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FEB 2014

ARCHAEOACOUSTICS: The Archaeology of Sound

19-22 February 2014 on the Mediterranean Island of Malta

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        Archaeo-acoustics: (Prehistoric Acoustic Phenomena)

There are several descriptions and relics that testify to the importance of sound in ancient ceremonies and structures but it is only now that we are becoming aware of the extent that it was incorporated. Recent investigations into Palaeolithic cave-art have revealed an association between areas which produce a strong resonance and the location of the art. This finding demonstrates that the properties of sound were being recognised, explored, appreciated and recorded over 30,000 years ago.

The power of sound has been demonstrated by opera singers who have been known, on occasion, to shatter glass simply by producing the correct sound. This effect was presumably already understood when the story of the shattering of the 'walls of Jericho' as written in the 'Old Testament':

... 'The captain of the Host of the Lord came to Joshua before he stormed Jericho and told him to 'circle the city for six days, and seven priests shall blow seven trumpets of rams horns, and on the seventh day, when you hear the trumpets, all the people shall shout with a great shout and the city shall fall down flat'...

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   Pre-Columbian Acoustic Phenomena:

Article: (Discovery News 2010):

'Scientists analyse 3,000 year old Conch Shell'.

Archaeologists unearthed 20 complete Strombus galeatus marine shell trumpets in 2001 at Chav�n de Hu�ntar, an ancient ceremonial center in the Andes. Polished, painted and etched with symbols, the shells had well-formed mouthpieces and distinct V-shaped cuts.

If the shells were played inside the stone chamber in which they were found, the drone would have sounded like it was coming from several different directions at once. In the dimly lit religious centre, it would have created a sense of confusion.

(More about Chavin du Huantar)


Sonics are commonly associated in tradition with the moving of heavy stones.

A story was told by the local Aymara Indians to a Spanish traveller who visited Tiahuanaco shortly after the conquest spoke of the city's original foundation in the age of Chamac Pacha, or First Creation,  long before the coming of the Incas. Its earliest inhabitants, they said,  possessed supernatural powers, for which they were able miraculously to lift stones of off the ground, which "...were carried [from the mountain quarries] through the air to the sound of a trumpet". (1)

Mayan legends says that the temple of Uxmal (right), in Mexico was built by a race of dwarves, which apparently only had to whistle and 'heavy rocks would move into place'. It is said that if a person stands at the base of the pyramid-like Temple of the magician and claps their hands the stone structure at the top produces a 'chirping sound' (1)

According to classical Greek writers, Thebes, the capital of Boeotia was founded by Cadmus, a celebrated Phoenician. It was finished off, the story goes, by a son of Jupiter named Amphion, who was able to move large stones to the sound of a lyre of harp, by which manner, he was able to construct the walls of Thebes. Appollonius Rhodius, who lived in the third century BC, poetically recalled in Argonautica how Amphion would sing loud and clear  on his golden lyre' as 'rock twice as large followed his footsteps'. Tradition surrounding Cadmus clearly indicate that Thebes was founded by Phoenician migrants who must have settled there in the third or second millennium BC.


Phoenicia's oldest known historian, Sanchaniatho, spoke of the god Ouranus or Coelus founding the first city at a place called Byblos. He also said that one of the gods 'Taautus' (the Egyptian Thoth), founded the Egyptian civilisation. He also states that Ouranus 'devised Baetulia, contriving stones that moved as having life'

In the early 20th century, a Swedish doctor is reputed to have witnessed stone blocks 1.5 metres in length and a metre in height and width, being levitated through the air through the process of sound. (1)


Examples of sympathetic vibrations in Prehistoric structures.

Chitzen Itza

At least two structures at the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in Mexico display unusual and unexplained acoustical properties:

The Great Ball-court: The Great Ball-court is 545 feet long and 225 feet wide overall. It has no vault, no continuity between the walls and is totally open to the sky.

