Stonehenge Site of First 'Rock' Concert

1 April 2013 8:00 am

iStockphoto/Thinkstock; (inset) Hanay/Creative Commons

Elvis has left the megalith. Did concertgoers (inset) at 4000-year-old Stonehenge rock the night away?

Most musicologists date the beginning of rock 'n' roll to the 1950s, when records by Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis exploded onto the charts. But an interdisciplinary research team working at Stonehenge, the iconic megalithic monument in south England, claims to have found much earlier evidence of rock music—or at least large gatherings of people interested in hearing loud noise. The find could push the origin of such concerts back thousands of years.

Archaeologists have long debated the meaning and function of Stonehenge, which, when complete, was made up of two concentric circles of stone pillars, surrounded in turn by a huge circular earthwork ditch called a cursus. Much of the structure, which was built over about 1500 years and took thousands of person-hours to construct, is still standing. Some researchers have argued that it served as an astronomical observatory, although that idea is now largely discounted; others, pointing out that the monument is aligned with the winter solstice and the midsummer sunrise, think it served as a site for seasonal rituals; although still others see it as a burial place for the prehistoric elite, citing the more than 60 cremated skeletons that have been found in and around the stone pillars.

Now, a team excavating at Stonehenge, led by archaeologist Chip Aubrey of the University of East Gloucester in the United Kingdom, has uncovered more than three dozen new, relatively intact skeletons from the site, along with other finds that the researchers say strongly suggest the monument was used as an outdoor concert hall. The team's anthropologists have found that most of the skeletons, the remains of both males and females ranging in age from late teens to early 20s, have well-preserved inner ear structures. When examined under a microscope, the inner ear bones of many of the skeletons' ears showed telltale signs of scarring and other damage, probably as a result of being exposed to loud noise. Indeed, the team found that when it played loud music from a boom box placed in the exact geometric center of Stonehenge—including cuts from Neil Young and Crazy Horse, known for their high-volume performances—the decibel level was amplified by as much as 75%.

Meanwhile, the team's archaeologists found two thin, tapered, wooden implements, each about 40 centimeters long, under one of the largest pillars. The implements are in association with the poorly preserved but recognizable remains of an animal skin from which the fur had been shaved off, probably with a sharp stone tool. The researchers interpret this finding as an ancient drum, although they caution that further study will be necessary to confirm this conclusion.

Finally, the team's bioarchaeologists determined the ratio of strontium isotopes Sr87 and Sr86—which vary between different geological formations and can provide clues as to where an individual grew up—in the new skeletons. They found that the young people buried at Stonehenge came from regions both near and far from the monument's location on England's Salisbury Plain, and in all geographic directions, which would be expected if Stonehenge were the venue for a major event of some sort.

"All of these lines of evidence converge on only one likely conclusion," says Nigel Tufnel, an anthropologist at the University of Witney in the United Kingdom who was not involved in the excavations. "Young people came to Stonehenge to listen to loud music with a strong beat. Some went back home, but others stayed and were buried here." As for the monument itself, Tufnel has his own thoughts about its creators. "No one knows who they were, or what they were doing," he says. "But their legacy remains."

Aubrey cites the work of another research team, working at a smaller megalithic monument nearby, as support for his team's hypothesis, reported online today in the International Journal of Scientific Archaeology. There, curiously also on the first of April, archaeologists found four strings made of catgut, still intact in the midst of wooden fragments in the shape of a violin. They also unearthed the burials of a half dozen much older individuals. Linguists working with that team have just succeeded in deciphering an inscription on one of the megalith's stones, written in an ancient Indo-European language. It reads: "If the gods had meant us to go to rock concerts, they would have given us tickets."

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