Palaeolithic Archaeology, Ice Age Island and Echoes

Huge thanks to Sam Griffiths for helping me write this blog and to Jon Whitmore for the photos.

I have just come back for a weekend visiting the Ice Age Island Project on Jersey. During this time I spent a lot of time discussing the experience of sound with early humans/ other hominid species something I know nothing about I hasten to add. However, the issues if somewhat larger in an earlier period are still prevalent in my medieval work and primarily stem from how we can approach the experience of sound for a group of people whose experience of life is so departed from our own.

La Cotte de St. Brelade

La Cotte de St. Brelade

In the Medieval period I have discussed how the world was a lot quieter in comparison to how it is today, meaning that smaller noises would be heard more clearly and would be related to in a different way. However, these issues are even larger in the Paleolithic, my understanding is that in pre-modern humans there is a huge discussion about when language began to form. From what I have discussed with people there is no defined date to confirm when speech became possible. I was even more curious to discover that although this debate raged no thought had been turned to the development of the ear and how hominids relate to sound.

This primarily came out of a discussion about various experiments with sound that I have discussed briefly in my previous post. A lot of prehistoric work in Archaeoacoustics discusses the ephemeral nature of sound specifically in relation to echoes. Without our modern understanding of how echoes work they are assumed have been understood as magical or work of the gods. However, as Reznikoff (2008) suggests in his discussion on resonance maybe it was considered a more useful tool for exploration than light and sound. He discusses the use of sound to explore caves, where light travels only over short distances sound can be projected forward and used as a guide to find shorter or longer passages.

Both discussions have both issues and positive suggestions.

Jon's position in the entrance to La Cotte

Jon’s position in the entrance to La Cotte

While on Jersey we clambered round to visit La Cotte de St. Brelade, the cave was very busy following a Jersey Heritage tour and instead we decided we would swim back and meet some of the other project members back on the main beach. Having swam out a short distance we saw our friends climbing up into the cave and thought it would be a good point to get a photo. Without much hope I shouted back up to them, my experiences with swimming and sailing has always suggested that sound does not project well. In fact I heard my voice echo back off the cliffs. My friend Jon Whitmore not only heard up but said he could hear us as clearly as if we were sat next to him. We could not hear him.

Swimming in the sea at La Cotte the red circle shows our position

Swimming in the sea at La Cotte the red circle shows our position

This acoustical phenomena might not have existed in the past, as with buildings landscapes change over time. Where we floating in the sea would have been dry land and this would have had an effect. Equally the erosion of local bedrock could have changed the acoustical properties of the headland. However, the water was only a couple of meters deep so our height was not too far out of reaching the site. A new suggestion is that this natural acoustical property could have been taken advantage of by those inhabiting the site. It could have been used as a signal for the approach of things or as a method of communication over a larger distance.

Either way it was a fascinating new way for me to experience the site and I can’t wait to get back there to go on a closer exploration.

Reznikoff, I. (2008). Sound resonance in prehistoric times: A study of Paleolithic painted caves and rocks. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 123(5), 4137–4141.

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Acoustics and Ocularcentricism

At the end of my last post I commented that “It feels strange working visually to produce something that is going to be used to model noise”. Equally I find the same is true when reading articles discussing acoustics in the past when they use graphs and plans to illustrate acoustical features. I am taking this blog to explore some of my thoughts on acoustics and how it is visually explored. This is by no means a polished exploration just some thoughts I have had.

I know on some level I struggle to understand them as I’m not an engineer and don’t work so much with the mathematical modelling of acoustical spaces. However, I do wonder if this is more to do with the Ocularcentric approaches currently employed in archaeology to feel the need to make a graph to demonstrate our ideas. This quote from Devereux and Jahn (1996)“it is instinctively felt that sound is too immediate and ephemeral” highlights to me why we might feel the need to work in visual display. By discussing acoustics in terms of its visual display to some extent we are making our results more “scientific”. Having equally seen a hand clap described as “a single loud percussive noise” (Waller 1993) I feel we are trying to move beyond the more phenomenological areas of working in Archaeoacoustics.

My other concern is that we are imparting our interpretations of the past with a modern mindset. Most of the spaces being discussed are monuments or sites from prehistory would they have been understood in the same visual depictions that we are using to demonstrate the spread of sound?

Despite these thoughts I equally agree it is very hard to describe the results of this kind of work without graphs and plans to demonstrate clearly what we mean. As seen in my previous post I myself have to visually model a room to be able to acoustically model the space, this is how the technology has developed.

A lot of the work done in Archaeoacoustics has been trying to line up Acoustical phenomena with visual stimuli. The most obvious example is the large body of work undertaken on Rock Art sites these include but are in no means limited to the Radio 4 documentary NOISE, (Reznikoff 2008; Waller 1993; Scarre & Lawson 2006). Rock painting is not the only application other papers also link “impressive visual backdrop[‘s]” (Watson & Keating 1999) to acoustical interesting spaces or examine spaces both a visual and acoustical way to compare the results (Wozencroft & Devereux n.d.). These are all fascinating and I am generally intrigued whether the locations were chosen due to acoustical phenomena already present in the natural environment or whether the construction of a site was intended to produce acoustical affects. Today acoustical engineering forms a subject in its own right. This does not mean we can entirely predict the acoustical properties of a building; we cannot model in the same way we can the aesthetics. Buildings are still constructed with errors in the acoustics. For example this lecture theatre has had to have the acoustics adjusted (the fabric boards, an absorbing material, cover holes in the wall designed to scatter sound).

This leads me to believe that most acoustical properties related to monuments are accidental creations rather than created in the design. A modern example of this is the Whispering Gallery at St Paul’s cathedral (see Here for more details). Then potentially once discovered these properties are exploited or further explored in future constructions.
I presume that considering even now with knowledge of how acoustics can be manipulated we don’t always get it right that the latter idea wasn’t true.

Devereux, P. & Jahn, R.G., 1996. Preliminary investigations and cognitive considerations of the acoustical resonances of selected archaeological sites. Antiquity, 70, pp.665–6.

Reznikoff, I., 2008. Sound resonance in prehistoric times: A study of Paleolithic painted caves and rocks. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 123(5), pp.4137–4141.

Scarre, C. & Lawson, 2006. Archaeoacoustics, Cambridge: Oxbow Books.

Waller, S., 1993. Sound reflection as an explanation for the content and context of rock art. Rock Art Research, 10(2).

Watson, A. & Keating, D., 1999. Architecture and sound: an acoustical analysis of megalithic monuments in prehistoric Britain. Antiquity, 73, pp.325–36.

Wozencroft, J. & Devereux, P., Landscape-perception. Landscape & Perception project 2007-2012. Available at: http://www.landscape-perception.com/acoustic_mapping/ [Accessed July 11, 2013].