Hearing the Past through our ancestors’ ears

BBC Radio 4,

11 am, Monday September 12th, 2011. 

Imagine being able to eavesdrop on the sound of a ritual at Stonehenge four thousand years ago, or hear singing in the original Coventry Cathedral before it was bombed in 1940.

Broadcaster and Physicist, Professor Jim Al-Khalili investigates how latest research in acoustics is helping us to recreate authentic sounds of the past. It is changing the way we study history and experience tourist attractions. It is also helping us to improve the acoustic design of future buildings.

Jim discovers how architects of modern concert venues are learning lessons from the layout of Stonehenge. He also finds out how acoustic design goes far beyond just making our buildings sound good, in some cases it can save lives.

The research is bringing together a diverse group of scientists, engineers, sound archivists, museum curators and sound artists.

The initial project was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). This included the Acoustics and Music of British Prehistory Research Network described at http://AMBPNetwork.wordpress.com

‘Hearing the Past’ will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 11 am on Monday September 12th. The programme will also be available via the Radio 4 website (bbc.co.uk/radio4). The programme has also been selected as BBC Radio 4’s Documentary of the Week.

The Producer of the programme is Jane Reck.

Notes for Editors:

Contributors to the programme:

Dr Rupert Till, from the University of Huddersfield. Rupert works in the area of ‘archaeo-acoustics’, which concentrates on the sound of a site and how it would have been used in the past. He describes how he has been able to recreate the sound of a ritual at Stonehenge four thousand years ago. He also explains how the site’s acoustics are inspiring the design of modern outdoor concert venues.

Dr Damian Murphy, from the University of York. He is involved in acoustically recreating the sound of Coventry Cathedral before it was bombed in 1940.

Joe Savage, a curator at the National Railway Museum in York.  Joe is interested in the use of acoustics in a museum or heritage setting. The NRM is currently re-developing its station hall area and wants to make use of latest research into acoustics. They are planning to show visitors how a railway station operates twenty four hours a day and how that working pattern has changed over time.

Sebastien Jouan, an acoustic designer. Sebastien works for Arup, a global firm of designers, engineers, planners and building consultants. He explains how studying the acoustics of sites such as Stonehenge and pre-1940 Coventry Cathedral can help us design better sounding buildings from concert halls and airport terminals to schools, hospital operating theatres, homes and offices. Sebastien will also demonstrate, through recorded sounds how improving acoustics in public places can also save lives in emergency situations.

Richard Ranft, Head of the Sound Archive at the British Library in London. This is an invaluable source of recordings for museums and historic sites. Richard is also keen to encourage people to record sounds of the world around them now before we lose them forever.

Sound Artists Louise K. Wilson (based at the University of Huddersfield) and David Chapman. Their work has centred on the Falkland estate in Fife, sourcing and collecting historic sounds associated with this former royal hunting park

There is a concert on Friday 27th May in Edinburgh featuring multimedia, music, and live performances that explore the relationships between music and prehistory.

Full details at: http://palaeophonics.co.uk/

and http://palaeophonics.co.uk/stonehenge-ritual-sound/

This will includes a short digital film by Rupert Till, Andrew Taylor and Ertu Unver which features high quality renderings of a 3D model of Stonehenge, as it may have looked in prehistory. It also includes a soundtrack that recreates the sound of the space as one approaches it. The model is placed on accurate LIDAR laser scan ground data.


Artefact to Auditorium: aural agendas in the archaeology of prehistoric sound

Organised by

Paul Keene, Farès Moussa, Rupert Till and Simon Wyatt

(Partly supported by the AHRC ‘Beyond Text’ program) *

Theoretical Archaeology Group

32nd Annual Conference

University of Bristol

17th-19th December 2010


Call for Abstracts

The archaeology of prehistoric music has made a useful contribution to our understanding of prehistoric society.  But with few surviving musical artefacts or depictions and no manuscripts, the subject has been vulnerable to ‘open’ interpretations and cross-cultural analogies or stereotypes by archaeologists and researchers such as (palaeo-) musicologists or (palaeo-) psychologists and composers or performers who have been inspired by prehistory.  More creative and humanistic musical interpretations nevertheless have the power to inspire and unite people in contemporary society, whilst new scientific methods of reconstruction, such as archaeo-acoustics, can enlighten us about musical heritage and daily life in prehistoric society.

This session will explore the often complementary relationship between the ‘art’ and the ‘science’ of prehistoric sound and music.  It will question why prehistoric music reconstructions and compositions inspired by prehistory are represented in the manner and style we hear today.  What has led to the representation of prehistoric music; how do we understand the acoustic properties, tone and sound aesthetics of prehistoric instruments and performance spaces; how might we approach understanding the performative in prehistoric societies?; and why are particular forms of music and sound represented in classical and contemporary composition and performance rather than others?  In short, what are the knowledge sources, influences and constraints behind the music that is popularised as a reflection of prehistoric sound organisation and wider prehistoric society?

