Johnny Cash in the Baths of Neptune

This last weekend I tried a new form of presentation for my acoustic analysis. It was a short 10 minute presentation at Multitudo: a multisensory, multilayered and multidirectional approach to classical studies. I was part of the organising committee for the workshop and we were drawn to non-academic ways of presenting our research. I decided to test out a ‘reverse’ of my usual presentation style.

My usual: intro acoustics, physics of sound, maths, sums…; followed by discussion of spaces with plans, graphs and tables; finish with social-spatial implications.


This time I started with a sound sample. I played a 20 second clip of Johnny Cash’s God’s Gonna Cut You Down. The clip was EQ’d flat, with no reverb. I then played 3 more versions of the clip, each set to the reverberation time and EQ of a room from the Baths of Neptune. I then showed one of my standard plans of the Baths with the reverberation times for each room colour coded. I asked the audience to try and figure out the relationship of the sound sample with the rooms on the plan.

It was a challenging exercise. Most people haven’t spent hours listening to tracks, adjusting the EQ or reverb. Most of us don’t connect what we hear with the space we hear those sounds in. And most of us don’t think about the space that is created in the post-production of making a record. At the same time, it’s a great exercise in relating acoustic discussions to different spaces.

I was asked in the question time why I picked Johnny Cash and not some choral, symphonic or even ‘ancient’ style music. I thought I would layout my response here, as it gets at some of my driving questions behind my project.

  1. I picked the Johnny Cash song because it is a simple track with almost no reverb or processing to start with. I used the first 20 seconds of the track, which is just foot stomps, claps, guitar and Johnny’s voice. The flat response of the song means that when I altered it to each room it would be noticeable and wouldn’t get lost in an abundance of different sounds.
  2. I needed a clip with some low end frequencies, which I could draw out for one of the samples. Johnny’s voice has a deep resonance, which showed off the long reverb and muddy character of the low frequency noise.
  3. I used a contemporary song, one I expected a majority of people to know, because I wanted to make a connection with the audience. In my answer, I said, “Playing a foreign sound, in a foreign space and asking foreign questions, is too much for an audience.” I am not interested in simply recreating ‘ancient’ sounds. By using a contemporary song, the focus shifts to the changes created by the space, not the authenticity of the sound. This is probably the main theoretical reason for the choice. My project uses acoustics to better understand the architecture and architectural history of Rome.
  4. Finally, it is way more fun to put Johnny Cash in the Baths of Neptune, than it would be to play white noise or a frequency tone. The music is only a tool, which conveys architectural information. While I could use any sound, I used something that entertained me, as well. It takes time, and a lot of repeating, to get the clips right. I picked a song that I could repeat without going to crazy…

I was impressed with the response and have been thinking about adding sound samples to more of my presentations. It was far more engaging, and we all need to be able to laugh at our presentations, thinking about Johnny Cash playing in a Roman bath complex, as a way to share what I’m researching.

Postgraduate Workshop: Roman Space and Urbanism, 11 Nov. 2015

I will be presenting on my current chapter this Wednesday, 11 Nov. 2015, at a Postgraduate Workshop at University of Kent. The workshop highlights some of the current work on Roman space and urbanism in the Classical and Archaeological Studies department by PhD students. The workshop is a part of a visit by Kent Institute of Advance Studies in Humanities Visiting Fellow Eric Poehler (UMass), who will give a keynote lecture. Details can be found here.

My presentation will introduce my approach to acoustics from archaeological remains/materials and its implications for understanding noises through Lefebvre’s ‘rhythmanalysis’. I use Lefebvre’s rhytmanalysis to bring together the multiplicity of sources for sounds and noises to think about everyday rhythms and life in Ostia.

I focus on the space of streets, although I draw examples from the Baths of Neptune and Portico di Pio IX at Ostia. The title, Inde caput morbi, is taken from Juvenal’s Satire 3, which I use to bounce some of the physics of sound findings off Roman writings on streets. It should be a fun afternoon and I’m excited to hear some of my fellow Kent PhDs presenting their work.

