Trevor Cox – Acoustic engineer and Stonehenge researcher
Muse Science Magazine for Kids|May/June 2021
Trevor Cox is a professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford in the United Kingdom. He engineers systems to make sound better. And he studies how the structures we build affect the sounds we make inside them.
By Nick D'Alto
Trevor Cox is a professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford in the United Kingdom. He engineers systems to make sound better. And he studies how the structures we build affect the sounds we make inside them.

His work has investigated the acoustics of one very ancient and famous structure. Located about 90 miles (145 km) west of London, England’s Stonehenge is one of the world’s most fascinating monuments.

WE HEAR ALL KINDS OF AMAZING THEORIES ABOUT STONEHENGE. WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO STUDY THE POSSIBILITY THAT ITS DESIGN MIGHT INFLUENCE WHAT PEOPLE ONCE HEARD INSIDE IT?

I’m fascinated by the idea of reconstructing sounds from the past. After all, there are no recordings, so this is a real challenge to explore. We study the acoustics of modern buildings, but our approach had never been used on a prehistoric structure. So I saw a real opportunity.

AND TO TEST YOUR THEORY, YOU CONSTRUCTED A VERY EXACTING MODEL.

Yes, as a way to study Stonehenge as it once was. Today, many of its stones are fallen or lost. Which means the monument no longer has its original acoustics. So we began with a laser scan of the real Stonehenge, along with archeological records, to identify the precise orientations of where every stone once stood about 4,000 years ago.

YOU’VE CALLED YOUR MODEL “MINI-HENGE.” BUT THE FINISHED MODEL LOOKS HUGE.

As models go, it is. The outer stone circle is about 8 feet (2.5 m) across. So yes, that’s the size of a small room. And the stones themselves, the largest ones stand about 28 inches (70 cm) high.

CAN YOU WALK IN THERE?

We do. And it’s kind of like you’re a giant in Stonehenge. The whole scale thing is very surprising.

AND EACH MODEL STONE IS AN EXACT SCALE REPLICA OF ONE OF THE REAL STONES?

As nearly as possible. The scans give us the exact shape, contour, and surface texture of each real stone. From this, 1/12th-scale replicas were 3D printed, using a special material to provide the proper sound bounce. Using both the printing and casting, we made 157 different stones.

HOW DID YOU ASSEMBLE THE STONES TO BUILD YOUR MODEL?

We built it something like Lego—leaving the parts removable, so we could rearrange the different stones. That let us test different configurations of the monument over time.

PLUS BITS OF PLAY-DOH?

Ha! Yes, to stop up any gaps between the stones.

TESTING THE ACOUSTICS REQUIRED SOME SCALE MODELING TOO, RIGHT? CAN YOU EXPLAIN THAT?

That’s right. We had to scale down the sound waves, too, to match our model. Which meant using much shorter waves, which gives them much higher frequencies. As a result, many of the sounds we used to test the model can’t be heard by human ears. (Maybe dogs.)

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