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Sonic Archaeologies


Michael Bull kindly asked me to write a short chapter on sonic archaeology for his forthcoming Routledge Companion to Sound Studies. What follows is the first half of my unedited text. Because this is a “handbook-y” publication, I feel obligated to be a bit pedagogical — to situate this work within a larger field, to offer a bit of lit review, to discuss method, etc. — without, I hope, being too pedantic: 

Sonic Archaeologies

Materiality has been among the most widely resounding conceptual refrains in media and cultural studies over the past two decades. While our digital lives and media landscapes ostensibly became more virtual, placeless, and weightless, we – media and cultural scholars, artists, and designers – turned our attention to our gadgets’ guts; to the chemistry, physics, and even geology behind their construction, operation, and disposal; and to the heavy infrastructures undergirding our supposedly ethereal existences. Media archaeology, in particular, by emphasizing the materiality of media – the stuff, the institutions, the infrastructures, the labor practices, the code, the algorithms – has given rise to new, non-teleological modes of historiography that aim to trace media’s peripheral routes and forgotten paths.[i] Caleb Kelly, Mara Mills, Jacob Smith, Jonathan Sterne, and Siegfried Zielinski have re-sounded such historical audio artifacts as musical automata, musical songbirds, hearing tubes, stethoscopes, phonautographs, shellac discs, hearing aids, and audio-cassette tapes.[ii]


Recognizing the myriad forces and entangled temporalities shaping the historical terrain from which such devices emerged, media archaeologists have come to question the “old”/“new” media divide – to recognize that “old” media were once “new,” too – and to regard material engagement with their research subjects as a vital means of critical investigation, or what Wolfgang Ernst calls “epistemological reverse engineering.”[iii] Archaeological research thus takes place not only in libraries and archives, but also in labs and studios, where screwdrivers and emulators, magnifying glasses and contact microphones, soldering irons and audio-editing software serve as integral research tools.

In this chapter we’ll examine several such sonic-archaeological media researchers, designers, and artists who listen to media – to their internal machinery, their code, their pipes – in order to give voice to their mechanisms of operation. But we’ll also examine another terrain of sonic archaeological investigation: the field site, the archaeological dig. Taking media archaeology literally, we’ll examine how archaeologists of the trowel-wielding variety have long adopted media technologies, including audio recorders and editing software, to better understand how archaeological sites might have functioned as sonic spaces.[iv] We’ll explore how archaeoacoustics – which melds techniques and sensibilities from archaeology, audio production, and sensory history – allows us to hear echoes from sites of the distant past.

Listening as Diagnostic, Epistemic, and Historical Method

schematic - AE

Sound serves as a useful diagnostic tool. We can often hear malfunctions – a clanging pipe, a stuttering hard-drive, an irregular heartbeat, a coughing engine – we might not be able to detect or diagnose otherwise. In February 2016 Loughborough University posted a PhD studentship focused on “listening to infrastructure” in order to “provide early warning of deterioration and facilitate targeted maintenance and renewal” of the UK’s “aging geotechnical assets”: its rail lines, petroleum and potable water pipelines, offshore wind turbines, bridges, earth-retaining structures and foundations.[v] Researchers would listen for Acoustic Emissions, stress waves generated when such structures move and deform. This applied research extends a tradition among sound artists who have sonified various infrastructural elements, particularly bridges. In 1983, for the 100th anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge, which at the time had a steel grid roadway (it has since been paved over), Bill Fontana mounted eight microphones under the bridge and broadcast the sounds to the plaza of the World Trade Center, via speakers embedded within the façade of One World Trade Center.[vi] More recently, sound artist and filmmaker Kevin T. Allen, one of my own former thesis students, produced a haunting small-gauge film mixing the sounds of three of New York’s major bridges – the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg – which he collected via contact microphones that pick up vibrations.[vii] Such works make sensible the micro-rhythms and macro-scale physical stresses that our infrastructures withstand, and amplify the distinct mechanics of their different materials and construction techniques.

