Temples of Sound: Acoustic Archaeology

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“Strange new noises are emanating from both the archaeological establishment an the Earth Mysteries movements, sound that my have their origin in some of the world’s most ancient and sacred sites.  Researchers have suggested that sound may even be integral to their design and purpose. Some of the oldest religious sites in Britain, such as Stonehenge and Newgrange are constructed as resonating structures and often contain images of sound waves.  The capacity of sound waves to alter consciousness has also been known since before recorded history.  Cave paintings often depict wave shapes and often occur at sites where there are unusual natural acoustics.”  Author Unknown

Go back in time with me as we find ourselves in a darkened space, lit by the flickering light of a fire.  There is a sacred circle of people sitting quietly waiting for the ceremony to begin.  A shard of light slips through a slit in the side of the temple wall announcing the arrival of the Summer Solstice.  Out of the silence, from the damp stone walls of the temple, comes a pulsing sound. It is almost inaudible at first but grows in tone in the deep silence of this stone womb. Spontaneously the circle of people begin to match the tone…OM… and the ceremony begins…

My passion for using sound as a tool to evolve and transform has lead me on quiet a journey over the past several years.  I studied sound healing with inGo back in time with me as we find ourselves in a darkened space, lit by the flickering light of a fire.  There is a sacred circle of people sitting quietly waiting for the ceremony to begin.  A shard of light slips through a slit in the side of the temple wall announcing the arrival of the Summer Solstice.  Out of the silence, from the damp stone walls of the temple, comes a pulsing sound. It is almost inaudible at first but grows in tone in the deep silence of this stone womb. Spontaneously the circle of people begin to match the tone…OM… and the ceremony begins.ternationally known sound healer, Jonathan Goldman and am a Kultrun carrier in the Chilean tradition of sound medicine.    In my quest I discovered a book titled “Stone Age Soundtracks, the acoustic archaeology of ancient sites  by Paul Devereux.   It is the study of the sounds emitted from within  sacred environments created long ago.  Sound directly affects our experience of physical environment: in come cases the presence of certain sounds in a building can have an uncanny effect on our perception of the place.  We have all gone into buildings and felt immediately uncomfortable or immediately at home.  The idea that ancient people had technology to create structures tat emit sound is intriguing to me.  Some say that sound was also recorded in pottery and artwork.  I have been thinking a lot about ways to incorporate sound into my artwork for a long time so that captured my attention.

The results of recent research suggests that ancient, or prehistoric, builders of the monumental structures found in such diverse places as Ireland, Malta, southern Turkey and Peru all have a peculiarly common characteristic — they may have been specially designed to conduct and manipulate sound to produce certain sensory effects that altered consciousness.

In Stone Age Soundtracks, Devereux proposes that ancient peoples purposely designed ancient sites such as Stonehenge and Newgrange to have powerful and effective acoustic properties.  Sound was important to ancient cultures and they had less sound interference than we have in the modern world so it wasn’t lost in the noise. It was especially important in sacred sites that were used for ritual.  If ancient man could create musical instruments to produce sound why not create buildings that could produce sound as well, using the same theories.

Devereux took a team of researchers and began sonic testing of such sites as the Neolithic burial chamber Waylands Smithy on the Berkshire downs, New Grange and Cornwall’s Chun Quoit, a megalithic dolmen and they came up with intriguing results. “We kept  picking up this frequency, the chambers were resonating at 110 HZ which is the lower baritone range” Devereux reported.  This would be only one of several discoveries he and his team made.  In the chambers, the behavior of sound is considerably different from what happens in the outside world.  The ancient stone walls amplify noise which creates a variety of audio sound affects.  One of these affects is a phenomenon known as “standing wave”, which produce distinct areas of low and high intensity as the sound waves interact.  They either cancel each other out our combine their sounds.

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In his book Devereux writes, ” What did strike me was the sound behaves very strangely inside these chambers.  If you’re creating a sound with a drum or a sound generator if you are out in the middle of a field and walk away from it, it gets fainter and fainter.  That doesn’t happen inside. Inside the cavity or a stone chamber the sound wave goes out, hits the wall and bounces back.  When you get resonance it’s a standing wave. When you walk away it suddenly goes silent because your are in the trough of the wave.  The effect is quiet, the loud as you walk away. We know that this is the effect of sound waves but to pre-historic people this would be supernatural.”

