Multimedia monuments: exploring sound and vision in prehistory

Aaron Watson


Easter Aquorthies is a stone circle in north-east Scotland. This was the place where I first began to think about sound as an integral element in the experience of Neolithic and Bronze Age architecture. During a visit in 1995 I was struck by subtle echoes reflecting between the stones, and I later returned with loudspeakers and a digital recorder to map these effects. Over many years prior to this visit, sound must also have accompanied my visits to stone monuments across the British Isles, so why had I not considered this to be worthy of study? Why had monuments effectively been ‘silenced’?


Archaeologists interpret sites and landscapes through fieldwork. Whether survey, excavation or photography, these field ‘methods’ translate between the sensory experiences of the fieldworker, and the resulting archive of words and images – traditionally disseminated through publication. This is significant, as printed media are intrinsically limited with respect to the kinds of experience that they are able to capture and convey. My initial visit to Easter Aquorthies was with a notebook and a camera because these tools were suited to capturing the kinds of information which could be reproduced on the printed page.


The archaeological record is assembled through its disciplinary methods and representations. This manifests, and perpetuates, a past which is predominantly two-dimensional, monochrome, static, and silent. On my first visit to Easter Aquorthies I was biased towards seeing the stones and the landscape because my archaeological training had never suggested other possibilities. It was only subsequent collaborations with acousticians and musicians that afforded the possibility of listening as a method. 


To counter this ‘archaeological vision’, I now explore Neolithic and Bronze Age buildings through time-based media such as film, animation, and sound composition. These methods not only offer new ways of conveying ideas, but their creation demands novel and creative approaches to fieldwork and representation. For example, a live musical performance which I staged with John Crewdson at the 1999 Theoretical Archaeology Group conference sought to convey the power of sound in ways which would simply not be possible through publication. This was facilitated by several years sound recording at stone circles and chambered cairns across Britain. Precisely because such methods are unfamiliar to archaeological practice they promote the collection of new kinds of data. In turn, this opens the possibility for new and unexpected interpretations of the past.


My acoustic experience at Easter Aquorthies suggests that a ‘multimedia archaeology’ is not simply a 21st Century response to new technology or theory. Neolithic and Bronze Age people built sophisticated monuments which were able to converge substances and sensations in extraordinary ways, but they were also capable of conveying these experiences across many thousands of years. Multimedia is therefore a necessary complement to archaeological method, and requires both a grounding in archaeological evidence and time spent working in the landscape. As a discipline, ‘multimedia archaeology’ is able to acknowledge, measure and communicate the complex and fluid sensory qualities embedded within ancient places, offering new possibilities for interpretation in both the past and the present.


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