Musical Stones

When I was hiking on Exuma Cay in the Bahamas, I came across a number of flat stones marked with chalk circles.  On top, inviting the passer-by to experiment, were two oblong striker stones.  The flat stones were musical.  The chalk circles marked the best places to hit the stones for clear tones covering most of a scale.  This is exactly what ancient people found – unexpected musical stones.  Except where I found them entertaining, they found them endowed with magical power.

Ringing Stones

Tanzania has several ringing stones.  One is a free-standing stone in Serengeti National Park that’s been struck so many times it has cup-marks in different spots.  Its use by the native people is unclear though it might have part of rain-making ceremonies.

Discovering the cup-marks as musical place holders brings something new to the discussion of cup-marks, which are easily the oldest and most common form of rock art in the world.

music Tanzania rock, Wayne Jones

Photo by Wayne Jones

Ringing Rocks County Park, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, USA gives another interesting example. The most famous part of this park is the seven-acre field of boulders that sing. The Lenape Indians considered the area sacred, but it was acquired by the Penn family in 1737.  In 1895, Abel Haring, president of the Union National Bank, purchased the land.  Apparently he also saw some extraordinary value in the parcel; he refused an offer to sell the land to manufacturer who wanted to quarry the blocks.  Haring eventually donated the land to Bucks County.  The protected area now includes 128 acres.

Interestingly, the Lenape Indians left marks on the singing stones (See photo, right) much like those in other parts of the world.music Ringing Rocks, Lenape

Southeastern Pennsylvania and central New Jersey are home to over a dozen ringing rock boulder fields.  While some have been obliterated by development, others have been carefully protected and now enjoy a community of supporters and researchers.

 

Gongs

Single stones have been used as gongs all over the world.  Usually, they are suspended and struck to make a single loud sound. Occasionally, multiple gongs are used at once, as shown in the photo from Ethiopia (below).

music Ethiopian_Lithophones_with_Stand,_Monastery_of_Na’akuto_La’ab_ by A. Davey

Lithophones

Lithophones are larger versions of exactly what I found in the Bahamas: a series of stones, either balanced on a frame or suspended from a bar, that produce specific tones when struck.  It’s the ancestor of our xylophones and marimbas.

Interestingly, many ancient sounding stone sites also include rock art images.   In 1956, archaeologist Bernard Fagg noted that rock gongs in Birnin Kudu, Nigeria also had cave paintings nearby and guessed that the two were linked in some way.  M. Catherine Fagg has continued the research at many sites world-wide.

In Azerbaijan, the caves of Gobustan include a rock which emits a deep resonating sound when struck.  Rock art images in the cave depict dancers.

India has many ancient sites that include ringing stones.  In Sangana-Kupgal, hundreds of petroglypmusic Kupgal 2hs decorate ringing rocks.  When the rocks are struck near the carvings, the stones emit a loud, musical tone.  (See photos, left and below)music Kupgal

 

Some of the bigest lithophones come from VietNam, where the instrument still enjoys considerable popularity.   In 1949, a French archaeologist named Georges Condominas came across a set of 11 tuned rocks, which he took to be very old, in the central highlands where the M’nong people, originally from Malaysia, lived.  Condominas took the stones back to France, and they now live in the Musee de l’homme in Paris.

Vietnamese lithophone

As it turns out, the area is rich in lithophones, and their popularity has spread throughout the country.  You can now listen to quite lively and tuneful performances.  My favorite is on YouTube, at     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCHno2kftVU.

Stonehenge

Stonehenge photo by Angeles Mosquera

Photo by Angeles Mosquera

Perhaps the largest and most famous lithophone of all is Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England.  According to recent research, about five thousand years ago people moved the giant bluestones, weighing about four tons each, at least 140 miles from a site in Wales to their current home on Salisbury Plain.  We have little information about these people, their reason for undertaking this Herculean task, or their plans for the stones once they’d reached the plain.  Most research on Stonehenge has concentrated on its astronomical features, including the stones’ alignment with the solstice.  However Stonehenge may well have been more than a visual wonder.  In recent experiments, British archaeologists found the stones have a distinct ring, not thud, when hit with a hammerstone, and that each stone has a different tone.  They described the sounds as something like wooden or metal bells, which brings up the idea of church bells and all of their different functions in an area.  Indeed, the Welsh village of Maenclochog (translated as Stone Bells) used Bluestones as church bells up until the 1700’s.  Marks on the Stonehenge bluestones indicate they were struck repeatedly, though we do not know the reason.