Each end has a raised "temple" area. A whisper from end can be heard clearly at the other end 500 feet away and through the length and breath of the court. The sound waves are unaffected by wind direction or time of day/night. Archaeologists engaged in the reconstruction noted that the sound transmission became stronger and clearer as they proceeded. In 1931 Leopold Stokowski spent 4 days at the site to determine the acoustic principals that could be applied to an open-air concert theatre he was designing.

The Castillo: This structure is a temple that looks like a pyramid and is the one most commonly pictured on travel brochures for the Mexican Yucatan. Apparently if you stand facing the foot of the temple and shout the echo comes back as a piercing shriek. Also, a person standing on the top step can speak in a normal voice and be heard by those at ground level for some distance. This quality is also shared by another Mayan pyramid at Tikal.

If a person stands at the bottom of the Castillo and shouts, the sound will echo as a shriek that comes from the top of the structure. If someone stands on top and speaks in a normal voice, they can be heard on the ground at a distance of 150 metres away. (1)

At Palenque, also in Mexico, it is apparently the case that if three people stand on top of the three pyramids, a three-way conversation can easily be held.

It is also said that if a person stands at the base of the pyramid-like Temple of the Magician and claps their hands the stone structure at the top produces a 'chirping sound' (1)

(More about Pre-Columbian Americas)



   Palaeolithic Acoustics:

The study of Palaeo-acoustics has revealed that several ancient structures were built so as to incorporate acoustic phenomena in their design. Examples such as the Hypogeum in Malta, and the Mayan Temples at Chitzen Itza demonstrate that this science was well recognised and understood. Remarkably, these same effects are now known to have been utilised at several cave systems in Palaeolithic Europe.

We now know that sound was important, and probably considered magical and mysterious by, people at least as far back as the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) painted caves of France and Spain, dating to tens of thousands of years ago. It has been found that some of the stalactites and stalagmites in them are musical, in that they will issue pure bell-, drum- or gong-like notes when struck. Some archaeologists refer to these musical calcite formations as �lithophones�. Most if not all of these relatively rare features had been painted with geometric signs and animal figures in Stone Age times, and they also display ancient percussion marks � so ancient, in fact, that they are visible only through a covering of calcite deposits.

Currently, Russian and Finnish researchers are studying �palaeoacoustic� ringing rock sites on the shores of Lake Onega in Russia. They have found that the sound these natural stone �drums� make when struck is amplified by the surface of the lake, causing it to carry for kilometres around. The features are surrounded by concentrations of rock art. Similarly, archaeologists in the United States have identified �ringing rocks� � boulders that emit bell- or gong-like sounds when struck. Many of these, too, are marked with rock carvings. (2)

Article: (July, 2008) National Geographic:

'Prehistoric peoples chose places of natural resonant sound to draw their famed cave sketches, according to new analyses of Palaeolithic caves in France. In at least ten locations, drawings of horses, bison, and mammoths seem to match locations that focus, amplify, and transform the sounds of human voices and musical instruments. An intriguing suggestion is that the acoustic properties of a cave partly influenced what animals were painted on its walls'.       (Link to Article)


A bird-bone flute unearthed in the Hohle Fels cave was carved some 35,000 years ago and is the oldest handcrafted musical instrument yet discovered, archaeologists say (2).

The Hohle Fels flute is more complete and appears slightly older than bone and ivory fragments from seven other flutes recovered in southern German caves and documented by Conard and his colleagues in recent years.

Another flute excavated in Austria is believed to be 19,000 years old, and a group of 22 flutes found in the French Pyrenees mountains has been dated at up to 30,000 years ago. In addition, several prehistoric bone flutes have also been found in China.

(More about Hohle Fels)

(More about Prehistoric Bone Flutes)


Article: (New Scientist, p. 14, November 28, 1992) - 'The Acoustics Of Rock Art'

'"..S. Waller has visited rock art sites in Europe, North America, and Australia. Standing well back from the painted walls, he claps or creates percussion sounds, and records the echo's bouncing back. It turns out, that rock art seems to be placed intentionally where echo's are not only unusually loud but are also related to the pictured subject matter. Where hoofed animals are depicted, one easily evokes echo's of a running herd. If a person is drawn, the echo's of voices seem to emanate from the picture itself!

