4.2 Sound (York Municipal Cemetery, England)

During the inaugural Heritage Jam, an annual cultural heritage 'hack-fest', I was a member of a group of archaeologists, historians and designers tasked with creating an application to explore the history of the York Municipal Cemetery. York cemetery was opened in 1837 and continued to be a place of active burial until 1966 (Murray 2008). It remains an open public space, with a number of important buildings (for instance, a grade II* listed chapel) and has been under the auspices of the York Cemetery Trust since 1987. The projects created during the 2014 Heritage Jam took many forms and covered many different topics including interactive fiction, 3D visualisations, and even cake-baking. Our team decided to explore the use of sound in the cemetery and by creating a multi-layered soundscape aimed to see how that would affect a visitor to the cemetery and also investigate its power as a pedagogical tool, enabling visitors to engage further with the history of the cemetery itself. The resulting application, entitled Voices/Recognition, was 'designed to augment one's interaction with York Cemetery, its spaces and visible features, by giving a voice to the invisible features that represent the primary reason for the cemetery's existence: accommodation of the bodies buried underground' (Eve et al. 2014).

The soundscape has been explored in a historical context by a number of scholars and, in particular, among archaeologists as the study of archaeoacoustics (Blesser and Salter 2007; Reznikoff 2008; Fausti et al. 2003; Mills 2010, Murphy this issue). The majority of these studies attempt to re-create sounds, or to analyse places and spaces for their acoustic properties. However, a soundscape is inherently linked to the person experiencing the sound (Mlekuz 2004, para. 2.2.1); the sound is in the ear of the beholder. Where we may be able to re- create the sounds of the historical past, we may not be able to re-create how these sounds came together to create the soundscape of a person existing in that past. The soundscape is a combination of the acoustic properties of sound, space and the individual. However, the acoustic nature of historical sounds will affect us as human beings and will evoke some kind of emotional/affective response, even if it could be argued that this response is not 'historically authentic' (Eve 2014, 113–14).

Voices/Recognition was partly inspired by previous work undertaken by the author and Shawn Graham (Graham and Eve 2013) – a mobile application that takes GPS-located Wikipedia entries, converts them to sound files and plays them through headphones when the user walks into a specified geographic radius. Using a text-to- speech algorithm the Wikipedia entries are whispered at different volumes using different voices, and if more than one entry coincides with the user's location all of the files are played on top of each other. This results in a cacophony in areas where there are many Wikipedia entries, and owing to the overlapping nature of the sounds the individual voices cannot be made out – it becomes almost white noise – and in some cases (due to deliberate manipulation of volume) becomes painful to listen to. However, in areas where there are not many entries (places with little recorded history) each individual entry can be easily discerned.

Voices/Recognition takes this basic premise and applies it to the data from the cemetery records. By geolocating each grave and creating data about the grave occupant from the census records and the headstone it is possible to create a standard GIS database of each grave and its associated data. Many cemeteries already hold this data and it is used for many straightforward queries, some as simple as finding the grave of one's relatives. However, when the database is used with the Voices/Recognition application, this database can then be used to play each grave's 'story' as the user is walking around the cemetery. The resulting embodied GIS takes this seemingly prosaic database of grave details and transforms it into a 'live' database that can be explored and experienced in situ.

The creation of the application and a video showing it in action can be seen in the following video.

The use of this application has already raised many important issues about the cemetery that were not necessarily considered previously. For example, there are a vast number of unmarked burial pits within the cemetery itself, usually resulting from paupers' graves or, alternatively, bodies that have been moved to make way for new burials. The majority of these burial pits are located below the many paths that wind through the cemetery. A visitor to the cemetery may not be aware of these burials, as there is nothing to indicate them visually. However, when using Voices/Recognition, the inhabitants of these unmarked burials are each given a voice. It is impossible to know how many actual burials are contained within each pit; therefore they are represented by a cacophony of different voices talking randomly. The areas of the cemetery that are visually empty are suddenly transformed into areas containing a vast number of voices of the dead. There is a common belief that it is bad luck or disrespectful to walk over graves, therefore the 'empty' paths that were previously seen as a 'safe' places to walk, suddenly become areas that are superstitiously liminal. The use of the embodied GIS in this case is causing the user to think very differently about the spaces they are moving through and challenges the user to re-examine their preconceptions about the cemetery itself. The application also demonstrates how sound can be used effectively to heighten a phenomenological exploration of a landscape; the sounds in this example were other-worldly sounds of the grave inhabitants, but depending on the context in which it is used, they could equally have been the sounds of animals in a byre known from the archaeological record, or the re-creation of a medieval liturgical song being played in situ on the site of a demolished church.


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