1. Acoustic Heritage

Archaeoacoustics refers to the study of sound in archaeological contexts (Scarre and Lawson 2006), and is inherently multi-disciplinary, covering diverse fields such as archaeology, ethnomusicology, music archaeology, acoustics, engineering, modelling and simulation. Acoustic Heritage in the context of this article refers more specifically to the quantifiable acoustic properties of buildings, sites and landscapes from our architectural and archaeological past, both recent and more distant. As the tangible, physical aspects of such places are subject to change over time, then as a direct consequence so are their acoustic properties, determined as they are by the surrounding landscape or built environment. With such material change also comes a potential change of use, with the sounds originally heard within a given environment becoming replaced over time with contemporaneous equivalents. A better understanding of the sounds that would be present within a studied environment, and how this environment might then affect the sound propagating within it, enables us to consider what people inhabiting that space, at that time, might have heard. The consideration of our acoustic heritage therefore helps to build a more complete multi-sensory picture of our past, and the experience of being present within it. Although sound often takes second place to our more dominant visual sense, it plays a significant role in conveying complex information for rapid assimilation by a listener. Speech and music are obvious examples of this, but the creative use of sound can be used to create highly evocative, engaging and immersive audio or multimedia experiences, and none more so than in considering past environments. The study and preservation of our acoustic heritage therefore becomes as important for understanding the past as any other property, be it material or visual.

Acoustic heritage translates between the concepts of both tangible and intangible heritage. Fundamentally it is founded in physical, tangible aspects of our past environments – the wood, stone, brick and other materials we have used to construct our society around us – that give rise to the intangible: the acoustics of, and sounds associated with, these spaces, and our experiences of them. The sounds we make are transformed by the materiality of our environment and so, therefore, is our lived experience. This relationship between the tangible and intangible in terms of acoustic heritage has been explored in other contexts, for instance in the case of popular music production and 'place-making' (Darvill 2014). However, the wider acceptance of sound as intangible cultural heritage, as defined by UNESCO (2011) is debated, in part due to this particular definition having associations with legislative or political interests (Kytö et al. 2012). Kytö et al. go on to define acoustic heritage in a European context as being 'any sounds that form a testimony of a sonic situation' (2012, 68), and certainly the definition of acoustic heritage adopted in this article, that is, the quantifiable acoustic properties of buildings, sites and landscapes from our architectural and archaeological past, falls within the scope of this more broadly defined model. Other authors see no difficulty in assuming this more specific definition of acoustic heritage as being a clear example of intangible cultural heritage (Brezina 2013), and how methods drawn from disciplines such as acoustics, engineering, music production, modelling and simulation can be applied in acoustic heritage research.

Early work in the archaeology and heritage of acoustics explored the low frequency resonances of megalithic prehistoric monuments in the UK through direct excitation (using a loudspeaker) and sound level measurement and analysis, together with more qualitative methods (Watson and Keating 1999). This methodology has since been updated and applied during recent studies of an ancient hypogeum in Malta (Debertolisa et al. 2015). However, the more complete acoustic capture of a site, through a process of measurement, modelling or some combination of both approaches, is still relatively novel in wider archaeological studies, despite having been applied in acoustic and creative audio fields for some time, e.g. Weitze et al. 2002a; Farina and Ayalon 2003; Murphy 2005; 2006. The application of such acoustic methodologies in an archaeological context is discussed in Brezina (2013) and acoustic modelling and simulation have been used in a number of studies, including the ancient theatre of Epidaurus in Greece (Lokki et al. 2013), the Hagia Sophia in Turkey (Weitze et al. 2002b) and the abbey church of St Mary's, York, UK (Oxnard and Murphy 2012). Sound propagation modelling was used to produce a sound level map of the landscape surrounding Silbury Hill, UK (May 2014), to better understand how this monument might have affected the perception of speech and other sounds heard in the area around it. Acoustic measurement has been used to study the contemporary acoustic properties of an open-air medieval performance space in York, UK (Lopez et al. 2013). These acoustic measurements were then used to inform a series of acoustic models re-creating the 16th-century space (Lopez 2015), to better understand what audiences of the time would have heard of these performances. This use of acoustic measurement to inform the acoustic modelling process has also been applied in a number of other studies, including an exploration of the acoustic heritage of mosques and Byzantine churches (Weitze et al. 2002a), and the sounds associated with the landscape and environment around Stonehenge (Fazenda and Drumm 2013). The goal in many of these studies, aside from deriving acoustic measures that help to characterise and quantify an environment in objective terms, is to produce an auralisation – an acoustic reconstruction of what the environment would have sounded like at a given point in its history, and hence a better understanding of the subjective sonic experience of being present in that place at a given time. Informed by such previous studies, this article therefore sets out to examine the context of, and establish the methodologies appropriate to, the application of auralisation and audio creativity as a means to explore our acoustic heritage.


Internet Archaeology is an open access journal. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.

University of York legal statements