Archaeology meets DSP: CCRMA at Chavín de Huántar

In 2008, a team of researchers from CCRMA at Stanford University traveled with Professor John Rick to Chavín de Huántar in Peru. The purpose of the joint expedition was to measure and archive the unusual acoustics found on the site, as detailed in my previous blog post.  The team of investigators from CCRMA consisted of some notable luminaries from the fields of computer music and audio DSP, including Julius Smith (pioneer of waveguide synthesis), John Chowning (pioneer of FM synthesis), Perry Cook (expert in physical modeling), and Jonathan Abel (co-founder of Universal Audio, created many of the algorithms used in the UAD1 and UAD2).

The preliminary results from the expedition can be found at the website of the Chavín de Huántar Archaeological Acoustics Project. I highly recommend visiting the CCRMA site, and tracking down the various papers. A brief summary of the published results:

The CCRMA researchers brought a a novel microphone array to Chavín, to capture the impulse response of the galleries. The microphone array was specifically developed for room acoustics analysis and synthesis, and archaeological acoustics applications., and an overview of its design and construction was presented in an AES Conference paper, “A Configurable Microphone Array with Acoustically Transparent Omnidirectional Elements.” The new device consists of a number of omnidirectional microphone elements, mounted on flexible wire mounts, attached to a lightweight yet sturdy base that is suited for the narrow tunnels found at Chavín.

The microphone array is used in conjunction with a calibration system, which consists of 4 small speakers that are configured around the base of the microphone array:

By sending calibration signals through the speakers and processing the results, the various time differences between the microphone elements can be compensated for. The system is purported to obtain better results at capturing impulse responses of various structures than the previous microphone arrays that have been used.

The initial analysis of the acoustics at Chavín, recorded with a simpler microphone/monitor setup than described above, was published in a paper presented at Acoustics ’08 in Paris, “On the Acoustics of the Underground Galleries of Ancient Chavín de Huántar, Peru.” The researchers found that the reverberation times at Chavín were fairly short, on the order of 150 milliseconds to around 1 second. The paper suggests that the short reverb times would work for the rhythmic playing of the Strombus trumpets found on site. The reverb time increases as a function of the number of turns between the source and the receiver, with sources several gallery turns away from the receiver having a longer perceived reverb time.

The reverberation in the Chavín galleries is characterized by dense and energetic early reflections, and low inter-aural cross-correlation. All 3 of the galleries have a quick onset, where the reverberation reaches Gaussian statistics within 20 milliseconds of the initial impulse. The quick build to Gaussian (i.e. random) statistics, and the low amount of cross-correlation between the left and right ears, is responsible for the strange sonic characteristics of the galleries, where it is difficult to localize where a signal is coming from in the absence of a direct signal. David Griesinger, the pioneering DSP guru behind the original Lexicon algorithms in the 224/XL and the 480L,  has discussed the role of low inter-aural cross-correlation, or decorrelation, in creating a sense of envelopment, where the sound is perceived as surrounding the listener. In artificial reverberators, decorrelation is obtained by having different delay times or phases for the different output signals. At Chavín, the small distance between structural surfaces is probably responsible for the quick build of echo density to the late field, which demonstrates randomness down to the binaural level.

The acoustics research and analysis of Chavín is ongoing. There are a few issues which I feel would be interesting to address in future publications:

  • The galleries at Chavín were originally covered with plaster. It is possible that the original plaster would create a dramatic difference in the RT60 of the galleries. An example would be a small room made of wood, versus the same room covered in several coats of cement plaster – the latter describes the famous reverberation chambers at Gold Star Studios. The CCRMA website mentions that research will be conducted into the sonic effects of the plaster used at Chavín.
  • The analysis of the galleries at Chavín used a long swept exponential sinusoidal test signal for the impulse. Such a signal is useful in reducing the effects of noise on the analysis, but it also “smooths out” any time variation that might have been present in the original reverb response. It would be interesting to analyze the reverb of the galleries, to see if time variation would have any marked acoustic effects. The temperature of the galleries has been measured as fairly constant, but this is probably assuming modern sources of light, such as flashlights, as opposed to torches or the like. In addition, the presence of living bodies in a small space can have marked effects on the air temperature, which can result in small changes in the speed of sound that have a noticeable effect on the sidebands of a signal in the late reverb decay. The current reverberation time in the galleries is short enough that small variations in the speed of sound may not have a significant effect. However, the longer reverb times that may be associated with the original plastered walls may have allowed for time variation to be perceivable in the reverb decay, especially as heat sources are introduced into the gallery.