"At open air sites with paintings, Waller found that echo's reverberate on average at a level 8 decibels above the level of the background. At sites without art the average was 3 decibels. In deep caves such as Lascaux and Font-de-Gaume in France, echo's in painted chambers produce sound levels of between 23 and 31 decibels. Deep cave walls painted with cats produce sounds from about 1 to 7 decibels. In contrast, surfaces without paint are 'totally flat'."


 Article: (Nature, 338. (1989): 382. Chris Scarre) - 'Painting by Resonance'

"...Did the painted caves of western Europe once resound to the music of Palaeolithic chants? Such is the thesis put forward by Iegor Reznikoff and Michel Dauvois in the latest issue of the Bulletin de Ia Societe Prehistonque Francaise (85. 238-246; 1988). The authors have studied three caves in the Ariege department at the foot of the French Pyrenees. Their results suggest that the acoustics of the caves played a significant part in determining where the paintings were located, and this observation leads directly to the supposition that music or chants were important elements in  cave ceremonies around 20,000 years ago.

Reznikoff and Dauvois rely on the fact that in certain places ("points of resonance") the caves resonate in response to particular notes. They proceeded slowly through the cave using their voices to produce a series of notes spanning almost three octaves, from C to G3. They extended the range of notes for a further two octaves by harmonics and whistling. Where there was a resonance  response, they recorded the location and the particular note eliciting the response. They used these observations to draw up a resonance map of the cave.

The resonance of the caves is not in itself surprising. but the significance of the study becomes apparent when the  authors  compare their points of resonance with the location of cave paintings.  They draw three main conclusions. First, most of the cave paintings are at or within one metre of points of resonant. The Grande Salle at Portel, for example, which gave no resonance response, also has relatively few paintings. Second, most of the points of resonance correspond to locations with cave paintings. Indeed, the best points of resonance are always marked in this way. Finally, the authors claim that the location of some of the paintings can be explained only by the resonance of that particular location. A good example is number 23 at Portel where a particularly effective point of resonance is marked by red painted dots, as there is not enough room for a full painted figure.

Reznikoff and Dauvois remark from their own experience on the impressive effect of cave resonance, which would have been all the more striking in the flickering half-light of the simple lamps or tapers used by the original artists. Drums, flutes and whistles may have been used in cave rituals - bone flutes have been found at several Palaeolithic sites in Europe of roughly the same age as the paintings. The potential of cave resonance would, however, be elicited only by the much greater range of the human voice. The image of the cave artists chanting incantations in front of their paintings may not be too fanciful. Reconstructing prehistoric sounds is inevitably a risky and ambitious venture, but this study is of particular value in drawing new attention to the likely importance of music and singing in the rituals of our early ancestors.

(More about Prehistoric Cave-art)



   Neolithic Acoustics:

The same resonance effects as those found in Palaeolithic cave systems (above) has also been noted in the underground chambers of the Hypogeum on Malta.


Hypogeum cavities.The Hypogeum, Malta:

The Hypogeum on Malta contains a 'speaking chamber' which is a hole in the wall carved with a rounded interior surface. The result is that anything spoken into it produces an echo which reverberates throughout the hypogeum. It is speculated that this hole was part of a ceremonial process. Several small chambers (right) in the Hypogeum are also suspected of being used for ritual purposes as from within these cubicles, echoes from the 'speaking' chamber reverberate into a rhythm that is similar to the human heartbeat.

(More about the Hypogeum)


The  Megalithic Preference for 110 Hz.

'An effectively random selection of megalithic chambered sites in England and Ireland were tested for their natural (primary) resonant frequencies, with only the great chambered passage-mound of Newgrange in Ireland being pre-selected due to the need for special permission. The findings surprised the ICRL researchers: all the investigated chambers were found to have a natural primary resonance frequency in the 95-120 Hertz band, with most at 110-112 Hz � this despite variations in sizes and shapes of the chambers. There was even evidence of �retro-fitting�, as if internal features within the chambers had been placed to �tune� the natural resonance to the required frequency. The great chamber of Newgrange resonates effectively at 110 Hz, and the 19m (62-foot) passage behaves like a wind instrument, with sound waves generated within the chamber filling it, their amplitude decreasing towards the entrance'. (2)

The 110 Hz frequency is in the baritone range � the second lowest level of the male singing voice. It is therefore possible to speculate that chanting male voices could have been used in these supposed tombs for the silent dead. Current experiments are showing that the specific frequency range around 110 Hz tends to stimulate a certain electrical brain rhythm associated with particular trance-like states.

