An Archaeology of Sound

It was in the mid-1990s that Umashankar Manthravadi began his research in acoustic archaeology by mapping and measuring the physical dimensions and acoustic properties of Ranigumpha – a double-storied structure of rock-cut caves dating back to circa third century BCE, generally believed to have been a monastery, but arguably a theater. One day he was on site, cooped up in a corner in front of a bulky desktop computer that had been lugged along to the Udayagiri hills and was being powered by rerouted overhead mains. He had been making some tests with his headphones on when an officer of the Archaeological Survey of India came up to him and pried, “So, can you hear them?”

The question echoes throughout this project, which is primarily concerned with what it means to try and listen to the past, to that which will forever remain outside the range of our hearing. Hear whom, exactly? Or what? The people who built the place. The sounds once made. Implicit in the officer’s inquiry was a strange conviction in a technological positivism that the past can be accessed, that it is for our taking. But an archaeology of sound is not about finding facts in the acoustic reflections of architectural surfaces so as to reconstruct a once-audible event in a space as accurately as possible. It is a fundamental confrontation with a sense that the past cannot be captured. Umashankar for one had already been certain that his measurements could prove nothing but themselves. What he came to know is that we can’t just look for theaters in landscapes of the past – we must listen for them. An archaeology of sound is then about that which is lost but nevertheless always with us – the simultaneity of the past in the present, a collectivity across time beyond possession and accumulation.

To ask what it means to listen to the past draws awareness both to sound as a social event – music, theater, and dance as forms of corporeal relations – and to its absence which remains. This attention to absence disrupts the focus on material evidence that has, at least since the advent of archaeology in the nineteenth century, structurally conditioned the ways in which the past has come to be known. As a vector of modernity that evolved as a primarily visual study, the discipline of archaeology can be charged with colonizing the past by collecting it for display. But an archaeological site is not only about ruins and artefacts; it is also a record of everything that happened there. Measuring sound waves moving between the muted material archive of architecture shifts the archaeological gaze towards reflection. Echoes that bounce off of walls, floors, columns, chambers, and ceilings carry a trace of bygone events that have not entered history, like a latent memory of a collective experience that defies ownership.

Recognizing the potential for performance inherent in ancient and medieval sites of ritual, festival, and theater, an archaeology of sound redraws the frontier that has posited orality against inscription, bodily movement against physical architecture. Listening for lost memories of social imaginaries challenges the dominant way of conceiving the pre-modern against the modern, and disrupts contemporary mythologies that ceaselessly partition the past into isolated languages, designating certain sovereignties as matters of history. Tuning in to the static of the past so as to reckon with the noise of the present is also an invocation to listen to the dramatic changes in our own acousmatic landscapes. Can we hear that which has become unavailable to us, namely the historical transformation of our senses in modernity?