Sounds (or Noise) in Streets

In a previous post I discussed the influence of shop doors on the acoustics of the space. The basis analysis and methodology will be published in a forthcoming edited volume (hopefully in June). Recently, I have been exploring the acoustics beyond the facade or shop front and looking at street noise. Much of the methodological approach remains the same; dimensions and construction material form the baseline of the acoustic analysis. However, certain elements are missing in street canyons that mean sounds react in different ways to the space.

First, the lack of covered or enclosed space means that large areas will not reflect sounds. It is a basic feature of streets that they are open to the sky and rarely covered. In acoustic terms, this means that much of the sound will dissipate over distance, as opposed to being absorbed by the physical walls or ceilings, as happens in enclosed rooms.

Despite the lack of covering, the pavement and building facades will reflect and absorb the sounds and noises of the street. In contemporary acoustic design, traffic noise is the primary nuisance, which acoustic designers and architects try to limit. It was, in fact, the high levels of traffic noise that began the search for standard acoustic measures. Emily Thompson has a fantastic book, *The Soundscape of Modernity*, that charts the history acoustics as a field in the start of the modern period.

In terms of ancient streets, in a similar manner to enclosed spaces the types of materials can be assessed for their absorption coefficient, a standard measure of a materials ability to absorb sound. These basic elements can again be plugged into a predicative equation to measure the absorption.

The second deficulty with streets is the complexity of the arrangements. Even building facades present a complex sound field with various surfaces, materials and architectural features. In Ostia, several buildings have monumental entrances with pillars, columns, or pedestals and some times all three. These features will change the way the sound reflects off the surface. Even more problematice, although I do really like the challenge, is the widespread use of colonnades or porticos. The space of the portico is, again, partially covered and partially open. This means that sounds from the street can fill the portico, as well as sounds within the portico only being heard in close proximity to the space. The nature of porticos present their own acoustic character, quite unlike other street spaces.

It has been fun to explore the ways these acoustic features of streets, and porticos, can help us to better understand the street as a social space. I have just begun to map the effects of conversation noise in certain streets in Ostia and I will post an update as I write more about the street space. I will be presenting some of these findings this weekend in Umea, Sweden.

Panel Acceptance and Abstract Submission

I found out yesterday that a panel I was on was accepted for The Roman Archaeological Conference 2016 in Rome (16-19 March 2016). The panel is on Sensing Rome: Sensory Approaches to Movement and Space, which is right up my alley. I still need to sit down and write an abstract for my paper but it is provisionally titled ‘Structure of Noise: Aural Architecture and Movement in Ostian Streets’. It will draw together some of the upcoming work for my next chapter on the topics of movement, sounds and urban space.

I also submitted an abstract for Sound and Auditory Culture in Greco-Roman Antiquity, which will be 1-2 April 2016 in Columbia, MO. The abstract I submitted dealt with the interaction between architectural and archaeological reconstruction of acoustics and literary descriptions. This was a more theoretical and methodological paper than RAC, although it will still have plenty of plans, maps, pretty pictures and possibly sounds. I have been thinking about ways to present the architectural acoustic measures in audible form. I’m not quite sure how it will work but I have some fun ideas to related the maps and plans to audible sounds.

Courtyards in Ostia

The internal courtyard of the Caseggiato dei Triclini on the main street of Ostia
The internal courtyard of the Caseggiato dei Triclini on the main street of Ostia

Well, I’m almost done (fingers crossed) with the current chapter covering internal spaces in Ostia and the aural architecture of certain spaces. I touched on doorways in a previous post on common shops found along the streets of Ostia. I am now working through more complex buildings than the one room shop.

