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"I think the pyramids were essentially echo machines, built to inspire spiritual feelings," says acoustics expert David Lubman, who will chair a meeting on the "archaeoacoustics" of Maya temples and other archaeological sites this Tuesday in Cancun.
The Pan-American/Iberian Meeting on Acoustics will cover lots about the physics of sounds, but the session looking at the acoustics of Maya centers such as Chichen Itza, Palenque and the 1,000 B.C. Chavin culture of Peru (predecessors to the Incas), looks to be a noisy one. "Archaeologists used to give me funny looks when I talked about this," Lubman says. "But now they are definitely coming around."
In 1998, Lubman published a Journal of the Acoustical Society of America study suggesting that when someone claps in front of the " El Castillo" pyramid at the famous site of Chichen Itza in Mexico's Yucatan, a chirp echo results that sounds like the song of a quetzal bird. Subsequent studies supported the idea, and gave rise to hordes of tourists now clapping away in front of the famous monument, once a temple to the feathered snake god, Kukulkan.
Researchers are uncovering the secrets of ancient civilizations who built fun house-like temples that may have scared the pants off worshipers with scary sound effects, light shows and perhaps drug-induced psychedelic trips.
The emerging field of acoustic archaeology is a marriage of high-tech acoustic analysis and old-fashioned bone-hunting. The results of this scientific collaboration is an new understanding of cultures who used sound effects as entertainment, religion and a form of political control.
Miriam Kolar, a researcher at Stanford University's Center for Computer Research and Acoustics, has been studying the 3,000 year-old Chavin culture in the high plains of Peru. Kolar and her colleagues have been mapping a maze of underground tunnels, drains and hallways in which echoes don't sound like echoes.