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.

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.

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.

Ancient ‘House Parties’ or Explaining the use of crowd noise predictors

Currently, I’m still working on my chapter covering internal acoustics of various spaces in Ostia. My last post touched on the role of doors in shops, one of the spaces I analyse, and now I’m working through the various forms of residential structures, mainly houses and apartments. I pulled an older study of apartments and houses in Ostia off the shelf and started going back through bits of study, especially the authors discussion of particular apartments. While the architectural discussion was useful, I was more fascinated by one of the appendices, which had every building in Ostia with the authors calculation of inhabitants. Each building had a suggested height (# of stories), number of flats and total number of inhabitants. This was just the sort of random list I find fascinating and started playing around with the population numbers. Where was the densest population in the city? Which building had the most people? What was the average number of people per building in each of the five regions of Ostia? And finally, what would the range of noise levels if I ran the population numbers through a crowd noise prediction formula?

This final question lead me to start yet another spreadsheet with the all the buildings and their corresponding crowd noise prediction levels. As expected the range of noise levels was fairly consistent, as the per building population numbers were also fairly consistent. But once I had my spreadsheet, I figured I would map the predictive noise onto a few neighbouring buildings and see what would happen. I quickly realised that I had a couple of problems I need to address. Was I going to assume all the inhabitants were in the same space, as the crowd prediction formula assumed, or would I rerun the formula for each individual habitation on each floor. Thus, and for the sake of entertainment, I assumed that each building had it’s own ‘house party’ with all the inhabitants from that building in one flat! It was perfect! An ancient frat party in each building and now I had something even better to find in mapping the sounds. Where would you go to read a book away from all the noise? Having looked at the acoustics of the internal spaces and having worked out the noise levels for my ancient ‘house party’, I sought to find the quietest place where my ancient equivalent would go to get away from all those people.

I’m not sure how my supervisors will feel about my referring to crowd noise predictions as ‘house parties’ but it was entertaining.