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Archaeoacoustics
in Stone Age Caves

Definition, history, research:
Image/Sound Connections in Caves

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Cathedral-like sound resonance in the Salon Noir at Niaux Cave
Salon Noir at Niaux Cave, in the Ariège département of southwestern France. A hotspot of archaeoacoustic sound resonance. Photo: Wendel Collection (CC BY-NC 4.0)

What is Archaeoacoustics?

Archaeoacoustics - a mixture of archaeology and acoustics - is a new interdisciplinary field which investigates the sound and acoustic characteristics of archaeological sites. The term 'archaeoacoustics' only dates back to 2003.

Archaeology is the study of human life through the excavation of prehistoric sites and the analysis of artifacts and other remains. But archaeology knows nothing about sound in the caves.

Acoustics studies the production and propagation of sound waves, and offers a new perspective on Stone Age culture - a soundtrack, if you like, which helps us to sharpen our understanding of prehistoric art in caves and the ceremonies which went on around it.

Other related disciplines include ethnomusicology and cultural anthropology.

Archaeo-acousticians want to know how the past sounded.

They investigate caves and other sites occupied by Cro-Magnons and other modern humans, for evidence about rituals or shamanic ceremonies performed there, that might have involved sound.

Such evidence often includes the resonance and echo characteristics of cave chambers, notably those decorated with cave paintings, which might have provided a backdrop for ceremonial activities.

For a guide to archaeological terms, see: Archaeology Glossary.

Art/Sound Connection in Caves

Archaeo-acousticians also examine the relationship between art and sound, more directly.

They try, for instance, to answer the question - how did prehistoric artists choose locations for their pictures?

So far, they have generated considerable evidence that paintings were located at points in the cave with the best acoustic characteristics.

This confirms the association between sound and art in paleolithic caves, and creates a much fuller picture of ceremonial activities during the last Ice Age. See also: Shamans in Prehistoric Art.

Importance of Sound in Caves

In a dark or dimly-lit chamber, sound can be an extremely powerful sensory stimulus.

Thus, when a shaman mimics the sound of an animal, and hears the sound reverberating around him, he may be able to attain a deeper state of consciousness.

Such resonance can also be exploited by anyone hosting a ceremony, to give his words or songs more impact.

Sound would also have been used for echo-location in more remote underground areas, to help navigate in conditions of absolute darkness.

Stone Age Musical Instruments

Musical instruments discovered in prehistoric caves, were the first tangible proof that early humans created sounds in deep caves.

The Divje Babe Flute, carved from the thigh bone of a cave bear and dated between 58,000 and 48,000 BC, and the five-holed Hohle Fels flute made from a vulture's wing bone, dated to around 40,000 BC, are two of the most famous examples.

But a range of whistles and flutes, made from animal bones, have been found inside numerous caves.

What archeologists didn't know, however, was whether music and other man-made sounds were connected to the cave art. Now, thanks to recent archaeoacoustic studies, we are able to answer this question, in the affirmative.

Archaeoacoustic Research: A Brief History

Iégor Reznikoff & Michel Dauvois

To begin with, however, scientists focused on prehistoric musical instruments unearthed at paleolithic sites, like Isturitz.

Later, during the 1960s, as well as manufactured instruments, a series of studies by Abbé André Glory highlighted the use of natural rock geological formations (like stalagmites) as lithophones, to produce musical notes in prehistoric caves in France and Portugal.

The main line of research into archaeoacoustics only emerged in the mid-1980s, when the focus of interest shifted from mere acoustics in caves, to the connection between acoustics and cave art.

This came about because of field studies which showed connections between cave images and the acoustics of the specific locations where they were found.

The pioneers of this research were the French scholars Iégor Reznikoff and Michel Dauvois, who, together and separately, published several interesting studies of archaeoacoustics, including a seminal study of the decorated French caves of Le Portel (Ariège), Grotte de Fontanet (Ariège), and Niaux (Ariège).