BRIDGE from Kevin T. Allen on Vimeo.


Kubisch / Miyazaki-Howse

Other artists have proposed that there’s much to be learned by listening to technical and media infrastructures: WiFi networks, cell phone connections, GPS, and other systems dependent on electromagnetic waves.[viii] In 2004 German composer/sound artist Christina Kubisch began hosting her “Electrical Walks,” in which participants use specially-designed headphones that translate electromagnetic signals within the environment into sounds, thus disclosing the myriad waves and particles that not only make possible their ATM transactions and signal their surveillance by ubiquitous CCTV, but that also perpetually envelop and penetrate their bodies.[ix] Her work resonates with growing public concerns about the potential health effects of ubiquitous and invasive electromagnetic signals – ever present in the universe, but now harnessed and targeted by devices we regularly carry in our pockets or near our brains. On a similar wavelength, Shintaro Miyazaki and Martin Howse also use logarithmic detectors, amplifiers, and wave-filter circuits to transform electromagnetism into sound, and thereby reveal the “rhythms, signals, fluctuations, oscillations and other effects of hidden agencies within the invisible networks of the ‘technical unconscious.’”[x] Howse frames such experiments as “forensic” epistemological investigations, which question what we can know, through transduction, about a seemingly imperceptible wireless world.[xi]

Myriad artists have used sound to index media’s rhythms – both their mechanical movements and signal-processing operations. Consider, for instance, the audible physical rhythm of a Vandercook press or a 3D printer, a 16mm film projector or a high-speed book scanner. Sound artist and scholar Matt Parker, as part of his “Imitation Archive” project, recorded the groans, hums, and crunches of historic calculating and computing machines at The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, UK.[xii] Parker then mixed his 116 individual recordings into ten compositions, which are intended to give voice to the successive “movements” of computing history: “the ‘always on’ durational nature of many of the machines,” “the clunking masses of early relay-based machines,” the “whirring monoliths of the 1980’s mainframe era,” and “the high frequency whir of modern day server units.” We learn about the evolving processes of computation by listening to the internal mechanisms of these machines. Howse and Miyazaki’s Detektors project (2010-12) applied similar methods to contemporary electronic devices, including mobile phones, cameras, and hard drives, and artist-scholar Jamie Allen has examined the epistemologies given voice in lie detectors and the Church of Scientology’s E-meter.[xiii] These skills of diagnostic and forensic listening are of critical importance to archivists – particularly audio-visual archivists – because their work to preserve cultural heritage typically requires preserving archival media’s recording and playback devices, too.


Jamie Allen

Even the seemingly abstract algorithms driving media-machines’ operations are rhythmic and lend themselves to listening. Howse and Miyazaki’s method of “algorhythmics,” they claim, allows us to “hear that our digital culture is not immaterial, but consists of lively, rhythmical, performative, tactile and physical …machinic assemblages.”[xiv] Miyazaki’s and Michael Chinen’s AlgorhythmicSorting program, for instance, sonifies the “rhythmic and pattern generating behavior” of different sorting algorithms: bubble sort, merge sort, heap sort, and so forth.[xv] Yet algorithmic sonification isn’t merely a clever means of making computational processes intelligible to non-specialists. Listening has long been an essential skill in computer engineering and programming. As Miyazaki reports, some early mainframes like the UNIVAC I and the Philips PASCAL computer featured an auditory interface, which transformed signals into sound via a speaker.[xvi] Louis D. Wilson, one of the chief engineers for the BINAC, recounts that, in testing the computer, he and his colleagues discovered that they could recognize the computer’s patterns via static on the lab’s radio. Other early computer engineers noted that their machines and programs had a “characteristic sound.”