As a fitting end to this post, here is a video of Tita la Rosa playing a Strombus trumpet, presumably within one of the galleries at Chavín:

Conch trumpets, hallucinogenic cacti, and ancient reverb: Chavín de Huántar

Chavín de Huántar is an archaeological site in the Peruvian Andes, where a major temple complex has existed for several thousand years. The site has a number of temples and ceremonial plazas, and is honeycombed with corridors, shafts, and drains built of stone block. It is currently believed that construction of the major ceremonial buildings began around 900 BCE, and ended around 600 BCE. The non-ceremonial archaeological sites surrounding the main temple complex show signs of an emerging social stratification during the period that Chavín was active as a ceremonial center.

Professor John Rick of Stanford University (who was my undergraduate adviser in Anthropology) has been conducting research at Chavín since 1995. Rick has recently published several papers that put forth a provocative theory: that the structures at Chavín were used in rituals where the dominant “priests” (or whatever class was in power) relied on sensory manipulation, in combination with hallucinogenic drugs, to reinforce the perception that they had supernatural authority. This perceived communication with the gods, or godlike nature of the dominant class, would serve to justify and perpetuate the social stratification that was emerging at Chavín.

In his 2005 paper, The Evolution of Authority and Power at Chavín de Huántar, Peru, Professor Rick lists the evidence that the structures at Chavín were used as part of a “Tradition-Based Convincing System.” A brief summary of his arguments from this paper and other papers follows (all images are sourced from this paper).

The stone passages known as galleries have very unique sonic characteristics, where sounds are difficult to localize. Within these galleries, Rick recently excavated a number of decorated trumpets, carved from the Strombus conch:

The Strombus conch shells have been used as musical instruments in Peru for several thousand years, as depicted in this artwork drawn from a cornice at Chavín:

Along the Peruvian coast, conch were used as food (and still are to this day, and taste delicious in soup, especially if the soup has a spicy coconut-onion base). However, Chavín is a fair distance from the coast, so the presence of ornately carved conch shells there points to a society that had extensive trade associated with ceremonial practices.

The galleries are marked by ducts known as ventilation shafts and drainage canals, but these ducts seem poorly designed for this proposed usage. In 1976, Luis Lumbreras published a paper, Acerca de la función del sistema hidráulico de Chavín, where he argues that the “drainage canals” were used primarily for sonic purposes. When water was pored into these canals, the galleries below were filled with a roaring sound.

There is a fair amount of evidence at Chavín for the use of psychoactive drugs, in particular the San Pedro cactus, or Echinopsis pachanoi. This tall columnar cactus is native to the Andes, and there is evidence that San Pedro been used in rituals in the region for over two thousand years. At Chavín, the distinctive ribbed shape of the San Pedro cactus can be seen in carved figures:

Chavín also has a number of carvings of semi-humanoid, semi-animal figures. Such figures may represent the shamanistic transformation of a person into an animal spirit. Rick argues that such figures represent an “exceptionally graphic depiction of the drug effects and transitions.”

A summary of how Professor Rick thinks the ritual may have proceeded, from a recent profile of his work:

The ritual would have begun, most likely, by ingesting a hallucinogenic powder or a liquid extracted from the San Pedro cactus. As the Chavín subjects walked through the dark, cramped halls, the sound of Strombus trumpets echoed around them from some unseen source. Water roared through canals beneath their feet (or, strangely, overhead), producing a heavy percussion amplified by the drugs. Mirrors placed in ventilation ducts to reflect the sun poured brilliant shafts of light into the subterranean hallways, only to be “turned off,” thrusting the occupant into blackness as dark as obsidian. By the time the subjects emerged from the chambers, staggering and stunned, their perspective had been altered forever. The unmistakable impression: somebody powerful was in charge.