Papers and projects are invited which include one or more of the following:

  1. Provide a musical representation and an understanding of past soundscapes based on Archaeo-acoustic work, for example investigating or reconstructing the soundfields of archaeological sites;
  2. Examine the representations and the actual sounds available in different periods based on reconstructed models of excavated musical instruments;
  3. Provide a critical consideration of archaeologically inspired musical, compositional and performance structures or themes with a view to understanding how particular sounds, music traditions and performance practises are (or not) popularly associated with the distant past;
  4. Can demonstrate, intercept, modify, redefine or challenge the resulting insights through their own proposed compositional and/or multimedia practise and performance.  This may consider the importance of ethnomusicology’s notion of “Bimusicality” for a true reflection of musical performance;
  5. Interrogate how their methods and approaches may make a direct contribution to a contemporary audience’s reception, not only within an academic discursive forum, but also to a wider public, maybe with consideration of cognitive/experiential or political themes;
  6. Provide demonstrations of model instruments, perfomative practises or inspired performances, which may be included as a part of the session or informal sessions during breaks.

*AHRC Beyond Text funding opportunities

Funds are available to potential contributors who are interested in presenting a paper at the Bristol Session of TAG as a theoretical basis for a follow-up public performance event and workshop in Edinburgh in April/May 2011.  Projects must involve at least one PhD candidate and must particularly address points 2-3 for the TAG session paper and points 4-5 for the performance event in Edinburgh. Travel and accommodation costs to Bristol and Edinburgh for up to two collaborators and honorariums for up to three performers per project may be available for a total of up to five projects.

To submit a proposal, send an abstract of 2-300 words as a .doc file attachment to Simon Wyatt: Simon.Wyatt@bristol.ac.uk by 20th September 2010.

The Pioneer Podcast

This podcast describes the I Hear Too project, which discusses the interaction of sound and heritage more widely than just in prehistory.

Following on from a number of meetings funded by the AHRC/EPSRC Science and Heritage scheme, this network is intending to continue working on the 4 projects below. If you would like to participate in one of these projects, please leave a comment on this website, or email Rupert Till – R.Till@hud.ac.uk

1. Rollwright Stones Group Analysis

The network suggested launching a project to analyse the acoustics of the Rollwright Stones. A project event would be held to which as many people as possible would be invited. The idea would be to get as many as possible different individuals or groups to analyse the acoustics of the site, in order to get as much information as possible, and to be able to compare and aggregate different the results of different methodological approaches.

2. Research Methodology and Best Practice

Please look at the methodology section on the right hand side. The group is continuing to develop documents discussing best practice and methodology. Contributions are needed to this discussion, please join in.

3. Anechoic recordings

A project is needed that would create a set of anechoic recordings suitable for use within archaeoacoustic studies. These recordings would be dB rated at set levels.

4. Development of ISO standards

A group is needed to develop a set of ISO standard testing methodologies for archeoacoustic projects. This would create perhaps 3 standards that would range from the most simple to advanced research techniques. This research would also develop a benchmarking paper.

In Addition

Major Grant Applications for the AHRC/EPSRC Science and Heritage Research Programme

A number of researchers from within this network, applied for the major grant scheme. Results of funding are not yet available, but there may be opportunities to participate in any project which receives funding. Watch this site for details.

A group associated with this network, but principally aligned to the I Hear Too network also applied for funding.

Post-doctoral research fellowship within the AHRC/EPSRC Science and Heritage Research Programme

At least two participants in the AMBP Network who presented at the public symposia submitted applications to the post-doctoral research fellowship scheme. Results of their funding applications are not yet available, but we will aim to publish details of their projects if they are funded.

A number of researchers associated with this project are continuing their own ongoing projects. There may be opportunities to get involved in these projects, check the links at the top of the page for details.

Acoustics and Music of British Prehistory Research Cluster

Second Symposium – Birley Room, Hatfield College, University of Durham

Wednesday 2nd September 2009

Directions can be found at:


10.00am            Arrive coffee/tea

10.30am            Keynote speaker – Steven Waller – Rock Art and Archaeoacoustics

11.00am            Advantages and disadvantages of acoustic measurement and

                             modelling approaches by Damian Murphy, Audiolab, University of York

11.30                  Introduction to best practice and methodology

12.00                  Discussion in 3 interdiscipinary groups             

1.00pm              Lunch (provided)

1.30pm              Informal demonstration of various prehistoric instrument models by Simon

                            Wyatt and Graeme Lawson

2.00pm             Multimedia artwork presentation by Aaron Watson and John Crewdson

2.30pm             Reports from discussions

3.00pm             Discussion of Future Plans

4pm                    end

Expenses forms are available for travel and other reasonable expenses, all those attending can claim reasonable travel expenses, as long as you provide receipts/invoice and/or mileage details.

Attendance and lunch are free of charge.

To reserve a place please contact Rupert Till:  R.Till@hud.ac.uk

Details of the Science and Heritage programme Postdoctoral fellowhips
have been announced. 

please see