The Dwarfie Stane was carved into a single block of stone and is set in a spectacular location.

Acoustics at the Dwarfie Stane

The short passage and confined chamber at the Dwarfie Stane were tunnelled into a solid block of stone. It is the only example of its kind known in the British Isles. Acoustic experiments in 1998 revealed the chamber to be an amazingly resonant space where it is possible to generate intense sounds using only a single voice.

While standing wave resonances could be created inside by singing or humming, some effects were not confined to the chamber. At certain frequencies, listeners outside perceived the stone to be shaking. This was an illusion, and it is more likely that the listeners themselves were resonating. But it does raise some interesting questions as to how such experiences were understood in the Neolithic.

Loud sounds generated around the Dwarfie Stane, such as beating a drum, generated powerful echoes that echoed like thunder around the surrounding cliffs and hillsides. While the choice of location was determined by the availability of a sufficiently large stone, the spectacular setting and imposing echoes contribute to the experience of this unique monument.

The Dwarfie Stane is visible in the lower part of the picture, overlooked by nearby escarpments.

The Dwarfie Stane also reminds me how it is sometimes easy to consider monuments in isolation to the wider landscape. Acoustics need not be limited to standing structures or the interiors of buildings but might also extend out into the wider landscape. While the Dwarfie Stane is at the focus for echoes from an arc of cliffs, some chambered sites near the sea, including the stalled cairn of Midhowe in Orkney, were enhanced by the bass noise of oceanic waves breaking on the nearby coastline.

Please note that acoustic experiments at the Dwarfie Stane were conducted before the return of White-tailed Sea Eagles to the nearby hills in 2015. Any future work will avoid disturbing to these magnificent birds during their breeding season.

Further reading

Watson, A. and Keating. D. 2000. The architecture of sound in Neolithic Orkney. In A. Ritchie (ed.) Neolithic Orkney in its European context, 259-63. Cambridge: McDonald Institute Monographs.