Recovered Sound

There is a branch of archaeology, called archaeoacoustics, which occupies itself with the aural world of antiquity. It is a minor branch, given that archaeology typically entertains itself with material culture, but I like to suppose that it is actuated by important questions such as, did the armies of Alexander whistle as they marched? Or indeed, did the ancients whistle tunes at all?

I whistle a happy tune... Photo: Tomisti

I whistle a happy tune… Photo: Tomisti

One of the early stimuli in the field of archaeoacoustics was the claim made by Richard G. Woodbridge III in 1969, in an article in Proceedings of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which referred to some subsequently unverified and unrepeated experimental success suggesting that sounds of ancient life might have been encoded in artefacts such as pottery, through vibrations transmitted by the hands of the potter; or in the plaster of walls by plasterers. We might, with adequate technology, reconstitute the voice of Masaccio’s workmen, or the workshop chatter of Exekias, or, less ambitiously, the sound of a dog barking, or someone whistling.

It might seem much more likely that sounds are not accidentally encoded in this way. Recording to a soft medium would appear to demand a refinement of the means of inscription, in order both to amplify and clean the input – require, in other words, proper technology and intent.

But that is to reckon without the work of Abe Davis and his team, who have been experimenting with the sounds encoded in objects that are filmed – a crisp packet or a pot plant, it seems, pick up micro-vibrations from the movement of air associated with sound. These vibrations can be decoded, with startling results.

‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ are sweeter’ says Keats, musing on the acoustical properties of a Greek pot. But while we are still a long way from picking up the whistles of the ancients in the micro-disturbances of their material culture, I am starting to think we should rule nothing out.