MALTA: 1902 A construction worker unexpectedly broke through the bottom of a household cistern. A dark man-made cavity lay below.
Descending over stone barriers into shadows, he found underground rooms opening up before him -- three stories of sculpted man-sized burrow suggesting some fantasy realm of Mother Earth. Columns and windows defining and tantalizing, spaces cut out of the stone as if it were soft cheese. With all that breathtaking visual weirdness, the odd echo of his footsteps may have gone unnoticed at first. Following the curve, he had to step down another three feet to reach the floor of a dead-end gourd-shaped room hollowed out of solid limestone: the Oracle Chamber.
On the ceiling, painted tendrils and disk patterns of red ocher spin out from the entrance, ending just above the chin-level niche in the side wall. Researcher Paul Devereux. is among those who think that these could represent acoustical notation. Dark stains on the rim of the niche testify to the resting of many hands in a natural pose as one’s face is aimed toward the painted red lozenges on the wall within. Could these be target spots for achieving the best sound effects? Nearby, at the closed end of the chamber, a distinctive curved channel has been cut at the top of the concave wall. Was this designed to enhance the amplification? Is it possible that the designers of these spaces knew something that modern scientists are just rediscovering? What is this strange giant sculpture? It hasn’t changed much. It is a dark and mysterious place, even today.
Sixty miles south of
Sicily, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, lies a small cluster
of islands known today as Malta. The largest island, with natural
deep-water harbors is simply named Malta. To the Romans it was Melita: “honey” in the color of the golden limestone or a specialty
product of the local bees. Earlier Phoenician traders called it Maleth, for its safe refuge. We don’t know what it was called six
thousand years ago when prehistoric architects came up with the idea
to build megalithic temples here. The resulting constructions are
the oldest monuments on earth: at least a millennium ahead of
Stonehenge and the Pyramids. Our present purpose is to explore the
possibility that sound played a large part in the process of their
There are more than thirty sites on the islands where it is known that megalithic temples once stood. Today, they are in various states of ruin ranging from a few foundation stones to four amazingly intact complexes. A fifth is a subterranean site: apparently a temple for the dead.
Something was born here on these islands. Some bold and creative prehistoric soul had the first design concept; perhaps inspired by the shape of natural caves or some anthropomorphic desire to pay homage to a deity of the earth. The temples exhibit features that are unprecedented. The earliest use of courtyards, retaining walls, corbelling and the horizontal arch are all found here. Furthermore, there are clear indicators that these processes evolved in situ and were not brought to Malta from somewhere else. It is mind-numbing to consider that these structures have survived through every eruption, flood, earthquake and war in history. As impressive as they are for their age, however, the temples represent more than archaeology.
Although archaeologists have had no explanation for the blossoming of such sophisticated cultural complexity, FAIA architect, Prof. Richard England sees an evolution: “… a gradual growth, from the cave to the tomb. The idea of continuity comes from an underground architecture. Gradually, from these ovular rock-hewn spaces, man moved above ground, and above ground he fashioned an architecture of the living which followed the form of an architecture for the dead.”
With far more
sophistication than any ring of standing stones, the monuments
are true buildings, with advanced engineering of inner and outer
walls, and ring compression systems. They are comprised of
walls, still enclosing space as they were thoughtfully
pre-designed to do. All clearly of the same school, each is true
to the basic form of a central stone-paved corridor interrupted
by low thresholds defining paired D-shaped or ovoid rooms to
either side. When in use, they were most certainly roofed,
although the methodology has been hotly debated. What look like
trilithons are actually four-piece arrangements with threshold
paving slabs bracing the bases of the uprights.
Arranging 19-ton megaliths is, of course, not a casual undertaking. With all the time in the world and ample man and ox-power, it was still a serious commitment. Models would have helped work out the details, and in fact vestiges of these preliminary plans do exist. We will never know how much trial and error took place before the first success was achieved, but the motivation must have been tremendous. The temples were expanded and improved on over time as skills and methods were improved. An engineer calculated that, allowing for time taken up in food production, it would have taken 150 men about three years to build one.
