Richard Loose

This conch shell trumpet would be heard far and wide in the ancient world

It’s not hard to imagine a gladiator fight in early Rome, or Polynesians navigating the oceans thousands of years ago on outrigger canoes. But how our ancestors heard ancient instruments is harder to conjure. A new tool may help. In a study published this month in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, researchers developed a spreadsheet to calculate how sound waves propagate in the physical environment, accounting for variables such as distance, air temperature, and humidity. Then they modeled how a conch shell trumpet (pictured)—a musical instrument used in various ritual ceremonies—would be heard throughout the Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, an important cultural center for the pre-Columbian Pueblo people. (It may have sounded something like this.) A conch blown on a summer morning about 1000 years ago at Pueblo Bonito, a village located in the middle of the canyon, would be heard throughout downtown Chaco within a radius of almost 1.5 kilometers, the scientists report. At this time there are no recordings of the Chaco “soundscape,” but in the future the team hopes to record the sounds of recreated ancient instruments, including shell trumpets and bone flutes, to gather more information about the acoustic footprint of the past.

Shell trumpet sound by Alejandro Méndez courtesy of International Study Group of Music Archaeology.