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.

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!