Archaeoacoustics is a multidisciplinary field that has as its focus the exploration and reconstruction of the sounds of the past. Sound is by nature ephemeral – sounds are delivered in waveforms that dissipate quickly. Thus it should seem to be no surprise that humans have been on a quest to capture sound since the beginning of civilization. Humans gained the ability to preserve the sounds of language about 5,000 years ago (though this development was uneven and far from universal). Likewise, we gained the ability to preserve the sounds of music around twelve millennia ago (though there are scattered success stories far earlier than that). Still, these systems and their successors are mere representations of the sounds they seek to preserve and transmit. It is somewhat remarkable to think about the fact that until the late 19th century, with Edison’s phonograph (something similar was invented by Charles Cros, though he never patented it) humans were not able to directly hear the sounds of the past. With sound recording technology, an acoustical snapshot of the past was for the first time possible, in the same way that great monuments, paintings, sculpture, or written texts survive, preserving their essential form as they were created.
Archaoacoustics is described by the musicologist Ezra Zubrow as “the examination of the past through sound. Archaeoacoustics returns those sounds long silent to the present. People, long forgotten but who had lived, loved, sang, cried, played music, and danced, are brought back to life.” Archaeoacoustics is still a sub-(or macro?)discipline in its nascent stages, represented in a few publications and conferences but far from an established field with practitioners, distinct methodologies, and so on, but its emergence is indicative of an acknowledgment, brewing for half a century at least in the humanities, that to study the past through surviving monuments, paintings, and texts is quite limited. To know the past is to know – or at least, to try to know – the full range of activities and experiences of its people, even though the things left behind for us to study directly are highly skewed towards certain types of artifacts and thus leave us to fill in the gaps with our informed imagination.
The links below represent a number of different projects, institutions, researchers, performance groups, and methodologies focused in the growing field of archaeoacoustics. PSALTIKON’s Director, Spyridon Antonopoulos, participates in two of these projects as scholar and singer.