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Archaeology and Sound

During my recent travels I was able to read over the series of articles published in the most recent World Archaeology.  These articles were dedicated to exploring the place of archaeology in the world today. They considered the place of archaeology in the production of compelling narratives, campus life, the new media, and in pressing problems like homelessness, environmental sustainability, and even transparency in government.  The articles blended methodological sophistication with practical real life applications to show how the tools and approaches that archaeologists have developed over the history of the discipline can contribute to documenting and analyzing problems in the recent past.  If anything, these articles, to generalize, were too practical in their approaches to problems perhaps assuming that for something to be relevant in todays culture, it had to have a direct practical application rather than a more long term theoretical or methodological benefit.  On the other hand, these articles did reflect the increasingly permeable disciplinary boundaries of archaeological research as they drew upon techniques, methods, and approaches developed by disciplinary neighbors like sociology, anthropology, communications, and philology and literature.

One striking omission from this wide ranging group of articles was anything on the archaeology of sound. There have been some intriguing recent work on the sounds of archaeology and they key role that hearing materiality plays in our ability to identify objects, spaces, and materials.  In fact, heavily damped spaces create a kind of sensory deprivation that obscures the materiality and social “reality” of a space.  (At the same time, noise pollution and the saturation of our environment with a range of mechanical sounds is generally recognized as a problem to be dealt with in a architectural – in other words material – way.)  It is worth noting that I am not the first to think about this kind of thing. The sound of archaeology has contributed to the idea of archaeology as performance and sensory as well as contributed to our idea of how past monuments sounded.

Over the past year, I’ve been thinking about music as a place where archaeological methods could be deployed productively through an exploration of punk rock music.  Punk rock, in particular, sought to celebrate a highly materialized kind of music, through their preference for live recordings in particular places (particularly iconic venues like CBGBs or Max’s Kansas City) and their conscious efforts to emphasize the low-fi, diy character of their recording spaces.  (One of my favorite moments in a punk rock recording is when you can hear a bottle fall and hit the ground (and seemingly not break) during a Replacement’s song).  The term garage band made clear the link between music, a particular sound, and a space.  This all stands in contrast to the increasingly over-produced character of modern pop music which goes to great lengths to create spatially and materially impossible sound which could never be produced in a way that someone could witness and experience. (For a remarkable critique of this check out this article on Pompamoose, a band that tries to make every sound on their remakes of pop songs visible in some way.

  1. August 24, 2010 at 9:43 am

    A bit of study was done on this at Chartres 20+ years ago. You should see the recent book by Deborah Howard & Laura Moretti: Sound Space in Renaissance Venice with sound tracks at

  2. Richard Patterson
    December 4, 2010 at 12:57 am

    Hey! I hope all is well with you! I was just browsing and saw the interview! It was a privilege to hang out with you and to be able to produce the canvas for your office. I am a better man for having met you. I am doing well. I am currently in my second year of teaching in the North Carolina Public School System. I am looking for ways to earn my doctorate in Early childhood education and be able to influence those who come from similar backgrounds as myself.

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