In this article, I will introduce the subject of archaeoacoustics and ancient “musical instruments”. As we will see, these can be used in conjunction with a number of ancient sites from around the world.
The Archaeoacoustics Field of Study
Archaeoacoustics is the use of acoustical study within the wider scientific field of archaeology. This includes the study of the acoustics at archaeological sites, and the study of acoustics in archaeological artifacts. Over the last 40 years it has become increasingly obvious that studying the sonic nature of certain areas of archaeology can help us understand ancient cultures. Archaeoacoustics is an interdisciplinary field, it includes various fields of research including: archaeology, ethnomusicology, acoustics and digital modelling. These form the larger field of music archaeology.
One of the leading research groups publishing new papers on archaeoacoustics is SB Research Group (SBRG). SBRG is a multidisciplinary university project supported by University of Trieste, Italy “that aims to study from 2010 the architecture, geometry, shape and materials of ancient structures in Europe”.
Archaeoacoustics is an interesting new method for re-analyzing ancient sites, it uses different study parameters to re-discover forgotten technology which operates on the human emotional sphere.” (SBRG).
Engraved pututo (conch) Strombus shell, Chavin 1000-500 BC (CC BY 3.0)
Research over the last few decades is starting to shed light on the connection between ancient instruments and ancient sites. At Chavín de Huántar, Peru, Miriam Kolar of Stanford University reports in her article, “The Code of the Conch – How the science of sound explained an ancient Peruvian oracle”:
“Archaeoacoustic research—sonic science applied to archaeological evidence—has revealed secrets built into Chavín’s architecture, unlocked by the sound of conch shells that were buried for millennia.”
“Performing a replica shell horn inside Chavín’s galleries, I can feel through my body the resonances between instrument and architecture, a physically and emotionally transformative experience that would have been similarly sensed—but interpreted differently—by humans in the past”.
- Vibrations and sounds may have enhanced worship of Great Goddess Cybele
- Can You Hear the Past? Acoustic Archaeology is Beginning to Explore this New Historical Dimension
Chavín de Huántar and the work carried out by Stanford University provide us with a window into the acoustic past. A solid case has been made for the use of certain sound frequencies affecting the human emotional sphere, possibly in conjunction with psychotropic plants. We are generally led to believe that our ancestors were superstitious people who gleaned no real material benefit from their “rituals”. The evidence appears to be slowly eroding this theory. For example, if we combine the work carried out by Stanford with the work carried out by UCLA, it becomes clear that certain sound frequencies are capable of changing regional brain activity. From my own research and experience, I can add, whilst inside certain Egyptian pyramids, being immersed in these sound frequencies has a more pronounced effect than simply listening to the sound frequency on headphones.
Certain notes produced by the conch shell are amplified by the chamber it’s played in. I can say from personal experience, once a stone structure’s resonant pitch has been matched, you can feel sound waves entering the body. On the tours I help organise, the first contact people have with this effect can often be very surprising. In this setting, the human voice can often sound like a didgeridoo, in the past, Australian guests have looked around for someone playing a didgeridoo! Even though the sound is simply my voice, creating vowel sounds, which are then amplified by the chamber.
Figure 1. An Aztec conch shell trumpeter called a “quiquizoani” in Nahuatl from the Codex Magliabecchi (Public Domain)
People of the past may have experienced similar astonishment. Once the initial surprise is out of the way, I explain how altered states can be accomplished. This is where the practice of meditation can help. A quiet mind is key. Many of us have trouble simply sitting in silence; this can act as a barrier to the effects of sound. Relaxation and attention help to facilitate the process.
Another interesting ancient musical artifact is documented in a 1974 article from The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, “Double-chambered whistling bottles: A unique Peruvian pottery form” by Daniel K. Stat.
This article gives the results and conclusions of a seemingly innocent ancient artifact. Archaeologists had previously dismissed these “whistling bottles” as simple entertainment while pouring a drink. However, upon detailed study and analysis the intricacies of design and the acoustic properties have come to light. Human trials were conducted by the Franklin Institute and Hahnemann Medical College of Philadelphia. The sound level and range of frequencies produced by these artifacts was found to alter “heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration”.
- The Mysterious Connection Between Geophysics, Architecture and Biomedicine
- The incredible sound effects of Malta’s Hypogeum Hal Saflieni
Figure 2. Maya monkey whistle. (William Scott / BigStockPhoto)
“Is it possible that for thousands of years Peruvian civilization utilized sound to effect psycho-physiological reactions? Perhaps because of a more esoteric approach to life, the Andeans discerned a reality not readily apparent to modern mankind”.
Part of my research has centered on investigating the global spread of ancient sites demonstrating acoustic resonance properties. One question I wanted to try and answer was, “did a number of ancient cultures have an understanding of sound and use it for altered states of consciousness?”. Based on my own experiences at various ancient sites, it has become clear that archaeologists are generally misunderstanding our ancestors. Something they often label as “communication with the gods or spirit world” which is a type of catch all explanation that explains very little. Once the connection between acoustics and ancient sites had been revealed, a pattern could be found around the world. From Egypt to Peru, throughout the Mediterranean, across Europe to Scotland, as well as in the far east including India, a connection between sound and historical locations can be discerned.
Ancient acoustic artifacts and buildings analyzed through the lens of modern science are starting to reveal some tantalizing clues. A number of ancient peoples appear to have had an understanding and sacred science based on resonance and sound frequency. For more on this I suggest you read this fascinating article “The Fall and Rise of Resonance”. This article provides a great overview starting with various cultures and metaphysical beliefs in the Neolithic, which included resonance concepts. These include: The Egyptian Hermetecists, Hebrew mysticism and Gnosticism and the Greek Pythagorean school.
A central tenet of these various schools was the understanding of how to use certain places and sound frequencies. They may have thought of this as contacting the great spirit or their ancestors. Or perhaps they understood more than what we give them credit for. Modern science is revealing that certain areas of the brain “light up” when exposed to certain sound frequencies. Creativity, intuition, deep personal insights, epiphanies of understanding are all possibilities under these conditions.
There is an increasing body of scientific research (references at the end of this article), confirming that many ancient sites were built with acoustics as a central feature. We may find in time that many other sites like Chavin were built with this in mind. The acoustics features at Chavin seem to have dictated the entire layout of the site, including the diversion of two rivers. A massive task of human labor, planning and endeavor. This tells us something; the result of all this work was considered worthwhile. In the 21st century we also put huge amounts of effort into engineering projects, such as dams; we do this because we can derive a noticeable benefit from all of the work – power to run our homes and machines. Did the people of Peru also gain a noticeable benefit justifying their time and effort? Something we have forgotten or misunderstood?
Figure 3. Chavín de Huántar archaeological site in Peru (CC BY SA 3.0)
Articles on ancient acoustics are now becoming common place in the mainstream press; here is an example from October 2014. The International Business Times published an article “Stonehenge Was a ‘Giant Echo Chamber to Summon up the Ancient Spirits’”.
The article goes on to say. “Ancient man’s greatest monuments were giant echo chambers to create vast soundscapes to speak to the gods, according to new research.”