Last spring, Katy Sheen listened to the sounds of the ocean from a ship off the coast of Spain. A relaxing vacation? Hardly. Sheen, a graduate student at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., is one of a handful of scientists adapting a technique called seismic profiling to oceanography. Continue reading
Archaeologists broke ground at Stonehenge last week for the first time since 1964, with the aim of using modern technology to pinpoint just when builders dragged the first bluestone pillars to the site some 4500 years ago. The team, which is re-excavating a trench originally dug in the 1920s, plans to analyze short-lived organic material such as twigs or grains with mass spectroscopy. They hope to establish the arrival date of the stones to within a couple of decades.
The dig leaders, Geoffrey Wainwright of the Society of Antiquaries of London and Timothy Darvill of Bournemouth University in the U.K., are looking to bolster their theory that bluestones–dragged 250 kilometers from the Preseli Hills in Wales–were valued for their healing powers. Inscriptions in Wales reveal that locals considered the stones magical. And deformed skeletons recently dug up nearby may have been from pilgrims seeking cures. Precisely dating the different building stages of the monument is “wrapped into a series of interesting debates” about pottery, metallurgy, and spirituality in northwest Europe, says Darvill. The project is part of a broader National Geographic-sponsored effort covering nearby Neolithic sites.
These days it seems like everyone is into fast-and-light alpine climbing, even plants. Now, according to researchers in Germany, valley plants are racing up the flanks of the Bernina Alps, Switzerland. The range is home to Piz Palu (12,812 feet) and the Biancograt (AD) on Piz Bernina (13,284 feet), the easternmost 4,000-meter peak in the Alps. Continue reading
An architectural historian has taken a choir to Venice to determine how much Renaissance architects and composers shaped each other’s work. Last spring, with acousticians and musicologists, Deborah Howard of Cambridge University in the U.K. led an experimental public concert tour on which the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, performed Renaissance works in 11 Venetian churches and monasteries, including the San Marco basilica.
Recordings, as well as audience reactions, indicated that complex polyphonic pieces reverberated too much throughout large spaces such as the basilica but sounded right in San Marco’s smaller ducal chapel. Monastery chapels were the best settings for resonant but straightforward chants. And humbler parish churches adorned with sound-damping tapestries were suited to simple hymn singing. “Each church did generate the kind of acoustic that was appropriate” to its needs, says Howard, showing that architects designed with acoustics in mind.
Composers also probably tailored their work to specific buildings, says Howard, who presented her findings at this month’s Cambridge Science Festival. For example, the team found compositions calling for a double choir that in a reverberating space such as San Marco would achieve a “surround sound” effect. “We suppose that many musicians compose their work having in mind a very particular kind of place,” says applied physicist Francesco Martellotta of the Polytechnic University of Bari, “but in this case, it is clearly documented.”