AN INSIGHT INTO ARCHAEOACOUSTICSNOVEMBER 28, 2017 SUSAN_S LEAVE A COMMENTNick 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.
Nick Green recording in Court Cave at Wemyss BayAn 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, OrkneyA 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, PortugalHaving 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 ScarreThe 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, OrkneyOur 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
The train journey on our way home took us from Tomar to Lisbon, a 2 hour journey. Our carriage turned into an extension of the conference, on which Vincent Paladino and his partner Leigh from New York, Dragos Gheorghiu and his partner from Bucharest, Paul Oomen from Amsterdam and Etienne Safa – France, joined Aileen and I. Vincent and I immersed in philosophical debate and shared our collective passion for music production and recording studio design and acoustics. Swapping anecdotes about New York and British punk rock of the late 70’s and 80’s of which we were both involved in our youths... oh and archaeoacoustics!
Upon arrival in Lisbon we disembarked and made our way to the nearest bar to discuss as a group amongst other things the role of digital media technologies in bringing archaeology and archaeoacoustics to life, at least in a virtual sense. This is also a medium a whole new generation understand and will no doubt develop and manipulate to help understand our wider role in the world. The addition of work digitally archived and rendered for future generations by current researchers in the field could have a significant impact on our future selves in helping to understand our origins, our development of culture and societies. This is rendered even more significant by the rate at which our current society and culture seems intent to consume the very earth from beneath our own feet, not to be too dramatic about it!
Dragos’ research is fascinating in this regard. Taking artefacts, locations containing reconstructed architecture and using actors in authentically created costumes; rendering these into 3D virtual walkthrough environments. I took great delight in looking through the book he has created as an accompaniment to the website. I put it to the group that a lot of the presentations and developments within the blooming field of archaeoacoustic research were down to recent advances in digital technology.
In 5 short years digital technologies have advanced at an exponential rate and we are now able to do things virtually in a way only previously dreamt of. The ability to record, document, archive and create is enhanced to a super human extent thanks to digital rendering. Dragos put forward his idea that ‘digital technology is the new shamanism’ – ‘it has the ability to transport us’. There is evidence that psychedelic drug use in shamanist ritual still practiced in some parts of the world today, release similar chemicals in the brain as experiencing an immersive gaming experience on an X Box! It may be argued that current technologies are passive for the participant, however I believe they will become creator/consumer friendly, and beyond my own feeble imaginings.
Vincent discussed the idea that ‘digital’ is derived from the word digit and likened this to hands and fingers manipulating the environment and materials. This of course is the perfect correlation and true meaning in context. It becomes and extension of our ability to create and also reminded me of the field trip visit to Macao museum of archaeology. The exhibits here were all displayed in the usual way under lit glass cabinets, the cabinets were in places of key exhibits overlaid with the outlines of hands working the artefact. Vincent’s thoughts made me instantly think of this series of artefact displays and the digits of the hands manipulating the materials into artefacts.
Etienne also acknowledged the importance of the new technology that enabled him to perfectly create in a repeatable fashion his renderings of prehistoric bone flutes; this only possible thanks to 3D printers. Etienne was not the only archaeoacoustics presenter to use or mention the potential of 3D printing in archaeology. Shea Trahan a New Orleans architect used computer generated algorithms to design a transcendental acoustic space which he modelled into 3D rendered models thanks to these now accessible and efficient printers.
Paul Ommen was one of the few voices during the conference seminar who opined regarding making archaeoacoustic research widely accessible and how we as a community make our findings and research of interest to the general public. This is a duty of the researcher after all and it will be through our manipulation of digital media that this can be achieved. Whether through VR technologies and immersive environmental simulations to enhanced performance pieces and interactive museum exhibits, many of us are already working in these fields directly or contributing to them in some way. Indeed the creation and existence of this website is an attempt to bridge the gap between academic research and a wider audience.
As a conference closer this impromptu gathering couldn't have been a more fitting end to Archaeoacoustics III.