Dr. Rupert Till, an archaeoacoustics expert, maintained that based on his experiments, Stonehenge would have had extraordinary acoustics that included overlapping echoes.  He suggests listeners could have achieved a trance state by listening to music played within the circle.

Stalactites and Stalagmites

Some cave formations are also emit sounds when struck.  Their location within a cave serves to amplify the sound.  The Great Stalacpipe Organ in Luray Caverns, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia (USA) is a perfect example.  As early as 1878, the musical properties of the stalactites in Luray Caverns were well known.  Guides played folk tunes on the stalactites to the delight of visitors.  The 1906 postcard from Luray Cavers shows people playing the stalactites with hammers.

music Organ_and_Chimes_-_Caverns_of_Luray_Va_1906_postcard

The resemblance of a row of 37 tonal stalactites to a pipe organ inspired Leland W. Sprinkle to build the Great Stalactite Organ in 1955, which now uses a keyboard and a series of rubber mallets that strike the stalactites.  While this is certainly a commercial venture, it’s a modern reflection of the same awe the ancient people must have felt when they heard the amazing sounds.  It’s worth listening to one of many YouTube recordings of the organ being played in the cave. A recording of “Moonlight Sonata” is included in the reading list.

Echoes

Perhaps because ancient people did not understand sound the same way we do, they attributed special powers to the stones themselves.  Some singing stones gave voice to the spirits or the ancestors.  The most powerful of these were the places where spirits spoke back through echoes.  Sound-reflecting surfaces were often viewed as animate beings or as abodes of spirits.

Echo singing

In some cases, magic singing, which is singing with the echoes, was practiced, a skill which indicated a supernatural power.  This practice was carried over into medieval churches, where echoes were explained as accompaniment by a choir of angels.

The sound of water and rock

Ancient people often viewed boundary sites as especially powerful.

music Glosa rock art, Finland

In Finland, rock art has often been associated with water features. (See photo, above)  Antii Lahelma, Finnish rock art expert, has noted in her paper “Hearing and Touching Rock art: Finnish rock paintings and the non-visual” that most of the rock paintings she’s studied were associated with ancient water courses.  She claims the rock art images are more than visual, that they celebrate the meeting of worlds, the sound of water on rock.  They need to be touched and heard as well as seen.

In Alta Vista, Mexico, Tecoxquin people still visit ancient petroglyph sites as water’s edge to leave offerings. Note the petroglyph on the rock on the left.

music rock art Mexico

 

We are limited in our understanding of ancient sites by our tendency to put perception in rather clearly limited boxes.  It’s art or it’s music or it’s religion.  Increasingly, what we’re finding is a world that encompassed all of those things seamlessly.

 

 

Sources and interesting reading:

“Ancient Indians made ‘rock music,’ BBC News. 19 March 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/3520384.stm

Amos, Jonathan.  “Stonehenge design was ‘inspired by sounds’” BBC News, 5 March 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-17073206

Fagg, M. Catherine.  Rock Music.  Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, 1997.

“The Great Stalacpipe Organ,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Stalacpipe_Organ

“The Great Stalacpipe Organ: Moonlight Sonata” (video) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsKUUn29tSs

“Historical,” from Lithophones.com, a comprehensive list of countries with known musical stones.  http://www.lithophones.com/index/php?id=2

Keating, Fiona. “Scientists recreate ancient ‘xylophone’ made of prehistoric stones,” IB Times, 15 March 2014, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/scientists-recreate-ancient-xylophone-made-prehistoric-stones-1440455

“Kupgal petroglyphs,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kupgal_petroglyphs

“La Pietra Sonante,” Pietro Pirelli, musician (video).  Powerful ringing sound! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5Q5bW3bYMM

Lahelma, Antii.  “Hearing and Touching Rock Art: Finnish rock paintings and the non-visual,” Academia. http://www.academia.edu/2371980/hearing_and_touching_rock_art_ Finnish_rock_paintings_and_the_non-visual/  A very interesting paper.

