The Soundscapes of Ancient Cultures
November 29, 2012 1:02 PM   Subscribe

Historically, archaeologists have largely ignored acoustical science as a tool for archaeological discovery. This is changing with the advent of acoustic archaeology. “Could the Maya have intentionally coded the sound of their sacred bird into the pyramid architecture? I think it is possible.Hear it for yourself in this video. While this is a pretty astounding feat of architectural engineering, it’s by no means the only example of archaeoacoustics that can be found at Chichen Itza, amongst the mayan people, or throughout the many other cultures who’ve built structures that integrate unique auditory phenomenon to stimulate the senses. [previously]/[previously]

While we've covered some modern examples and the temple of Kukulkan previously, Archaeoacoustics has continued to advance our knowledge and understanding of ancient cultures and the structures they built. As mentioned in this ArsTechnica article on the sound profiling of stonehenge, "Quite aside from any overt religious message, cult activity, and astronomical import, anyone entering the site would have felt the sense of sound change. Sound echoed, but in a specific way, bouncing from the stones' surfaces, but being rescued from noise by the interstices between them."

A joint paper with Brenda Kiser and David Lubman entitled Ancient Echoes: The Origins of Sound Sculptures expounds:
“Natural sounds found a place in ancient religions and myths. Not only were they a part of everyday reality, they constituted a language. Natural sounds were not noises to be disregarded or even to be enjoyed simply because of the pleasant ambience they created. The soundscape conveyed information useful to sustenance and important for survival. Sound became an important element of ritual. Drums and flutes and the human voice imitated elements of the soundscapes. Sounds used in ritual represented the gods that control nature, were intended to propitiate and even to imitate them. By imitating natural sounds, humans were beginning to control nature. Humans were becoming godlike.” […]

“But even if there is reason to believe that the soundscape remains as the original inhabitants heard it, can we learn anything of ancient peoples’ beliefs and culture from listening? I think so. We can only attempt to understand bygone cultures by understanding their beliefs in combination with the artifacts they left behind, including their soundscapes. Visual observation alone will not suffice. The ancient Maya left us an echo recorded in the stone steps of the Temple of Kukulkan. The sacred bird of like still sings. If only we learn again to listen."

“The Pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza is recognized around the world as an icon of Mexico. As such, even small details around it merit scholarly interest. One small detail ignored by archaeologists until now is the odd chirped echo that resounds from the pyramid's staircases in response to hand claps of people standing near its base. A physical explanation for the chirped echo is proposed: The staircase constitutes an acoustical diffraction grating. Two forms of analytical data are offered in support of this explanation. First, a mathematical simulation of the chirp fundamental frequency vs time is calculated. Then a sonogram of the recorded echo is shown to be in reasonable agreement with these calculations .”, according to acoustical consultant David Lubman.

There are other interesting features of the temple at Kukulcan, as well. For instance “at the spring and fall equinoxes (March 21 and September 22) the sun projects an undulating pattern of light on the northern stairway for a few hours in the late afternoon—a pattern caused by the angle of the sun and the edge of the nine steps that define the pyramid's construction. These triangles of light link up with the massive stone carvings of snake heads at the base of the stairs, suggesting a massive serpent snaking down the structure. Additionally, when one looks at the western face during the winter solstice, the sun appears to climb up the edge of the staircase until it rests momentarily directly above the temple before beginning its descent down the other side.” Watch it here.

There is also evidence that some of the cultures in South America went even further with the integration of audio-visual-sensory experiences and mind-expanding drugs:
“Miriam Kolar, a researcher at Stanford University's Center for Computer Research and Acoustics, has been studying the 3,000 year-old Chavin culture in the high plains of Peru. Kolar and her colleagues have been mapping a maze of underground tunnels, drains and hallways in which echoes don't sound like echoes.

"The structures could be physically disorienting and the acoustic environment is very different than the natural world," Kolar said. Ancient drawings from the Chavin culture show a people who were fascinated with sensory experiences -- ancient hippies if you will. "The iconography shows people mixed with animal features in altered states of being," said Kolar, who is presenting her recent work at a conference in Cancun, Mexico this week. "There is peyote and mucus trails out of the nose indicative of people using psychoactive plant substances. They were taking drugs and having a hallucinogenic experience."