Another common architectural layout for various types of buildings is that of an internal courtyard. These buildings, referred to as insulae, are usually large, multistory and multifunctional, both commercial and residential. The courtyard was usually a communal space, but in some cases only accessible from the ground floor. Again, because of the common occurrence of courtyards and the various functions of the buildings, the courtyards are another prime space for questioning the way acoustics can be utilised in various functional settings.

While wrestling with ways of analysing an interior but open space, I came across a study of street noise and urban courtyards. It was an interesting look at the low frequency noise from streets being heard inside courtyards in urban settings. One of the aspects that stood out to me was the way the arrangement of the courtyard functioned as a resonator for certain frequencies of noise produced on the street. Simply put low frequency noises, which have higher wavelengths than high frequencies, would carry over the buildings and enter the courtyard. It seemed that the lowest frequencies could be heard at almost the same level in the courtyard as the street. Resonant frequencies, those frequencies that would resonant in the courtyard, produce increases in the sound level in the courtyard, while the sound propagation in street decreased. The study suggests that urban courtyards are not quite retreats from the noises of urban streets but in fact can be just as loud, even louder at certain frequencies.

Returning to Ostia, this suggests that the internal courtyards of certain buildings would have a similar reaction to street noise. Low frequency traffic noise would not happen in Ostia but other low frequency noise and resonant frequencies would still fill the courtyard. In certain cases, doors and walls could block some of the sound waves, although this would not stop all noises (remember that the low frequency noise would fill the urban courtyards even when there was no doorway from the street to the courtyard in the model). Here again, we get yet another occasion where places thought to be quite or removed from activity still react and are filled with noise. Some of the internal courtyards in Ostia now seem to be even more active spaces than I initially thought.

Why Ancient Noise? Or Sound vs Noise

I was asked by friend why I refer to ancient sounds as noise and why this blog is titled Ancient Noise. Although they are two different questions, they come out of a shared understanding about the Roman world as perceived by the Romans (predominately through their  architecture and literature). My own work on architectural acoustics argues that Roman construction, design and use of buildings was minimally concerned with ‘sound proofing’. The Romans did not have the knowledge, or means, of sound measurement or sound isolation. They could tell you something was loud, quite, annoying, pleasant etc. but they could not isolate sound the way we do today. They could, and did, make judgements about the sounds they heard around them but there was no standardised readings of the physics of sound.

The modern ability to measure sound pressure levels (a measure of intensity) is a resent development, which was furthered by the realization that sounds at certain levels could be harmful. Once the connection between sounds and health was made noise became a problem. Noise is, therefore, unwanted sounds. Hence the vast array of law concerning noise control and standardised noise levels.

I have no disagreement with this definition of noise. Unwanted sounds are noises. But for the Romans, who were unable to isolate sounds, both good and bad, noise is one of the primary sources for sounds that we have. We have complaints about all kinds of noises. Trumpets, carts, sellers yelling, people crying, weightlifters grunting and on and on. My interest in everyday rhythms means that I focus on these noises and the architecture that shaped them. It is the unwanted sounds that offer insight into the daily interactions, which produced those same sounds. In my work, all sounds can be classified as noise, since the Romans had no way, other than running off to an uninhabited area (which would still be filled with noises), to close out the sounds and noises around them. Hence Ancient Noise.


Market's of Trajan

Currently I am writing a chapter on the acoustics of particular buildings in Ostia. Ostia was the port of Rome and commerce was central to the city’s daily rhythm. The main archaeological evidence for commercial spaces are the shops that line the streets. The basic layout of the shops is a single room, sometimes an associated mezzanine room or back room, with a wide front door. The doorway was set with wooden planks held in place by grooves in the lintel and threshold. Those shops with mezzanines have corbels or other evidence for supporting wood flooring.

Despite having similar dimensions and layouts, the acoustics of the shop space has a range of RT60 measures (reverberation time). The range of RT60 values reflects the different sizes, materials and decorations of the shops. While I was in Rome a couple of weeks ago, I went to the Market’s of Trajan and tested the acoustics of several of the shops there. The measures were similar to the measures formulated for the Ostian shops however, one key difference was evident. The shops in the Market’s of Trajan did not have wooden doors in place.

