Archaeological approaches to sound


Chris Scarre


Sound is one of the ‘lost dimensions’ of experience of past societies, along with others such as taste and smell, and like them, something that we all share. The significance of sound, and more specifically of ‘musical’ behaviours is undeniable, but the study of its origins and the development, and the role that it played in prehistoric societies, is inevitably challenging. There are nonetheless a number of approaches that can lead us towards a fuller understanding of this all-important aspect of human experience. The first of them is ethnography, or the testimony of human musical behaviours among contemporary or recent non-western societies. The second is the archaeology of sound producers; and the third, the acoustics and archaeology of ‘special places’ which appear to have a ceremonial or monumental character and which therefore invite the investigation of their potential for past musical performance.


Ethnography, or ethnomusicology, provides a general background to any understanding of musical behaviour in archaeological contexts. It emphasises that the primary sound producer is the human body, whether that be through vocalisation or through other activities such as feet-stamping or slapping. Ethnomusicology also indicates the range of musical instruments employed by different societies.


Many of these ethnographically-attested sound-producers are made of organic materials that would not normally survive in the archaeological record, and our quest for the earliest secure evidence of objects used to produce sounds is necessarily limited by the issue of preservation. Wood is only rarely preserved from the distant past, but sound-producers of stone, bone, or (in more recent periods) ceramic do survive to throw light on the early development of musical instruments. The earliest known examples are the bone pipes with perforated finger holes from Upper Palaeolithic sites.


Our third point of access is the analysis of the acoustic properties of particular spaces, especially where other evidence suggests these were places in which sound played a role. For medieval churches or Classical Greek theatres, the importance of the auditory dimension is obvious and was taken into account in the design of these structures. Inferring musical or sound-related behaviours from prehistoric sites is more problematic but strong cases can sometimes be made. A classic example is the pre-Inca ceremonial site of Chavín de Huántar in the Peruvian Andes, where channels and galleries in the substructure create or amplify acoustic effects which may have been exploited in ceremonial practice. Studies of Palaeolithic painted caves in the Pyrenees and British Neolithic chambered tombs and stone circles have likewise documented acoustical characteristics that may have been drawn upon in rituals or ceremonies performed at these sites.


Understanding aural architecture requires an acceptance of the cultural variability of human sensory experiences. Twenty-first century technology provides us with an impressive array of equipment through which to examine surviving ancient structures. However hard we try, however, we will still hear acoustic environments from our own perspective as modern listeners. But given the prominence of ceremonial sites in prehistory, the development of new and better approaches to the archaeology of sound and soundscapes is a key research priority.


One Response to “Archaeological approaches to sound”

  1. Dr. Patrick Hunt Says:

    Following pre-Inca possibilities, I’m curious if anyone else has studied the likely Inca acoustics at Moray on the Anta Plateau in Peru as well as possible amphitheater acoustics at Machu Picchu and other contexts, using deliberate echoes for harmonizing effects as I’ve noted playing a wind instrument in such places. As a musician, published composer and academic interested in ethnomusicology, I often infer such places had such possible importance.

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