An insight into Archaeoacoustics

Nick Green, sector manager for audio engineering and theatre arts at Perth College UHI, recently attended the Third International Archaeoacoustics Conference in Portugal. Nick provides an insight into the emerging discipline of archaeoacoustics and discusses his experience at the event.

The field of Archaeoacoustics

Archaeoacoustics is a multidisciplinary practice requiring the knowledge of anthropologists and archaeologists, architects, acousticians, audio engineers and sound designers, historians and musicologists. As a sound designer and audio engineer, I came to archaeoacoustics through acoustic ecology (the study of the relationship between human beings and their environment, mediated through sound) and through conversations with archaeologists.

Anthropologist Dr Ezra Zubrow states in ‘Archaeoacosutics; The Archaeology of Sound’: “Indeed, many of its practitioners do not even realize that it is a field, albeit a very immature field. Nor do they think of themselves as archaeoacousticians. Rather they consider themselves to be sound engineers, architects, musical historians, ethnomusicologits and practicing musicians to name a few.”

My research is primarily concerned with the recording, analysis and archiving of impulse responses recorded in heritage and archaeological sites. Generally this requires man made or naturally occurring spaces used by our ancestors, such as caves.

Field recording in Court Cave Wemyss Bay
Nick Green recording in Court Cave at Wemyss Bay

An impulse response is the introduction of a relatively short broadband sound such as a controlled explosion. They can be generated successfully by bursting a balloon, firing a starter’s pistol or amplifying a short burst of random noise (white noise) through a loudspeaker system and recording the results.

Author of ‘Digital Signal Processing: An Introduction’ Tae Hong Park describes an impulse response as “agitating a system”. In this case the agitation is the introduction of the impulse, the short broadband sound; the system is the acoustic space, a room, a hall, a cave or even within the standing stones of an ancient Neolithic stone circle.

Once the recorded files are digitally processed and edited, they can be played back in a digital audio workstation and used to recreate the reverberation characteristics of the space in which they were recorded.

The field of achcaeoacoustics spawned from considerations around how and why our ancestors may have used spaces for their reverberant and resonant qualities. Sound designers and musicologists may imagine the soundscape of our ancestors and create compositions inspired by these spaces and places.

Excavation at the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney

A current and very exciting archaeological dig taking place at the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney, is further expanding the number of Neolithic sites on the island archipelago. The site has given up evidence that it may have been a ritualistic site which was sometimes used for the mass slaughter and feasting on of large numbers of cattle. To a sound designer this paints an audio image that would be worthy of composition. There are so many potential angles to archaeoacoustics; it is the acoustic analysis of archaeology. Archaeoacoustics can give a ‘voice’ or soundtrack to our past.

To quote Kate Douglas of the New Scientist Magazine: “How do you listen to the past? Obviously there are no recordings from ancient times, so you need to think laterally. Luckily, the nascent field of archaeoacoustics is not short of creative thinkers… Not just that, they can create an acoustic fingerprint of a cave using a “sine sweep” – effectively recording the response of the space to a series of scans emitting a rainbow of all audible frequencies.”

The Third International Archaeoacoustics Conference

Nick Green at Tomar, Portugal

Having recently returned from the Third International Archaeoacoustics conference and paper presentation in Tomar, Portugal, I believe the field of archaeoacoustics is in rude health, but never so more scrutinised by its practitioners from within. Having begun so enthusiastically, it has now reached a stage of critical self-reflection, with many of its practitioners questioning the direction and way forward for this relatively new field of research. Indeed, the next logical progression would seem to be the formation of an International Society – the International Society for Archaeoacoustic Research?

I have decided as a field impulse response recordist that a study of field recording methodologies and techniques in archaeoacoustic research need to be explored further. There are enough researchers in the field across the globe engaged in audio field recording in heritage sites to justify a study to discover a mean approach which may lead to a standardised methodology. However, with exponential advances in digital technology, this needs approached with caution although risks and experimentation need to be made room for and encouraged. However digital technologies can help bring our archaeology and our imaginations alive, to paraphrase Dragos Gheorhiu; ‘digital and virtual reality technologies are the new shamanism – it can transport us’.

Nick Green with Prof Chris Scarre

The conference itself was a truly amazing experience. It included field trips and presentations by in the field archaeologists, museum curators and academics. We were also treated to a surprise visit by Professor Chris Scarre, co-editor of the first archaeoacoustics conference proceedings at Cambridge University in 2003, who coined the term ‘archaeoacoustics’. There was art inspired by culture, heritage and sound design and performances both impromptu and organised.

The programme of speakers featured long established researchers in the field and many new and younger researchers. The youngest presenter was Keith Harvey (22), a first class Honours graduate of Perth College UHI. I was delighted to see how encouraging the established voices in archaeoacoustics were and nurturing in their advice and help towards Keith and others. It bodes well for the future.

Archaeoacoustics in Scotland

The Scots were well represented at the event with myself, Keith Harvey and PhD archaeologist Michelle Walker all representing the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Keith spoke about his project which examined the acoustic properties from most of the cathedrals on mainland UK – an extensive undertaking. Michelle presented her PhD study on audio phenomena in Sculptors Cave on the Moray Firth. The cave was used by our Bronze Age and Pictish ancestors, with Bronze Age people using it as a burial site.

Carving at Maeshowe, Orkney

Our presentations inspired many of the delegates we spoke to express an interest for the next international archaeoacoustics conference to be held in Scotland. We certainly have a wealth of sites to explore. Professor Jane Downes from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute has suggested the conference could be hosted in Orkney where visits to the archaeological sites of Brodgar, Maes Howe, Skara Brae and the Tomb of the Eagles could be arranged.

As part of my own work, I have conducted recordings at Dunnottar Castle near Stonehaven, St. Andrews Castle and the Sacristy of Arbroath Abbey, a space well known for its impressive reverb.

On the topic of reservation, it’s interesting to note that the longest reverb time ever recorded (as evidenced by Guinness World Records) happens to be at a de-commissioned WWII fuel dump built into the side of a Scottish mountain in the Highlands. This does not mean it is the longest reverb time, it’s just that Trevor Cox of Salford University happened to record it using a starter’s pistol firing as the impulse response. It is a staggering one minute and twelve seconds in length, the average living room is less than a second! The previous world record was also measured in a space in Scotland at Hamilton Mausoleum.

It’s great to see the field of archaeoacoustics continuing to develop and that Scotland, with a range of acoustically interesting sites and an ever growing number of practitioners, can consider itself to be an important part of this evolving discipline.

Nick Green, Sector Manager for Audio Engineering and Theatre Arts, Perth College UHI, University of the Highlands and Islands



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