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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3 thoughts on “Palaeolithic Archaeology, Ice Age Island and Echoes

  1. The issue of sound in caves reminds me of the few times I have been caving. One of my favourite things has been when all artificial light sources are turned off and no one makes a sound or try’s to be as quite as possible. You experience the cave in a whole new way and new sounds start to become more apparent.

    Also in relation to how noisy the modern world is. Where we were staying in Jersey was next to the airport so there was nearly always background noise from the planes. On the last day some of us walked to some sand dunes nearby. As we walked away from the airport we went down a slope and this reduced a lot of the noise from the planes and if there were no cars you could hear other noises which were previously not audible. I think the point I am trying to make is that in the modern world we have become more accustomed to background noises often being quite intrusive. Such as people who live under a flight path become accustomed to sleeping while planes fly over head.

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