Their findings, while not conclusive, suggested that acoustics had been a key factor in the choice of locations for charcoal drawings and other parietal art produced in the caves.

Overall, Reznikoff and Dauvois made several influential contributions to the field of archeoacoustics at Stone Age sites, by forging an association between acoustic phenomena (resonance, sound amplification, sound reverberation) and the location of cave art (animal images, abstract signs).

For example, the data they obtained in the above three caves, indicated a strong correlation between the places with the finest acoustics and the number of pictures.

According to Reznikoff, "the location for a rock painting was chosen to a large extent because of its sound value."

He estimates the percentage of cave paintings created in strongly resonating locations, to be about 80 percent at Le Portel and Grande Grotte d'Arcy-sur-Cure, and 90 percent at Niaux.

He also says that, dot signs painted in red ochre have the closest connection with acoustics, and also that, in general, niches or recesses that are painted, also resonate strongly.

Reznikoff also says that he discovered a gradual change in the location of cave paintings over time.

The oldest paintings, like hand stencils or dots belonging to the Aurignacian culture around 40,000 to 35,000 BC, tend to be found in small, intimate spots, with less acoustic resonance.

But about 20,000 years later, paintings of animals - sometimes superimposed - started to appear in larger, more echoey chambers, capable of hosting ceremonies for a crowd.

Overall, he concedes that a meaningful connection between man-made signs and the resonance of a cave, can be established only on a statistical basis. "Only if the positive connections are statistically significant, can we speak of a relationship between cave art and sound."

Other scientists have conducted similar experiments in other caves and also at open-air sites of rock art, in Finland, and in the La Valltorta Gorge in Spain, which yielded similar results.

In the 1990s, Michel Dauvois worked with acoustician Xavier Boutillon to examine the relationship between the acoustics in areas with rock art compared to those without rock art.

In his study containing the results of his experiments, Dauvois suggests that the relationship between art and sound is sporadic rather than systematic, but claims there is a strong relationship.

Steve Waller

During the early 1990s, American archaeoacoustician Steve Waller also examined the relationship between parietal art and the presence of echoes and other acoustic phenomena.

He, too, claims there is a general correlation between art and sound, and cites numerous instances of caves (and outdoor sites) with unusual acoustics.

In addition, he notes a number of ethnographic and historical traditions which involve mythical or ritual relationships between art and acoustics. The methods he uses to test these claims, look rather simplistic by today's standards and, though suggestive, do not provide any statistical certainty.

Songs of the Caves Project

During the 2010s, a major interdisciplinary project, known as Songs of the Caves, was launched, involving archaeologists (Pablo Arias, Manuel Rojo Guerra, Roberto Ontañón, Chris Scarre), experts in prehistoric musical instruments (Carlos García Benito, Raquel Jiménez Pasalodos, Simon Wyatt), and acousticians (Bruno Facenda, Rupert Till).

Other project members included Helen Drinkall, Frederick Foulds, Cristina Tejedor, and Aaron Watson.

The Songs of the Caves Project investigated the concordance of cave art and acoustic response at five caves in Northern Spain: El Castillo Cave, La Pasiega Cave, Las Chimeneas, Tito Bustillo, and La Garma (see below).

Researchers found a statistically significant association between the location of the cave art and the strength of the acoustic resonance, although it was strongest where the acoustic response was moderate, rather than high.

Archaeoacoustics Outdoors

More recently, archaeologists Margarita Díaz-Andreu, Carlos García Benito and Tommaso Mattioli have studied Levantine rock art landscapes in Italy, France and Spain, focusing on echolocation and audibility of distant sounds.

One such study, in 2011, examined the acoustic qualities of La Valltorta Gorge, in Spain, located between Albocàsser, Les Coves de Vinromà and Tírig.

A perfect place for paleolithic and Neolithic hunter-gatherers, the gorge also contains a number of outstanding rock paintings, in recognition of which the area has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Artsoundscapes Project is another, more recent, research effort. It was initially intended as a comparative study of the archaeoacoustics in open-air shelters with rock art.

