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The Acoustics of Mayan Temples

Subject: The Acoustics of Mayan Temples

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Subj:  Mayan Ruins & Unexplained Acoustics part 1
Date:  Wed, Nov 15, 1995 6:41 AM PDT

forwarded from sci.archaeology.

Subject: Mayan Ruin & Unexplained Acoustics 1
From: (Wayne Van kirk)
Date: 9 Nov 1995 13:38:48 GMT
Message-ID: <47t098$>

         Musing About the Soundscape
         Mayan Ruins and Unexplained Acoustics:

Note: This discussion started on alt.sci.physics.acoustics 
Newsgroup and was forwarded to acoustic-ecology 
discussison group. All notes are in sequence of posting.

----Initial Topic--------------------------------------

At least two structures at the Mayan ruins of Chichen 
Itza in Mexican display unusual and unexplained 
acoustical properties.

The Great Ballcourt:

The Great Ballcourt is 545 feet long and 225 feet wide 
overall.  It has no vault, no dcontinuity between the 
walls and is totally open to the sky.

Each end has a raised "temple" area.  A whisper from 
end can be heard clearly at the other end 500 feet away 
and through the length and breath of the court.  The 
sould waves are unaffected by wind direction or time of 
day/night.  Archaeologists engaged in the reconstruction 
noted that the sound transmission became stronger and clearer 
as they proceeded.  In 1931 Leopold Stokowski spent 4 days at 
the site to determine the acoustic principals that could be 
applied to an open-air concert theater he was designing.
Stokowski failed to learn the secret.

The Castillo:

This structure is a temple that looks like a pyramid 
and is the one most commonly pictured on travel 
brochures for the Mexican Yucatan.  Apparently if you 
stand facing the foot of the temple and shout the echo 
comes back as a piercing shriek.  Also, a person 
standing on the top step can speak in a normal voice 
and be heard by those at ground level for some 
distance.  This quality is also shar3ed by another 
Mayan pyramid at Tikal.

I believe a good case can be made that the Maya somehow 
engineered these acoustical phenomena.  After months of 
research, I cannot locate any scientific discussion or 
investigations regarding any of this.  Any information 
or comments appreciated.


I was at Chichen Itza two years ago.  These acoustic 
phenomena are  fascinating. The idea that they were 
intentionally engineered is not implausible,  but it 
seems clear that it would have been different than our 
definition of 'engineering' in the modern world.

It is really cool though and I would enjoy knowing more 
about it if  people can add to the discussion.


There are other "undocumented" acoustical properties of 
the ruins. When I was there several years ago the guide 
showed me a stack of what looked like stone artillery 
shells. He said that to this day no one has been able 
to determine what they were for. Then with a wink he 
picked up two sticks and proceded to play a tune on the 
"shells". Each one was precisely tuned. Perhaps the 
"ancients" knew more about acoustics than we  give them 
credit for.

--Response from reposting on acoustic-ecology 
discussion group --------------------------------------

A similar phenomenon to that reported at the Mayan ballpark 
structure can be experienced in Vancouver. At Science World 
two parabolic dishes  have been set up across a large open 
noisy room. One can speak softly into one and the sound can 
be easily heard at the other end.  I'm sure the  two are not 
identicle but the concept is the same and there is quite a  
bit of novelty appeal.  The dishes are about 300 feet apart 
and have approx. a four foot radius. The effect only works 
when one speaks at or listens from the focal point of each 
dish which is not consistant with the report from Mexico, 
however, it might be a starting point into thinking about how 
it works.

I also heard a similar pheomenon during last year's Vancouver 
Folk Music Festival. I work at the Jericho Sailing Centre 
about 1/4 mile due west of the westernmost edge of the 
festival site. between the sailing centre and the site is a 
small hill, large enough to block out a good deal of the  
ruckus (except of course for the low frequencies). The west 
wall of the centre is about 35 feet high and about 60 feet 
long, it's surface is  stucco and glass.  Standing in front 
of it, I could hear perfectly the performances from one of 
the westernmost stages of the festival. My theory (and this 
is just plain speculation, no math involved here) is that the 
wall is high enough to reflect the sound that was being 
blocked  by the hill. The stucco provided enough surfaces at 
the right angle to bounce the sound down.  It coud have also 
been bent down around the hill, by a temperature inversion or 
some other atmospheric or geographical factor but that theory 
breaks down because the sound was quite clear  only in front 
of the wall.  Clarity also varied at different distances  and 
positions in front of the wall.


I think you are awfully lucky to be able to go to the 
wonderful Vancouver Folk Festival whenever you like.  ;-)

Seriously, there's also Michelangelo's dome in St 
Peter's/Rome.  A whisper from the dome can be heard in 
the church.  I believe there are some humorous stories 
associated with this particular phenomenon.


RE: The Castillo:

The 'piercing shriek' sounds like it originates from some  
sort of periodic structure.  Is the Castillo covered with 
stone steps?  A similar effect occurs when you clap your 
hands near an iron  fence or corregated wall, and the impulse 
is returned from each  corregation.  The echo then sounds 
like a 'twang.' 