The modes of listening, or what Jonathan Sterne would call “audile techniques,” of these seasoned engineers were shaped by their professional training and their historical and cultural contexts. Engineering – and listening – during and after the War, amidst computing’s incunabula, were quite different practices than they are today. While there is much debate within sensory history about the epistemology of historical “reenactment,” Wolfgang Ernst, who practices an engineering-oriented version of media archaeology, proposes that “reenact[ing] the sound-generating setting” can shed light on “auditory perception in the past.”[xvii] In creating his archive at Bletchley Park, Parker sought to reflect the architectures and environments within which the computers operated; after all, these contexts were integral to the way Alan Turing and his colleagues would have listened and responded to their machines.[xviii] While Parker had no presumptions of “re-creating” the acoustics of the labs in which these machines operated, he did acknowledge their architectural “habitats” through sonic allusion, by weaving the rooms’ signature acoustics (i.e., their impulse responses) into his compositions.

Picture number: COM/B911217 Description: Wrens operating the 'Colossus' computer, 1943. Colossus was the world's first electronic programmable computer, at Bletchley Park in Bedfordshire. Bletchley Park was the British forces' intelligence centre during WWII, and is where cryptographers deciphered top-secret military communiques between Hitler and his armed forces. The communiques were encrypted in the Lorenz code which the Germans considered unbreakable, but the codebreakers at Bletchley cracked the code with the help of Colossus, and so aided the Allies' victory. Credit: Bletchley Park Trust/Science & Society Picture Library All images reproduced must have the correct credit line. Clients who do not print a credit, or who print an incorrect credit, are charged a 100% surcharge on top of the relevant reproduction fee. Storage of this image in digital archives is not permitted. For further information contact the Science & Society Picture Library on (+44) 207 942 4400.

Wrens operating the ‘Colossus’ computer, 1943. Credit: Bletchley Park Trust/Science & Society Picture Library



Susan Schuppli & Tom Tlalim from Casino Luxembourg on Vimeo.

The site of sounding and listening is also of critical importance to the work of Lawrence Abu Hamdan and Susan Schuppli, both of whom employ variations on sonic archaeology in their “Forensic Architecture” research. In his Earshot project, Hamdan worked with Defense for Children International, a human rights organization, to conduct an “audio-ballistic analysis” of a May 2014 incident in the occupied West Bank.[xix] Hamdan’s forensic methods – which involved creating spectrograms of gunshots and 3-D models of the urban crime scene – provided critical evidence in establishing that Israeli soldiers shot and killed two teenagers with live ammunition, rather than rubber bullets, as they claimed. His modeling techniques have attracted attention from international media and governments. Schuppli, meanwhile, has investigated the sonic nuisance of drone surveillance in northern Pakistan. Not only are the drones’ round-the-clock, high-frequency buzz and occasional deafening missile-strikes the source of much “psychological grief” – from anxiety and depression to post-traumatic stress disorder – but, as Schuppli’s proposes, their sonic effects might also be sufficiently harmful to constitute a violation of humanitarian law.[xx] Schuppli’s, Hamdan’s, and Parker’s archaeological work requires attention to the particular acoustic properties of their research sites. They must attend not only to the sound, but also to its resonance chamber; to both the signal and all the ambient noise through which it must pass.

Listening to Ancient Places

Archaeologists and acousticians working in the field of archaeoacoustics have applied similar sensibilities in examining the sonic architectures of ancient sites, from Stonehenge to Peruvian temples to American petroglyph sites.[xxi] Archaeologists have a long history of employing a wide repertoire of media techniques and technologies – field notes, drawings, maps, photographs, films, satellite imagery and GIS, material artifacts, etc. – for “making manifest the past (or, crucially…allow[ing] the past to manifest itself).” [xxii] Archaeacousticians, or sonic archaeologists, also make use of such tools as omnidirectional or “bouquet” microphone and speaker arrays, binaural mics, amplifiers, field recorders, and sophisticated modeling software. They measure their research sites’ impulse responses, standing waves, and reverberation times, and conduct on-site sonic tests by playing instruments and singing as their ancient subjects might have done.[xxiii] Of course there’s much conjecture involved in piecing together ancient multisensory experiences and ancient builders’ intentionality, and the speculative nature of such archaeoacoustics research has generated debate.[xxiv] Archaeoacousticians certainly don’t intend to “re-enact” ancient sounding or listening experiences, as Ernst proposes, or to be able to approximate “auditory perception in the past.” Still, opening the ears during archaeological investigation allows for a recognition that human experience is, and always has been, multisensory, and that ancient spaces have long functioned, either by accident or by intention, as resonance chambers and transmission media for sonic activity – for public address, interpersonal communication, ritual or musical performance, and so on…