However, in 2021, problems with the pandemic caused it to focus on indoor sites, instead, such as the famous Ardales Cave in Málaga.

Trends

Archaeoacoustics is now using the latest technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), 3D modelling, and virtual reality. A perfect example of this technology and its advantages is the numerical simulation method used by Armance Jouteau, for both acoustics and illumination of the caves of Lascaux and Cussac, in the French Périgord. (Jouteau, 2021).

Archaeoacoustic Analysis of Caves

Only a small number of paleolithic caves have been tested for correlations between their cave painting and acoustics.

What's more, the findings do not show a systematic pattern of correlation.

In some caves, image/sound correlation can be 80-90 percent, sometimes 100 percent.

But in other caves, concordance is not statistically significant.

Le Portel Cave

Le Portel cave is a decorated cave located in Ariège, France. It is set in the Plantaurel massif, in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

In 1983 and 1985, two archaeoacoustic studies traced the resonances of sounds within the cave, and established a clear correlation between the parietal art and the places of greatest acoustic resonances.

Grande Grotte d'Arcy-sur-Cure

According to Reznikoff, the greatest concentration of painting in the Grand Grotte at d'Arcy-sur-Cure is found in spots which have the highest sound resonance.

Such places are often marked with red ochre dots, which may serve as visual indicators of the location's acoustic properties. "...[Moving] into the cave from an area with 2 echoes, to another with 4, to 5 and then 6 or 7, the density of images increases as well, until they finally cover nearly the entire ceiling of the terminal apse, as well as the lateral walls and niches."

Niaux Cave

Research at Niaux Cave has demonstrated a clear correlation (around 90 percent) between the location of the cave art and the spots with the greatest sound resonances.

That said, much of Niaux's cave art is found in the Salon Noir, a cathedral-like chamber with exceptional resonance, similar to the Great Hall at the Isturitz, Oxocelhaya, Erberua cave complex, in the foothills of Pyrenees.

Reznikoff himself says: "At Niaux, [the] increase in image density is clearly related to the intensity of resonance; this is especially evident in the density of images in the Salon Noir, which is a very sonorous space."

Labastide

The archaeoacoustics sites at Labastide Cave have a correlation index of the order of 80 percent or 90 percent - up to 99 percent for some locations.

Lascaux Cave

For conservation reasons, it has not been possible to conduct acoustical tests at Lascaux Cave, using complex instrumentation, for some time, due to conservation worries.

However, shortly after the facsimile Lascaux IV was begun, two of the project architects, Rune Veslegard and Frank Kristiansen conducted an informal acoustic test of impulsive sound signals in three locations at Lascaux I.

The three locations were: (1) the master of ceremonies position in the Hall of Bulls; (2) a spot just in front of the Great Black Bull in the Axial gallery; and (3) a point opposite the Black Cow in the Nave.

At all three locations a major acoustic response was measured.

Kapova Cave

At the Kapova Cave, a limestone karst rock shelter situated in the western foothills of the Southern Ural Mountains, Reznikoff describes how, as he and his team passed from 4- 5 echoes (Hall of Signs) to 5-6 echoes (Cupola Hall), and then into the upper level, with as many as 7-8 echoes, the parietal art became increasingly dense in terms of both painted surfaces and remarkable panels.

Spanish Caves

As mentioned, above, a major study conducted by the Songs in the Caves Project, using modern acoustic measurement techniques, investigated the association between parietal art and acoustic response at five caves in Northern Spain. The caves included El Castillo, Las Chimeneas and La Pasiega (all at Monte Castillo), La Garma (Ribamontán al Monte), and Tito Bustillo (Ribadesella).

The study's main findings were as follows:

The findings both confirm and contradict some of the views expressed by Reznikoff and Dauvois, and by Waller.

They corroborate the notion of a general association - at least in certain caves - between cave art and cave acoustics.

However, they show that artistic motifs are less likely to be found in locations of high resonance or reverberation.

