By Tamara Jager Stewart

This is an article excerpt from the Winter 2020 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription. 

Looking around, I saw that I was among hundreds of Maya viewing a procession of elaborately dressed dancers and musicians who played drums, rattles, and other instruments as they followed their bejeweled leader through the Great Plaza at Copán in Honduras. The orator stepped up to the platform and began speaking in a deep, sonorous voice. I was transported to this remarkable scene that took place centuries ago via a virtual reality headset. Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS), 3D modeling, virtual reality (VR) simulation, and archaeological data, Heather Richards-Rissetto of the University of Nebraska and Graham Goodwin of the University of California, Merced fashioned a historically accurate virtual reconstruction of a landscape at Copán. This was part of Richards-Rissetto and Goodwin’s exploration of the role of acoustics in Copán’s ritual performances. Technologies such as GIS, 3D modeling and VR are helping them and other researchers get a much more complete understanding of the past through archaeoacoustics, the study of the evidence for sound in the archaeological record.

These stone disks were found in the great kiva at Aztec Ruins National Monument in northwest New Mexico. They were set in six-foot-deep pits on which columns supporting an elaborate roof rested. Acoustical research indicate that the columns could have transmitted low pitch sounds from the floor to the ceiling. | Credit: Richard Loose
Acoustic archaeologists study the meaning and use of sounds, such as those produced by this instrument, to convey ideas and messages. | Credit: Jared Katz
This amphitheater-like feature at Chaco Canyon is known as Concavity in the Bedrock that Speaks. Researchers suspect public performances took place here. | Credit: Kristy Primeau
Stone circles such as this one are located on the edge of a soundshed that was modeled by archaeoacoustic researchers at Chaco Canyon. The researchers think that Chacoan elites had them built there to mark the boundaries of a performance space. | Credit: Kristy Primeau

“For the ancient Maya, sound worked in concert with other senses to create experiences that influenced daily life and shaped society,” said Richards-Rissetto. “Researchers have argued that Maya art and architecture was a means of bringing together the senses to create specific experiences that communicated cultural information, and our research begins to test this idea.” They compared how sound waves travel and how many times the waves are reflected off surrounding surfaces before reaching a given point at two locations within the main civic-ceremonial complex at Copán in order to model the acoustics of each location. The researchers found that, as a ruler moved through the open Great Plaza followed by the procession, most of the audience would have been able to clearly hear the music and thus be incorporated into the ceremony. However, at the enclosed East Court, which was reserved for the elite, only five to ten percent of Copán’s population could hear and fully participate in the ritual event, though they would have been able to overhear muffled voices and instruments, which the researchers suspect created a mystical experience that promoted the leader’s authority.

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