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Almanack - 17 February 2012

Today's Mysterious World News: Sounds of Stonehenge, Blimps take a Turn over Medicine Wheels & Why Dead Dinosaurs Look Weird

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Now listen up. The sounds you are about to hear will certainly be the strangest, and, quite probably, among the most hauntingly beautiful you'll have heard in a long time. R2MW can bring them to you because, as speakers at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver are making clear, acoustic archaeology is currently all the rage. The most striking, tale comes from an ancient village in the Andes of Peru, where the Chavin civilisation is thought to have flourished between 1,200 and 500 BC. 40 years ago, an archaeologist wondered whether the settlement had been specially designed to act as a soundbox: the place was full of winding corridors, mazes, and terraces, which, even more than 2 millennia on, seemed to amplify and improve the natural 'music' of nature.

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The discovery of trumpets made of conch shells reinforced his conviction: researchers are now certain that at least one corridor was designed so that their notes could be transmitted to people visiting an oracle outside. In fact, scientists have a term for this kind of construction: they call them 'wave guides', because they allow sound to travel further than it otherwise would. So, for once, there's some real evidence that buildings, at Chavin de Huantar at least, were used for ceremonies: and you only have to listen to the reconstructed music of the conches as they echo through the city to imagine how they enhanced the magic of both the rituals and the place. At the same meeting, another acoustics expert claimed to have made an even odder discovery. Some archaeologists have long believed that Stonehenge, like Chavin de Huantar, was designed so that sound could play a part in rituals, but now a researcher called Steven Waller says that the architects of the greatest of all prehistoric circles employed sound waves, or 'auditory illusions', to help them position the stones. Instead of conch shells, Waller used 2 flutes, an air pump and a gang of blindfolded volunteers to test his theory. Perhaps it's just the end of a tiring week, but the R2MW team thinks it's rather more convincing than it at first appears.

STINKINGWATER MOUNTAINS, U.S.A: The Bureau & the Blimps

As the mappers of the Nazca Lines know all too well, identifying huge 'drawings' on the ground is a hard task – which is why some researchers claim that, in ancient times, people must have had flying machines thousands of years before the Wright brothers were twinkles in old Milton's eye. Today, in Oregon, balloons have come into their own: a blimp is being used to photograph 2 huge medicine wheels in the state's attractively-named Stinkingwater Mountains. Apart from the need to document them – they are rarely found so far west - the archaeologists are hoping to solve some of the mysteries of these elaborate constructions. Predictably, some say that their designers, who, in some cases, seem to have been at work 4.500 years ago, built in astronomical alignments. Others suggest a less exotic purpose: as a gathering place for widely-scattered tribes. Whether the new 3-D photos will offer further enlightenment remains to be seen, but who couldn't be interested in monuments with such wonderful names? The Many Spotted Horses Medicine Wheel is our favourite.

BASLE, SWITZERLAND: Distorted Dinos

Finally, the answer to a question you didn't know you'd asked: Why do dinosaur skeletons look so weird? And if you thought it's because dinos just look strange, you'd be wrong. The real question is: When do dinosaurs start looking weird? The answer involves something called the 'opisthotonus hypothesis', the thoraxes and necks of dead chickens, a tank of water, a lot of patience, and a praiseworthy resistance to squeamishness. And on that note ...

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