…And in the following paragraphs I offer a brief overview of various archaeoacoustics projects. I examined some of this work in my “Ear to the Wire: Listening to Historic Urban InfrastructuresAmodern article from 2012, and I’ll expand the discussion in the “Speaking Stones: Voicing the City” chapter in my forthcoming (I hope!) book, Ether/Ore: Archaeologies of Cities and Media, the manuscript for which is currently under review. 

[i] See Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, Eds., Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implication (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011); Jussi Parikka, What Is Media Archaeology? (Malden, MA: Polity, 2012)

[ii] Caleb Kelly, Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009); Mara Mills, Hearing Aids and the History of Electronics Miniaturization, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 33,:2 (April-June 2011): 24-45 (Reprinted in The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne (Routledge, 2012); Jacob Smith, Eco-Sonic Media (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015); Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003); Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006;

[iii] Wolfgang Ernst, “Media Archaeography – Method & Machine versus History & Narrative of Media” In Media Archaeology, Ed. Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011): 239-55 – 239; Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

[iv] For more on the literal archaeology of media archaeology, see my “Ear to the Wire: Listening to Historic Urban Infrastructures” Amodern 2 (Fall 2013): http://amodern.net/article/ear-to-the-wire/ and Deep Mapping the Media City (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

[v] “Listening to Infrastructure: Acoustic Emission Sensing of Geotechnical Infrastructure to Improve Resilience,” Loughborough University, accessed February 5, 2016: http://www.lboro.ac.uk/study/finance/research/studentships/studentships/listening-to-infrastructure-acoustic-emission-sensing-.html

[vi] “The Brooklyn Bridge Sound Sculpture at One World Trade Center, New York, 1983” Resoundings: http://resoundings.org/Pages/Oscillating.html

[vii] Kevin T. Allen, “Bridge,” Filmography: http://www.phonoscopy.com/works.html#filmography. Eyebeam, the DIAS Center for Digital Art in Denmark, Morten Søndergaard, Jamie Allen and Roddy Schrock are also collaborating on a 2016 multi-site exhibition on Acoustic Infrastructures.

[viii] See my “SoundMatter,” “No Thing Unto itself: Object-Oriented Politics,” CUNY Graduate Center, October 20, 2011: http://www.veralistcenter.org/engage/event/241/no-thing-unto-itself-objectoriented-politics/

[ix] Christina Kubisch, “Electrical Walks: Electromagnetic Investigations in the City”: http://www.christinakubisch.de/en/works/electrical_walks. See also “Infrastructural Tourism” Places (July 2013): https://placesjournal.org/article/infrastructural-tourism/ for more on multisensory means of experiencing and comprehending infrastructure.

[x] Shintaro Miyazaki, “Urban Sounds Unheard-of: A Media Archaeology of Ubiquitous Infospheres” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 27:4 (2013): 514-22.

[xi] Martin Howse, “Sonic Archaeology,” Harvestworks Workshop, April 5-6, 2014; http://www.harvestworks.org/apr-56-sonic-archaeology-workshop/

[xii] Matt Parker, “The Imitation Archive,” Earth Kept Warm: http://www.earthkeptwarm.com/the-imitation-archive/ See also Matt Parker, “The Imitation Archive Part 1: Recording the Sounds of the World’s First Computers” British Library Sound and Vision Blog (May 15, 2015): http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/sound-and-vision/2015/05/the-imitation-archive-part-1-recording-the-sounds-of-bletchley-parks-historic-computers-.html.

