Ancient Pottery Used To Play Back Recorded Voices From The Distant Past

Ancient Pottery Used To Play Back Recorded Voices From The Distant Past

Archaeoacoustics is the use of acoustical study as a methodological approach within archaeology. This may for example involve the study of the acoustics of archaeological sites, or the study of the acoustics of archaeological artifacts. Since many cultures explored through archaeology were focused on the oral and therefore the aural, it is becoming increasingly recognised that studying the sonic nature of parts of archaeology can enhance our understanding. This is an interdisciplinary field which includes areas such as archaeology, ethnomusicology, acoustics and digital modelling, and that is a part of the wider field of music archaeology. There is particular interest in prehistoric music.

Paul Devereux discusses his book Stone Age Soundtracks – The Acoustic Archaeology of Ancient Sites.

Aaron Watson undertook work on the acoustics of numerous archaeological sites, including that of Stonehenge. He also investigated numerous chamber tombs and other stone circles. Archaeologist Paul Devereux's work has looked at ringing rocks, Avebury and various other subjects, and his book Stone Age Soundtracks provides a wide overview. Dr. Ian Cross of Cambridge University has explored lithoacoustics, the use of stones as musical instruments. Rupert Till of Huddersfield University and Bruno Fazenda of Salford University have also explored Stonehenge's acoustics,. Damian Murphy of the University of York has studied measurement techniques in acoustic archaeology. Iegor Reznikoff and Michel Dauvois have studied the prehistoric painted caves of France, and found links between the artworks' positioning and acoustic effects.

An AHRC project headed by Rupert Till of Huddersfield University, Chris Scarre of Durham University and Bruno Fazenda of Salford University, studies similar relationships in the prehistoric painted caves in northern Spain. Steven Waller has also studied the links between rock art and sound. Panagiotis Karampatzakis and Vasilios Zafranas investigate the Acoustic Properties of Acheron Nekromantio, Aristoxenus acoustic vases, and the evolution of acoustics in the ancient Greek and Roman odea. Miriam Kolar and colleagues from Stanford University studied various spatial and perceptual attributes of Chavín de Huántar. Archaeologist Cornelia Kleinitz has studied the sound of a Rock Gong in Sudan with Rupert Till and Brenda Baker. Archaeologists Margarita Díaz-Andreu, Carlos García Benito and Tommasso Mattioli have undertaken work on rock art landscapes in Italy, France and Spain, paying particular attention to echolocation and augmented audibility of distant sounds that is experienced in some rock art sites.

The International Study Group on Music Archaeology (ISGMA) includes archaeoacoustical work. It is a pool of researchers devoted to the field of music archaeology. The study group is hosted at the Orient Department of the German Archaeological Institute Berlin (DAI, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Orient-Abteilung) and the Department for Ethnomusicology at the Ethnological Museum Berlin (Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, SMB SPK, Abteilung Musikethnologie, Medien-Technik und Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv). It comprises research methods of musicological and anthropological disciplines, such as archaeology, organology, acoustics, music iconology, philology, ethnohistory, and ethnomusicology. The Acoustics and Music of British Prehistory Research Network was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, led by Rupert Till and Chris Scarre, as well as Professor Jian Kang of Sheffield University's Department of Architecture. It has a list of researchers working in the field, and links to many other relevant sites. An e-mail list has been discussing the subject since 2002 and was set up as a result of the First Pan-American/Iberian Meeting on Acoustics by Victor Reijs.

The OTS Foundation, (OTSF) based in the USA has conducted several international conferences specifically on Archaeoacoustics, with a focus on the human experience of sound in ancient ritual and ceremonial spaces. The published papers represent a broader multidisciplinary study and include input from the realms of archaeology, architecture, acoustic engineering, rock art, and psycho-acoustics, as well as reports of field work from Gobekli Tepe and Southern Turkey, Malta, and elsewhere around the world.


An early interpretation of the idea of archaeoacoustics was that it explored acoustic phenomena encoded in ancient artifacts. For instance, the idea that a pot or vase could be "read" like a gramophone record or phonograph cylinder for messages from the past, sounds encoded into the turning clay as the pot was thrown. There is little evidence to support such ideas, and there are few publications claiming that this is the case. In comparison, the more contemporary approach to the field now has many publications and a growing significance. This earlier approach was first raised in the 6 February 1969 issue of New Scientist magazine, where it was discussed in David E. H. Jones's light-hearted "Daedalus" column. He wrote:

rowel, like any flat plate, must vibrate in response to sound: thus, drawn over the wet surface by the singing plasterer, it must emboss a gramophone-type recording of his song in the plaster. Once the surface is dry, it may be played back. — Jones, 1982

Jones subsequently received a letter from one Richard G. Woodbridge III who claimed to have already been working on the idea and said that he had sent a paper on the subject to the journal Nature. The paper never appeared in Nature, but the August 1969 edition of the journal Proceedings of the IEEE printed a letter from Woodbridge entitled "Acoustic Recordings from Antiquity". In this communication, the author stated that he wished to call attention to the potential of what he called "Acoustic Archaeology" and to record some early experiments in the field. He then described his experiments with making clay pots and oil paintings from which sound could then be replayed, using a conventional record player cartridge connected directly to a set of headphones. He claimed to have extracted the hum of the potter's wheel from the grooves of a pot, and the word "blue" from an analysis of patch of blue color in a painting.