Issues of Musical Behaviour and the Performative at Prehistoric Monuments 

John Crewdson

A behavioural approach is concerned with unravelling our thoughts and actions and explaining why we think and act as we do. We generally think about, and do things, because we believe (subconsciously or consciously) that they profit us in some way. For instance, people create, listen and perform music for many beneficial reasons. Musical engagement can be an aesthetically pleasing, mood-optimising experience, and can also provide social benefits for the individual and group. These qualities may explain the apparent ubiquity of music-making, particularly when people gather for cultural and religious events. 

But what happens when people are absent? The monumental sites of the Neolithic and Bronze Age represent enduring traces of human behaviour in the past. These places are not simply the outcomes of behaviour, but arenas where activities took place. Monuments provided, and continue to provide, an interactive context for peoples’ thoughts and actions; environments that affect and even orchestrate social and aesthetic experience. To enrich our understanding of these sites it is crucial that we attend to the interactive relationship between people and monument both in the past and in the present.

There are a number of ways in which a monumental space can influence behaviour. When music-making, for example, tactus might be influenced by the echo times of the performance area. A choice of pitch might be influenced by strong resonant frequencies. The sound-proofing qualities of enclosed chambers may provide a silent palette against which the subtleties of instrumental and vocal sound are heard more clearly allowing fine tuning and development. Since it is the monuments themselves which provide the experiential context for these behaviours, measuring their acoustic features provides access to aspects of ancient auditory experience. If acoustic data can illuminate the reactive qualities of the monument, a behavioural interpretation of this data might supply insight into human interaction with these features.

For example, a key behavioural idea is that people are most concerned with experiences that convey the intentions of other people. Much of human intention is communicated through speech. This suggests we should be particularly mindful of how monumental sites acoustically mediate speech and other forms of vocalisation. This is a possibility that I have explored, in collaboration with Aaron Watson, at House 1 in the Neolithic village of Skara Brae, Orkney. The house contains a stone-built ‘dresser’ with a stone ‘seat’ positioned in front of it. Initial results suggest that resonant cavities within the dresser enhance speech by acting as an ‘amplifier’ for sounds in the range of the fundamental frequencies of the human voice. While the dresser in House 1 was used to display special artefacts, might it also have acted to exaggerate the voice of an individual seated before it, thereby emphasising their power and prestige?

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