The doors are the most absorptive material evident in the shops of Ostia. If there were goods, people, or other movable objects, like furniture, they would absorb much of the sound energy as well. Unfortunately, much of that evidence was cleared from the site by the early excavators of the site. Without those materials, I only have the basic physical structure of the shops to assess the acoustics. The doors absorb much of the high frequencies that were evident in the Market’s of Trajan.  Shops with mezzanines would have further wooden structures, the mezzanine floors, to absorb more of the high frequency noise.

It seems that with the doors left open, which is assumed for most of the day, these shops would have little absorptive qualities, with the exception of the goods, people and furniture that would be kept inside. This further reinforces the notion that these shops were mainly inhabited by low status, poor residents. By no means were they the poorest in the city but, apart from the shop and goods for sale, these inhabitants had little in the way of keeping out the sounds of their neighbours.

Classical Association 2015

This last weekend was the Classical Association conference, which is the main academic conference for the field of Classics in the UK. One of the themes of the conference was the senses and I presented a paper in a session on The Senses in Roman Life. The paper took up the acoustics of the Baths of Neptune in comparison with Seneca’s description of noises he hears from the bath complex beneath him (Letter 56).

My paper was well received and I had a number of great questions afterwards. It was helpful to get feedback from others, several of which brought up questions or points I had not thought of. I had a couple of people comment on the originality and creativity of my project. It was nice to have someone else affirm that my studies are not as crazy as I sometimes think it might be. I was struck by the number of PhD students taking up sensory experience type topics in a variety of manners. It was also a great opportunity to meet and network with other academics working in sensory studies. Plus, there were some potential publication opportunities for my paper!

In all it was a great weekend, which left me exhausted but with a healthy dose of motivation to get my own project back underway.

A list of Senses panels at CA.

My (original) abstract.

VLAC Conference

© Will Foster Illustration
© Will Foster Illustration

Yesterday, I spent the day at the Burlington House (home of the Royal Academy of Art and several other societies) for a conference for Visualizing the Late Antique City, a three year research project at University of Kent ( The project is, in many ways, right up my alley; the director being one of my supervisors to start with. The conference was an opportunity for the researchers to share their work from the last three years, as many of them will be finishing this year and only limited aspects of the project will continue. The project, itself, looks at urban life from the 4th – 6th centuries drawing together various sources of evidence to visually display the rhythms and patterns of everyday living around the Mediterranean.

The broad division of the day was into short sessions on specific architectural topics, like public space, houses, shops, etc. There was a paper on the physical structures, either the decoration or aspects of reconstruction or both. This was followed by a paper on the material culture and objects found connected with the activities held in the spaces. Of note, Jo Stonner drew attention to household objects and the possible meanings to individual owners, especially items associated with wedding gifts and heirlooms. While Joe Williams used the objects associated with trades to narrate the various lives of shopkeepers who worked along a porticoed street. The interaction between spaces and activities was, therefore, brought to the forefront. Faith Morgan, who looked at late antique garments, had made reconstructions of several of the textiles she studied and had members of the research project display them in a late antique fashion show. The illustrators, as well as a 3-d modeler working on Constantinople, also shared the challenges and opportunities available to academics based on the process of designing and illustrating scenes and cities. The conference ended with a walk through Ostia in AD 387 based on St Augustine’s Confessions, book 9. This was particularly interesting to think about the ways research can be used to share the technical work of archaeology to wider audiences. My own research in Ostia parallels much of the work done by the VLAC project and it was helpful to see the illustrations and hear some of the work that went into this project.

Its worth looking at the VLAC website to see some of the illustrations and read more about the individual researchers and their contributions. The project is continuing to produce illustrations and are working on several buildings in Ostia, including the Caseggiato del Termopolio ( a bar with counters and outdoor seating… my kind of place!