A woman soaks up the sun after its rise at the ancient stone circle of Stonehenge, in southern England, as access to the site is given to druids, New Age followers and members of the public on the annual Winter Solstice, on Dec. 21. Doomsday hour is here and so still are we. According to legend, the ancient Mayans' long-count calendar ends at midnight Thursday, ushering in the end of the world. Didn't happen. "This is not the end of the world. This is the beginning of the new world," Star Johnsen-Moser, an American seer, said at a gathering of hundreds of spiritualists at a convention center in the Yucatan city of Merida, an hour and a half from the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza.
Kieran Doherty / Reuters
A reveler, dressed as a unicorn, celebrates the sunrise during the winter solstice at Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in southern England, on Dec. 21. The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, and the longest night of the year.
Matt Cardy / Getty Images
People cheer as the sun rises as druids, pagans and revelers celebrate the winter solstice at Stonehenge on Dec. 21, in Wiltshire, England. Predictions that the world will end today as it marks the end of a 5,125-year-long cycle in the ancient Maya calendar, encouraged a larger than normal crowd to gather at the famous historic stone circle to celebrate the sunrise closest to the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year.
Kieran Doherty / Reuters
Druid Arthur Pendragon hugs a reveler during the winter solstice at Stonehenge on Salisbury plain in southern England, on Dec. 21. The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, and the longest night of the year.
AP reports -- As the sun rose from time zone to time zone across the world on Friday, there was still no sign of the world's end — but that didn't stop those convinced that a 5,125-year Mayan calendar predicts the apocalypse from gathering at some of the world's purported survival hot spots.
Many of the esoterically inclined expected a new age of consciousness — others wanted a party. But, in some places said to offer salvation from the end, fewer people showed up than officials had predicted — much to the disappointment of vendors hoping to sell souvenirs. Continue reading.
British researchers conducted experiments at a Stonehenge stand-in as well as the actual 5,000-year-old monument to determine how sounds echoed within the ancient circle of stones — and they found that the sounds would have taken on an eerie reverberation.
"We can expect such a space to have a striking effect on someone of that time, identical to what we feel nowadays when we go into a church," the University of Salford's Bruno Fazenda, who orchestrated the research project, told me in an email.
The study is described on the university's website in a technical analysis as well as a news release issued last week, but the upshot is that the Neolithic people who gathered inside the circle could well have had a religious aural experience. That meshes with the view of most archaeologists that the monument on England's Salisbury Plain took on the trappings of a place of healing — a "Neolithic Lourdes," if you will.
It's not easy to reconstruct the sounds of ancient Stonehenge: For one thing, many of the standing stones are missing from what was thought to be their original places, ruining the acoustic arrangement. For another thing, researchers are not allowed to run electrical power out to the site, or bring in a generator. That limits the types of sound equipment and scientific instruments that can be used on site.
Replicating the reverb Fazenda and his colleagues from the University of Huddersfield and the University of Bristol found a couple of clever solutions to those challenges. They brought air-filled balloons to the Stonehenge site in 2009, then popped the balloons with a needle and recorded the reverb with a microphone and a digital field recorder. The reflected sounds of the pops were hard to make out, but they appeared to follow a pattern of 1-second reverberation time at midfrequencies, for locations that were within the ruins of the stone circle.
To study the reverberation patterns in detail, the team headed off to the Maryhill Museum in Goldendale, Wash., which has a full-scale concrete replica of Stonehenge on its grounds. The monument was built by millionaire industrialist Samuel Hill as a tribute to fallen World War I servicemen. The museum let the researchers make their measurements with more sensitive instruments, powered by on-site generators. The same balloon-popping technique was used, and the readings confirmed the reverberation pattern that the team found at the real Stonehenge.
This is a video that illustrates acoustic effects at Stonehenge. The Maryhill Museum's concrete replica of Stonehenge is acoustically stimulated by a loudspeaker playing simple short bass drum beats at the resonant frequency of the space, in time to echoes heard there. This sets up resonance in the space, or standing waves.
"For an outdoor space, the stone circle exhibits quite a 'live' acoustic environment," Fazenda said. "In the Neolithic, such an environment was not very common at all. The only spaces that might sustain reverberation were caves and perhaps some natural features such as opposing cliff faces."
Fazenda said the echo effect would be much more like what you hear in a cathedral than in a concert hall.
"The center of the space has potential for some focusing effects," he said. "That's the point where all reflections arrive at the same time, and with the largest gap relative to direct sound. On paper we would expect that to sound striking. However, there are quite a lot of scattering effects from the stones, so the clear echoes are somewhat destroyed by it."
