Echo and Resonance

Small seal script


The Chinese character huí means to return or revolve. It also means to echo, and by logical extension to resonate.

The two forms given in the Shuowen Jiezi can be seen on the left.

Images: Shuowen Jiezi: research tool

One possible interpretation of the first form (top left) is the depiction of a voice in an enclosed space, from which we get the idea of an echo. Some variants in Richard Sears database have a dot at the centre (L31054 and L04126)¹. The dot at the centre is interesting, because Professor Iégor Reznikoff has demonstrated that in some prehistoric caves, the point of maximum resonance in narrow galleries was marked with a dot on the wall².

The second form of the character appears on a baton from the Grotte d'Isturitz, and is mentioned in connection with the Cueva de Nerja and the Cueva de la Pileta. Each of these has a possible acoustic connection, but unfortunately I have insufficient data to discuss them in this article. I have therefore chosen Newgrange, Ireland as the representative site for the spiral symbol. At 5,200 years old, Newgrange is a relatively modern site, but it has been well researched, which I think helps with understanding.

One of the site's undisputed functions was to mark the midwinter sunrise. The sunrise at the winter solstice lights up the chamber. The idea of return might be linked to the Earth’s orbit. The Earth has completed one full orbit of the sun, and returned to the point at which it started.

Image: Shuowen Jiezi: research tool
Image: Shuowen Jiezi: research tool

Interestingly, on the lintel above the light box, there is a repeated motif comprising eight archaic versions of the character wǔ. The ideograph is of a midpoint. In Chinese, wǔ means midday. At Newgrange, it is associated with midwinter. Perhaps, eight is a count of the quarter and cross quarter days.

It is known that the architect incorporated acoustic features into the design of Newgrange, so I will now add sound to light. Study of the entrance stone at New Grange reveals spirals with two different orientations and therefore two different meanings.

Image: Lynn Fawcett
Image: Lynn Fawcett

The diagram above is a simplistic view of the design of Newgrange. The orientation of the passage at Newgrange matches the midwinter sunrise with an azimuth of around 134°. Energy originating in the centre of the spirals flows into Newgrange in the form of light and out of Newgrange in the form of sound. There is a second sense of return; that of wave motion.

Image: Lynn Fawcett
Image: Lynn Fawcett

My translation is based on the spiral symbols found in Zhèng Qiáo's Liùshū Lüe 六书略³, where the symbol for lightening is followed by that for thunder.

Here, an interesting parallel can be drawn with the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Not only does the Temple of Heaven incorporate important acoustic design features, but two of the spirits invited to be present at the annual ceremony for the Winter Solstice were Lightening and Thunder.

I have rotated the image of the entrance stone to facilitate analysis. However, the stone was found on its side. In that position, it would have been read from right to left.

Image: Voices from the Dawn: Annotation: Lynn Fawcett
Image: Voices from the Dawn: Annotation: Lynn Fawcett

The design is divided into two sections by what could be the character gǔn , in this instance perhaps meaning to strike.

The Section devoted to Light

The section devoted to light has two spirals. Hence, two sources of light. It may be that one represented the light box, and the other the doorway. The passage slopes, so that light from the doorway cannot reach the acoustic chambers.

Secondly, there are some concentric arc symbols that may be a pictograph of diffraction. I have been unable to find the symbol in Chinese. However, the Japanese kimono motif known as seigaiha 青海波 has the final character bō , which means a wave, to undulate or to fluctuate.

The Section devoted to Sound

The section devoted to sound has three spirals. There are three recesses off the central chamber, each of which contains a stone with a shallow indentation. It is not clear what these stones were used for. They are normally referred to as basins or bowls. I would suggest that they may be lithophones. It should be noted that the orientation of the spirals on the entrance stone matches that of the design on stone C10 in the rear chamber.

There are also some lozenge or rhombus shaped symbols that may be pictographs of standing sound waves. This shape too, is a popular motif on kimono fabrics known as hishi . However, I could not find an obvious linguistic connection between the kimono motif and waves. Each of the three recesses has a different resonance frequency, which may be why each rhombus has three tiers.

The Entrance

It is worth noting that a rhombus positioned at the entrance end of the inscription appears to be larger than the others. In a pilot study, Jahn et al. observed that the sound decreases along the passage with only a slight increase in amplitude at the entrance as the sound passes under the capstone⁴. However, Victor Reijs quotes Dr John Coltman (commenting on the results of his calculations of the resonance frequency at Newgrange): ‘Thus the roofbox opening gets the major share of the acoustic current.’⁵ It may therefore be that the large rhombus depicts the actual acoustic setup at the site.

Lastly, I need to mention a third possible interpretation of the word return. My reason for choosing to study Newgrange was that I imagined that the spiral symbols would have been engraved by someone imploring their loved one to return from the grave. To date, I have found no evidence for this. I do not think that Newgrange was built as a burial mound. In which case, why were human remains found at the site? It is possible that subsequent generations found that it was a convenient place in which to inter their dead. It is also possible that Newgrange was the scene of an accident or of a crime.

Author's Note

Jahn et al. said that in some cases, interior and exterior rock drawings at Newgrange resemble the acoustical patterns.It is interesting how Cave Script complements the findings of scientists. My initial study suggests that the engravings on the entrance stone and light box describe the workings of the structure. The entrance area is only one example of a decorated part of the site. Moreover, Newgrange is part of a much larger group of monuments. There is thus plenty of scope for a multidisciplinary research team to investigate further.


Image Credits:

Small seal script characters: Shuowenjiezi: research tool in Chinese traditional philology: Accessed: 26 January 2014

Diagram View of the Newgrange Entrance Stone: Voices from the Dawn: the Ancient Monuments of Ireland and their Folklore, 2012, Two Different Views of the Newgrange Entrance Stone: Accessed: 30 January 2014


1. Richard Sears, 2013: Chinese Etymology: The history of Chinese characters: huí: Accessed: 16 February 2014

2. Iégor Reznikoff: On Primitive Elements of Musical Meaning: Section. 2.8, Imitating Noises and Sounds: JMM 3, Fall 2004/Winter 2005, section 2: The Journal of Music and Meaning: ISSN:1603 - 7170: Accessed: 15 February 2014

3. Zhèng Qiáo 郑樵, 1161: The characters diàn and léi can be seen on a page from the Liùshū Lüe 六书略 ‘Treatise on Deciphering Documents’. The image can be found on the Hujiang website, where the source is given as Zhèng Qiáo's Tōngzhì 通志 ‘Comprehensive Records’: Accessed: 12 February 2014

4. Robert G. Jahn; Paul Devereux; Michael Ibison, Acoustical Resonances of Assorted Ancient Structures: International Consciousness Research Laboratories, March 1995, p.9: Accessed: 8 February, 2014

5. John W. Coltman, January 2006: Resonances of Newgrange Cave: Victor Reijs’ Geniet: Schematic Newgrange for Acoustic Helmholz Resonance: Transmission Line Method: Accessed: 16 February 2014

6. Robert G. Jahn; Paul Devereux; Michael Ibison, Acoustical Resonances of Assorted Ancient Structures: International Consciousness Research Laboratories, March 1995, Abstract, p.1: Accessed: 8 February, 2014