Imagining Our Own Past and the World Beyond

All the way back to the Greeks and before, European culture is rooted in worship and theater. Now a budding field of archaeology brings us new evidence of elements of theater in ceremonial locations going back thousands of years in both Europe and the New World.

The stones of ancient outdoor plazas rang with strange sounds that scientists are beginning to be able to reproduce. We are beginning to learn what an oracle sounds like.

This year for the first time the American Association for the Advancement of Science had a session on a promising new science called archaeoacoustics, the study of the sounds of the past. This field offers another means of exploring the endlessly fascinating subject of the mental processes of humans of the past. It is difficult enough to imagine the thinking of our own grandparents, let alone historical figures of past centuries, yet we love the mysteries of the more distant past. Something in us wants to imagine those ways of seeing the world, or, in this case, hearing it.

In its debut before the wider scientific world, archaeoacoustics offered a symposium with three speakers, one of whom will soon become the first graduate student to earn a doctorate in this field, at the same time that her first book will be published. It’s not too hard to imagine this book making a splash. Or some thunder.

A second speaker was an engineer who has been compulsively investigating this field because he can’t help himself. His presentation verged on poetry, with his talk of a world beyond, evoked by sound. And the third speaker was one of the founders of the field, a professional acoustician who makes his living controlling
noise and designing and tuning the acoustic properties of concert halls. David Lubman had the clout to persuade his fellow scientists that archaeoacoustics was worth a symposium. Science can help explore the sounds of the past.

All three panelists were at pains to point out that in an era of machinery our soundscapes have changed. The sound of motors and overflying aircraft corrodes the acoustical world and many of us rarely experience real soundscapes that communicate the properties of a place and its life. We are losing our feel for them. Maybe our interest can be re-kindled through the power of the world beyond.

There is a ritual space in the Yucatan Chichen Itza site that is called the ball court of the gods. How could it be anything else? It’s 278 feet long with 28-foot-high walls on each side, far larger than the customary Central American ball court. Acoustician David Lubman says those parallel walls can create all sorts of interesting auditory echoes, and the Maya priests must have been adept at using these properties. He is quite comfortable calling it theater, in a respectful way. In fact, he initially made his presentation about it at a professional conference last year on “The Acoustics of Ancient Theatres.”

So what does an oracle sound like?

Stonehenge, says investigator Steven J Waller. He has discovered that two pipers standing a few feet apart in a field, playing the same tone, generate an interference pattern that to a blindfolded person walking around them, sounds like stone pillars between them and the pipers. He has literally mapped out this interference pattern and come up with a map of the stone circle of Stonehenge. He has also generated interference patterns that have nodes corresponding to the vast Avebury circle, with its 98 stones. “With the tools of modern science, we know it is an interference pattern explained by the reinforcement and cancellation of waves of pressure in the air. But ancient peoples must have taken it as something from a world beyond that of our normal senses, maybe the realm of the gods.”

Waller started down his path of soundscape exploration because he was fascinated by petroglyphs. He was surprised at what can happen to sound at petroglyph sites. Many of them have echoes, he says. “And when you hear an echo from a stone wall, it sounds as if it is actually coming from behind that wall.” This led him to mythology about entities that live inside the rocks, perhaps in caves with secret entrances, “a spirit world on the other side of an echoing wall.”

Waller’s outdoors experiences also got him thinking about the raw power of some of the sounds of nature, and how people might think of them, too, as manifesting forces of a spirit realm. Thunder and lightning, for instance, which he links to iconography found in many petroglyphs. Or the sound of large hooved animals stampeding. At this point, Waller pointed to the abundance of cave art portraying animals with hoofs. And a great many axes.

Drumming, he added, is also portrayed.Then there is the omnipresent Kokopelli and his flute, akin to the piper in the field. Aware of his scientific audience, Waller seemed to be holding himself back from rhapsodizing at length on these themes.People found it spellbinding nonetheless, and he was surrounded by a crowd eager for more when the symposium ended

The composer R. Murray Schafer has been writing about soundscapes for years. He’s the one who coined the word. Like the archaeoacousticians, Schafer laments the various forms of sound pollution that deaden our senses to the auditory world around us. Schafer writes of how puny the sounds of natural forces can make us feel. In terms of raw power, unassisted humans can come nowhere near generating the decibel level of a clap of thunder. But Schafer points out that as we formed our guilds of masons and learned to build cathedrals, we acquired the power to bring the thunder into our ritual spaces by inventing the pipe organ. And now, he adds, with the amplified guitar in the rock and roll arena.

It was not an archaeologist but a tour guide who first spotted a dragon of light descending the steps of the Kukulkan pyramid at Chichen Itza at the spring equinox. The occasion has since become a destination for new agers, who have taken to clapping their hands rhythmically as the light arrives along the edge of the staircase. In 1998, David Lubman analyzed the way the sound of a handclap is reflected by the staircase. The echo of a handclap in front of the dragon staircase is the call of the quetzal bird. And you could clearly see it in the sonograms he provided, and hear it in the recordings he played. Like Steven Waller, Lubman turns to mythology for an explanation, noting the importance of the quetzal as a messenger of the gods.

And he, too, could rhapsodize. “But you have to see the mating flight of the male quetzal! He comes at ferocious speed straight down from very high, his long feathers trailing behind him in waves.The colors! You can literally see the maize fall from the heavens, its head breaking off, revealing the grain.” It’s beyond imagining. To feel the power, you would have to be there, clapping with the new agers and hearing the echo coming back as the call of the messenger bird from inside the pyramid.It gets better. At either end of the Chichen Itza ball court is a temple. A person speaking in one of those temples can be heard by a person in the other, 540 feet away, and can also be heard by a person in the ball court, as a “disembodied voice.” Lubman says we can only imagine how much stronger the effect was with the smoother frescoed surface the walls would have had thousands of years ago.