This was prompted by the discussions and in some cases disagreements around the title archaeoacoustics which like it or not has come to be an established term. In order to remind ourselves a back to basics approach in terms of etymology and syntax seemed pertinent.
Archaeoacoustics, Sonic Archaeology, Acoustic Anthropology or Anthropological Acoustics, Sonic Anthropology - The study of sound in heritage and cultural development
plural noun: acoustics; noun: acoustics
Archaeoacoustics, Sonic Archaeology, Acoustic Anthropology or Anthropological Acoustics, Sonic Anthropology - The study of sound in heritage and cultural development
They all work! It can be easy to get hung up on a title if you are a traditional archaeologist or consultant acoustician. There have been attempts at a definitive definition for archaeoacoustics.... However due to it's multidisciplinary nature the term archaeoacoustics without getting too hung up works very well. It is interesting to note that the term archaeaoacoustics has also been added to the Collins dictionary as a newly recognised word with a definition thus -
"...a mix of systematic measurement and vocal experimentation ... has become formally known as archaeoacoustics, or sound archaeology. " It's not a perfect definition but it's getting towards the nub.
Several colleagues in the field have suggested as a formation title for a society "The Society for Archaeoacoustic Research" - I personally rather like this and believe the established term should be kept as it beginning to be understood and recognised in a wider context. It is certainly recongnised within my own academic institution and increasingly I am finding undergraduate research students under my supervision are increasingly coming to me with research project proposals based on initial findings around archaeoacoustics. Whatever is settled upon it has to work with a wider audience in mind and not just us niche researchers.
Having had a chance to let the dust settle and reflect a little I wanted to get some ideas down regarding the discussions, debates and disagreements within the various factions of archaeoacoustic research. The 'hard' and 'soft science' alliance as I believe it should be, this praxis has to considered. From an acoustic analysis standpoint, yes we can create empirical data, in fact we can generate this data in the field live with relatively accessible equipment. This has only been possible for the last 15 years or so and become very efficient in the last 5 years. I can literally set up a lab in a cave on my own; maybe it is this very factor that has reignited archaeoacoustic research in the same 5 year time frame and certainly since the first conference organised by Chris Scarre and Graeme Lawson?
In this regard I think archaeoacoustic research has grown into itself thanks to technological advances. But therein lies the dichotomy, our ancestors didn't do acoustic analysis I'm pretty sure and wouldn't have been able to perceive of acoustics the way we can now spectrograms, sine sweeps, IR's etc. Re-enter the old guard - step forward Iegor Reznikoff with the sensory observational powers that I hope may never be measured. Sometimes we need to sense a space, take time to inhabit it, try to understand it, see it the way it may have been, and lets face it we can accurately visualise the past thanks to archaeology and anthropology. We can't however listen to the past - at least not until the invention of the inter-dimensional ear trumpet or time machine, so we have to apply our imagination, our creativity and scientifically these are very hard things to quantify!
At best when we make an audio recording in an archaeological site it is a snap shot of now and we have to accept this. This recording can tell us many things, particularly in spaces that we know have remained relatively unchanged but there has to be an acceptance that we have not captured a moment in history other than the current moment; in too few generations we will become the ancestors and our legacy will be these historical snapshots in time (which photographs already are in barely 100years) and audio recordings.
It is interesting to note that many field recordists in archaeoacoustic research not only conduct sine sweep analysis and impulse response analysis, but augment these with performance pieces recorded in the field, soundscape recordings and the human voice in documentary. Impulse responses can, incidentally when played back spark the imagination as well as provide pure forms of data. You start to imagine the size of the room, or is it a cave? from the reverberation time, the pre-delay time, the frequency content. Reverberation is also incidentally one of the few components of sound to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records, as in the world's longest reverb time is... it just so happens to be a de-commissioned WWII fuel dump built into the side of a Scottish mountain in the highlands. It is also pure co-incidence that the previous world record was also measured in a space in Scotland, Hamilton Mausoleum. It is worth pointing out that this does not mean it is the longest reverb time, it's just that Trevor Cox of Salford university happened to record this one using a starters pistol firing as the IR. It happens to be a staggering one minute and twelve seconds in length, the average living room is less than a second! All interesting trivia, but pertinent none the less.
