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Acoustic Archaeology - the new rock 'n roll

Mark Pilkington in The Guardian
Thursday November 6, 2003

Were some ancient sites designed to be acoustically, as well as visually, awe-inspiring?

Ongoing research at Neolithic sites around the UK has revealed striking similarities in their acoustical properties. Key examples, both in Ireland, are the huge passage tomb of Newgrange and the burial mound known as Cairn L at Loughcrew. These sites contain passageways leading to large circular chambers, and have a resonant frequency (at which sounds naturally echo and reverberate) of about 110hz - the frequency of the male baritone, the second lowest singing voice. Standing waves, whereby sounds are reflected off walls and superimposed on to one another, and other acoustic curiosities, have been observed in these and other sites. Stone circles including Avebury and Stonehenge also appear to reflect sound in distinctive ways.

Archaeologists have suggested that chanting, singing and drumming at these sites would have produced reverberating echoes that might have been interpreted as voices of spirits or gods; they may also have induced physiological and psychological changes in people, adding to their potency as sites of spiritual importance.

These acoustic discoveries may also shed light on some of the visual motifs etched into the walls of many ancient sites. Experiments in a replica of the Newgrange passage, at Princeton University, showed that if a site was smoky or misty, standing sound waves would become visible as they vibrated particles in the air. Could this visualising effect account for the zigzag and concentric ring markings on the chamber walls?

Intriguing acoustic effects have also been noted at sites in the Americas, from Anasazi kivas (ritual chambers) in New Mexico, to Chichen Itza on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. Here, the famed Mayan pyramid of Kukulcan, or Quetzelcoatl, is known for the way the solstices and equinoxes are reflected in its stones, but professional acoustician David Lubman has observed another aspect to its design. If you clap in front of the pyramid, the sound is reflected back by its stone steps, sounding, Lubman claims, like the chirp of the quetzal bird, sacred to the Mayans.

Acoustic archaeology is a young field finally gaining academic respectability. New discoveries are made constantly, so next time you're at an ancient site, sing, clap your hands - and listen carefully.
Jane Posted by Jane
6th November 2003ce
Edited 6th November 2003ce

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