From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Archaeoacoustics is the use of acoustical study as a methodological approach within archaeology. This may for example involve the study of the acoustics of archaeological sites, or the study of the acoustics of archaeological artefacts. Since many cultures explored through archaeology were focused on the oral and therefore the aural, it is becoming increasingly recognised that studying the sonic nature of parts of archaeology can enhance our understanding. This is an interdisciplinary field which includes areas such as archaeology, ethnomusicology, acoustics and digital modelling, and that is a part of the wider field of music archaeology. There is particular interest in prehistoric music.

Notable work[edit]

Dr. Aaron Watson undertook work on the acoustics of numerous archaeological sites, including that of Stonehenge.[1] He also investigated numerous chamber tombs and other stone circles. Archaeologist Paul Devereux's work has looked at ringing rocks, Avebury and various other subjects, and his book Stone Age Soundtracks [2] provides a wide overview. Dr. Ian Cross of Cambridge University has explored lithoacoustics,[3] the use of stones as musical instruments. Dr. Rupert Till of Huddersfield University has also explored Stonehenge's acoustics, along with Dr. Bruno Fazenda of Salford University. Dr. Damian Murphy of the University of York has studied measurement techniques in acoustic archaeology.[4] Iegor Reznikoff and Michel Dauvois have studied the prehistoric painted caves of France, and found links between the artworks' positioning and acoustic effects.[5] An AHRC project headed by Dr. Rupert Till of Huddersfield University, Professor Chris Scarre of Durham University and Dr. Bruno Fazenda of Salford University, studies similar relationships in the prehistoric painted caves in northern Spain.[6] Steven Waller has also studied the links between rock art and sound. Panagiotis Karampatzakis and Vasilios Zafranas investigate the Acoustic Properties of Acheron Nekromantio, Aristoxenus acoustic vases, and the evolution of acoustics in the ancient greek and roman odea. Miriam Kolar and colleagues from Stanford University studied various spatial and perceptual attributes of Chavín de Huántar.[7]


The International Study Group on Music Archaeology (ISGMA) includes archaeoacoustical work. It is a pool of researchers devoted to the field of music archaeology. The study group is hosted at the Orient Department of the German Archaeological Institute Berlin (DAI, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Orient-Abteilung) and the Department for Ethnomusicology at the Ethnological Museum Berlin (Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, SMB SPK, Abteilung Musikethnologie, Medien-Technik und Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv). It comprises research methods of musicological and anthropological disciplines, such as archaeology, organology, acoustics, music iconology, philology, ethnohistory, and ethnomusicology. The Acoustics and Music of British Prehistory Research Network was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, led by Rupert Till and Chris Scarre, as well as Professor Jian Kang of Sheffield University's Department of Architecture. It has a list of researchers working in the field, and links to many other relevant sites. An e-mail list has been discussing the subject since 2002 and was set up as a result of the First Pan-American/Iberian Meeting on Acoustics by Victor Reijs.[8]

Past interpretations controversy[edit]

An early interpretation of the idea of archaeoacoustics was that it explored acoustic phenomena encoded in ancient artifacts. For instance, the idea that a pot or vase could be "read" like a gramophone record or phonograph cylinder for messages from the past, sounds encoded into the turning clay as the pot was thrown. There is little evidence to support such ideas, and there are few publications claiming that this is the case. In comparison, the more contemporary approach to the field now has many publications and a growing significance. This earlier approach was first raised in the 6 February 1969 issue of New Scientist magazine, where it was discussed in David E. H. Jones's light-hearted "Daedalus" column. He wrote:

[A] trowel, like any flat plate, must vibrate in response to sound: thus, drawn over the wet surface by the singing plasterer, it must emboss a gramophone-type recording of his song in the plaster. Once the surface is dry, it may be played back.

