Researchers at the first OTSF conference on “Archaeoacoustics: The Archaeology of Sound”* studied the acoustic properties of the 5,000 year old Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum on the Mediterranean island of Malta. Ħal Saflieni is a prehistoric subterranean complex, sculpted with architectural features that mirror megalithic temples above ground. It is known that the Hypogeum was used in the Neolithic (New Stone Age) period not only as a depository for bones, but also as a shrine for ritual use. In a chamber known as the “Oracle Room”, long associated with weird sound effects, scientists detected the presence of a strong double resonance frequency in the neighborhood of both 70Hz and 114Hz. In physics, resonance is the tendency of a system to oscillate at a greater amplitude at some frequencies than at others. These are known as the system's resonance frequencies. At these frequencies, even small periodic driving forces can produce large amplitude oscillations, because the system stores vibrational energy.
A male voice and a drum tuned to these frequencies stimulated a resonance phenomenon throughout the hypogeum, creating bone-chilling effects. It was reported that some sounds echoed for as long as 13 seconds during testing in Ħal Saflieni. While listening to the blowing of a horn Archaeologist Fernando Coimbra reported he felt the sound crossing his body at high speed, leaving a sensation of relaxation. When it was repeated, the result was similar but even more relaxing, accompanied by the illusion that the sound was reflected from his body to the strange red ochre paintings on the walls. One can only imagine the impact in antiquity, of listening to ritual chanting while low light flickered over the bones of one’s ancestors.
Laboratory testing indicates that these particular frequencies of the Hypogeum and stone cavities like Newgrange Passage Tomb and other cairns, have a strong physical effect on human brain activity. There is a range of sound, 70 – 130 hz, at which these ancient sacred places vibrate in a certain way as a natural phenomenon of the particular stone environment. Dr. Ian Cook of UCLA and colleagues published findings in 2008 of an experiment in which regional brain activity in a number of healthy volunteers was monitored by EEG through exposure to different resonance frequencies. Their findings indicated that at 110 Hz the patterns of activity over the prefrontal cortex abruptly shifted, resulting in a relative deactivation of the language center and a temporary shifting from left to right-sided dominance related to emotional processing.
It now appears that everyone has his own private “pitch” within this range of 70 - 130 hz, at which the brain responds. In the publication from the Malta conference, Dr. Paolo Debertolis reports on tests conducted at the Clinical Neurophysiology Unit at the University of Trieste: “…each volunteer has their own individual frequency of activation, … always between 90 and 120 hz. Those volunteers with a frontal lobe prevalence during the testing received ideas and thoughts similar to what happens during meditation, whilst those with an occipital lobe prevalence visualized images.” He goes on to state that under the right circumstances, “Ancient populations were able to obtain different states of consciousness without the use of drugs or other chemical substances.”
Archaeologist and Psychologist, Dr. Torill Lindstrom writing with Anthropologist Dr. Ezra Zubrow states: “We regard it as almost inevitable that people in the Neolithic past in Malta discovered the acoustic effects of the Hypogeum, and experienced them as extraordinary, strange, perhaps even as weird and “otherworldly”.
What is astounding is that the Ħal Saflieni builders not only recognized it, but they exploited it, intentionally using architectural techniques to boost these “super-acoustics”. Glenn Kreisberg, a radio frequency spectrum engineer who was with the group, observed that in the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, “The Oracle Chamber ceiling, especially near its entrance from the outer area, and the elongated inner chamber itself, appears to be intentionally carved into the form of a wave guide.” The carving of the two niches which concentrate the effect of sound, the curved shape of the Oracle Chamber with its “shelf” cut high across the back, the corbelled ceilings and concave walls that are evident in the finer rooms are all precursors of todays’ acoustically engineered performance environments. If we can accept that these developments were not by chance, then it is clear that Ħal Saflieni’s builders knew how to manipulate a desired human psychological and physiological experience.
It was made clear at the conference that across cultures and distance and timelines, special sound is associated with sacred spaces: from Paleolithic painted caves in France and Spain to singing stone temples in India; from Aztec codexes in Mexico to Eleusinian Mysteries and sanctuaries in Greece to sacred valleys in Elamite Iran. It is human nature to isolate these hyper-acoustic places from mundane daily life and to place high importance to them because abnormal sound behavior implies a divine presence. In whatever form, people need to believe in something that can fix what is wrong, guide their decisions, keep them safe and fed; they yearn to commune with the supernatural and control their fate.
In the same conference publication Emeritus Professor Iegor Reznikoff poses Ħal Saflieni as a surviving link between Palaeolithic painted caves and Romanesque chapels … “That people sang laments or prayers for the dead in the Hypogeum is certain, for a) it is a universal practice in all oral traditions we know, b) at the same period, around 3,000 BC, we have the Sumerian or Egyptian inscriptions mentioning singing to the Invisible, particularly in relationship with death and Second Life, and finally c) the resonance is so strong in the Hypogeum already when simply speaking, that one is forced to use it and singing becomes natural.”
There is no denying that a sophisticated school of architectural and audiologic knowledge was already in place a thousand years before the Egyptians started building pyramids. (The same people who created Ħal Saflieni also engineered a complete solar calendar in one of their above-ground megalithic structures, with solstice and equinox sunrise alignments that still function today.) If we take a long hard look at the Neolithic revolution and the waves of migration of the time, it seems likely that the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum is a remnant of a rich cultural tradition that spanned thousands of years and thousands of miles. Drs. Lindstrom and Zubrow hint at a more hierarchal purpose for the manipulation of sound. “The Neolithic itself was characterized by cultures focused on new invention… enormous collective collaborations over extended periods of time. For these large- scale projects of agriculture and building, social cohesion and compliance was absolutely necessary.” Those who knew the secrets of the sound, held power.
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* Publications from all three OTSF International multi-disciplinary conferences on Archaeoacoustics are featured on the BOOKS page.