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This week’s news story about the integration of acoustics into ancient sacred sites brought to mind a passage in Paul Devereux’s wonderful book The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia (available from Amazon US and Amazon UK), which I had the privilege of publishing in an updated edition a few years ago. In this short section, Paul speculates freely about the possible use of acoustics at a site such as Newgrange, in Ireland.

On stones in the passage and within the chamber are engraved lozenges, spirals, triple spirals and other form constants. Outside, there is an entrance stone in front of the passage entrance which is richly carved with similar patterns, as are three of the exterior kerbstones to the mound. Are these markings the equivalent of those in the Chumash shaman’s cave? Did a calendrical, ritualised vigil take place here, of mythic significance to the builders of Newgrange, where the ancient Lords of Light are said in legend to have dwelt? Did some Neolithic shaman or shamanic elite take a mind-altering infusion and then sit within the inky blackness of the awesome chamber, perhaps amongst the ancestral bones, intoning deep, echoing chants until the very walls reverberated, waiting to receive the ecstatic golden blast of soul-searing solar light at the dark turning of the year?

We may never know for certain, but the evidence leads to interesting
speculation. The structure was clearly related to midwinter solar astronomy, the entoptic-style rock art there does speak of altered mind states, and acoustical tests conducted within the chamber in 1994 by Robert G. Jahn, myself and colleagues showed that the resonant frequency of the Newgrange chamber was 110 Hz (cycles per second), within the baritone vocal range. We could speculate further, and suggest that chanting at the resonant frequency of the chamber might itself “drive” the brain and help induce trance states – initial EEG studies are currently indicating that the 110 Hz frequency does cause alterations in brain activity. And we can stretch speculation to guesswork. Inside the chamber there are large stone dishes; if these had been filled with water on ritual occasions and hot stones placed in it, clouds of steam would be produced creating a “sweat-lodge” type of environment (there is evidence of this kind of practice in early Ireland). The droplets of moisture in the steam would have vibrated with the resonant chanting within the chamber. Experiments have shown that in such a case water droplets (or other aerosol components) floating in air assemble into wave patterns reflecting the frequency of the sound, and these show up when subjected to a lightbeam. We can therefore picture the solstitial sunbeam cutting a vivid shaft of light through the steamy interior of the Newgrange chamber revealing shifting light and dark patterns relating to the 110 Hz frequency of the sound. Interestingly, these patterns would be similar to the sort of rock art motifs we find at Newgrange. The acoustically-driven steam patterns would probably also have assisted the “flicker” mechanism in the sunlight that Dronfield has found evidence for. In this scenario we can see the combination of at least five mind-altering techniques: the use of a hallucinogen, be it psilocybin mushrooms, an ergot derivative, or henbane, taken at the start of a long initial period of sensory-deprivation in the silent blackness of the chamber, followed by prolonged resonant chanting in a sweat-lodge type of hot steamy atmosphere, culminating in powerful flickering light.

Paul has of course immersed himself in this very topic – he wrote a book titled Stone Age Soundtracks, and has written articles examining ‘archaeoacoustics’ – so while he’s speculating, it is informed speculation.

The Long Trip itself is a great book – if, like me, you’re interested in both ancient cultures and the human mind, it’s really a must-have for your collection (and of course, purchasing a copy helps support both Paul and The Daily Grail). You can grab a copy right now by ordering from Amazon US or Amazon UK.