(For a detailed peer-reviewed paper on this, see Time & Mind 1:1, March 2008)

(110Hz - The Heartbeat of The Earth)

BBC NEWS Article: April 1998.

New research suggests that the ancient stone circles and burial mounds of north west Europe may have been designed to act as giant loudspeakers to amplify drums being played during rituals. Science correspondent David Whitehouse reports:

'Scattered across the landscape of north west Europe are prehistoric monuments from the Neolithic era. Stone circles like Stonehenge as well as covered burial chambers can be over 5,000 years old.

The stones stand silent in the landscape but a new study of these ancient structures has found that they possess some remarkable acoustical properties.

When Aaron Watson of Reading University visited a Neolithic stone circle in Scotland he noticed a curious echo which changed as he moved around inside the circle.

Tests with audio recording equipment showed that the large, flat-sided stones were positioned in such a way to reflect sound towards the centre of the stone circle.

But it is the Neolithic burial mounds that have the strangest properties. They usually consist of a long chamber which is reached by crawling through a small tunnel.

'I was amazed by these caverns,' said University of Reading physicist Dr David Keating.

'The caverns vary in size but their resonant frequencies are very similar. They would amplify a fast drumbeat producing enhanced sounds and echoes during rituals, he added.

Dr Keating suggests that the caverns are designed to generate an acoustic phenomenon called Helmholtz resonance - the hollow type of sound created by blowing a stream of air across the top of an empty bottle.

Calculations suggest that drumming at two beats a second would have caused resonance. Inside the dark chamber with its stale air and presence of the dead, the enhanced sound would have produced an unforgettable experience for Neolithic man.

Ref: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/72494.stm



   Healing With Sound:

Modern experimentation has shown that sound can be influential in the recovery of patients. Music has been shown to beneficial to us even before we are born and ultrasound is commonly used today to assist recovery of various ailments including repairing broken bones. (3) The traditional resistance to 'alternative' healing methods is being challenged by the results of experiments involving sound, and more interestingly, research at several prominent prehistoric sites appear to show that the connection between sound and healing dates back into prehistory.

The Stonehenge Bluestones:

Following the 2008 Archaeological dig at Stonehenge, Prof's. Darville and Wainright proposed that the site was once considered the 'Neolithic Lourdes'. (3) In relation to this is one of the most intriguing aspects of Stonehenge, which is the question of the importance of now famous 'Preseli Bluestones', which were transported over 140 miles to the site from near Gors Fawr in Wales. The longstanding debate over the reason why stone was chosen from such a distance, when 'sarsen' stone was locally available, appears to have been met with an answer in relation to this topic, as this particular stone has a longstanding association with both healing and sound. Bluestone - or a relatively high proportion of them (perhaps as much as ten percent) have the usually rare property of being �musical�. That is, they can ring like a bell or gong, or resound like a drum, when struck with a small hammer-stone, instead of the dull clunking sound rock-on-rock usually makes. That this property has been noted locally down the generations is shown by the �Maenclochog� (�Ringing stones�) village place-name in the Preseli area'. (2) When we add this information to that provided by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who made a note in his history of Britain in 1215 AD that the 'Medicinal power of the stones was stimulated by pouring water over them'. (10). We can be sure that the Bluestones have had a longstanding tradition for being used for curative purposes. It is noted that the oldest human remains found by Parker Pearson�s team date to around 3,030 B.C., at approximately the same time as the arrival of the first bluestones (Stonehenge II).