Today, nothing of the textiles or furniture remains, but sculpted artifacts show that the temple builders had them. Their hair was styled and their garments were tailored: these were hardly primitive savages.
Recovered artifacts, of which there are quite a variety, reveal stunning self-portraits when carefully lit. There is a quiet dignity about them, with faces tilted upward toward the sky. Some of these Stone Age faces look a lot like people walking the streets of the world today. As a sense of identity emerges, questions arise about who they were and who they may have become.
While gender is an issue of some magnitude where interpretation of the more abstract and cultic figures is concerned, it is interesting to note that in none of them is there any trace of a beard or facial hair. Nor will one see ears. Do the careful hairstyles, the carved hoods and caps imply that perhaps ears were a particularly personal part of the body? It’s a provocative thought that may be indulged for just a moment while the reader considers the possibility of an ancient interest in the manipulation of sound.
Since being cleared of debris, largely by British troops in the mid-1800’s, the temples have been open to the sky. Yet they remain intimate spaces, the scale of which seems to enclose a person in comforting security. Particularly where the corbelling survives, gently closing in the space as the concave wall rises higher, the feel of the original room is easy to imagine. It is not unusual to encounter a group of visitors singing or chanting or toning in the chambers. Why? Because it feels good. There is an odd character to the way the stone plays with the voice. The curved walls invite one to wonder if the sound quality may even have played a role in their design. An absence of ceilings in the exposed temple sites has always made it difficult to know much about acoustic properties in the temples, but the recent installation of protective covers has changed the visitor experience. The soundscape is altered. There are new echoes.
And for those of us
who are interested in such things, there is this remarkable
underground temple with its ceilings perfectly intact: The Hal-Saflieni
Hypogeum, this “haunting place of dreams and secrets”, with eerie
sound effects that have been reported for nearly a hundred years.
A consortium from Princeton University have pioneered the field of
archaeoacoustics, merging archaeology and sound science. Directed by
Dr. Robert Jahn, the group set out in 1994 to test acoustic behavior
in megalithic sites such as Newgrange and Wayland’s Smithy in the
UK. They found that the ancient chambers all sustained a strong
resonance at a sound frequency between 95 and 120 Hz. -- well within
the range of a bass baritone.
It may be the dimensions of the room or the quality of the
stone that determines the exact pitch of this echo behavior.
Dr. Ian Cook of UCLA and colleagues published findings in 2008 of an experiment in which regional brain activity in a number of healthy volunteers was monitored by EEG through exposure to different resonance frequencies. Their findings indicated that at 110 Hz the patterns of activity over the prefrontal cortex abruptly shifted, resulting in a relative deactivation of the language center and a temporary shifting from left to right-sided dominance related to emotional processing. This shifting did not occur at 90 Hz or 130 Hz.
Whether it was deliberate or not, the people who spent time in such an environment as the Hypogeum under conditions that may have included a low male voice -- in ritual chanting or even simple communication -- were exposing themselves to vibrations that may have impacted their thinking. In addition to stimulating their more creative sides, it appears that an atmosphere of resonant sound in the frequency of 110 or 111 Hz would have been “switching on” an area of the brain that bio-behavioral scientists believe relates to mood, empathy and social behavior.
The physics of the reverberation phenomenon are not so unusual.
Sound engineer Daniel Talma explains that: “At certain frequencies
you have standing waves that emphasize each other and other waves
that de-emphasize each other. The idea that it was used thousands of
years ago to create a certain trance -- that’s what fascinates me.”
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"A word spoken in this room is magnified a hundredfold and is audible throughout the entire structure. The effect upon the credulous can be imagined when the oracle spoke and the words came thundering forth through the dark and mysterious place with terrifying impressiveness."