He stressed that it's not at all clear whether Stonehenge was designed with the acoustics in mind, but he and his colleagues do think that the setting would have added a special something to drumbeats, chants or music inside the stone circle.
'Research hobby' Fazenda, who teaches audio production at Salford, has been working on this project for the past four years on an unfunded basis. "It has been a kind of 'research hobby' that I have managed to do after hours (don't really call it spare time)," he wrote. He believes the project could break new ground in the field of archaeoacoustics — the study of the sound characteristics of ancient spaces.
"The original focus was on studying the acoustic response of the space," he said. "The recent output has been that we replicated it using wavefield synthesis, which immerses you in a sound field, thus giving you the most approximate aural experience that you could get of being in the space. That was shown at a few recent events, and we have a permanent demo in our labs here at Salford. A wavefield synthesis system uses +64 channels and speakers, so it is not really portable."
Such a system can be tuned to provide a virtual-reality sense of the sounds of Stonehenge, as well as the sounds of other ancient settings that are no longer configured the way they were in their heyday. Want to hear the roar of the crowd in the Roman Colosseum? There's a wavefield synthesis app for that.
People raise their hands in meditation during the 2010 summer solstice at Stonehenge.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
Researchers say they've found two pits to the east and west of Stonehenge that may have played a role in an ancient midsummer ceremony. The discovery suggests that the 5,000-year-old circle of stones we see today may represent just a few of the pieces in a larger geographical, astronomical and cultural puzzle.
The previously undetected pits could provide clues for solving the puzzle.
"These exciting finds indicate that even though Stonehenge was ultimately the most important monument in the landscape, it may at times not have been the only, or most important ritual focus, and the area of Stonehenge may have become significant as a sacred site at a much earlier date," Vince Gaffney, an archaeology professor at the University of Birmingham, said in a news release issued over the weekend.
The placement of the pits is intriguing: They were found on the eastern and western sides of the Cursus, a racetrack-style enclosure north of Stonehenge itself that spans 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) from east to west and is up to 100 yards (meters) wide. From the perspective of an observer standing at the Heel Stone, a massive upright stone just outside Stonehenge's main circle, the sun would rise just above the eastern pit on the day of the summer solstice, which is the longest day of the year. The same observer would see the sun set that evening in line with the western pit.
A map of the Stonehenge area shows the placement of the stone circle and the Cursus, as well as another monument known as Woodhenge and a suggested ceremonial route between the monuments.
Archaeologists have previously noted that the Cursus was apparently created several hundred years before Stonehenge's 5,000-year-old stone circle was erected. The newly detected pits may have been part of a grand layout that guided the placement of the standing stones.
But to what end?
Gaffney, who led the survey project, speculated that the Cursus was the central stage for a midsummer ritual that was enacted long before Stonehenge's heyday. "The perimeter of the Cursus may well have defined a route guiding ceremonial processions which took place on the longest day of the year," he said.
In addition to the pits, Gaffney and his colleagues found a previously undetected gap in the middle of the northern side of the eroded earthwork that defines the sides of the Cursus. They propose that ceremonial leaders entered the Cursus through that gap, and then gathered at the eastern pit to conduct sunrise rituals. Over the course of the day, participants in the rituals might have made their way westward, ending up at the western pit at sunset.
"Observers of the ceremony would have been positioned at the Heel Stone, [with] which the two pits are aligned," Gaffney said.
Henry Chapman, another archaeologist at the University of Birmingham, said Stonehenge's position would have added to the symbolism. "If you measure the walking distance between the two pits, the procession would reach exactly halfway at midday, when the sun would be directly on top of Stonehenge," he said in the news release. "This is more than just coincidence, indicating that the exact length of the Cursus and the positioning of the pits are of significance."
The researchers suggested that the pits may have contained tall sighting stones, or wooden posts, or even fires to symbolize the sun. Just imagine how it would feel to watch the sun rise from a fire lit before dawn, follow its movement across the sky in time with a daylong procession, and then see it fall into the flames at sunset.
"Stonehenge may have been emerging as an important area for quite a long time, and sometimes you can't necessarily see that in the standing archaeology," Gaffney said in an MP3 podcast provided by the University of Birmingham. "The stones themselves, which are generally later, don't give you that information. You have to infer it from relationships between multiple monuments."
The researchers aren't anywhere close to finishing the puzzle: Gaffney figures there's at least another two years' worth of survey work to do. Even then, the full story of Stonehenge and its environs may remain wrapped in mystery. How much can stones and earth tell? Stay tuned ...