When my friend Cristina speaks, I listen. Cristina is both a scientist and an artist, and throughout the years she guided me in learning about the world of science and the world of art. Years ago, she explained to me how the Inca irrigated their terraces in Machu Picchu and Tipon, and later she exposed me to the forgotten artisanal Romanian culture. A few months ago she told me about her experience in Greece, where she stood inside the ruins of Mycene (second millennium BCE) and felt the air and the ground vibrate with sound. Cristina knew she was experiencing pressure waves vibrating in the air around her and inside her body, but still, the experience was eerie.
As a writer, I spend a lot of time describing things, and visual details are crucial, but because of Cristina’s story, I started to dig deeper into the sounds of history. I now know that thousands of years ago sound was more important to people than it is today. Good hearing while hunting meant the difference between eating and being eaten. The world was quieter than it is today, and each sound carried more meaning than we could now imagine. Before the scientific understanding of acoustics, echoes were thought to be the voices of spirits speaking out of deep grave-like caverns or back from altar-like stone walls.
Stone Age Soundtracks
“Sound in the ancient world was conceived of as a supernatural phenomenon.” – Paul Devereux
In his book, Stone Age Soundtracks, archeologist Paul Devereux details his research team’s experiments and findings at ancient Stone Age sites around the world. The accompanying special was aired on UK’s Channel 4 in 2001.
People as early as the Paleolithic times knew how to create sound out of stone and caves and sticks and water, they knew how to alter the acoustic features of their natural environment and they worshiped the gods and the spirits they thought answered them in resonant voices. And by “people,” researchers refer to Homo Sapiens and also to Neanderthals. They also refer to sites as diverse as Stonehenge and the Mayan temples.
“If in the ancient world sound was thought of as being so powerful, magical and sacred, then it would surely have been a considered factor in the establishment of a temple or sacred monument. The trouble with finding an answer to such a question is that we no longer have the “soundtrack” to the ancient past. When we visit the ancient places we wander around the ruins or the great stone structures trying to imagine the people who built these sites and worshipped at them, but we seldom hear them in our mind’s ear.” – Stone Age Soundtracks, p. 65
Experiments conducted in megalithic (large stone) tombs revealed that most chambers have a sound frequency at which they naturally resonate (usually in the male low voice range, 95–120 Hz) and that most edifices had been fine-tuned (with carvings and ledges, and holes and corbelled roofs) for those resonances.
resonance (from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary)
b (1): a vibration of large amplitude in a mechanical or electrical system caused by a relatively small periodic stimulus of the same or nearly the same period as the natural vibration period of the system (as when a child in a swing is given pushes with the natural frequency of the swing, when an organ pipe responds to a tuned reed, or when a radio receiving circuit is tuned to a broadcast frequency) (2): the state of adjustment that produces resonance in a mechanical or electrical system <a violin string in resonance with a vibrating tuning fork><two circuits in resonance with each other>
In the Paleolithic caves of France, the walls painted with animals and people are also the locations that give the strongest and longest echoes in the whole cave, as though spirits answered back from the images on the walls. A chamber that resonates during the chanting or pronouncements of a high-priest enhances the volume and reverberation of the man’s voice and adds to the commanding spiritual authority he projects.
Infrasound is sound below human hearing range (20–20,000 Hz). While we cannot hear it, other parts of our bodies resonate at infrasound frequency, such as our eyeballs, our skull, our chest cavity. So being in the presence of infrasound can make someone’s vision blurry or mistaken, can make someone dizzy, sleepy or disoriented, can make someone nauseous or anxious. In the old times, infrasound felt like the presence of otherworldly spirits.
People today can create infrasound with a large drum, but infrasound happens even on a windy day or during an electric storm. Sea waves breaking on the shore produce infrasound. Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, whales and elephants do too. Have you ever experienced an eerie feeling when there’s a storm outside? It’s probably your body perceiving infrasound without hearing it. Even today, the first explanation for that weird feeling is spirits and ghosts. And infrasound can even come from a poorly assembled fan in your house.
The most amazing feature of the megalithic tombs was visible sound. During rituals where incense smoke and steam and dust filled the chambers and passageways, a standing wave in the air would force the tiny particles to coalesce into pockets of high density and make them visible inside a closed space under a focused sunbeam that usually entered the chamber only once a year, during a solstice or equinox.
Useful writing tidbits
As I read Paul Devereux’s book, I gathered a few details that I’d better get right if I want to write credible historical fiction, such as:
- In a forest, sight is the third sense in the order of usefulness, after hearing and smell
- In winter there’s more echo than in the summer, because the leaves are gone (depending on where you are on the planet, of course)
- The most important musical instrument during an ancient ritual was the drum, because it can create infrasound on demand, which then creates unusual sensations that could be explained in spiritual ways
- The surface of the water helps propagate soundwaves, so locations around lakes and streams are better for acoustic effects (sound from a Viking boat on a lake would be amplified)
- Ancient rituals often happened at night, or in dim-lighted chambers with flickering fire, in order to focus the attention on the auditory
- Noise-making was thought to scare away evil spirits during solar eclipses
- In ancient times, poetry was sung, not intoned
“Acoustic archeology is about the healing of our research “deafness”” – Paul Devereux
Acoustic archeology is a very new field of research, so new that the word “archaeoacoustics” doesn’t even exist in the dictionary. This year, in February, the very first Archaeoacoustics International Conference was held in Malta with a list of presented projects so varied and interesting that there’s no telling what this field will look like in a decade. For now, pretty much every well-known archeological site can and should be reanalyzed from an acoustic perspective. Imagine hearing what the great temples in India sounded like.
The Treasury of Atreus (circa 1250 BCE)
When Cristina visited the ruins of the city-fortress of Mycene, in Greece, she entered the (misnamed) Treasury of Atreus, a beehive (tholos) tomb cut in a hillside with a long entrance path cut through the hill slope.
“No one knows the origin of the design of the tholos tomb, but the distinctive beehive shape might well be symbolic, for in ancient Greece the bee was associated with goddesses such as Demeter, and with immortality—it was thought the spirits of the dead could enter bees. Bees were also known as the “birds of the Muses,” doubtless because of their buzzing. Is it a coincidence, then, that when just a solitary visitor quietly enters the chamber at the Treasury of Atreus and places an ear close to the great curving wall a buzzing sound can be heard—a buzzing like that of a swarm of bees, though a little softer? Was this supposed to be the spirits of the nobility being laid to rest there? The buzzing is an acoustic distortion of the distant background sounds of the outside world coming in through the doorway, probably akin to the effect of so-called ‘whispering galleries.’” – Stone Age Soundtracks, p. 67
I’ll ask Cristina if she heard that sound. Or felt it.