Stonehenge was built as a dance arena for prehistoric "samba-style" raves, according to a study of the acoustics of the 5,000-year-old stone circle.
Using cutting-edge technology, Rupert Till, an expert in acoustics and music technology at Huddersfield University in northern England, discovered that Stonehenge's megaliths reflect sound perfectly, making the stone circle an ideal setting for listening to repetitive trance rhythms.
Till and colleague Bruno Fazenda first carried out mathematical analysis of the archaeological site to make predictions of its acoustic effects. Their aim was to look at Stonehenge as it was thousands of years ago, rather than limit their work to the remaining acoustic properties of the semi-collapsed site.
"We visited a full-size concrete replica of Stonehenge at Maryhill in Washington state. The model was built as a war memorial and has all original stones intact, so it was possible to carry out some acoustic tests," Till told Discovery News.
Using specialized acoustics software, the researchers compared results from their own calculations, computer simulations, and tests conducted at the concrete Stonehenge replica.
"Finally, we were able to create examples of what the space sounded like." Till said. "Echoes in the space indicate that there might have been rhythmic music played."
Till speculated that most likely Stonehenge's music consisted of a simple rhythm played in time to the echoes in the space, at the same tempo as the echo, or at a multiple of it.
"This would be at a tempo of about 160 beats per minute, a fast tempo. It is interesting that this is the tempo of fast trance music, of samba...It is at the top of the range of musical tempos. It is also at the top end of the range of the human heartbeat, the same as the heart might beat if you were doing really vigorous exercise, or dancing really energetically," Till said.
Located in the county of Wiltshire, at the center of England's densest complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments, Stonehenge consists of the remnants of a mysterious circle of large standing stones built between 3000 B.C. and 1600 B.C.
The prehistoric monument has long baffled archaeologists, who still argue over its original purpose, with two main theories taking shape in recent years.
"One is that it was a healing space, the other that it was a place of the dead. Both theories imply ritual activity. And rituals almost always involve music as a key element," Till said.
According to Till, who has also reproduced the sound of someone speaking or clapping in Stonehenge 5,000 years ago, particular spots at the site produce unusual acoustic effects, suggesting that perhaps a priest or a shaman may have stood there, leading the ritual.
Till's research ties in with previous studies carried out by Aaron Watson, an artist and archaeologist who specializes in the study of Neolithic monuments.
Watson's research strongly suggested that the monument's builders knew how to direct the movement of sound. Indeed, the stones at Stonehenge amplify higher-frequency sounds, such as the human voice, while lower-frequency sounds such as drums pass around the stones and can be heard for some distance.
The effect would have been a "dynamic multisensory experiences," according to Watson.
"An audience outside the monument could not have clearly seen or heard events within, perhaps creating a sense of mystery. In contrast, an audience occupying the confined interior of Stonehenge would have heard amplified sounds," Watson wrote on his Web site.
© 2012 Discovery Channel