The study concludes by stating that the statistically significant association it asserts between cave art and sound, does not necessarily imply that cave artists chose locations merely because of their acoustics. Many other factors may be involved, such as:

Red Dot Markers

One of Reznikoff's most curious findings concerns the presence of four red ochre dots at the point of maximum resonance, at both Le Portel Cave and Oxocelhaya Cave (just below Isturitz Cave).

This underlines our general lack of understanding of abstract signs and symbols, which are the most common type of Upper Paleolithic art, at least in Europe.

La Valltorta Gorge

La Valltorta Gorge is an important site of Levantine rock art in Spain. Here, researchers measured acoustic responses (like resonance and echo) to different sounds (human voice, whistles, clapping) made in the gorge's painted caves.

Results showed that the best acoustics were found at the three rock shelters with the greatest number of paintings: Cavalls, Civil and Saltadora.

Researchers also discovered that the three shelters directed sound in three different directions, creating an overall stereophonic effect. This would have added greatly to the impact of the cave's ceremonies and rituals, on those in attendance outside.

Lac des Merveilles, Provence

Next to this lake, surrounded by rocks and mountains, is a very large flat rock known as the Altar Stone, which is covered with more than one thousand images.

At this spot, the echo response to a loud voice, singing or a musical instrument like a horn or drum, is - according to Reznikoff - remarkable, and quite magical.

Conclusion

Although as a discipline, archaeoacoustics is still in its infancy, and many experts remain unsure about the reliability of its conclusions, it is already adding a wholly new dimension to paleolithic culture, and to our understanding of the hitherto silent world of the painted cave.

NEXT: See Prehistoric Art Timeline.

References

(1) Dams, L. (1985): Palaeolithic lithophones: descriptions and comparisons. Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 4 (1): 31-46.
(2) Reznikoff, I., and Dauvois, M. (1988). The sound dimension of painted caves (in French). B. Soc. Prehist. Fr. 85(8), 238–246.
(3) Waller, S. J. (1993): Sound reflection as an explanation for the context and content of rock art. Rock Art Research 10, 91–101.
(4) Dauvois, M. (1996): Evidence of sound-making and the acoustic character of the decorated caves of the western Palaeolithic world. International Newsletter on Rock Art, 13: 23-25.
(5) Reznikoff, I. (2006): The evidence of the use of sound resonance from Palaeolithic to Medieval times. In Scarre, C. and Lawson, G. (eds.): Archaeoacoustics. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge McDonald Institute Monographs. 77-84. Cambridge.
(6) Reznikoff, I. “The Acoustic Dimension of Paleolithic Painted Caves and Stones”, Palethnologie, 5 - 2013.
(7) Scarre, C. & G. Lawson (eds.), 2006. Archaeoacoustics. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
(8) Margarita Díaz-Andreu, Carlos García Benito. Acoustics and Levantine rock art: auditory perceptions in La Valltorta Gorge (Spain), Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 39, Issue 12, 2012, Pages 3591-3599, ISSN 0305-4403.
(9) Till, R., Wyatt, S., Fazenda, B., Sheaffer, J. and Scarre, C. (2013): Songs of the Caves: Sound and Prehistoric Art in Caves. Initial report on a study in the Cave of Tito Bustillo, Asturias, Spain.
(10) Fazenda, B., C. Scarre, R. Till, R. et al; 2017. Cave acoustics in prehistory: Exploring the association of Palaeolithic visual motifs and acoustic response. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 142, 1332-49.
(11) The Mousterian Musical Instrument from the Divje babe I cave (Slovenia): Arguments on the Material Evidence for Neanderthal Musical Behaviour. L'Anthropologie, Volume 122, Issue 4, 2018, pp. 679-706.
(12) Scarre, C., 2018. Songs of the Shamans? Acoustical studies in European prehistory, in Lands of the Shamans: Archaeology, Cosmology and Landscape, eds. D. Gheorghiu, G. Nash, H. Bender & E. Pásztor. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 111-22.

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