If that wasn't enough, the mazes at Chavin de Huantar also include air ducts that use sunlight to produce distorted shadows of the maze's human participants. And sound waves from giant marine shells found in the maze in 2001 may have produced a frequency that actually rattled the eyeballs of those San Pedro cactus-using ancients, Kolar said.“

For more background and technical information, look here:
Convolution-Scattering Model for Staircase Echoes at the Temple of Kukulcan [pdf]
The Acoustics of Mayan Temples
A Full Simulation of the Quetzal echo at the Mayan pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza in Mexico
posted by nTeleKy (23 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
Yo.. I am entirely certain that the Mayans sent my car air freshener, through time, with interdimensional voodoo-- hear me out, man, hear me out.
posted by herbplarfegan at 1:24 PM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Perhaps snakes in Mexico, at the time of the Mayans, differed from those I am familiar with, but
the many I have seen and owned did not make sounds...
posted by Postroad at 1:43 PM on November 29, 2012

When Ms Wimp and I visited Chichen Itza we got to try this for ourselves. It is astounding. There was also a pelota court that would precisely double echo claps when you stood in a certain spot.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:44 PM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Are you familiar with any snakes which rattle?
posted by mike_bling at 1:53 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Was I the only person looking for an article by Dr. Howard Bannister?
posted by pentagoet at 1:53 PM on November 29, 2012


posted by Kafkaesque at 2:07 PM on November 29, 2012

*slow clap*
posted by Kabanos at 2:07 PM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

See also whispering galleries
posted by empath at 2:31 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wow! I'm not sure what to think, but these links are really cool! Especially the "Watch it here" video.

If the classical Greeks understood perspective well enough to taper the width of Doric columns, maybe the pre-Columbian Maya understood acoustics well enough to make diffraction gratings from stone. They had a well developed number system, so maybe?
posted by Kevin Street at 2:39 PM on November 29, 2012

Great Post. I spent some time reading and watching/listening to the links, and find it all very intriguing, but by inner skeptic is saying "unintended result" instead of "designed feature". Is there anything in all this that proves that the designers meant for these to be happening? Like a carving at Chichen Itza with a little map and arrow saying "stand here and clap to listen to the bird and snake"? Or an inscription at Stonehenge that says "Don't worry, those outside circle can't hear you talking, only the drums"?

There's a whole lot lumped together in this, and no doubt some of these are designed, but it seems like some could be just lucky happenstance with explanations crafted to fit.

When you put up hard flat surfaces you're going to get echoes. Hard flat surfaces at varying distances are going to result in delays and interference.

I Want To Believe (?)
posted by achrise at 3:14 PM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't expect a whole lot from a website calling itself "The Arrows of Truth", but this:
It is quite notable that the 10-fold symmetry of the concentric circles reflects the 10% distance of Emain Macha [in Ireland] to the ancient prime meridian of Giza, Egypt.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:26 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

ah, me wrong. I had forgot about the rattlesnake, which makes a threatening sound when a potential enemy comes close to it....and yes, there are species in Mexico.
posted by Postroad at 3:40 PM on November 29, 2012

Is there anything in all this that proves that the designers meant for these to be happening?

I believe most of the information that would give us historical evidence of intention on the part of the Maya was destroyed by the Conquistadors and their priests. Then again, there is still a pretty large population of mayans who might have some histroical knowledge. I've had a hard time finding much in that regard, though.

I personally feel there's at least enough evidence for the sun-derived descent. This page lays out how the orientation and construction could be determined in a pretty straight-forward way. It also fits in with the general mythology of Kukulkan/Quetzalcoatl.

As far as the acoustical effects, I'm not aware of any historical documentation specifically referring to those. I do think Lubman makes a good case, especially in the paper with Kiser. It's such a specific effect in such a carefully constructed temple, specifically related to the mythology; it would be quite the coincidence, in any regard.

More general reading on the mythology:
The Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Cult of Sacred War at Teotihuacan [pdf, different location, similar mythology]
Quetzalcoatl, the Maya Maize God, and Jesus Christ [mormon alert?]

I don't expect a whole lot from a website calling itself "The Arrows of Truth", but this: [...] What.

Yeah, I could have qualified that link. It's a flaky-ish new-age-type site, which I try to avoid (with much difficulty trying to research Mayan stuff due to the preponderance of it in comparison with solid information). I included it because it listed the largest number of structures that potentially have intentionally-designed acoustic properties. I have not verified the information on that page or sought primary sources for it, it was more of a "here's some other ones that might be interesting" context for the broader practice (as well as whispering galleries and some cathedrals, as mentioned above). If you want a really "what" site, try out this one I came across when researching this post, but don't blame me for any time spent reading it.
posted by nTeleKy at 5:03 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are plenty of examples in pre-scientific times of sensory experiences as a means of knowledge transmission.

One example, from 16th-century Europe, is Guilio Camillo's forgotten, but widely famous at the time, Theater of Memory. And, of course, there are the well-known acoustical properties of some Greek ruins.

We've forgotten much about our past, as Francis Yates reminded many in 1964 with her book about Bruno (and Antikythera reminded us more recently). Mocking these facts doesn't make them away. (Obviously the alchemy Newton studied for years was not the tiny shriveled corpse displayed in today's Theater of Forget This.)
posted by Twang at 6:32 PM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm having a hard time finding information on this via Google, but Peruvian Whistling Vessels are a trip. I used to get together with friends and use them. Five (or more) vessels produce high sounds, which produce, psychoacoustically, what I believe are called undertones. They are not overtones, which are audible when recorded. (Overtones are simple, and mathematical. Look it up if you're interested.)

