​Ancient buildings are spilling secrets about the early use of sound -- from Stonehenge on back thousands of years to the oldest monuments on Earth.   Consider the possibility that not only was music a feature of the earliest built spaces, but that it was the purpose: the driving force for the creation of monumental building, which led to agriculture, permanent settlement and the launch of western civilization. 

Sounds made on purpose, vocal or instrumental sounds (or both,) that are combined in a way that produces a “beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion,” is music as the Oxford Dictionary defines it.  Nobody knows when it started because people were already making music before writing was invented to record its history.  We do know that all the people of the world in every time period and every remote place have had some kind of music in their culture.  It is a pretty safe bet that from the time humankind started making tools, the banging of one stone against another produced a rhythm that was pleasing to the ear.   Imagine one early worker looking at another with delight on his face.  Maybe there is a vocal response.  How long would it take for something that wonderful to catch on?  Soon the whole tribe is joining in and magic happens.  There is the release of endorphins.  There is the whole social bonding thing.  There is the development of cultural identity. 


Flash forward to 40,000 years ago.  The oldest known cave paintings are in Europe and seem to be located where the echoes are the strongest.  Eerie, unexplained, unnatural sound effects.  It could have been coincidence.  Painting is easier on smooth rock and that’s what you need for the best echo.  But it’s naïve to think early people didn’t notice the difference in sound quality between the open outdoors and inside a limestone cave.  They heard everything.  They heard things we have forgotten how to hear.  Back then, lives depended on listening for danger, water, food. 

Many thousands of years later, something extraordinary happened.   A group of people got together and arranged huge stones together in a way that was preplanned and spectacular.  It wasn’t casual.  So much effort would have to produce places for ceremony and ritual.  They built curved walls with highly resonant limestone.  Was it the stone that prompted the building phenomenon because it was there and workable with stone tools, or were they motivated by an observation from the caves?  For sure, what they got was a great place for making music.

There is no written record.  There is no visual way to document the sound of what was happening inside these sites.   There is, however, artistic expression and our understanding of basic human nature.  Some of the artifacts and carvings hint that the ancient builders were very aware of the unusual sound effects in their creations.  Could it be that the pursuit of unique sound phenomena altered the course of human development?   

Agriculture was born in the same area as these first stone shrines.  In a short time after making their great stone buildings, the lifestyle changed radically.  People who had always lived off the land by following game, hunting and gathering, began planting and raising food animals.   Once they could settle in one place with a regular food supply, all sorts of things started happening: collecting things, improving things, inventing things ... making their strange music in their strange decorated stone chambers.

After several more thousand years, families (probable descendants of the first builders,) brought their settlement kits of seeds and animals to the Mediterranean island of Malta.  The limestone that makes up the island has been prized throughout history as a gorgeous building material.  It is golden, easily worked, even in texture and highly resonant.  Here the settlers raised megalithic temples that are the oldest surviving freestanding buildings in the world.  Like the ruins of earlier sites, the ceilings are long gone.  Nobody knows how they were covered and the completeness of the sound environment is lost.  But investigators of archaeoacoustics are very lucky.  The Stone Age builders also sculpted vast underground “temples for the dead” that can help the telling of this prehistory of music.  

Our purpose is the systematic multi-disciplinary study of sound in ancient ritual, ceremonial, ​
and performance spaces ​and the human experience thereof.   What are the goals?

1.) Better understanding the evolution of language & communication: the coupling of sound & meaning
2.) Reconstructing a segment of the Past which has been silent; filling a major hole in the story of human development
3.) Exploring how societies will use sound in the future, equipped with knowledge of how they used it in the past

​​​The sound is otherworldly in there, sweeping around the curved walls and doubling back on itself in echoes that last as long as 13 seconds.  Wave after wave of vibration pulse against the eardrum.  Imagine standing inside a giant stone subwoofer that quakes every molecule of fluid in one’s body.  It can be both weird and strangely seductive.  In a chamber known as “The Oracle Room”, red ochre paintings spin out into the more highly decorated spaces like some dreamed up musical notation.   Anthropologists say it is even more than that. 

