“The wind, playing upon the edifice, produced a booming tune, like the note of some gigantic one-stringed harp. No other sound came from it… Overhead something made the black sky blacker, which had the semblance of a vast architrave uniting the pillars horizontally. They entered carefully beneath and between; the surfaces echoed their soft rustle; but they seemed to be still out of doors…”
This atmospheric description of a “temple of the winds” comes from the dramatic climax of Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles. The setting is Stonehenge, arguably the most famous prehistoric monument of all. Its imposing ring of standing stones is visible for miles on Salisbury plain in southern England. On the day of the summer solstice its outlying “Heelstone” is exactly in line with rays of the rising sun. A more perfect example of the visual impact of an ancient monument would be hard to find.
Might we be missing here something that both Hardy and our prehistoric ancestors understood? Some archaeologists have begun to think so. They argue that sound effects were an important, perhaps even decisive, factor in how early humans chose and built their dwellings and sacred places. Caves that sing, Mayan temples that chirp, burial mounds that hum: they all add up to evidence that the aural, and not just the visual, determined the building codes of the past. But is that sound science?….