Miriam Kolar of Stanford University gave the symposium an action-packed tour of her world of the last few years, which is located high in the Andes in Peru. It is an apparent ceremonial location at 3178 meters called Chavin de Huantar. It is about three thousand years old, and abundant among its depictions are predatory cats from lower elevations and psychoactive plants. This temple is the basis of her PHD work and it could be that with the possible exception of locals, no one living knows this temple better than Miriam Kolar. And she does not hesitate to use locals and a great many coinvestigators in her exploration of how this ancient world might have sounded.

Depictions by these pre-Inca people on the path of a massive labyrinth of waterworks used to reach the location often include faces with upturned eyes and mucus trailing from the nose. The picture is of disorientation, at length reaching the temple to reveal an open plaza with seating, a set of stairs and passages leading to an inner chamber.

Kolar depicts the mission of her new field of science as to seek “contextualized material evidence from the human past, in order to understand ancient life…to study how sound could have been important to ancient peoples and places.” It was sensible for her to go to locals for an understanding of what she found in the inner chamber – three thousand year old conch shells, modified for producing sounds. If this were a rock concert arena, the inner chamber would be the sound booth. But in this case the instruments were not on the stage but inside the sound booth.

What are we to make of this? David Lubman might speculate about a priestly class seeking to mystify the crowds. But Incas were not Maya, and Andes pre-Incas were even more removed from that bloodthirsty civilization on the Yucatan. We might have something very different here, and we’ll have to wait for her book to find out what Miriam Kolar speculates.She told the symposium that the sound of the labyrinth was fascinating, with its tumbling waters, and its climbs in shaped channels between walls, but for the most part her measurements have dealt with the plaza and its relationship with the chamber.

There are three tunnels built between them, the central one of which is obvious from the amphitheater. The other two flanking it have openings that are more concealed as part of the staircases. She went to traditional players of conch shells, called patutus, to find out what sorts of sounds they could evoke from the instruments, and they all traveled to the site to experiment and measure. People listening in the plaza described the subjective effect of hearing patutus played in the chamber as “disorienting.” The players explored a number of effects, and it was fairly easy for them to evoke the roars of big jungle cats, among many other sounds.

The measurements this collaborative crew took at Chavin de Huantar were exhaustive, and, as might be expected of a presentation to an audience of scientists, were displayed in great detail. In essence, what they show is that the comparison of the inner chamber to the sound booth of a rock arena is apt. The mixing board used by a sound crew always has equalizers, tuners that can amplify or diminish selected frequencies. Kolar has found that the architecture of the passages between the chamber do the same thing. “They perform, in effect, as equalizers, an architectural acoustic filter system that favors sound frequencies of the Chavin patutus and human voice.”

Tanatalizingly, she goes on to say they “conducted psychoacoustic experiments” that suggest the creators of the site built Chavin in part “for acoustic effect, appropriate to a probable oracle center.” So, the investigators speculate, these ancients were seeking to get the world beyond to speak. And it goes way back. Lubman points to the Chauvet Cave’s four-second dwell time for the echo of the sound of a drop of water.

Maybe we have to experience the effects to get beyond the simplistic. Maybe we have to climb through the labyrinth. Maybe in order to feel what would have driven people to move those enormous stones we have to carry a certain desire through the labyrinth or along the ancient ley lines that stretch between ancient megaliths. Or maybe we need to start taking some measurements in our rock arenas. Perhaps there are other modern remnants of ancient practices. I think of the totem poles and spirit houses of the Gitxan people of the Skeena River, reflecting an established high civilization that stretches more than a thousand miles along the coast.

Looking at ancient monuments it is easy enough to imagine a priestly class of some primitive society resorting to theatrical tricks in a quest for power, but it violates the law of parsimony – these monuments represent a far greater investment than necessary. Any mechanic of power will tell you it takes a lot less than this to bamboozle the people. But if we consider the way the stones were laid out in astronomical as well as acoustical alignments, perhaps we get a clue.

There has been much speculation about the ancient shell middens of Pinnacle Cave, a site near the tip of Africa where occupation by creatures something like humans goes back a million years or more. As the world glaciated, the tide pools would have retreated farther and farther away, and some evolutionary theorists speculate that a knowledge of the relationship between the stars and the tides might have developed as these beings sought to keep making the trip to get the shellfish with their rich omega 3’s to fuel the evolutionary investment of their brains. Add to that mix the various forms that language would have taken, such as gesture, and it is not all that hard to imagine the roots of theater going back to Pinnacle Cave and the beginnings of what it is to be human.

* I heartily recommend Bernie Krause’s book: The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places — wonderful stories of things he’s seen and done in places none of us will ever get to see and be.

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Steve Heimel has spent more than 28 years at APRN.  He is currently the host of Alaska Morning News, Alaska Economic Report and Talk of Alaska and a reporter on science and environmental issues.   He was educated in art academies and remains a practicing artist.  He has been a tireless advocate for innovation in public broadcasting since moving to it from commercial broadcasting in 1974, where he worked at the top stations in two of the nation's top ten radio markets – KILT in Houston, and WDVR in Philadelphia.  He has been a consultant for the NPR Training Channel, Pocahontas Broadcasting, and CPB's Mid-level Producers' Workshops.   He was one of the founders of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, and Audio Independents.  He led the first journalist's exchange mission to the Soviet Far East in 1989.  He has walked 1600 miles of the Appalachian Trail, and is writing his memoirs, entitled "It's Only Radio."   He also hosts THE TRUCK STOP, a weekly Sunday afternoon traditional American music program on public radio in Anchorage.

He has been a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science since 1979.