Space and Sound

DSC_0185I finished a first draft of my chapter on internal acoustics (see my previous posts herehere here) and I have started to redraft and clean up the chapter. I struggled during the writing process to come up with a way to layout the various approaches and analyses that I used in the chapter. The challenge has been (and likely will continue to be) bringing together spatial theory and sound studies. The two terms, space and sound, are not easily defined and stand at the centre of my project. At the suggestion of my supervisor, I turned to a couple of chapters/articles discussing the ‘spatial turn’ to see if they could provide a way to mentally map sounds and sound studies. After some failed attempts, and a number of box switching, I started to see the possibility in mapping sounds onto understandings of space. David Harvey, in Space as a Keyword, offers a 3-by-3 matrix of spatial modalities (drawing on Lefebvre’s tripartite understanding of space and adding his own categories of absolute, relative and relational space). The various sound and acoustic analyses fit nicely with the spatial modalities.

From David Harvey (2006) Space as a Keyword
From David Harvey (2006) Space as a Keyword

In one corner, the absolute space – material space reflects the acoustic measures of physical remains (Absorption Coefficients, RT60 etc.). While in the opposite corner, relational space – spaces of representation corresponds with fantastical and supernatural sounds, mostly coming from literary evidence. The result is rough mental map of the potential relations between spatial theory and sound studies. I am sure in a couple of weeks I will have rearranged the boxes two or three times but, for the time being it works. The chart also offers a glimpse at the various types of evidence that can be used to describe the auditory culture of the ancient world. There is a conference coming up next April addressing this topic and I will be submitting an abstract this week. My project focuses primarily on the material space column, although its helpful to think about some of the other projects I have heard about in relation to there placement on the chart. So some of the literary sound projects will deal more with the representations of space columns or aspects of relative or relational space. I think I will come back to this chart throughout my project to help me think through the various arguments, theories and forms of evidence that help me understand the production of space and sounds.

Conference Round-Up and Sensory Studies in Antiquity


Well, last week was busy and exciting all at the same time. I have been co-organising a conference on movement and sensory experience of religious groups or in religious terms. The conference was all day last Friday, 12 June 2015, and was drew a variety of people from the US, Europe and the UK. It was a great day of fascinating papers and good networking.

We organised the day around panels of 2 or 3 20 min. papers, followed by a 10 min. response from an invited respondent. Since we grouped the panels by themes the time periods and geographical locations could vary drastically from paper to paper. To help facilitate discussion, not only with the panelists but between all in the room, the respondents offered thoughts, criticisms and questions for everyone to explore in the discussion time. The respondent all had insightful and engaging responses that fostered great discussion. I was glad to be apart of the conference and made many new colleagues in the field of Sensory Studies.

Following the conference, and coming out of some of the discussion, we set up Sensory Studies in Antiquity. The site is for those interested and working in the field and will have events and resources posted as they arise. They sight is not limited to the listed authors but open for researchers in the field. If you are interested in participating on the site, as an author, send an email to Authors will be listed on the site and can write posts about upcoming events or offer ideas for discussion on the blog. We hope that the site will provide a space for the growing, and quite diverse, community of scholars and students researching in the field of sensory studies in the ancient world. You can also follow Sensory Studies in Antiquity on Twitter for updates.

Religious Movement & Sensory Experience Abstracts

I should have posted these before the conference but, I have put the abstracts from Religious Movement & Sensory Experience here. The conference was fantastic and I will post about the day later this week.

Sensory Studies in Classical & Archaeological Studies, University of Kent

Last Thursday I went down to University of Kent to hear my department discuss their finishing/upcoming research projects (see the schedule posted bellow). It was a great chance to hear what the faculty in the department are researching, as I am in London most of the time. It was also a reaffirmation my choice to study at Kent and my own research projects place in the wider community of the department.

In particular, two faculty members, neither of which are affiliated with my PhD, discussed sensory experience projects that overlapped with my own interests. First, Patty Baker discussed her upcoming project looking at the role of gardens in the health and well being of Romans. Following her work on ancient medicine, Patty will look at the physical make of gardens, such as plants, decorations, layout and features, to assess the health benefits of the spaces. There are clear parallels with my interests in acoustics and sounds, particularly the way the architecture of gardens could conjure certain emotions or feelings. Second, Keli Rudolph shared her research on the values of the senses. Growing out of her work on ancient philosophy and theories of perception, Keli discussed the need to better understand the ancient philosophical context for Aristotle’s hierarchy of the senses. Aristotle is often referenced in terms of his hierarchy with only passing comment on the context of the discussion. The overemphasis on the hierarchy as a negation of the importance of the senses does not adequately deal with the context of the passage.

Again, it was a great day of sharing exciting research going on at Kent and I am glad to be apart of such an department.

CLAS Research Day Schedule

Religious Movement and Sensory Experience, 12 June 2015

The conference I am co-organising is coming up this Friday!

I am pretty excited to hear what our presenters have to share, as well as further network with the sensory studies in Antiquity folks. There is still some space left and it looks like it will be great day of discussion/research sharing among the growing number of sensory studies people in Classics/Ancient History/Archaeology/Digital Humanities. Details can be found here.

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.

Spatialising the Humanities Workshop

Last week I attended a workshop for Kent University postgraduates in the Humanities on spatial theories and practices. As my project draws heavily on spatial and urban studies, the workshop was a great opportunity to discuss some of the issues I’ve been working through in applying acoustics to theories of space.

The two day conference was structured around presentations of various approaches, both the theory and analysis, followed by activities. It was helpful, as well as just fun, to get out and walk around Canterbury Cathedral and the old city centre discussing different ways of engaging with space. I had some fun taking sound measures of two streets and comparing the readings. One street was open to traffic with a major four lane cross street at the end, while the other was the main pedestrian street through the old city centre. The SPL measures were distinct for each but the overall levels did drastically change.

In another activity, we walked around the Cathedral to count and assess the number of spaces within the cathedral. Since I had talked with the organisers before about the problems with defining space, I took the easy route and listed one space. I only marked one space for the fact that wherever I walked, I heard the organist practicing. Despite not playing at full volume, the organ could be heard in every space of the cathedral. The quality of the sound changed depending on where you stood but, you could always hear the music.

It was a great day of discussion and activities that gave me some good ideas and things to think about in terms of my own project. Plus, I got to walk around the cathedral for free and with a bunch of spatial analysis junkies.


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.