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 have also induced physiological and psychological changes in people, adding to their potency as sites of spiritual importance.

And now, new findings of a recent archaeoacoustic study suggests that the ancients of the 3,000-year-old Andean ceremonial center at  Chavin de Huantar    in the central highlands of Peru, practiced a fine art and science of manipulating sound with architecture to produce desired sensory effects. With the assistance of architectural form and placement, and sounds emitted from conch-shell trumpets, the “oracle” of Chavín de Huántar “spoke” to the ancient center’s listeners.

Says Miriam Kolar, Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellow, PhD Candidate
 at Stanford University and leader of the study: 

”At Chavín, we have discovered acoustic evidence for selective sound transmission between the site’s Lanzon monolith and the Circular Plaza: an architectural acoustic filter system that favors sound frequencies of the Chavín pututus [conch-shell trumpets] and human voice.

In the Mayan pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza, in Mexico, a chirping sound was discovered by David Lubman, acoustical consultant.  When a person clapped their hands together chirping echoes were evoked from the staircases of the pyramid.  What make this interesting is that the chirped echo sounds like the primary call of the Mayan sacred bird, the resplendent Quetzal.  This magnificent bird, now near extinction, has for thousands of years represented the “spirit of the Maya”.  Spirits, in many traditions speak in echoes.  A Mayan glyph from the Dresden Codex, makes a connection between the pyramid of Kukulkan and the Quetzal bird.   David Lubman feels it is very possible that the ancient Mayans created this sound on purpose because of their love for this sacred bird and an understanding of the power it carries as the plumed serpent.

He stated, ” Maya had the technological capability to correct such acoustical defects.  This is implied by other evidence of subtle May manipulation of architectural acoustics suggesting that they were masterful practitioners of acoustical arts who created whispering galleries and other acoustical wonders. According to the acoustical hypothesis, the parameters of the stair treads where chosen to ‘tune” the echo to the pitch of the quetzal.”Lubman’s analysis compared the acoustic soundprint of the quetzal bird, which was revered by Mayans, to the sound of the echo at Chichen Itza. The two sounds matched.  This is pretty amazing when you think that we are talking about an ancient culture.

One of my favorite authors, Gregg Braden, who wrote Awaken to Zero Point and The Science of Compassion is a resident of New Mexico.  Having spent considerable time in the temples of  the Southwest, points out that what we call “Indian Ruins” in America are referred to as “Temples” in other countries.  The way we refer to these ancient sacred sites influences how we care for these legacies.  Ruins would be treated much differently than a Temple would be treated. Braden has studied kivas which are circular underground temples built by the Anasazi culture over a thousand years ago in the Four Corners area of the USA.

That is a Kiva in the picture at the top of this article.  To enter a Kiva you climb up a series of ladders from 150 feet below. Once you get to the top of the ladders there is a giant parabola build out of cave in the rocks.  You enter the Kive through the top and down a ladder.   Braden sees tuned resonant cavities in the Kivas used for the purpose of eliciting various altered states of consciousness.  A resonant cavity is a hollow space, the dimensions of which have a naturally occurring frequency which sets up a resonance, or harmonic feedback loop, and tunes with another frequency.  “In the case of certain kivas,” Braden says, “that other frequency is the human mind.”  Devereux and his team also studied kivas and found the sound frequencies of the kivas were calibrated to the male voice, which is not surprising because only men were allowed inside them.

Acoustical archaeology has only been around for about 15 years and is a young field that is getting academic respectability. The emerging field of acoustic archaeology is a marriage of high-tech acoustic analysis and old-fashioned bone-hunting. The results of this scientific collaboration is a new understanding of cultures who used sound effects as entertainment, religion and a form of political control.

Imagine incorporating these ancient principles into modern architecture to create environments that nurture us and support our spirits!

Next time you are at an ancient site, sing, clap your hands and listen carefully…

If you have had experiences with sound in ancient sites I would love to hear about them.

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