— Jones, 1982[9]

Jones subsequently received a letter from one Richard G. Woodbridge III who claimed to have already been working on the idea and said that he had sent a paper on the subject to the journal Nature. The paper never appeared in Nature, but the August 1969 edition of the journal Proceedings of the IEEE printed a letter from Woodbridge entitled "Acoustic Recordings from Antiquity". In this communication, the author stated that he wished to call attention to the potential of what he called "Acoustic Archaeology" and to record some early experiments in the field. He then described his experiments with making clay pots and oil paintings from which sound could then be replayed, using a conventional record player cartridge connected directly to a set of headphones. He claimed to have extracted the hum of the potter's wheel from the grooves of a pot, and the word "blue" from an analysis of patch of blue color in a painting.[10]

In 1993, archeology professor Paul Åström and acoustics professor Mendel Kleiner performed similar experiments in Gothenburg, and reported that they could recover some sounds.[11]

An episode of Mythbusters explored the idea; Episode 62: Killer Cable Snaps, Pottery Record found that while some generic acoustic phenomena can be found on pottery, it is unlikely that any discernible sounds (like someone talking) could be recorded on the pots unless the ancient peoples had the technical knowledge to deliberately put the sounds on the artifacts.

As early as circa 1902, Charles Sanders Peirce wrote: "Give science only a hundred more centuries of increase in geometrical progression, and she may be expected to find that the sound waves of Aristotle's voice have somehow recorded themselves."[12]

In popular culture[edit]

  • An episode of Mysteryquest on History called Stonehenge featured Rupert Till and Bruno Fazenda conducting acoustic tests at Stonehenge and at the Maryhill Monument, a full-sized replica of Stonehenge in the USA.
  • Gregory Benford's 1979 short story "Time Shards" concerns a researcher who recovers thousand-year-old sound from a piece of pottery thrown on a wheel and inscribed with a fine wire as it spun. The sound is then analyzed to reveal conversations between the potter and his assistant in Middle English.
  • Rudy Rucker's 1981 short story "Buzz" includes a small section of audio recovered from ancient Egyptian pottery.
  • A 2000 episode of The X-Files, "Hollywood A.D.", features "The Lazarus Bowl", a mythical piece of pottery reputed to have recorded on it the words that Jesus Christ spoke when he raised Lazarus from the dead.
  • In the 1996 game Amber: Journeys Beyond, this phenomenon is referred to as "stone tape theory" and a key part of the game's plot.
  • CSI: Crime Scene Investigation used this in 2005 episode Committed, where an inmate's conversation is partially recorded on a clay jar.
  • In the first season episode of Fringe entitled "The Road Not Taken", an electron microscope is used to reproduce sounds captured on a partially melted window.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Watson, A. and Keating, D. 1999. Architecture and sound: an acoustic analysis of megalithic monuments in prehistoric Britain. Antiquity 73, 325-36.
  2. ^ Paul Devereux and Tony Richardson, 'Stone Age Soundtracks: The Acoustic Archaeology of Ancient Sites', Vega, 2001.
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ Iegor Reznikoff and Michel Dauvois, Bulletin de Ia Societe Prehistonque Francaise (85. 238-246; 1988).
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Reijs, V.M.M., MegaSound: Sound in Irish megalithic buildings, First Pan-American/Iberian Meeting on Acoustics, 2002, Session 3aAA2, page 2284.
  9. ^ David E.H., Jones (1982), The Inventions of Daedalus: A Compendium of Plausible Schemes, W.H. Freeman & Company, ISBN 0-7167-1412-4 
  10. ^ Woodbridge, R.G. (August 1969), "Acoustic Recordings from Antiquity", Proceedings of the IEEE, 57 (8): 1465–1466, doi:10.1109/PROC.1969.7314 
  11. ^ Kleiner, Mendel; Åström, Paul (1993), "The Brittle Sound of Ceramics - Can Vases Speak?", Archeology and Natural Science, 1: 66–72 
  12. ^ Peirce, C. S. (manuscript circa 1902), "Reason's Rules," Collected Papers vol. 5 (1934), paragraph 542. The quote is from near the end.