When we study the ancient world, we have but one sense to use. We can, unfortunately, only view the past with our eyes. As beautiful as the artefacts of our ancestors are, this one dimensional perspective tends to be somewhat restrictive to our understanding. After all, when we consider our contemporary world, we have the benefit of seeing, smelling and hearing all of the various elements that make up that landscape. Not so with the ancient world.
However there are a select few people trying to change that. Those people are working in the field of archaeoacoustics, and though this is a relatively new field of study, great strides are being made in an effort to understand the significance of sound as it pertains to the monuments and rituals of our ancestors. The term archaeoacoustics has been coopted from its earlier use, as it pertained to sounds being recorded in clay pottery and other such objects during their manufacture in ancient societies, so as to be “played back” with the use of modern equipment. This idea was once supported by many in mainstream science, but has recently fallen into disrepute as a result of many failed attempts to verify it through experiment. The term now relates more widely to the study of sound in ancient construction and monuments.
In spite of the fanciful ideas of the more conspiratorial among us, not every ancient monument was constructed to capitalise on resonant frequencies, but some were and they deserve a closer look.
Chanting, a ritualistic form of stylised speech, and the root of all western music, was first used by ancient and prehistoric spiritual leaders in nearly all cultures as a means of furthering or supporting other aspects of ritual. It was meant to bring the participant closer to a religious or spiritual awakening. Chants are used in nearly all religious variants, from modern shamanistic cultures to pagan, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic traditions. It ranges from simple melodies to complex musical structures and depending on the setting, can offer a profound experience to witnesses.
As is common knowledge, sound or music has a profound effect on us humans (and likely on some animals as well). We develop strong associations between musical elements and certain emotions and our moods are often deeply affected by what we hear. For this reason, spiritual or religious chants often have a deep effect on our perception of related experiences. Religious hymns are designed to foster a connection between the congregant and the clergy, and in fact churches the world over are constructed with this in mind. The shape and orientation of the church and its internal elements are painstakingly arranged to optimise the acoustical properties of the space, so as to maximise the effect of song and instrument alike. And this is by no means a new practise.
Nowhere is acoustical significance in ancient construction more striking than in underground temples. There are famous examples of such construction throughout the old world, perhaps the most famous is the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid of Khufu (or Cheops, whichever you prefer) at Giza in Egypt. Some theorists maintain that the King’s Chamber was designed and built to use sound as a resonant booster, to give the Pharaoh a better chance of reaching the afterlife, though this is not a widely held opinion among mainstream archaeologists or Egyptologists. Those same theorists, conspiracy theorists you might say, suggest also that the Hall of Records, an unconfirmed structure or room situated under the Sphinx, has significant acoustical properties as well. This is, for obvious reasons, entirely suppositional of course.
But we needn’t resort to conspiratorial fantasy in this case, for there are many ancient monuments and temples that use sound and acoustical properties to their advantage. The underground city complex at Budapest, called the Labyrinth of Buda Castle, which is located under Castle Hill in Buda (which is the west-bank part of Budapest on the Danube river in Hungary), is said to have special acoustical properties, though since this site is largely a natural formation, it doesn’t really count here. It does remain the oldest known example of the shape of a room or cave being used to amplify or resonate sound for ritual purposes.
Other examples, such as the Oracle Room in the Hypogeum of Ħal Seflieni in Paola, Malta offer much to study. Hypogeum means ‘underground’ in Greek, and in this case refers to a subterranean labyrinthine structure of the Seflieni phase of Maltese prehistory (3000-2500BC). It consists of several passages and chambers, of which the Oracle room is the smallest. With its delicately painted ceiling, the Oracle room boasts the most powerful or effectual resonant chamber in the ancient world. Even muted sounds made in this chamber resonate and amplify, which has the effect of distorting the sound and making it seem like it has a divine origin (or that it hadn’t been generated by any source in the chamber). Today the hypogeum is a necropolis, containing the remains of some 7000 prehistoric Greeks, but at one time it was used for religious ritual.
Another site, Chavín de Huantar in the Peruvian Andes, is a large city ruin that was built by the pre-Incan culture known as the Chavín in approximately 1200BC, though the area is thought to have been occupied as early as 3000BC. The site has buildings, ruins, temples and other artefacts.
Ancient visitors and priests at Chavín de Huantar would have been privy to an experience not found anywhere else. The buildings were constructed using a highly specialized combination of shafts, corridors and surfaces, all designed to make a series of echo chambers, in which sounds – often conch shell trumpets, called pututus, being blown by priests outside of the structure and chanting, as well as water running in streams under and around the buildings – would seem otherworldly. Add in the psychotropic effect of ritual consumption of San Pedro cactus juice (and possibly other substances, like ayahuasca), and one can easily see how a pilgrimage to such a temple would have been a profound spiritual experience.
Perhaps the first archaeoacoustic researcher, Iegor Reznikoff, an anthropologist of sound with the Université Paris Ouest, found, in the 1980’s, that there is a connection between the location of prehistoric artwork in the caves at Lascaux (and other ancient cave sights in southern France, where the oldest known human art is found from 25,000BC) and the acoustic resonance of those same locations. Reznikoff and a colleague mapped such caves, highlighting areas of acoustical significance and found that those areas coincided with areas that held the most works of prehistoric art. Which suggests a defined ritualistic process to the painting, and may have been prevalent among prehistoric artists.
Acoustic resonance is a feature of many natural caves, and it’s likely that this natural feature was the primary motivator in the development of acoustics in ritual sites and practices. Modern technology allows archaeologists to identify and study such features of ancient sites, and in most cases the research is inaccessible to the amateur. However, there are branches of this endeavour that are within reach of anyone who can get themselves to the locations in question.
Recently, a team of researchers have been using sound to study the world famous Stonehenge megalithic site in Wiltshire, England. According to experts from London’s Royal College of Art, Stonehenge holds more mystery than meets the eye. For many years, enthusiasts and researchers have held that Stonehenge had an audio component, either in its use or construction. Many visitors report that chants and music seem to resonate in a strange way at various points within and around the structure, but new insights seem to suggest that the stones themselves were musical instruments.
Research recently published in the Journal of Time & Mind, suggests that the bluestones – the smaller stones that make up the interior of the monument – actually have acoustical properties and may have been selected for that reason. It turns out that the stones resonate in a peculiar way when struck with a hammer or other instrument, and generate a wide range of sounds. Researchers even found what may be evidence of hammer or stone strikes on several of the stones, indicating that they’re on the right track.
This research, with the input of other experts, suggests that many of the standing stone sites throughout the UK may have had, as a central feature, an acoustic nature. It may be that Stonehenge and other standing stone circles and like monuments were built as musical instruments, to be used in conjunction with or as a part of ritualistic gatherings and celebrations.
The same may be true for monuments all over the world, as is highlighted by researchers such as Michael Tellinger, who demonstrates in a video on his YouTube channel the acoustic properties of artefacts found at Waterval Boven, South Africa. (See below)
There is no denying it, sound has played a central role in the development of not only human spirituality and culture, but also in architecture. While most of our history can only be relayed in terms of visual artefacts and writing, the aural history of our ancestors just begs to be heard. And when you consider the fact that resonant sound has been a significant part of human life for upwards of 27,000 years (at least), it’s no wonder so many people feel so passionately about music and its makers.