In 2001 archaeologists unearthed 20 complete conch shells at Chavin de Huantar which was an ancient ceremonial center in the Andes. These shell trumpets were polished, painted, and etched with symbols. Their mouthpieces were well formed and had distinct v-shaped cuts. When played inside a stone chamber researchers later discovered that the drone of the sound would have sounded like it was coming from all directions all at once.
Chavin de Huantar means “underground citadel.” It was the capital of the Chavin culture. It is a complex made up of steep walled platforms honeycombed with stone-lined passages surrounding a sunken plaza. This place is unique among pre-Columbian sites. The primary edifice is known as “El Castillo.” This structure is faced with cut stone blocks of varying widths. The walls rose 17m above huge stone blocks. Inside we find at least 3 stories of stone-lined galleries, chambers, and ventilation shafts.
The complex was obviously pre-planned and covers an area of about 300,000 sq ft. This area was flattened and terraced by humans and the whole site was aligned with the cardinal directions. This complex is home to a network of tunnels cut out of the rock, engraved obelisks, huge masonry works, among other things. One engraved obelisk known as “El Toro” (the bull) is believed to have been originally situated in the very center of a deep catacomb with the top piercing through the ceiling and the floor above. Sadly, the main temple was ransacked during the 19th century by looters. Carved human bones have also been found at this site.
The Chavin de Huantar site is dated at around 800 BC. The Chavin culture dates to around 1000 BC or perhaps earlier. This period is known as the “Early Horizon.” The complex is divided into two clear phases of construction. These two construction phases are simply known as the “Old” and the “New” periods. The Old Period dates to around 900 BC while the New Period dates to around 500 BC.
I find it interesting that shortly after the Spanish conquest the local Aymara people told Spanish who visited to Tiahuanaco that the city’s foundations was created in the first creation (Chamac Pacha) long before the coming of the Inca. The story goes that the early inhabitants of the city had supernatural powers by which they could lift heavy stones off the ground. It is said they used conch trumpets to move the large stones from the mountain quarries through the air and to the site.
In the Maya lands there is a story that tells how dwarves built the Uxmal site using whistles to make heavy rocks move into place. Even today it is claimed that if one stands at the base of the Temple of the Magicians and claps their hands the structure at the top of the temple will produce a chirping sound. It does!
Mesoamericans and the Inca were not the only cultures that used acoustics. Classical Greek writers tell how Thebes was finished by a son of Jupiter named Amphion who could move large stones with the sound of a lyre. These writers say this is how the entire wall around Thebes was constructed. We find similar stories in Egypt and perhaps the most well known of these accounts is from the Bible which tells the story of the Walls of Jericho. Trumpets were blown to as the Hebrews walked around the walls until the walls fell. When we consider archaeoacoutics this story suddenly seems not to be so far-fetched after all.
In the 20th century a Swedish doctor claims to have witnessed stone blocks 1.5 meters in length and a meter high and wide levitated through the air using the process of sound. Additionally, rumors have swirled around the construction of Coral Castle in Florida and how the builder may have used sound to move huge pieces of coral to construct that site.
In the great ball court at Chichen Itza a whisper in one end can be heard clearly at the other end 500 feet away. Wind seems not to affect the whisper nor does time. When this site was being reconstructed by archaeologists they noted that sound transmission became clearer and stronger as the reconstruction progressed. In 1931 Leopold Stokowski spent four days at the site trying to determine its acoustical principles. At the Castillo pyramid if you stand facing the foot of the temple and shout an echo comes back to you with a piercing shriek! If you stand at the top step and speak in a normal voice you can be heard by people on the ground some distance away. Mayan pyramids at the Tikal site also have this feature. At Palenque if three people stand on top of three pyramids you can have a 3-way conversation very easily.
The study of paleoacoustics has revealed that there are several sites that were built so as to incorporate sound in their design. Examples include the Hypogeum in Malta and several others. Clearly, the science of acoustics was well understood by ancient people and used including in several cave systems in Paleolithic Europe. Sound seems to have been highly important to ancient people. Perhaps it was so for mysterious or magical reasons. We find evidence of employing sound in sites dating back to the Old Stone Age in painted caves in France and Spain dating back tens of thousands of years ago. Some stalagmites and stalactites in these caves are musical as they issue a pure bell, drum, or gong sound when struck. These are generally referred to as “lithophones” by archaeologists. Most have been painted with geometric designs and animal figures and ancient percussion marks can be seen on them.
Sound and music appear to have been important to our ancestors just as they are important to us today. Did they use sound to move large stones? I don’t know. In fact no one knows! But, it would not surprise me if they did.
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