[xiii] Jamie Allen: http://www.jamieallen.com/the-lie-machine/, http://www.jamieallen.com/recomposing-the-e-meter/; Detektors: http://detektors.org/index.html; Institute of Experimental Design and Media Cultures, “U.S. Media Archaeology Lab Hosts Apocryphal Technologies” (March 2016): http://www.ixdm.ch/u-s-media-archeology-lab-hosts-apocryphal-technologies/.

[xiv] Detektors. See also Jussi Parikka, What Is Media Archaeology?” (Malden, MA: Polity, 2012): 151-2.

[xv] Studio Algorhythmics, “Algorhythms of Sorting”: http://algorhythmics.ixdm.ch/?p=152 See also Wolfgang Ernst, “Toward a Media Archaeology of Sonic Articulations” In Digital Memory and the Archive, Ed. Jussi Parikka (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013): 172-83.

[xvi] Shintaro Miyazaki, “Algorhythmics: Understanding Micro-Temporality in Computational Cultures” Computational Culture (2012): http://computationalculture.net/article/algorhythmics-understanding-micro-temporality-in-computational-cultures#fnref-1380-14

[xvii] Wolfgang Ernst, “Toward a Media Archaeology of Sonic Articulations” In Digital Memory and the Archive, Ed. Jussi Parikka (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013): 175. See also Mark M. Smith, “Producing Sense, Consuming

Sense, Making Sense: Perils and Prospects for Sensory History,” Journal of Social History 40, no. 4 (2007), 841-858 for a discussion of reenactment’s methodological and epistemological concerns.

[xviii] Matt Parker, “The Imitation Archive Part 2: Making Music from the Sounds of the World’s First Computers,” British Library Sound and Vision Blog (May 26, 2015): http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/sound-and-vision/2015/05/the-imitation-archive-part-2-.html

[xix] Lawrence Abu Hamdan, “Earshot”: http://lawrenceabuhamdan.com/new-page-1/

[xx] Susan Schuppli, “Uneasy Listening” In Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth, Ed. Forensic Architecture (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014): 381-92. See also Ryan Bishop, “Project ‘Transparent Earth’ and the Autoscopy of Aerial Targeting: The Visual Geopolics of the Underground” Theory, Culture & Society 28:7-8 (2011): 270-86; Steve Goodman, Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010).

[xxi] See, for instance, Barry Blesser & Linda-Ruth Salter, Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?: Experiencing Aural Architecture (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2007): 67-97; Ian Sample, “Stonehenge was Based on a ‘Magical’ Auditory Illusion, Says Scientist” The Guardian (February 16, 2012): http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/feb/16/stonehenge-based-magical-auditory-illusion?newsfeed=true; Aaron Watson and David Keating, “Architecture and Sound: An Acoustic Analysis of Megalithic Monuments in Prehistoric Britain” Antiquity 73:280 (June 1999): 325-36.

[xxii] Bjørnar Olsen, Michael Shanks, Timothy Webmoor & Christopher Witmore, Archaeology: The Discipline of Things (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012): 93.

[xxiii] See Miriam Kolar, “Tuned to the Senses: An Archaeoacoustic Perspective on Ancient Chavín” The Appendix (July 22, 2013): http://theappendix.net/issues/2013/7/tuned-to-the-senses-an-archaeoacoustic-perspective-on-ancient-chavin for more on archaeoacoustic methods.

[xxiv] Nadia Drake, “Archaeoacoustics: Tantalizing, but Fantastical” Science News, February 17, 2012, http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/338543/description/Archaeoacoustics_Tantalizing_but_fantastical; See also Chris Scarre and Graeme Lawson, eds., Archaeoacoustics (Cambridge, UK: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2006). Sensory history has addressed similar epistemological and methodological concerns; see Mark M. Smith, “Producing Sense, Consuming Sense, Making Sense: Perils and Prospects for Sensory History,” Journal of Social History 40, no. 4 (2007), 841-858.