Another debate that was circulating, again raised by the acousticians was the title - ARCHAEOACOUSTICS. I shall share some thoughts in this regard in due course. The debate I was involved in included a long train journey and a bar in Lisbon, an anecdote that will need journalled in my next musing.
I am delighted to have been asked for use of my initial conference summary report below by the conference organisers, Linda Eneix and the OTSF.
Here's a link to Michelle Walker's, fellow Scot's archaeoacoustician and archaeology interim report of her research on the archaeoacoustics of a Bronze Age cave, Sculptor's Cave.
Having just returned for the 3rd International Archaeoacoustics Conference some initial thoughts and report. The location for the conference; Tomar in the middle of Portugal, our academic host Fernando Coimbra, Professor of archaeology, Insituto Terra e Memoria, Geosciences Centre in conjunction with Linda Eneix and team of the Old Temples Study Foundation.
This conference seemed to be at a point at which 'archaeoacoustics' realised itself. There was much discussion for and against forming an international professional society, the need to explore further standards in practice and perhaps most pertinently allying the hard and soft sciences in a harmonious union. There are ney sayers on bath sides, however I believe the way forward is to address, accept and respect both perspectives. The experiential and the empirical should support each other.
I have decided as a field IR recordist that a study of field recording methodologies and techniques in archaeoacoustic research need 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, 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 VR technologies are the new shamanism - it can transport us'.
As well as completing my paper for the conference proceedings publication, this proposed field work study will be unveiled as it progresses here on Archaeoacoustics Scotland.
The conference was a truly amazing experience, Linda and her team have refined the conference package experience since the first conference in Malta, Feb. 2014. The programme featured long established researchers in the field and many new and younger researchers. The youngest presenter, Keith Harvey, 22 a first class Hons 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.
The programmes keynote speakers are internationally re-knowned from Iegor Reznikoff, Ezra Zubro, David Lubman and joined by conference opener celebrated writer and broadcaster Paul Devereux. It was both an honour to be amongst this wealth of knowledge and humbling to be accepted as a peer. Amongst highlights including field work methodologies and arcahaeocoustics case studies and site observations was a presentation from PHd student of Goldsmiths College, Annie Goh. Annie has turned anthropology in on itself to study the subject and the researchers of archaeoacoustics itself. I look forward to reading her published output. The Scots were well represented at this years conference with myself, Keith Harvey and PHD archaeologist Michelle Walker all representing the University of the Highlands and Islands.
There was also within this rarefied bubble of intellectual stimulation a realisation that this data and findings be made meaningful to the public. Several of the presentations touched on this idea and brought to mind the Re-Imagining Space project.
The conference included field trips and further presentations by in the field archaeologists and 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, Chris also coined the term 'archaeoacoustics'. There was art inspired by culture, heritage and sound design, performances both impromptu and organised and all was a marvel. Portugal is beautiful and we will be back. Thank you again Linda Eneix and Josette Linda's unsung hero in the background.
I will continue to follow up these musings as they inspire me.
On the 18th of July 2017 I was granted access to Skara Brae structure 7 recreation located just 50 metres from the actual site. I spent about an hour there taking in the atmosphere and making several recordings, The first a B-format compatible surround recording a W,X,Y technique, the second a guerilla IR recording using the usual balloon pop and a mobile PCM recorder. and finally a series of recordings sat at the fire pit of rythm's playing rocks and drift wood sticks, Neolithic 'rock' music. Skara Brae is located on Skaill Bay beach on the North West of main Orcadian Island of North Ronaldsay, a stunning location.
The boat was used by a small crew to cross the Pentland Firth. Despite scepticism that it would not make the crossing, the crew not only succeeded but did it well under the time estimated. The Pentland Firth is famously a difficult sea sound with cross currents and whirl pools.
The rambling thoughts and musings of an audio engineer/sound designer turned archaeoacoustician