric raves" by the media this week. Photo © Richard Moss / Culture24
The heritage of Stonehenge was given a twist earlier this week by the national media. The spiritual history of the grounds, from burials to healing space, is an oft-observed legend, but a report from a university professor saw hacks redub the site “Ravehenge”.
“It has undoubtedly been put to the press in an eye-catching way with the use of the word rave and all that sort of thing,” laughs Dave Batchelor, archaeologist at Stonehenge, reflecting on the report by Huddersfield University’s Dr Rupert Till.
In conclusions which were far from revelatory, Till used a computer model of Stonehenge and a concrete replica in America’s Washington State to recreate the sounds of the space 5,000 years ago, adjudging it to have possessed perfect acoustics.
The uneven ground at the site would have made building difficult, highlighting how important Stonehenge was to communities thousands of years ago. Photo © Richard Moss / Culture 24
“Anyone can book to go to the site outside of opening hours and recording the acoustics isn’t that difficult,” says Batchelor, who gets so many similar enquiries that keeping track of specific experiments is difficult.
“The use of music, drums and those types of instruments is well known from archaeological records going back tens of thousands of years to Paleolithic cave art. People were making simple flutes and drums out of animal and bird longbones and things like that.
“I think what is wrong in the way it’s being reported is that the purpose of Stonehenge was not effectively as a concert hall or for music. What was going on at Stonehenge involved instruments, voice, and all those sort of things.”
The reasons why prehistoric communities built the site in around 2,500 BC are impossible to define, not least because it was created before the introduction of a written language. Batchelor knows it must have been an important plot for such an immense construction effort to have been designed on uneven land with stones transported hundreds of miles.
"It was obviously an incredibly special place, because why did they bring stones from south west Wales to that particular point?" he ponders. "If you go to Stonehenge it’s not on a flat piece of land, which made building difficult, so that piece of land must have been incredibly important to them to say ‘we’re doing it here’, and then you consider the amount of effort they must have undertaken to build it.
“The fundamental thing about Stonehenge is that we will never know what it was for - we will never know why they built it where they did and all of those questions. There’s no way of understanding why people chose that particular form, because that wasn’t recorded in any form other than verbally. What we can do is measure, photograph and record it and then make fairly consensual conclusions."
After a couple of archaeological projects last year, organisers have turned their attentions to the faintly thorny issue of a new visitor centre, which was tendered for public consultation by English Heritage last year. An announcement on an interim location is due imminently, comprising a solution until work takes place on the roads surrounding Stonehenge.
“I think a decision is due any time this month,” says Batchelor. "For every point in favour of something there are downsides. As with all things Stonehenge, nothing is clear cut.”