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Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum in Malta
Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum in Malta

Archaeoacoustics: Adding another dimension to history

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent” ― Victor Hugo

There’s something inherent to musical expression, something ineffable, indefinable.  Those who excel at musical composition and performance rightly hold an esteemed position in society.  It’s an ability that not everyone has, or can learn.  It’s likely been that way for a long time, too.

The first emergence of music in our culture likely began as primitive vocal expressions of emotion and grand ideas, prior to the development of formal languages.  Language itself is somewhat musical; lyrically melodious, if you will.  And since language has its beginning in our very distant and shared evolutionary past, it bears mentioning that scientists recently presented evidence in support of the idea that human speech is, or was an extension of primate vocalisations; the same vocalisations we hear in primate populations today. So it would seem that musical inclination is not an exclusively human characteristic among mammals.

Music is, of course, no longer limited to vocals alone.  Our appreciation of melody and rhythm extends to a plethora of musical instruments.  Indeed, in the hands of a gifted musician, almost anything can become an instrument of tuneful expression.  How our greatest composers came up with their symphonies, and sonatas, and nocturnes is something of a mystery to the musical layman.  Legendary rock guitarist Steve Vai was once inspired by the positions of small flower blooms on a vine that was growing on his fence.  In a moment of genius, he saw music in the life before him, and he transcribed the position of the blooms into notes on a staff.  The result was his song Weeping China Doll from the album The Story of Light.

Not all music has such storied origins, but where the music comes from is an important question that people have been trying to answer for a long time.  In fact, an entire scientific discipline has developed around the concept of understanding how music, or moreover, sound, has shaped human culture over the eons.  That discipline is called archaeoacoustics.

Archaeoacoustics refers to a burgeoning field of study relating to analysing the acoustic properties of ancient megalithic sites and Neolithic caves.  It’s a wondrous thing, and once you understand what’s happening, it almost seems a common sense connection.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

There are many sites and ancient structures that are said to have acoustic properties.  That means that sound played some part in their use, or was central to their significance in the cultures who built them.  Very recently, researchers have set out to record, analyse and determine the effect resonant properties of the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum on Malta – a small island in the Mediterranean Sea – might have had on the brains of people gathered there for rituals. The archaeologists involved found that deep (Basso or Baritone) vocalisations in the ‘oracle room’ of the Hypogeum – which is known to possess the most striking resonant properties of any natural cave – produced large amplitude oscillations.  Laboratory experiments have previously shown that such sound waves, on the order of 90 – 120 Hz, have the effect of inducing brain states that are similar to those achieved through direct meditation.  Indeed, it has long been the practice of those who meditate to include chants, mantras and sometimes music to facilitate a meditative state.

Hypogeum of Ħal Seflieni

These findings clearly indicate that the Ħal Saflieni culture undoubtedly used sound to enhance the rituals they performed in that space.  The same is thought to be true for many megalithic sites the world over.

A site in the Peruvian Andes, called Chavín de Huantar, is renowned for the acoustic properties of its ruins.  Researchers believe the Chavín people used the site for rituals and celebrations.  It’s thought that village priests would blow conch shell trumpets, called pututus, causing incredible reverberate echoes within the structure.

The use of sound for ritual purposes long predates any of these sites, however, as archaeoacoustic researchers are finding out.

The oldest paintings in human history appear on cave walls in southern France.  Lascaux, Chauvet, Grotte de Cussac, and many more sites in the picturesque towns of France’s wine country hold Neolithic wonders few eyes have ever seen, and few ears have ever heard it seems.

A striking image of a bull from The Hall of Bulls at Lascaux

One of the pioneers of this new science, Steven Waller PhD. of the University of Virginia, has conducted studies at several Neolithic cave art sites in Europe, as well as Native American rock art and other megalithic sites around the world.  He formulated the Rock Art Acoustics Theory, which is essentially the foundation of current archaeoacoustic research.  That theory says, basically, that such sites – sites like the caves of Lascaux, France, and native rock art at locations like Red Rock Canyon in the Mojave Desert – show a high degree of correlation between the specific location of the art and areas of enhanced echo effect.  Indeed, Waller says that much ancient rock art may have been an attempt by early peoples to not only makes sense of the events and sights in their lives, but in some cases, may have been an actual attempt to coax creatures out of rock, by creating complimentary images to the sounds they heard at those locations.

Wallace and co-author, Alan Garfinkel, asserted in a paper in the Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly, in 2012, that a well-known rock art figure in the Mojave Desert, known as kawaiisu, or the Master of the Animals, was created because the artist(s) was able to hear the sounds of several animals echoing off of the rock at that location. These are sounds that visitors to the site can hear, even to this day.  They assert that these findings indicate a complex and foundational relationship between the sounds, the rock, and the artwork, and it brings much about early indigenous world views into perspective.

Of course, one of the most important functions of archaeological research is the preservation of such sites, for continued study, and also for posterity.  But most preservation work is done with a one dimensional mindset.  Traditional protection efforts have been to preserve the artwork from a visual, and not an auditory perspective.

Case in point.  In 2014, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee met in Doha, Qatar, as a part of their ongoing efforts to provide legal protection to sites of historical importance around the world.  They considered 35 different sites, and ratified a vote to include Chauvet Cave (Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc) on the UNESCO World Heritage List.  This was an important precedent, and a step toward ensuring that the valuable artwork in the cave is available for future generations.  Though the site contains some of the best preserved Neolithic art in the world, it remains closed to the public, largely thanks to UNESCO.  However, to gratify the public’s need to experience such wonders, the French government constructed an exact replica of the cave at a nearby location, as a tourist attraction.  This seems like a wise and conscientious move, and indeed it will ensure that the original art will remain undisturbed by the throngs of potential onlookers, and also will allow thousands of people the opportunity to view the work of their ancestors.

But will they be able to recreate the acoustic properties of the ancient cave?

Likely not, thus visitors will not be afforded an opportunity to experience the true nature of the site.  This may ultimately have a detrimental effect on the field of archaeoacoustics, as public awareness and enthusiasm for the endeavour is required to generate funding for further research.  If tourists can’t experience the acoustic elements of these sites, then that aspect of our past will likely remain obscured.

Waller and many other people are working hard to guarantee a future for the field and the sites involved, through The Archeaoacoustics Research Project, and through grassroots efforts like The Archaeoacoustics Research Society.  Those groups and others like them are dedicated to the preservation of archaeological soundscapes.

Exciting things are waiting to be learned, and there are people doing everything they can to make sure everyone can enjoy the fruits of that labour.

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