Reports made at the time of discovery launched a legend about the way a deep male voice resounds from this chamber in a way that a female voice cannot.  Modern scientists detected the presence of an unusual effect: a double maximum resonance frequency at about 70Hz and 114Hz.  With a male voice tuned to these frequencies (in the range of a bass baritone,) it is possible to stimulate the resonance phenomenon throughout the hypogeum, creating bone-chilling effects. 

The ancient people surely weren’t silent in there.  None of this means they exploited the phenomena, but it would be pretty unbelievable if they didn’t.   Here is more of what the experts had to say:

Archaeologist/Heritage Curator: KATYA STROUD
 “The rock-cut chambers at Ħal Saflieni allow us to study a system of interconnecting spaces very much as they were conceived and experienced by a Neolithic mind.  In 1920, when writing for the National Geographic Magazine, William Arthur Griffiths points out that “Here it was noticed only a few months ago that any word spoken into this place was magnified a hundred-fold and audible throughout the entire underground structure. A curved projection is specially carved out of the back of the cave near this hole and acts as a sounding-board, showing that the designers had a good practical knowledge of sound-wave motion.”

 “Many features carved into these rooms a thousand years before the pyramids were built are precursors of todays’ acoustically engineered performance environments.  It is not hard to imagine amplified vocalizing acting as an aural bridging membrane between the material and spiritual world.  Architecture remains mood manipulative not only through its visual power but also as an instrument of sonic manipulation.  Have we not all experienced spaces to lower one’s voice, spaces to linger in or spaces which encourage meditation.”

Music Anthropologist: IEGOR REZNIKOFF
“That people sang laments or prayers for the dead is certain.  a) it is a universal practice in all oral traditions we know, b) at the same period, around 3,000 BC, we have the Sumerian or Egyptian inscriptions mentioning singing to the Invisible, particularly in relationship with death and Second Life, and finally c) the resonance is so strong in the Hypogeum already when simply speaking, that one is forced to use it and singing becomes natural.”

Forensic Medicine Researcher: PROF.AGG. PAOLO DEBERTOLIS
“Under the right circumstances, ancient populations were able to obtain different states of consciousness without the use of drugs or other chemical substances.  Skilled technicians from the Department of Life Sciences at the University of Trieste examined EEGs measuring cortically projected rhythms from activity deep in the limbic structures relating to emotional experience.  Our results showed that those volunteers with a frontal lobe prevalence during the toning received ideas and thoughts similar to what happens during meditation, whilst those with an occipital lobe prevalence during the toning visualized images. “

So, what does all this mean to us today?  What can we do with the information? 

The preliminary multi-disciplinary research certainly points to the likelihood that by their choice of site, material and architectural planning of space, ancient builders produced unique sound phenomena in their earliest megalithic stone structures, whether they intended to do so or not.  There is also an indication that prolonged exposure to the most exciting sounds in the space – the ones that made the best echoes -- impacted on their brain activity.  These folks are the ones who set us on the road to civilization and changed the earth forever.  If the prospect that sound may have played a role doesn’t raise scientific eyebrows and incite a desire for more research, our world is too far gone.

We are not desolate — we pallid stones;
Not all our power is gone; not all our fame;
Not all the magic of our high renown;
Not all the wonder that encircles us;
Not all the mysteries that in us lie –

          Edgar Allan Poe, 1835

Website Copyright © 2017 The International Society for the Study of Archaeoacoustics. All rights reserved.

Original Rock Music?

contributed by Linda Eneix (C) 2020

​In the course of an international multi-disciplinary conference in Malta, specialists conducted investigations inside the 5,000 year old Hal Saflieni Hypogeum.  A UNESCO World Heritage site, Hal Saflieni is an intact necropolis cut from solid limestone with antler picks and smoothed with harder stone.  It was used not only as a depository for bones, but also as a shrine for ritual use.   Its three stories of carved architectural features mirror configurations in the above ground temples with curved ceilings, arches, vaults and other features that are still components in today’s performance spaces.   Protected from weathering by being underground, and from destruction at the hands of later occupations by being undetected until 1902, this site gives scientists a chance to sample a space with its original sound behavior unchanged since its use in prehistory.