The theatre at Aspendos, Turkey is famous for its magnificent acoustics. Even the slightest sound made at the center of the orchestra can be easily heard as far as the upper most galleries. It is the best preserved and most complete example of a Roman theatre.

Ancient Acoustic Artifacts and Communication with the Gods


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

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”.

Purpose and Use of Ancient Conch Musical Instruments

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

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.

Peruvian Whistling Vessels

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”.

Figure 2. Maya monkey whistle. (William Scott / BigStockPhoto)

Figure 2. Maya monkey whistle. (William Scott / BigStockPhoto)

Conclusions from the Above Article

“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”.

Analysis of Worldwide Ancient Sites with Acoustic Properties

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

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.”

Figure 4. Stonehenge has been likened to a giant echo chamber

Figure 4. Stonehenge has been likened to a giant echo chamber (Public Domain)

Pyramids in Egypt

I could easily dedicate an entire article to the subject of acoustic chambers inside the pyramids of Egypt. I visit Egypt and the Great Pyramid on a regular basis, (at the time of writing I have been there around 25 times). Great minds and ordinary people have marvelled at the Great Pyramid for thousands of years – was it just a tomb as we are told by archaeologists? One fact that can’t be argued is that the main chamber of the Great Pyramid amplifies sound. I expect there are a number of academics who would like to dismiss this fact as a “coincidence” caused by the construction material. They might point out rooms constructed of stone as well as caves produce an acoustic effect. However, there are a large number of engineering features inside the Great Pyramid and surrounding the Kings Chamber that enhance the acoustic effect. Was all of this time and effort put in for no other reason than constructing a nice sounding room for the pharaohs’ body?

Sir Flinders Petrie in his book (8) “The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh” gives us some tantalizing information in his description of the Kings Chamber and the Great Pyramid.

“On the E. and W. are two immense limestone walls wholly outside of; and independent of; all the granite floors and supporting blocks. Between these great walls all the chambers stand, unbonded, and capable of yielding freely to settlement.”
“But the floor of the chamber is raised above the base of the walls; a peculiar arrangement for which some reason must have existed.”

Sir Flinders Petrie assumed the free movement design of the King’s Chamber was due to settlement. If we combine the free movement with the raised floor, a picture of a chamber designed to resonate freely starts to form. For the purposes of this article I must be brief. I could also talk at length about the acoustic properties of the Grand Gallery leading up to the Kings Chamber. Suffice to say, with dimensions of 8.6 metres (28 ft) high and 46.68 metres (153.1 ft) long, it acts as an amplifier leading into the Kings Chamber. A footstep on the metal ladder at the bottom of the Grand Gallery can be heard in the King’s Chamber. An astonishing feature!

The Crystal “Shrine” at Karnak

At Karnak Temple, which is often referred to as the world’s largest temple, although a “temple city” might be more fitting, is a little known outdoor museum. As you enter the main entrance at Karnak head left; once you walk outside the main temple head back on yourself. You will see a ticket booth and a line of Sekmet/Mut statues. The extra ticket is a reasonable price and allows you to enter an area normally devoid of other tourists. Once inside head towards the back, you will soon see a row of crystal “shrines” as pictured below.

Figure 5. Crystal ‘shrine’ at Karnak (Author provided)

Figure 5. Crystal ‘shrine’ at Karnak (Author provided)

The main “shrine” of interest for acoustical purposes is in the far back corner. These shrines have been re-constructed; originally they would have been solid crystal and must have had incredible acoustics. Even today they sound remarkable and respond very well to the human voice. For anyone with an interest in crystals, the opportunity to stand inside what we can call a “crystal room” albeit with open ends, is very enjoyable. Crystal bowls are used as part of sound therapy at yoga centers around the world. There is a good reason for this, the vibrations from crystal bowls can penetrate inside the body. I would argue, in a similar way to this crystal shrine.

The Effects of Sound Frequencies on the Body

For the purposes of this article, I won’t go into a long exposé. My main intention for writing about sound and archaeoacoustics is to encourage others to get involved. This is a subject I love, I love experiencing sound for its emotional uplift. Sharing something so meaningful is a true joy, to watch others experience the sites and frequencies as I do, is very touching. Part of the reason I love this whole area is, everyone is aware of how music can affect them emotionally. Certain music can make us feel irritated or angry, other music has the ability to make us cry, with a range of emotions evoked in between the two extremes.

Sound therapy builds on this. I would recommend reading this article based on research conducted at UCLA: “Ancient Architectural Acoustic Resonance Patterns and Regional Brain Activity”.

This article illustrates how certain sound frequencies in the 110hz range alter brainwaves and stimulate different areas of the brain. I could write at length concerning the interesting experiences I have had at ancient sites. This includes feedback from groups of people ranging from 20-80 years of age from around the world. Suffice to say, sound therapy is a personal experience and can help each of us in different ways. If I have piqued your interest, I suggest you check the website Meetup for local events, or contact local yoga studios. Sound therapy is a rapidly expanding area in the west, it has been used for thousands of years in the east. In my opinion, sound therapy is a wonderful tool for emotional healing, a subject we seem to have very little understanding of in the west. Give yourself a chance to try it, you might surprise yourself with the positive results.

Miriam Kolar of Stanford very kindly provided me with this quote.

“The necessity of visiting the site in person to understand its particular resonances (both acoustical and personal). Perhaps learning about an archaeological site can be part of a personal journey for understanding. Knowing takes different forms, and means different things depending on context. What we know from an archaeological standpoint is strongly based on describing material evidence (for something about which we can only speculate, albeit make informed interpretations).”

Copyright © 2015 Gary Evans

Top image: The theatre at Aspendos, Turkey is famous for its magnificent acoustics. Even the slightest sound made at the center of the orchestra can be easily heard as far as the upper most galleries. It is the best preserved and most complete example of a Roman theatre. (CC BY SA 3.0)

By Gary Evans

Bibliography

1. Miriam Kolar. “The Code of the Conch - How the science of sound explained an ancient Peruvian oracle”.

2. Miriam Kolar. Tuned to the Senses: An Archaeoacoustic Perspective on Ancient Chavín

3. This is a recording of Peruvian musician Tito La Rosa playing two of the Chavín pututus in the Museo Nacional Chavín, September 2008. 

4. SB Research Group (SBRG)

5. “Double-chambered whistling bottles:  A unique Peruvian pottery form” by Daniel K. Stat

6. The Fall and Rise of Resonance Science, J. Mortenson General Resonance, LLC, Havre de Grace, MD, USA

7. International Business Times: Stonehenge Was a 'Giant Echo Chamber to Summon up the Ancient Spirits'

8. “The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh by Sir Flinders Petrie. Published by the Royal Society 1883”

9. Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology Consciousness and Culture, March 2008, pp 95–104. Ancient Architectural Acoustic Resonance Patterns and Regional Brain Activity, Ian A. Cook, Sarah K. Pajot, Andrew F. Leuchter

Comments

I currently have several unique examples of  whistling vessels which were suppossedly found on the Pacific side of Nicaragua, and that I am currently attempting to authenticate. To my knowlege, there are no records of similar objects in this region, thus I am very sceptical of their authenticity. When I have more information to share on these remarkable looking pieces, I will publish my tentative findings. Who knows, they may very well be beautifully done fakes, or possibly pieces which could challenge our ideas about the indigenous cultures in the “Isthmo-Columbian” area of the Americas.

R. Lee Bowers

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