Article: Heritage Daily (Feb, 2012) 'Stonehenge Design Based on Auditory Illusion'.    (Quick-link)

(More about Healing With Sound)



   Modern day experiments with acoustic vibrations:


Glass has a natural resonance - a frequency at which it will vibrate easily and at which body of the glass vibrates under resonance. If the force making the glass vibrate is big enough, the size of the vibration will become so large that the glass breaks.

(More about breaking glass: http://www.acoustics.salford.ac.uk/acoustics_info/glass/





The Physics of Sound Levitation: A basic acoustic levitator has two main parts: A transducer, which is a vibrating surface that makes sound, and a reflector. Often, the transducer and reflector have concave surfaces to help focus the sound. A sound wave travels away from the transducer and bounces off the reflector. Three basic properties of this travelling, reflecting wave help it to suspend objects in midair.

Acoustic Levitation; A Summary http://science.howstuffworks.com/acoustic-levitation.htm 

Article: (2014) - Japanese scientists move objects using acoustic levitation: (Quick-Link)


This is an acoustic levitation chamber, designed and built in 1987 as a micro-gravity experiment for NASA related subject matter.


Article: (New Scientist, July, 2011) 'Water Levitated by Tibetan Singing Bowls'....

'Tibetan singing bowls, ancient instruments used for meditation, can be manipulated to produce droplets that levitate, bounce and skip across water. The study began when a "sound healer" in Florida pointed out the droplet phenomenon and sent a bowl to co-author John Bush, a mathematician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We were motivated by curiosity," Terwagne says.

Terwagne and Bush didn't excite the bowls with a mallet, which produces rich sounds comprising different frequencies. Instead, they used a speaker to excite the bowl at particular frequencies. With a high-speed camera, the researchers recorded the droplets' ejection and behaviours. With the slowed-down footage, they measured the locations and movements. The video shows droplets levitating on the surface and the rim. The higher frequency of the song, the smaller the resulting drops.

The bowls suggest new ways to create and manipulate droplets that skitter across an air film atop a surface.

(Link to Article)


Article: Scientists levitate small live animals using sounds...

In the past, researchers at Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi'an, China, used ultrasound fields to successfully levitate globs of the heaviest solid and liquid�iridium and mercury, respectively. The aim of their work is to learn how to manufacture everything from pharmaceuticals to alloys without the aid of containers. At times compounds are too corrosive for containers to hold, or they react with containers in other undesirable ways.

"An interesting question is, 'What will happen if a living animal is put into the acoustic field?' Will it also be stably levitated?" researcher Wenjun Xie, a materials physicist at Northwestern Polytechnical University, told LiveScience.

Xie and his colleagues employed an ultrasound emitter and reflector that generated a sound pressure field between them. The emitter produced roughly 20-millimeter-wavelength sounds, meaning it could in theory levitate objects half that wavelength or less.

After the investigators got the ultrasound field going, they used tweezers to carefully place animals between the emitter and reflector. The scientists found they could float ants, beetles, spiders, ladybirds, bees, tadpoles and fish up to a little more than a third of an inch long in midair. When they levitated a fish and tadpole, the researchers added water to the ultrasound field every minute via syringe.

The levitated ant tried crawling in the air and struggled to escape by rapidly flexing its legs, although it generally failed because its feet find little purchase in the air. The ladybug tried flying away but also failed when the field was too strong to break away from.

The research team reported their findings online Nov. 20 in the journal Applied Physics Letters.

Link to full article: http://www.livescience.com/technology/061129_acoustic_levitation.html





'Huygens serenade'.

...A curious principle, discovered by Christiaan H�ygens in the 1650s...

Huygens found that if you leave two clocks with pendulums ticking in close proximity for long enough, then they fall into perfect time, resulting in one hearing a single clock ticking.

This is related to the low frequency of 1 cycle per second ( 1Hz ) frequency being experienced by both timepieces, and therefore being emitted, or radiated. The noise made by a clock is essentially a form of simple loudspeaker. The mass of it moves the air in such a way that you can hear a click. Because you can hear a click, then the same sound pressure is being applied to the case of the other clock just the same.  



