Looking across the Stones of Stenness, with the monumental hearth in the foreground and the Loch of Stenness beyond.
 
 

Acoustics at the Stones of Stenness

Of the twelve stones that originally stood here, only three now survive to their original height. Despite this ruinous state, however, distinctive acoustic effects were recorded during the first phase of fieldwork in 1998.

The most noticeable are echoes created by the standing stones. Similar to many circles across Britain, the stones were placed with their broad surfaces facing the centre of the circle. These reflect sounds generated inside the circle, and are most audible when the listener is near to the centre of the circle. In contrast to the larger diameter of the Ring of Brodgar nearby, a variety of sounds were clearly reflected. Higher frequency sounds, including hand-claps and the voice, proved to be particularly effective.

When the monoliths were standing, the interior of the Stones of Stenness would have been a focus for intense echoes. This is interesting as a large stone hearth occupies the centre. This not only created a focus where people might have gathered, but the crackling sounds of the fire itself may have ricocheted around the interior.

 
 

The Stones of Stenness also have have an acoustic contrast between the inside and the outside. First, sound generated outside the circle does not produce such effective echoes from the stones. Second, listeners at the periphery do not hear the intense echoes found at the centre. Excavation has produced evidence to suggest that the stone circle was contained within a bank or wall, and this would have further screened visual and acoustic activity within the circle.

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.