Sunday, October 14, 2012


Grand Gallery, Horseshoe Canyon, UT.
Photo: Peter Faris, 28 May 1992.

In the November 2012 issue of Discover magazine (p. 28-29) there is an article that revisits the subject of echoes at rock art sites. Written by Douglas Starr it brings in examples of echoes in constructed environments as well as natural ones. He tells about temples at Chavin de Huantar in Peru, and El Castillo built by the Mayans in Mexico producing echoes that may have been intentional components of ceremonies. Starr also cites Igor Reznikoff, and archaeologist at the University of Paris who studies echoes in the painted caves of Europe, and who has found correlations. "He (Reznikoff) and a colleague have mapped several caves and found that areas with the greatest resonance coincided with the concentration of artworks." 

Starr also discusses studies by Steven J. Waller, a biochemist from California, who has studied echoes at rock art sites. 

"In 1994 he conducted an acoustical survey of Horseshoe Canyon, a three-mile-long chasm in southeastern Utah decorated with eerie pictographs. Waller hiked the canyon, pausing at 80 locations to snap a noisemaker fashioned from a rat trap and record the echoes. After processing the results with sound analysis software, he found that five spots displayed powerful echo effects. Four corresponded to the locations of paintings that Waller had encountered. When he asked experts about the fifth, they explained that it, too, bore artwork, though the pictographs were not visible from the path he followed. Since then, Waller has repeated the experiment at hundreds of rock art sites around the world, almost always finding a correlation between image and echo. He speculates that ancient artists "Purposely chose these places because of sound."

Now, I would be the last to say that this might not be true. However, I don't think that we should rush to any conclusion. Horseshoe Canyon certainly does produce echoes at pictograph sites. Echoes are produced magnificently by those flat canyon walls. They are also wonderful places to paint images. I just cannot see how this proves any connection between the two, echoes and images. The best echoes are surely produced by large, gently curving walls like those of the Grand Gallery. Indeed curvature in the walls may focus the returned sound to certain spots like a parabolic microphone. These very same walls provide the best surfaces for serious painting, and there is indeed serious painting at the Grand Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon (see above). Of course there is a correlation, but is there a connection? I really do not see how we can prove that, and until someone does come up with a way to prove it I feel that this must remain an interesting speculation.

Douglas Starr, Echoes from the Distant Past, pages 28-29, Discover, November, 2012.

No comments:

Post a Comment