Modern Myths of Acoustic Levitation:

Tibetan Monks levitating stones: (Excerpt from 'Anti-gravity and the World Grid' edited by D.H. Childress):

'A Swedish doctor, Dr. Jarl, a friend of Kjelsons, studied at Oxford. During those times he became friends with a young Tibetan student. A couple of years later, it was 1939, Dr. Jarl made a journey to Egypt for the English Scientific Society. There he was seen by a messenger of his Tibetan friend, and urgently requested to come to Tibet to treat a high Lama.

After Dr. Jarl got the leave he followed the messenger and arrived after a long journey by plane and Yak caravans, at the monastery, where the old Lama and his friend who was now holding a high position were now living.

Dr. Jarl stayed there for some time, and because of his friendship with the Tibetans he learned a lot of things that other foreigners had no chance to hear about or observe.

One day his friend took him to a place in the neighbourhood of the monastery and showed him a sloping meadow which was surrounded in the north west by high cliffs. In one of the rock walls, at a height of about 250 metres was a big hole which looked like the entrance to a cave.

In front of this hole there was a platform on which the monks were building a rock wall. The only access to this platform was from the top of the cliff and the monks lowered themselves down with the help of ropes.

In the middle of the meadow, about 250 metres from the cliff, was a polished slab of rock with a bowl like cavity in the centre. The bowl had a diameter of one metre and a depth of 15 centimetres. A block of stone was manoeuvred into this cavity by Yak oxen. The block was one metre wide and one and one half metres long. Then 19 musical instruments were set in an arc of 90 degrees at a distance of 63 metres from the stone slab'.

'The radius of 63 metres was measured out accurately. The musical instruments consisted of 13 drums and 6 trumpets (Ragdons) Eight drums had a cross-section of one metre, and a length of one and one half metres. Four drums were medium size with a cross-section of 0.7 metre and a length of one metre. The only small drum had a cross-section of 0.2 metres and a length of 0.3 metres. All the trumpets were the same size.

They had a length of 3.12 metres and an opening of 0.3 metres. The big drums and all the trumpets were fixed on mounts which could be adjusted with staffs in the direction of the slab of stone. The big drums were made of 1mm thick sheet iron, and had a weight of 150kg. They were built in five sections. All the drums were open at one end, while the other end had a bottom of metal, on which the monks beat with big leather clubs. Behind each instrument was a row of monks.

When the stone was in position the monk behind the small drum gave a signal to start the concert. The small drum had a very sharp sound, and could be heard even with the other instruments making a terrible din. All the monks were singing and chanting a prayer, slowly increasing the tempo of this unbelievable noise. During the first four minutes nothing happened, then as the speed of the drumming, and the noise, increased, the big stone block started to rock and sway, and suddenly it took off into the air with an increasing speed in the direction of the platform in front of the cave hole 250 metres high. After three minutes of ascent it landed on the platform'.

Continuously they brought new blocks to the meadow, and the monks using this method, transported 5 to 6 blocks per hour on a parabolic flight track approximately 500 metres long and 250 metres high. From time to time a stone split, and the monks moved the split stones away.

'Dr. Jarl knew about the hurling of the stones. Tibetan experts like Linaver, Spalding and Huc had spoken about it, but they had never seen it. So Dr. Jarl was the first foreigner who had the opportunity to see this remarkable spectacle. Because he had the opinion in the beginning that he was the victim of mass-psychosis he made two films of the incident. The films showed exactly the same things that he had witnessed'.


And Finally... Vortex Ring Manipulation:

Vortex rings are created by blowing a ring out of the blowhole or by flipping a dorsal fin fast enough to create a water vortex. Dolphins have been observed creating and playing with these rings by moving them around sonically and ultrasonically. They bounce the rings off walls; they elongate them with their flippers into huge, long spirals. Often, they appear to make the rings larger then swim through them for amusement.



(Sacred Geometry)

(Prehistoric Bone Flutes)

(Harmony of the Spheres)

(Science and Technology Homepage)



1). A. Collins. Gods of Eden. 1998. Headline book publ.
2). http://www.landscape-perception.com/archaeoacoustics/
3). http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7322134.stm
10). http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/light-on-stonehenge.html?c=y&page=2

Further Research:


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