Acoustic Archaeology & Spiritual Soundscapes

Over at the New Scientist, Trevor Cox has written a splendid article about the relatively new and somewhat controversial field of acoustic archaeology.  Although it is easy to see how acoustical interpretations might run amok, the basic ideas are sound (sorry but I just had to) and thought provoking.  It hardly beggars the imagination to suppose that the paradoxically more quiet and rich auditory environments of prehistory were symbolically charged and had ritual or spiritual significance.

Price hits this note in several places, observing that natural features such as caves have unique acoustical properties and constructed spaces such as burial chambers and temples may have been deliberately manipulated for sound.  Whether such manipulations were planned or propitious after effects is a more difficult issue.

Stonehenge apparently has such properties, as Price demonstrates in this acoustical test of the inner sanctum.  While this test uses a constant and easily measurable tonal emission, it would be interesting to broadcast the prehistoric equivalent of Gregorian chanting over the speaker to hear what happens.

Although we have no way of knowing what such chanting might sound like, I imagine the effects were awe inducing.  In the alternative they might try a Pink Floyd soundtrack.  I think the several archaeologists and musicologists mentioned in Price’s piece have tapped into something of primal importance.

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One thought on “Acoustic Archaeology & Spiritual Soundscapes

  1. David Lubman

    More support for the value of impulse responses emphasized in Trevor Cox’s (not Trevor Price’s) NS article on acoustic archaeology.

    I used impulse responses for the temple of Kukulkan, but in a different and less equivocal way than Cox and his colleagues was able to do at Stonehenge. They were hampered by sparse knowledge of the Stonehenge culture, its soundscape, and the iconic sounds of Stonehenge, if any, from four millennia past.

    The challenge at Stonehenge is to reconstruct the ceremonies and sounds of a disappeared people given only the acoustic impulse responses of Stonehenge. That seems like a tough problem.

    My research at Chichen Itza, Mexico, was more advantaged for two reasons. It draws from an immense cultural knowledge base garnered by Mayanists. Another advantage denied to Cox and his colleagues derives from cultural continuity of the Maya. Unlike Stonehenge culture, the Maya civilization is partially preserved thanks to cultural continuity from pre- Stonehenge times to the present. This informed my research at Chichen Itza.

    Dipping into that reservoir of Maya scholarship one can reasonably infer that the chirped echo was an iconic sound for the Maya. It captures the sound of the resplendent quetzal – a bird venerated by the Maya for thousands of years. The bird is deeply tied to Maya legends from ancient time to the present.

    Doubting archaeologists had dismissed the echo as a meaningless artifact of staircase reconstruction. It was an empty assertion totally devoid of supporting evidence. Their claim was easily disproven using observable acoustic evidence and simple logic!

    The same chirp is present (albeit weaker) at the two unreconstructed staircases as well. Ergo, the chirp is not an artifact of reconstruction.

    This proof was offered to the doubting archaeologists, but they chose to dismiss the evidence of their own ears. This exemplifies the visual bias noted in Trevor Cox’s NS article.

    I used the impulse response to prove mathematically that the echo in ancient times was very similar to the chirped echo heard today. To do so, I created a compact but competent mathematical model of the staircase’s impulse response (along a staircase main axis.) It was so compact that it needed only three staircase parameters: (1) average riser height, (2) average tread length, and (3) number of steps. Upon “convolving” the impulse response model with recorded handclaps similar chirps and sonograms were instantly produced.

    Yet doubting Mayanists on the INAH-moderated newsgroup remained unconvinced. Perhaps they didn’t understand the power of the convolution theorem.

    The mathematical basis for invoking the convolution theorem is both simple and “rock” solid. It requires only two easily-justified assumptions about the temporal properties of the clap – echo system, and the linearity of the system process. In brief: The clap-echo system must be a time-invariant linear system. For experiments, it need be time invariant for only a fraction of a second. Also, the clap-echo system must be linear.

    This discovery should be important to Mayanists since it provides long-sought evidence that the spring equinox shadow is the result of intentional design. Astonishing as it may seem, before this acoustical evidence was introduced, archaeologists had been unable to find any evidence that the solar alignments at Kukulkan were intentional. The gift of acoustics to archaeology can help archaeologists solve previously insoluble problems.

    The zigzag shadow appearing on the northwest staircase of Kukulkan at the spring equinox is a visual “echo” of the prenuptial diving of the male quetzal at exactly that time in the cloud forests – the ancient homeland of the Maya and the exclusive habitat of the resplendent quetzal. The northwest balustrade of the staircase displays the zigzag shadow starting at the spring equinox. It also emulates the quetzal’s diving behavior that also begins exactly at the spring equinox in the cloud forest. Moreover, that very staircase also chirps like a quetzal.
    Another possibility. If the Maya god Kukulkan annually celebrated the gods bestowing of maze on the Maya by dropping an ear of maize from the heavens, its fall visually recapitulates a quetzal diving with folded wings. The green sheath of the maize emulates the iridescence jade color presented by the quetzal diving with folded wings. The long maize tassel emulates the quetzal’s tail, as it zigzags behind its body in the turbulent air.

    These facts are powerful evidence for intentional design.

    David Lubman

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