Centuries before the first speakers and subwoofers, ancient Americans—intentionally or not—may have been turning buildings into giant sound amplifiers and distorters to enthrall or disorient audiences, archaeologists say.
Temples at the ancient Maya city of Palenque in central Mexico, for example, might have formed a kind of “unplugged” public-address system, projecting sound across great distances, according to a team led by archaeologist Francisca Zalaquett of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
Zalaquett’s team recently discovered that Palenque’s Northern Group of public squares and temples—built around roughly A.D. 600—is especially good at projecting the human voice as well as sounds like those that would have been made by musical instruments found at the site.
The Maya built many types of musical instruments, including rattling gourds filled with seeds or stones, turtle shells played with deer antlers, as well as whistles, ocarinas, modified seashells, and other wind instruments, said Zalaquett, who presented the Palenque findings at a recent meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Cancún, Mexico.
Performers and priests may have stood atop these temples or in specialized projection rooms, which still exist, to broadcast songs and chants throughout the squares. The Maya are known to have to held public rites to commemorate enthronements, births of nobles, and war victories as well as to honor deities, Zalaquett said.
The “amplifiers” would have been the buildings themselves, and their acoustics may have even been purposely enhanced by the strategic application of stucco coatings, Zalaquett’s findings suggest. Measurements at some of the buildings still bearing stucco suggest it may have changed the absorption and reflection of sounds.
“We think there was an intentionality of the builders to use and modify its architecture for acoustic purposes,” Zalaquett said in an email.
Using modern sound-measuring instruments and a 3-D computer model of the site, the team concluded that sounds made atop a Northern Group temple can be heard clearly for at least the length of a football field (about a hundred yards or meters).