The descriptions of the sonic qualities of Chavín are fascinating; however, it is hard to quantify such qualities from words alone. Clearly, the galleries have unusual reverb characteristics. In the next post, I will discuss a recent expedition to Chavín, where Professor Rick was joined by a number of prominent figures in audio DSP and computer music in order to capture and analyze the reverberant qualities of the galleries.

Caves, megaliths, and reverbs in the prehistoric world

I have a confession to make: I was an Anthropology major. I took some courses at CCRMA as an undergraduate, but my degree was in Anthropology, with a focus in archaeology. Instead of studying the types of things that make up my work nowadays, like electrical engineering and computer science, I spent my time learning about the relationship of environment to culture, hunter gatherers from an ecological perspective, the societies of Central and South America, the interaction between the fur trade and religion in Subarctic Canada, stuff like that. My favorite book from that era (or, at the very least, the book with the best title):

So it should come as no surprise that I am fascinated by the sounds of ancient buildings, caves, and other prehistoric constructions and dwellings. The study of ancient acoustics, or archaeoacoustics, covers a variety of sonic phenomena of the prehistoric world, from research into early musical instruments such as bone flutes and percussion instruments, to the possibility of whether grooves in pottery could have recorded sounds from thousands of years ago.

A number of books have been published on the subject of archaeo-acoutics. Paul Devereux, in “Stone Age Soundtracks: The Acoustic Archaeology of Ancient Sites,” provides a high-level summary of the different theories. A recent publication, “Archaeoacoustics,” edited by Chris Scarre and Graeme Lawson, collects a number of articles with a more scholarly bent. Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter provide an overview of the topic in “Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?” As far as web resources, the Acoustics and Music of British Prehistory Research Network provides an excellent bibliography and set of links to current research projects.

There are a lot of cool theories that have been posited in the last few decades in the archaeo-acoustic field. David Lubman has described how handclaps reflecting off of the staircase of a Chichen Itza pyramid are transformed into a chirping sound very close to the call of the quetzal. Aaron Watson and David Keating have conducted experiments in burial mounds throughout the British Isles, and found that the chambers tend to have a Helmholtz resonance in the 1 Hz to 7 Hz range. Watson and Keating experimented with drumming at a tempo that matched the frequency of the Helmholtz resonances, and have argued that the resulting infrasonics caused subjective effects in listener, such as elevated pulse rates and breathing. Robert Jahn and Paul Devereux have found that many chambered megalithic tombs had strong resonance frequencies in the 95 to 120 Hz range, which corresponds with the low baritone range of the human voice, and that exposure to this frequency could cause changes in brain activity that correspond to meditative and trance states.

Some of the theories, in my opinion, fall under the category of “just-so stories.” Great ideas, cool to think about, and absolutely unprovable. Without the use of a time machine, we have no idea what type of music was being played 20,000 years ago. It is safe to assume that people in the Paleolithic era were reacting to their sonic environment, as the caves and megaliths that ceremonies were (presumably) performed in have quite striking sonic characteristics. Beyond that, if there is no evidence of musical instruments on the site, there is very little evidence of what sorts of sounds were being made within these environments, all talk of resonances and infrasound aside.

While the evidence for what sounds were produced in prehistoric sites is often scant, there is strong evidence of awareness of striking acoustic characteristics in prehistoric times. Iegor Reznikoff has studied the location of Paleolithic art in European caves, and has found a strong correlation between the presence of art or distinctive markings in a given location, and the quality of the resonance in those locations. The resonance was most marked in niches or recesses that were decorated, and Reznikoff argues that it is inconceivable that the person(s) decorating these spaces would not have noticed the striking sonic quality of the space. Steven Waller has found a similar degree of correlation between the placement of rock art, and the distinctiveness of the echos within those locations. It may not be possible to know what sounds were being made thousands of years ago, but there is a fair amount of evidence that our ancestors had strong preferences about where these sounds were made.

In the next blog post, we’ll skip ahead a few thousand years, to discuss recent research conducted on the acoustics of a South American ceremonial site, and how the sonics of that site may have factored into societal control.