But what happens when you blow these whistling vessels together is not able to be recorded. It is something that is perceived as happening within your own head. It's like a low fluctuating tone, octaves below the register of the whistling vessels. Psychically, what it does, is to focus your attention on some weird spot inside your own head. It feels audible, but is purely a neurological phenomenon. You can see how this could be an aid to refocusing attention, a primary step in changing awareness through meditation.

This was a passing New Age fad when I encountered it, but is very much Old Age, in fact. I took a class in Ancient Peruvian Culture in 1971, but hell if I can remember which pre-Incan culture invented whistling vessels. I do remember my professor describing his experiences with coca, however.
posted by kozad at 7:41 PM on November 29, 2012 [8 favorites]

Really interesting stuff. Thanks.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:07 PM on November 29, 2012

A couple years ago I visited the Chavin de Huantar site up in the Andes in Peru. It was a religious/ceremonial center, and the tour guide said something fascinating.

Apparently there were tunnels underneath the main public gathering space, and the priests could direct water from the nearby stream through these tunnels, creating powerful and haunting and terrifying echoing sounds that could only have sounded cosmic and supernatural to those present.

In this way, apparently, the priests could pretend to have power over the gods themselves (or could uniquely predict when they would make certain world-encompassing sounds), and this ability was central to the warrior-priests domination of the peoples of the surrounding region.

I don't know how modern archaeologists know this for sure, but sounds extraordinary if true...
posted by lewedswiver at 9:03 PM on November 29, 2012

kozad, the effect you heard with the whistles is probably binaural beats. A pair of whistles really can create a low tone that only exists inside your head. I remember reading vaguely new-agey articles, decades ago, about the psychological effects of binaural beats, and messing around with computer programs to generate them on headphones.
posted by moonmilk at 9:27 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Guitar players: binaural beats..... isn't this what happens when chiming one string on the 5th fret and another string on the 7th fret? When the strings are in tune, the oscillation disappears.

Back in the Pleistocene I used to run a radio called an R-390. It had a crystal that functioned as a "beat frequency oscillator" used in calibrating the tuners. It worked on the same principle.

Quite accurate for a mechanical device, way back when we hadn't yet learned to slice bread. I'm not really surprized that our ancestors liked to mess around with this stuff. I mean crikey, they even knew geometry.
posted by mule98J at 9:54 PM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

A couple years ago I visited the Chavin de Huantar site up in the Andes in Peru. It was a religious/ceremonial center, and the tour guide said something fascinating.

This is the same Chavin culture from the "Acoustic Archaeology Yielding Mind-Tripping Tricks" article.

From M.A.T.R.I.X. (Making Archaeology Teaching Relevant In the XXI century): EARLY HORIZON, FIRST CIVILIZATION, CHAVIN:
"The circular wall of the plaza has a frieze of jaguars, part human-part animal figures, shells, and hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus plants. The Old Temple was 4 stories, with fancy engineering for galleries, air ducts open to the roof, and a drainage system to handle the 5-8-month rainy season. According to Lumbreras, the water would have roared rushing through.

An important object deep in the center of the platform is the ³Lanzon,² a 2-ton, 15-foot high white granite stele of an unusual shape that is carved with a smiling human-looking figure with a fanged, snarling mouth (indicating the supernatural). The figure is called the Smiling God, and assumed to be male; it has clawed hands and feet, circular ear pendants, bracelets, and snakes writhing out of its head."

Also, "Popular Archaeology: Magic Sounds of Peru's Ancient Chavín de Huántar" and the site you mention is the subject of this blog post by a family of Latter-Day Saints that has some pictures...

According to wikipedia they were likely using vilca as a snuff and/or Echinopsis pachanoi (San Pedro) cactus You can find some examples of the artwork with the nose-dripping in "On the Origins of Ayahuasca". The Chavin also get a mention in "Genesis of Eden", which I [disclaimer] randomly came across and haven't thoroughly examined yet[/disclaimer], but looks pretty...interesting, none-the-less.

Huh...that is a rather eccentric set of links. I think it's time for bed.
posted by nTeleKy at 10:27 PM on November 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is it just me, or is the "Watch it here" video faked? It looks like the "shadow" was just painted on in postproduction.
posted by alexei at 7:40 PM on November 30, 2012

I don't think it's time-lapse or anything, I'd guess it's added in. The effect happens over the course of a few hours, IIRC. I mean, none of the people in the foreground move, so I'm pretty sure it's not "live".

Here's what appears to be a time lapse over the course of 1.5 hours, according to the photographer.

There is also apparently a 2 hour live video on the exploratorium; I'm not patient enough to get their antiquated streaming formats working with my setup, let me know if it works for you.
posted by nTeleKy at 9:21 PM on December 2, 2012

And, of course, there are the well-known acoustical properties of some Greek ruins.

posted by homunculus at 2:46 PM on December 4, 2012

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