LeRoux, Mariette and Laurent Banguet, “Cavemen’s ‘rock’ music makes a comeback,” The Telegraph, 17 March 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/10702186/Cavemens-rock-music-makes-a-comeback.html

“Litofonos.” Piedras que hablan…con musica.  (video) www.youtube.com/watch?v+qY1L–irW70

“Musical Stone, Namibia,” http://www.namibian.org/travel/archaeology/musical-stone.html

“A Mystifying Experience: The Alta Vista Petroglyphs,” A Gypsy’s Love blog, agypsyslove.com/2001/07 – photo of Alta Vista glyphs

“Ringing Rocks,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ringing_rocks

“Ringing Rocks: A Geological and Musical Marvel,” It’s Not that Far: Great places to see and things to do near Eastern Pennsylvania, 10 September 2010, http://www.itsnothtatfar.com/2010/09/ringing-rocks/

“Rock gong,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_gong

Schultz, Colin.  “Stonehenge’s Stones Can Sing,” Smithsonian.com.  10 March 2014.  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news-stonehenges-stones-can-sing-180950034/?no-ist

“A short introduction to musical stone,” from Lithophones.com.  http://www.lithophones.com/index/php?id=45

“The Sky at Night,” BBC 2-minute video about drums at a model of Stonehenge, 5 July 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01ccpsp

“Swakop River, Namibia (video – a little windy but interesting) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrlPxT4MS8.

Tellinger, Michael.  “Stone Xylophone.”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6aG-e7zGq3Y

Tellinger, Michael.  “Stones that ring like bells.”   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uX2P8utjk3A

Waller, Steven J.  “Archaeoacoustics: A Key Role of Echoes at Utah Rock Art Sites,” Utah Rock Art, Volume 24

Waller, Steven J. “Rock Art Acoustics” – a very extensive collection of information about sites and research.  https://sites.google.com/site/rockartacoustics/

Solstice and Equinox

Up here in the Great Lakes region, spring arrives, at least according to the calendar, on March 20 this year.  More specifically, the vernal equinox arrives (autumnal to those of you in the Southern Hemisphere).  Few people today care about this celestial event, but ancient people cared very deeply, so deeply they traced the exact moment it happened by marking it in stone.

You can follow it too.  All you need to do is look at the rising run each day from a fixed point.  Note where the sun rises.  If there is a building in the way, note where the sun rises in relation to the building.  If it’s a hill or a tree, note that position.  As the days go by, you’ll see the spot where the sun rises change.  If you keep track, you’ll see the rising sun location follows a certain path along the eastern horizon.   Then one day you’ll see the rising sun stop its forward motion.  That moment when the sun seems to stop and change direction is a solstice (sol = sun, stice = stop), a sun-stop.

If you keep following the sunrises, you’ll see a progression back along the same path on the horizon until it once again seems to stop.  That’s the other solstice.

sunrise-by-season

If you followed the sunsets each of these days, you’d find an equal swing from north to south and back again.  Burlington, Vermont erected an “Earth Clock,” a modern answer to the ancient circles of stones.  They’ve even provided blueprints for other communities that would like to build their own “henge.”  The University of Massachusetts created a “Sunwheel” that marks the solstices, equinoxes, and moon cycles (diagram).

University of Massachusetts sunwheel diagram

While the far points mark the solstices, the mid-points in these swings are the equinoxes (equi =same, nox = night), where the length of the day and night are the same.  In the northern hemisphere, we  will have the spring equinox around March 21, the summer solstice around June 21, the fall equinox around September 22, and the winter solstice around December 21.

Many ancient structurMound 72 woodhenge at Cahokiaes celebrate exactly this cycle.  Stonehenge and many other circles of standing stones or wooden posts, like the woodhenge at Cahokia Mounds in the photo, are aligned to mark the solstice points.

 

The Maya E-group, a common architectural feature in Lowland Maya sites, is believed to mark both the solstice points and the equinoxes  (See diagram).

solstice Sharer-E-Group

Unlike modern people, who see the celestial events as mechanical, predictable, and fairly unimportant, ancient people saw them as terribly important parts of their lives.  The changes in the heavens caused the changes on earth: the end of winter, the coming of spring, the rebirth of nature.  But without human help, the motion of the heavens could cease or change, causing ruin and death for all the beings on earth.   Important changes, such as the solstices and equinoxes, required recognition and participation, often in the form of rituals and sacrifice.

