Hearing the Lost Sounds of Antiquity

Published: February 23, 2016

History is mostly silent to us now.

Thousands of years of human stories have been told in paintings, and sculptures, and sheet music, and text; in shards and shells, and other fragments of things left behind. But because the history of recorded sound is only 160 years old, the original sounds of the distant past are lost to time.

“And the history of recorded sound, it’s not even very high-quality recorded sound,” said Christos Kyriakakis, the director of the Immersive Audio Laboratory at the University of Southern California.

Kyriakakis is part of a team of researchers who recently set out to analyze the acoustics of Byzantine era churches. “You think about wax cylinders from the Edison era [in the 1890s],” Kyriakakis said. “But we’re talking about trying to analyze sounds that were happening in the fourth century.

The project began because Sharon Gerstel, an art history and archaeology professor at UCLA, realized something was missing from her already-deep understanding of Byzantine art. “What struck me was, we always look at paintings without thinking about the sonic accompaniments,” she told me. “So many paintings of a certain period contain representations of hymns and hymnographers, but people were looking at these paintings as if they were mute.”


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