The term “archaeoacoustics” simply means the study of sound in archaeological contexts. There are two basic ways this can be done, by exploring natural sounds and acoustics at monuments and other sites, or by investigating and measuring the acoustic parameters of a place by use of electronic instrumentation.
The bullroarer is one of the earliest-known devices for making sound, dating back at least 17,000 years to the Palaeolithic period. Bullroarers are found the world over and seem to have been
invented independently by many different cultures. They often have great ritual or religious significance and are strongly connected with male initiation rituals. In some societies bullroarers are taboo to women, who are not allowed to see or hear them.
To sound a Bullroarer it is swung lasso style which causes it to spin and make a ‘humming type’ sound. It is called by several different names including ‘Burliwarni’, ‘Ngurrarngay’, and ‘Muypak’. They were used to display sacred symbols and sounded to warn the uninitiated that they were being shown. They were also used to send animals into ambush, and to alert one tribe of another’s presence, and in rainmaking ceremonies.
Located south of Sicily, the islands of Malta and Gozo are home to megalithic structures that were created by a highly developed
people more than a thousand years ahead of Stonehenge and the pyramids. The monuments, including ancient temples, represent free-standing architecture in its purest and most original form.
Malta’s subterranean Hal-Saflieni Hypogeum, architecturally intact after five thousand years, is known to have anomalous sound effects. This site’s architectural features not only mirror the above-ground megalithic buildings, but also imply a primitive understanding of acoustic behavior.
Previous archaeoacoustic investigations by Robert Jahn have examined the acoustic properties of a sample of chambered prehistoric (primarily Neolithic) megalithic structures in England and Ireland, including the major passage of Newgrange, Ireland (constructed c.3200 BC). These structures were found to exhibit a common acoustic property: all were characterized by primary resonance frequencies in the 95–120 Hz range, with most at 110–112 Hz.
Northern Ireland: Emain Macha (Navan Fort)
Among the Celtic artifacts unearthed at Emain Macha is a gold-alloyed ‘gong’ with a mandala relief carving (above) which presents a central 3-fold symmetry surrounded by an outer ring of 10 sets of concentric circles, composed of 3 circles each. It is quite notable that the 10-fold symmetry of the concentric circles reflects the 10% distance of Emain Macha to the ancient prime meridian of Giza, Egypt. Giant stone bowls found at sites like Newgrange confirm what scientists have been able to reproduce in the lab — that acoustic levitation can be achieved using concave piezoelectric elements to focus standing waves.
Scotland: Orkney’s Chambered Cairns
His research shows that certain prehistoric monuments exhibit specific sonic effects. At Maeshowe, for example, specific pitches of vocal chant, as well as drumming, inside the cairn produced specific, unsettling, effects in those present. In the chamber, the behaviour of sound was seen to be considerably different from that of the outside world, with the ancient stone walls amplifying noise to create a variety of audio effects. One of these effects is the phenomenon known as “standing waves”. These produce distinct areas of high and low intensity as the sound waves interact – either cancelling each other out, or combining to enhance, the sound.
Stonehenge was constructed in a series of phases over many centuries, and its appearance changed significantly. With each
change, its acoustic qualities would also have been transformed. While it is difficult to reconstruct the acoustics from these earlier times, it is possible to study final form of the monument as it stands (dating to between 2500 and 1600 BC). Research here is further complicated because many stones have fallen, or been removed altogether.
Overall, the results suggested that the stones at Stonehenge are able to contain and amplify higher frequency sounds, such as the human voice. In contrast, lower frequency sounds such as drums pass around these sarsens and can be heard for some distance. This means that most sounds made in the centre are not clearly transmitted beyond the rings of stone.
Mexico: Chichen Itza
A fascinating, though seldom discussed, mystery at Chichen Itza concerns the strange acoustic anomalies observable at the great ball court and the temple of Kukulkan. Words softly whispered at one end of the great ball court (measuring 545 feet long by 225 feet wide) are clearly audible all the way at the other end and a single clap or shout sounded in the center of the ball court will produce nine distinct echoes. Visitors have also commented on a curious acoustic phenomenon at the pyramid of Kukulkan where the sound of a hand clap is echoed back as the chirping sound of the Quetzal bird, the sacred bird associated with both the name of the pyramid and its deity Kukulkan/Quetzalcoatl.
Peru: Chavín de Huántar
German archaeologist Dr Heinrich Kusch said evidence of the tunnels has been found under hundreds of Neolithic settlements all over the continent. In his book – Secrets Of The Underground Door To An Ancient World – he claims the fact that so many have survived after 12,000 years shows that the original tunnel network must have been enormous.
Percussion: “Ringing Rocks”
We now know that sound was important to, and probably considered magical and mysterious by, people at least as far back as the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) painted caves of France and Spain, dating to tens of thousands of years ago. It has been found that some of the stalactites and stalagmites in them are musical, in that they will issue pure bell-, drum- or gong-like notes when struck. Some archaeologists refer to these musical calcite formations as “lithophones”.
Another natural sound sometimes characterising ancient archaeological places is the echo. In the Palaeolithic caves it has been found that echoes from the lithophones or human voices tend to be strongest from rock wall surfaces which contain the famous
rock paintings. One of the pioneers of this work is French-based researcher, Iegor Reznikoff, who used his own voice to explore the resonance and echo phenomena of the painted caverns. He also studied Bronze Age petroglyphs (rock carvings) at the edges of lakes near Helsinki, Finland, and found them to be carved on rock surfaces that produce distinctly more complex echoes than other surfaces when the initiating sound is delivered from boats on the lakes. (One of these lakes was the original Swan Lake.)
Other Ways the Old Stones Can Speak
Also, the architecture of some temple structures appears to have been deliberately designed so that percussion or wind would produce sounds providing weather warnings or even quite sophisticated “acoustic symbolism”. Examples of all these types of acoustic sites have been identified in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Greece, Britain and elsewhere, though there is much more research to be done.