An Archaeology of Sound

  • January 23-24, 2020
  • Princeton University

The aim of this workshop is to build a shared theoretical and conceptual space in preparation for the public programme, “Coming to Know,” which will accompany the exhibition “A Slightly Curving Place” at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin (23 May-10 August 2020).  The workshop is organized by the exhibition’s curator, Nida Ghouse, and Brooke Holmes. The exhibition takes the work of Umashankar Manthravadi, a self-taught acoustic archaeologist based in Bangalore, as its starting point. The discourse programme seeks to bring the concerns of the exhibition, with its focus on archaeological sites and performance traditions in the South Asian context, into dialogue with a framework rooted in Greco-Roman antiquity in order to open up a comparative perspective. The workshop, oriented around four seminars with pre-assigned reading, will focus on embodiment, senses, archaeology, recording, performance, and nationhood as vectors to consider the meanings of modernity. An emphasis on sound runs through the project and invites us to consider the implications of “echo as history” for our notions of time.

The workshop is organized by Nida Ghouse and Brooke Holmes and hosted by “Postclassicisms.”


Before the development of electronic amplification, the transmission of sound through space was primarily the function of architecture. The acoustics of archaeological sites are integral to our understanding of events that took place in them. Music, dance, and theatre practices have evolved in relation to their sonic environments and a ritual chant cannot be isolated from its reverberation in a rock-cut cave. Any engagement with present-day remnants of pre-modern performance traditions necessitates an archaeology of sound as well.

A self-taught acoustic archaeologist, Umashankar Manthravadi has been building experimental ambisonic systems to map and measure the acoustic properties of ancient and medieval ritual sites across India. He points out that while there are worldwide efforts to document performance traditions under threat, and great attention paid to the physical preservation of these sites, no similar endeavours have been made to document, preserve, or understand the acoustic conditions of erstwhile performance spaces. His emphasis is on the event: learning how sounds moved through spaces may tell us something not only about the kind of events that took place, but also about how those sounds were heard, and about the capacity we had for listening before the industrialization of our ears.

In challenging the evidence-based practices of archaeology in particular, and the visually dominant reading of history as such, his approach asserts that we can’t just look for theatres in landscapes of the past, we must listen for them. An archaeological site of ritual is its own archive, an archive of corporeal material relations across time, and in recognising the potential for performance always already inherent in it, Umashankar’s project proposes a future encounter with the past as a live event.

It was in the mid-1990s that Umashankar began his project by measuring the physical dimensions and acoustic reflections of Ranigumpha—a double-storeyed structure of rock-cut caves dating back to circa 3rd century BCE, generally believed to have been a monastery, but arguably a ritual performance space. One day, when he was on-site, cooped up in a corner in front of a bulky desktop computer—that had been lugged along to the Udayagiri hills and was being powered by overhead mains—he was asked a question. He had been making some tests, headphones on, when an officer of the Archaeological Survey of India came up to him and pried, “So, can you hear them?” Hear whom, exactly? Or what? The people who built the place. The sounds once made.

The question echoes throughout the project at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, which is primarily concerned with what it means to try and listen to that which will forever remain outside the range of our hearing. Implicit in the officer’s inquiry was a strange conviction in a technological positivism that the past can be accessed, that it is for our taking. But an archaeology of sound is not only about finding the facts in acoustic reflections of architectural surfaces so as to reconstruct a sonic event in a space as accurately as possible. It is also a fundamental confrontation with a sense that the past cannot be captured, and can never be known. An archaeology of sound then is about what is lost and nevertheless always with us—the simultaneity of the past in the present that speaks of a collectivity across time beyond possession and accumulation.

To ask what it means to listen to the past draws awareness both to sound as a social event—music, theatre, and dance as forms of lived collectivity—and to its absence which remains. This attention to absence disrupts the focus on material evidence that has, at least since the advent of archaeology, structurally conditioned the ways in which the past has come to be known. As a vector of modernity that evolved as a primarily visual study, the discipline of archaeology can be charged with colonizing the past by collecting it for display. But an archaeological site is also a record of everything that happened there, a record whose playback device is lost on us. Measuring sound waves moving between the “muted” material archive of architecture shifts the archaeological gaze towards acoustic reflections. Echoes that bounce off of walls, floors, columns, chambers, and ceilings, carry traces of a bygone event that has not entered history, like a latent memory of a collective experience of social relations that defy ownership.

It is at this frontier of possession and legibility that posits orality against inscription, bodily movement against physical architecture, that an archaeology of sound and performance can be situated. Listening for a lost memory of a social imaginary challenges the dominant ways of conceiving the pre-modern against the modern and disrupts contemporary mythologies that ceaselessly partition the past into isolated languages, designating certain sovereignties as matters of history. Tuning in to ancient and medieval sites of theatre and festival is then also an invocation to listen to the dramatic changes in our own acousmatic landscapes. Can we hear that which has become unavailable to us, namely the historical transformation of our senses in modernity?


Vinit Agarwal (Haute école d’art et de design Genève, Department of Design)
Anurima Banerji (UCLA, Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance)
Frances Bernstein (Princeton, Department of Classics)
Josh Billings (Princeton, Department of Classics)
Caroline Cheung (Princeton, Department of Classics and the Program in Archaeology)
Katie Dennis (Princeton, Department of Classics)
Paul Eberwine (Princeton, Department of Classics)
Tyler Friedman (Independent Artist and Haus der Kulturen der Welt)
Nida Ghouse (Haus der Kulturen der Welt)
Brooke Holmes (Princeton, Department of Classics)
Pria Jackson (Princeton, Department of Classics)
Alex Keefe (Independent Writer and Haus der Kulturen der Welt)
Sherry Lee (Princeton, Department of Classics)
Sophie Lewis (Princeton, Department of Music)
Mark Payne (University of Chicago, Department of Comparative Literature)
Gavin Steingo (Princeton, Department of Music)
Bora Yoon (Princeton, Department of Music)
Mantha Zarmakoupi (University of Pennsylvania, History of Art)


Thursday, January 23

Introduction (Nida Ghouse, Brooke Holmes)

Seminar One
“Sensory Archaeology and the Medium of Sound”


Seminar Two
“Ancients and Moderns: Premodern India and Postcolonial Historiography”

Dinner for participants

Friday, January 24

Seminar Three
“An Archaeology of Sound”
Short texts from Vinit Agarwal, Moushumi Bhowmik, Tyler Friedman, Nida Ghouse, and Alex Keefe


Seminar Four
“What is a Public Program?”