Archaeologists put sound back into a previously silent past

UAlbany's Kristy Primeau and UB's David Witt use GIS technology to advance a largely theoretical discussion into a modeled sensory experience to explore how people may have heard their surroundings throughout an entire archaeological landscape, or soundscape.

The results, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, have more fully animated the ancient world and opened a discussion about how people at various locations, at sites ranging from sacred to political, experienced their soundscapes. The findings ultimately color what was formerly a sterile space into a living place - and sound ties itself to the identity of that place.

This attempt to infuse character into the material world and incorporate the relationship between people and their surroundings is part of what's called phenomenology.

"From a phenomenological perspective, the difference between a space and a place is critical. People don't live in a vacuum and we have to look at all aspects of the lived experience," says Primeau, an archeologist and PhD candidate at UAlbany. "There is more to the experience of the landscape than just being present there."1

During the past few decades, researchers have developed methodologies for understanding how past people experienced their wider world. The majority of these reconstructions focused upon viewsheds and movement, illustrating how individuals visually observed their environment and navigated through it. However, these reconstructions have tended to ignore another sense which played a major role in how people experienced the wider, physical world: that of sound. While the topic of sound has been discussed within phenomenology at the theoretical level, and has been approached at the site level through the growing study of “acoustic archaeology,” there has been limited practical application at the landscape level. This article illustrates how GIS technology can be utilized to model soundscapes, exploring how people heard their wider surroundings.