Science and Heritage Programme

Songs of the Caves: Acoustics and Prehistoric Art in Cantabrian Caves

University of Huddersfield

Award Holder - Dr Rupert Till


Songs of the Caves: Acoustics and Prehistoric Art in Cantabrian Caves

This project will explore the acoustics of prehistoric painted caves in Northern Spain, to establish whether a secure relationship can be established between the positioning of painted motifs and sonic effects within the caves. Sound has the potential in many fields of archaeology to provide information that is not available by studying visual or material properties. This project is of particular interest since the documented presence of rock art and the acoustic characteristics of the spaces in which the paintings were made, provide two sets of quantifiable data that can be compared and whose relationships can be analysed.

Reznikoff and Dauvois (1988) have suggested a specific link between the positioning of cave paintings in southwest France and the patterning of acoustic resonances, reverberation and echoes. However the methodology used was not based on rigorous acoustical analysis, but was somewhat subjective, researchers using their voices to search for vocal effects. The present project would be the first attempt to test their theory using a rigorous scientific methodology. The project will involve travel to the UNESCO world heritage site "Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain", where a group of caves includes the oldest dated cave painting in the world, recently identified as 41,000 years old.

A preliminary investigation carried out by members of the team in the summer of 2012 involved visits to a number of the caves, the taking of exploratory measurements, and trialling of different methodologies. Sites included Tito Bustillo, Monte Castillo, Pasiega, Chimneas, and the recently discovered La Garma. This work made clear that the acoustic effects are as impressive as the cave paintings. There were tantalizing spatial connections between images and sounds, but a frustrating lack of time or funding prevented their full investigation. Practical issues have subsequently been explored and relationships developed between British and Spanish researchers which now make possible a more thorough exploration of these phenomena.

The project will systematically map the acoustics of the caves, recording impulse responses that can later be analysed to produce a range of acoustic information. This will then be compared with the already mapped positions of rock art. This is a cross-disciplinary project in which the new research lies in the combination of scientific, archaeological and musical methodologies, rather than in advances in any one of these fields. The project is Arts and Humanities-led, using state of the art acoustic technologies to make discoveries about music, sound, archaeology, heritage and prehistoric culture. The project will also provide a case study to illustrate the quality and significance of the results that can be achieved by such research.

The project was born as a direct result of networking established through the "Acoustics and Music of British Prehistory Science and Heritage Research Cluster" (2009), which established base-line methodologies and research questions for fieldwork of this kind. The current project intends to apply these methodologies within a specific archaeological context of high potential.

Acoustic effects in the caves will be assessed quantitatively using statistical software to establish whether there are significant links between positions of cave art and acoustic effects. The project will also involve the recording of performances in the caves on experimental archaeological reproductions of musical instruments from the relevant prehistoric period, in order to explore the acoustics of the space in qualitative terms. It will also involve photographic survey and high quality digital video footage to provide high impact dissemination. Musical composition will use recordings and impulse responses, and be integrated with visual materials to create immersive multimedia artworks that can provide phenomenological experiences of spaces that are sonically rich.


Information about the project will be posted on websites and blogs, including the AMBP research cluster webpage, which has had c.10,000 views. Till hosts this site, and will also be able to circulate results through his own youtube site, which has had over 235,000 views. Till's previous research in this field has been disseminated by the BBC, History Channel, Discovery Channel, New Scientist, Times, MSNBC, ABC, National Geographic, national and international press, and over 25,000 websites internationally. The project will have available the marketing resources of a number of universities, and the research will be widely disseminated to the general public, as well as to research communities.

The research has the potential to change our understanding of prehistoric human culture. It has the potential to change the way we think about archaeology, and the significance of sound at archaeological sites. The evidence it provides will oblige Cultural Heritage Managers to consider the acoustic ecology of sites when dealing with issues of preservation in future. Most significantly it has the potential to provide more information about prehistoric ritual activities, to give voice to silent archaeology. It has the potential to enhance multi-sensory archaeology, and provide a new methodology for finding new information about well-studied world heritage sites. The research will have impact on museum curation and cultural heritage management, providing an illustration of the potential for sound to enhance the presentation of heritage. It will provide a methodology for generating scientifically accurate results that can inform the creation of audio material that can be used in heritage displays.

Digital video materials will be produced within the project, which will be widely disseminated, and made freely available to the public via youtube and vimeo, as well as through film festivals and competitions. They will benefit the general public, as many of the caves involved are not open to the public. This has the potential to change the way the public thing about prehistory. The project will illustrate what it may have been like to hear music or take part in rituals in these caves in prehistory.

The project has the potential to enhance UK and European approaches to heritage, to make them more sonically rich, and thus increase their levels of engagement, producing an acoustically engaging overall effect.

Researchers directly involved will learn more of the other fields involved in the project, and gain experience of working in a cross-disciplinary project.

There will be specific impact for the Cantabrian Regional Government. Roberto Ontañón Peredo, Director of the Prehistoric Caves of Cantabria (and with overall responsibility for archaeology within this part of the world heritage site) will be participating in the project, and took part in the earlier pilot exploration. This study has implications for the interpretation, presentation, conservation and management of this world heritage site. For example there is a rock lithophone (a section of stalagmites which ring when struck) in one of the caves that was thought to stretch 5 metres, however we found that many stalagmites in a further 20m radius are also lithophones, the feature is far more significant than was thought.

This feature will need to be investigated fully, recorded, measured and assessed. This and other project discoveries will have implications for presentations on websites and other promotional materials, for tours, for documentation for tourists, and for the way that such caves are explored. Such a major feature in a world heritage site has been undiscovered because of a lack of an ear for such possibilities. How one protects such features, while still presenting them, has implications for this site and for many others potentially, where sonic effects remain unexplored.