While we don’t usually sacrifice humans or animals to ensure the change of the season anymore, we often engage in ritual behavior associated with important holidays that fall on or near the solstices and equinox.

Vernal Equinox – in North America, March 20, 2014

During the vernal equinox, the sun shines directly on the Equator, and the day and night are equal length (12 hours each). It falls on the mid-point of the swing between the equinoxes.

The Vernal Equinox marks the beginning of the New Year in many cultures.  Traditionally, spring is associated with rebirth and fertility, often symbolized by the egg and the rabbit.  Modern versions include the Easter Bunny, which (curiously) lays eggs and leaves candy for children.

The Maya pyramid called El Castillo at Chichen Itza (photo) is famous for the Snake of Sunlight that courses along the stairway on the Vernal Equinox.  Excellent videos of the event are available on YouTube. Scholars have debated why it was so important for the Maya and other ancient people to mark this moment – to celebrate it in their monuments. 
 Some say the people needed to know when to plant and harvest, but they would have known that from many signs, just as you would know the change of season froElCastillo, Chichen Itzam your immediate environment.  Around here, you could see skunk cabbage pushing up through the last snow, red-wing blackbirds returning, hear wood frogs singing.  Your dirt road would turn into a mass of ice and mud.  Your dog would shed.  You wouldn’t need a stone monument to tell you spring was happening.   But if you believed that you needed to help spring arrive, a large, impressive monument would be very important as a focal point for the ritual of bringing in the change.

Easter, the Christian feast celebrating the triumph of Jesus Christ over death, falls on a date determined by the Vernal Equinox, specifically the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox.

The Summer Solstice in North America, June 21, 2014

The June Solstice is one of the two sun-stops in the path of the sunrises (and sunsets).  In the Northern Hemisphere, it marks the longest day of the year; in the Southern Hemisphere, the shortest.  Festivals in Scandinavia celebrate the day of endless light, the Midnight Sun.  Ancient Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic people celebrated with wild parties and bonfires. In ancient China, it was the festival of the Earth and female/yin forces.  For the ancient Greeks, it marked the first day of the year.

Medicine Wheel, Wyoming

The Medicine Wheel (photo), set high on a mountain in Wyoming, is designed to mark the Summer Solstice.  Built around 1200, it is still considered a sacred site by American Indians in the area.  The photo shows the sunset on the longest day of the year.  Many researchers feel this was one of several installations in the area, each of which marked one particular moment in the turning of the year.

 

Stonehenge, the great circle of standing stones in England, has become a popular gathering place for people celebrating the Summer Solstice, though the site may have had many purposes, including honoring the dead during the Winter Solstice.  Over sixty cremated remains were discovered inside the inner circle.  The giant stone trilithon frames the Midwinter solstice sunset.

However, the revelers are not wrong in choosing this spot to mark the June solstice.  Archaeologist Parker Pearson, who has been working at the site, pointed out the avenue, discovered in 2008, that leads out of Stonehenge, built over a natural rock ledge.  Next to this ledge, pits were dug 10,000 years ago to hold a line of posts.  This feature, at least 4,000 years older than the familiar circle of giant stones, points directly to the spot where the sun rises on the midsummer solstice.Stonehenge

Celebrations at Stonehenge may also have been musical affairs.  The bluestone used to construct the famous henge makes loud and varied sounds, like gongs, bells, and drums, when struck, an early rock concert, if you will.  Some researchers believe these sonic qualities were one of the reasons ancient people dragged the giant stones 200 miles from Wales to Stonehenge. Researchers say the sounds could have been heard half a mile away.

Autumnal Equinox in North America, September 22, 2014

The September Equinox falls at the same midpoint as the April Equinox – the halfway point in the sun’s path across the horizon at the moment it rises.  Like the Vernal (spring) Equinox, the day and night are the same length.sun dagger stone, Chaco

The famous Sun Dagger on Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, built at least 1000 years ago, provided a different way to mark the solstices and equinoxes.  In 1977, an artist recording rock art in the area noticed three rock slabs leaning against a cliff.  Whether they were placed exactly there or someone noticed them there is not known.  But researchers soon realized that the spirals carved on the cliff face were very carefully placed to take advantage of the shafts of light falling between the stones.  At the summer solstice, sunlight passing between the rock slabs would fall directly across the center of the larger spiral.  During the Equinoxes, the dagger would fall between the center of the spiral and the edge.  At the Winter Solstice, two daggers would appear, one on each edge of the large spiral.  Unfortunately, visitors to the site caused some damage and the site is now closed to the public.

