Microdosing cathedrals and the synthetic acoustic environment of the ancient world

17.58, Friday 18 Nov 2022

Archaeoacoustics is the study of what ancient places sounded like. For example: the colosseum in Rome when full and thriving. The archaeology of sound.

There are many examples in Wikipedia’s article on Archaeoacoustics.

For instance, the Mayan pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza: the pyramid’s stairs give a curious “chirp” echo in respond to a hand clap.

After studying the staircases and analyzing his recordings and sonograms of the echoes, Lubman came back convinced that this was no architectural freak. In his paper, Lubman argued that the design of the staircases was deliberate and that the echo is an ancient recording, coded in stone, of the call of the Maya’s sacred bird, the quetzal.


Cave paintings in northern Finland: the researchers concluded that the cliffs with rock paintings are efficient sound reflectors (Rainio et al., 2018). The sound appears to emanate directly from the painted figures.

That example from this wonderful paper introducing the new discipline of experimental psychoarchaeoacoustics: our focus will be on what led people to paint or engrave rock art at sonorous sites in the distant past. We wish to inquire into perception and emotion in the past related to sound.


Valenzuela, J., D’iaz-Andreu, M., & Escera, C. (2020). Psychology Meets Archaeology: Psychoarchaeoacoustics for Understanding Ancient Minds and Their Relationship to the Sacred. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 550794.

(Musical instruments made of rock are called lithophones.)


Could ancient sound be frozen unintentionally?

In February 1969, in a humour column in New Scientist:

[A] trowel, 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.

(The column is collected in The Inventions of Daedalus by David Jones, which I have on my shelf.)

And in August 1969, in Proceedings of the IEEE, a letter titled Acoustic Recordings from Antiquity which is completely straight-faced:

With an artist’s brush, paint strokes were applied to the surface of the canvas using “oil” paints involving a variety of plasticities, thicknesses, layers, etc., while martial music was played on the nearby phonograph. Visual examination at low magnification showed that certain strokes had the expected transverse striated appearance. When such strokes, after drying, were gently stroked by the “needle” (small, wooden, spade-like) of the crystal cartridge, at as close to the original stroke speed as possible, short snatches of the original music could be identified. …

This is to record the finding of a spoken word in an oil portrait. The word was “blue” and was located in a blue paint stroke-as if the artist was talking to himself or to the subject.

Bizarrely the author of the letter claims to have written their letter in January 1969, before the Daedelus column, and had it rejected.


There are two good write-ups of this unlikely-but-fun-to-imagine discovery:

  • Language Log: A Phonographic Phony (2006) - which traces the origin of the paleoacoustic idea back to 1955 and an episode of Science Fiction Theatre
  • Tenser, said the Tensor: Pottery Recordings (2006) - which reproduces the whole letter from Proceedings and lists a few sci-fi stories where the same idea appears.


Researchers at MIT, Microsoft, and Adobe have developed an algorithm that can reconstruct an audio signal by analyzing minute vibrations of objects depicted in video. In one set of experiments, they were able to recover intelligible speech from the vibrations of a potato-chip bag photographed from 15 feet away through soundproof glass.

A video of a crisp packet! Voices in the room!

(You need a camera that can record 2,000–6,000 frames per second. A phone does 60 fps.)

Labs that investigate archaeocoustics have to do so with simulation, using room acoustics software and VR. Here’s a write-up by room acoustics software provider Odeon, including a simulated auralisation of Hagia Sophia.

There are also labs that investigate psychoacoustics experimentally. immpaLAB: Immersive PsychoAcoustic Laboratory creates sound environments and collects responses… examples of affective labels used in these scales are ‘tension’, ‘power’, ‘transcendence’, ‘joy’.

I feel like I’d like to have these brought together: given a location that no longer exists, a cave or a stone circle or an amphitheatre, how would it make you feel? And reversing it: given a desired psychological profile, what’s the architecture of the space I should be in?

You can close your eyes and click or hum and tell if you’re in a tiny or vast space.

(Ancient humans may have used echolocation to navigate underground caves and I understand that echolocation - like seeing polarised light - is a learnable skill.)

So: can you have computational synthetic acoustics?

Like, could I wear headphones and have the acoustic space of the Colosseum or Hagia Sophia or Abbey Road wrapped around my music? Could I buy awe as an in-app purchase? How about a realtime psychoacoustic graphic equaliser with passthrough, mutating the everyday sound of the street such that I’m microdosing cathedrals?

I mentioned recently (here) that I have this livestream of a waterhole in the Namibian desert (YouTube) open in the background a whole bunch at the moment. The why is the sound (I have it on now). You can hear the desert wind, the birds chattering and the antelope chuntering to one-another; the sky changes over the day, the animals come and go. It’s calming. I can focus. Why have music? Well I have music too. Why not more of this?

My dream would be to inhabit this aural environment as I go about my day, ambiently, not immersive exactly but everywhere, a layer of dreaming overlaying the reality of my home – upstairs the forest, in my office the desert. In the middle of the night if I tiptoe all the way downstairs I step in the dark onto the savannah and bathe in the nocturnal infrasonic hum of giraffe calling across the open plain.

Hey happy Friday y’all. I don’t say that enough. I hope you’re in a good place. Look after yourself.

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