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The Sound of Prehistory

Michael F. Brown, SAR President

SAR scholars have pursued many unusual research projects over the decades, but one of the more memorable of recent years was that of Miriam Kolar (Weatherhead Resident Scholar, 2016-2017). Kolar, who received her doctorate from Stanford, is a prominent practitioner of the emerging specialty of archaeoacoustics, which brings together acoustic science and archaeology in an effort to understand how sound was used in used in prehistoric times to coordinate collective activity and, in some cases, to inspire awe during religious rituals.

Chavín de Huántar. Source: Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Kolar’s work while at SAR focused mainly on one of the most mysterious and important archaeological sites of South America, Chavín de Huántar, located in the high Andes of central Peru. Chavín’s cultural influence was at its peak between about 900 BCE and 200 BCE. Rather than the capital of an empire in a conventional sense, Chavín seems to have been most important as a site of ritual pilgrimage whose cultural influence extended for hundreds of kilometers beyond the limits of the community itself. Kolar’s acoustic research and on-site experimentation suggest that “the ceremonial complex would have been wielded as a multi-sensory venue, a place where convincing experiential manipulations impressed visitors, whose proven connection with the Chavín ‘cult’ would bolster their home status.”

Kolar and two colleagues have recently published an open-access article in Heritage Science entitled “The Huánuco Pampa acoustical field survey: An efficient, comparative archaeoacoustical method for studying sonic communication dynamics.”  This study focuses on the acoustic properties of a different archaeological site, Huánuco Pampa, a major Inca-period administrative center.  Based on their highly technical study of the site’s principal platform, they conclude, among other things, that the platform served “as a tool for multi-directional communication, as well as to facilitate messaging about elite presence and imperial identity through the projection of sonic-visual displays.”

A short video of Miriam Kolar describing her SAR project is available here.