Harvest festivals are common around the Equinox.

The Winter Solstice, December 21, 2014

By far the most dangerous of the events in the sun cycle was the shortest day of the year, a time when darkness far outweighed light.  Ancient people feared the light would not return.  To ensure it did, they kept careful vigil, especially on the night of the winter solstice and the following day.  The passage tomb at Newgrange, Ireland, built more than 5,000 years ago, features a special roofbox opening that allows light to shine along the inner passage at sunrise on morning of the Winter Solstice.  The light illuminates a stone basin below intricate carved spirals, eye shapes, and disks. The photo shows how the site looked in 1905.  It’s now a very popular tourist site.

Newgrange, 1905 photo

Maeshowe, on the Orkney Islands in the north of Scotland, has a roofbox that admits a shaft of light from the Winter Solstice setting sun.

The Great Zimbabwe complex in sub-Saharan Africa may have served a similar purpose.  Other sites in the Americas, Asia, Indonesia, and the Middle East may have also marked this important day.  In Iran, people observed Yalda by keeping vigil through the night and burning fires to help the sun battle the darkness.

We still want to light up the darkness, even if we’ve forgotten about the solstice.  We still celebrate the passing of the sun on its yearly course, but those celebrations are now submerged into our holidays: Easter, Christmas, Halloween, even Groundhog Day.  Because Groundhog Day falls halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox, we’ll always have six more weeks of winter, but the groundhog gives us a reason to party.

Happy Vernal Equinox!

Sources and interesting reading:

“Chart of 2014 equinox, solstice and cross quarter dates and times,” archaeoastronomy.com, http://www.archaeoastronomy.com/2014.html

“Chichen Itza Pyramid, the descent of the feathered serpent” (video) YouTube

“Customs and Holidays around the March Equinox” timeanddate.com, tyyp://wwwtimeanddate.com/calendar/march-equinox-traditions.html

“EarthClock measures hours, months, solstices and equinoxes,” Freethought Nation, July 29, 2011, http://freethoughtnation.com/earth-clock-measures-hours…

“Fajada Butte,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fajada_Butte

Griffiths, Sarah, and Amanda Williams, “Stonehenge was a prehistoric centre for rock music: Stones sound like bells, drums, and gongs when played,” Mail Online, Daily Mail (UK), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2515159/Why-Stonehenge-prehistoric-cent…

Hirst, K.Kris. “E-Group: Ancient Maya Building Complex,” About.com Archaeology, http://archaeology.about.com/od/mayaarchaeology/qt/E-Group.htm

“Huge Settlement Unearthed at Stonehenge Complex,” Science Daily, http://sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/01/070130191755.htm

“June Solstice’s Influence Across Cultures and Ages,” timeanddate.com, http://www.timeanddate/com/calendar/june-solstice-customs.html

“March Equinox: March 20, 2014,” timeanddate.com, http://www.timeanddate.comcalendar/march-equinox.html

“Newgrange,” Wikipedia http://ed.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newgrange

Odenwalk, Dr. Sten, “Ancient Astronomical Alignments,” Sun-Earth Day 2010: Ancient Mysteries, Future Discoveries, NASA, Godard Space Flight Center, http://sunearthday.nasa.gov/2011/articles

“Rock Art and Ancient Solar Energy,” Stanford Solar Center, http://solar-center.stanford.edu/folklore/rockart.html

“September Equinox Customs and Holidays,” timeanddate.com, http://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/september-equinox-customs.html\

“Stonehenge Revealed: Why Stones Were a ‘Special Place’” National Geographic Daily News, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130621

“Summer Solstice Traditions, History.com, June 18, 2013, http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/summer-solstice-traditions

“Winter Solstice – December 21,” http:www.crystalinks.com/wintersolstice.html

Young, Dr. Judith S., Department of Astronomy, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, “Moon teachings for the masses at the UMass Sunwheel and around the world: the major lunar standstills of 2006 and 2014-25,” http://www.umass.edu/sunwheel/pages/moonteaching.html