Research into senses and perceptions can greatly enrich our understanding of human experiences in the past. In recent decades, sensory studies have gained ground in archaeology, allowing researchers to explore new ways to understand how people experienced and related to ancient landscapes.

An interdisciplinary team has just published a fascinating study using Geographic Information Systems (GIS)-based modeling techniques to examine the acoustic landscapes of five communities in the ancient Chaco region in the southwestern United States.

The aim of this research was to determine how the sound of conch shells used as trumpets might have contributed to the cohesion of these communities during the period from 1020 to 1150 AD.

Kin Klizhin big house with kiva tower (LA 4935)
Kin Klizhin big house with kiva tower (LA 4935). Credit: Ruth M. Van Dyke / Cambridge University Press

The Chaco region was the center of the most complex sociopolitical phenomenon on the Colorado Plateau during the Puebloan period, between 850 and 1150 AD. It contains some of the best-preserved pre-Hispanic structures in the Southwest, including the massive sandstone great houses. These monumental constructions, along with a variety of unique archaeological elements, reveal the richness of the religious practices and beliefs of the communities that lived in this region.

Beyond the Chaco Canyon, about 200 additional great houses have been documented, which used to be the center of communities made up of numerous domestic habitation sites. These communities have been the focus of intense debates about the nature of the ties that connected the Chacoan political entity.

Until now, sensory research in Chaco has primarily focused on visibility, given that humans could see for over 100 kilometers across the clear and open Colorado Plateau. However, sounds must have also played an important role in the experience of these ancient landscapes.

Modeled audible range of a shell explosion from the great house of Kin Klizhin
Modeled audible range of a shell explosion from the great house of Kin Klizhin. Credit: Ruth M. Van Dyke et al. / Cambridge University Press

The study’s authors focused on the use of conch shells as trumpets, which must have produced a powerful and penetrating sound. These exotic objects, recovered in excavations in the Chaco Canyon, are associated with ritual practices and community leadership.

To explore the range of these sounds, the researchers used the acoustic model developed by Primeau, which considers factors like distance, physical barriers, air temperature, relative humidity, and ambient noise.

The results were surprising. In the five communities studied, the modeling revealed that the sound range of the conch shell trumpet emanating from the great houses overlapped significantly with the distribution of the associated habitation sites.

General view of the Morris 40 community, looking west-northwest. The large house is at the foot of the sandstone ridge to the left of the creek
General view of the Morris 40 community, looking west-northwest. The large house is at the foot of the sandstone ridge to the left of the creek. Credit: Kellam Throgmorton / Cambridge University Press

Beyond this observation, the study also explored the possible implications of this phenomenon for understanding sociopolitical organization and community identity in the Chaco region. The authors suggest that, just as church bells in the Middle Ages, the sound of the conch shell trumpet might have been a fundamental element uniting Chacoan communities.

This innovative study demonstrates how archaeologists can use creative approaches, like soundscape modeling, to reconstruct and understand sensory experiences of the past.

These findings also have important implications for the management and protection of the fragile archaeological landscape of the Chaco region. Acoustic models can help delineate areas of greater concern for preserving these cultural resources, providing government agencies and policymakers with valuable tools for decision-making and environmental impact analysis.


Sources

Van Dyke RM, Primeau KE, Throgmorton K, Witt DE. Seashells and sound waves: modeling soundscapes in Chacoan great-house communities. Antiquity. Published online 2024:1-18. doi:10.15184/aqy.2024.54


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