The acoustic ducting effect is something else again.  Might a  
periodic structure on the building surface act to diffract 
the wavees and make them follow the surface?

I was in Northern Guatemala last year at some famous ruins 
that I have  forgotten the name of (mostly to my brush with 
death from an intestinal  parasite).  Two pyramids stand face 
to face with a football field sized  court between them, and 
low steps and wall on either side.  One could  easily hear a 
person talking in a normal voice at the opposite end of  the 
grass covered courtyard.  As we were working on a film and 
were  trying to get wide shots, we used this phenomenon to 
our advantage,  where yelling or radios would have been the 
normal practice.  What was  even more amazing, were that the 
stones of the pyramid were some type of  resonant stone!  I 
sat on one a foot square and when tapped it would  produce a 
clear short sustained sound.  A large part of the pyramid  
seemed to be made of this "limestone" as the locals called 
it, and the  result was that as a person decended from the 
top of the pyramid, on the  slightly over-sized steps, they 
would drop slightly and thus create a  huge gonglike sound 
that would resonate across the couryard and out into  the 
surrouding area.  It was amazing to hear the whole temple 
resound to  a persons footsteps!  Well worth the trip for you 


A few months ago, someone from Houston sent me a copy of an 
article called "Parametric Amplification of Sound- Ancient 
Mayan Wall Provides Example for Design of Modern Acoustical 
Surfaces" written by Frank Hodgson in something called the 
Wall Journal (not to be confused with the Wall Street 
Journal) May/June 1994.  It's a bit over my head, but he 
seems to be saying the unusual acoustics at Chichen Itza are 
due, in part, to the gaps which are part of the surface of 
the temple's exterior walls.  The fellow in Houston says a 
researcher from Central Florida University was doing an 
acoustical survey there in late '94.  I'll let you know if I 
hear anything more specific. 

One other thought on this subject - back in 1988 or 
thereabouts, acoustician Steve Garrett (then at the Naval 
Postgraduate School in Monetery, CA) did some work on ancient 
Peruvian Whistling pottery vessels.  They made a sound when 
you poured water from them.  Garrett was convinced there was 
more to the vessels than that.  He got a couple of them and 
found they were tuned fairly precisely, if you blew into 
them. Two vessels blown simultaneously produced difference 
tones.  He hypothesized this was intentional and a clue to 
the Vessel's real purpose.  There's a paper on this somewhere 
in the annals of the Acoustical Society. 


I'm very interested in this type of phenomenon, and I've been 
mounting a research program at my institution to evaluate the 
absorptive and reflective properties of surfaces _in situ_.  
No doubt the gaps in these Mayan temple walls create a 
favorable interference pattern for the range of frequencies 
involved in the sounds of their ceremonies. 


Yes the building has 4 stairways of stone which represent the 
number of  days in the year 91 steps per side and a upper 
platform for a total of  365. Also the Maya had an 18 base 
for math and 18 months in a year.  The  pyrimid has nine 
levels divided by the staircases or 18.  During the  spring 
and autumn equinoxes a series of shadow triangles are 
projected on  the north stair case which has serpent heads at  
the base. The triangles  undulate in assent in March and 
descent in September.  Add this to the   Nonlinear echo, and 
the sound projection from the to you get one tricky  pyrimid.  
The Question is was all this accidental or by design. If by  
design How? The Mayas were stone age people    


In December 1994 I travelled to Belize, and visited a 
ceremonial site on  the Guatemalan border which is still 
being excavated, called Xunantunich.  When we had climbed the 
tall pyramid and looked down into the courtyard  where people 
assembled to be addressed, we noticed a strange illusion.  
The people walking across the courtyard appeared to be 
smaller and more  distant than one would have expected, since 
when in the courtyard the  pyramid sems to loom quite close 
above. We could also observe that the  people in the 
courtyard were talking, apparently quite loudly, but that  
their voices sounded muted and distant. Yet as we spoke to 
one another,  our voices seemed amplified. A large recess in 
the wall oof the pyramid  behind us functioned as a 
resonator, and gave our sounds back to us with  a bright, 
ringing quality. We could be heard quite clearly in the  
courtyard below. Our host suggested that this enabled one to 
sound larger  than life and that such designs helped to 
maintain the mystique of the  mayan class structure. He also 
pointed out that the stone used in  building the pyramid had 
resonant qualities, although the structures as  we see them 
now are not in their finished form -- they are missing the  
polished stucco surfaces and wood additions they were 
designed for.


There's a considerable history to mayan architecture, and 
although the  pyramid we ascended was a work added to 
periodically, with each  generation of ruler, there is a 
strong sense of overall design. Remember  that the mayan 
calendar is much more accurate than the roman, and that  
their mathematical skills are as yet not fully accounted for. 
Perhaps  their sense of sound in general is worth study?


I posted the original Chichen  Itza: unexplained acoustics in 
sci.archaeology.mesoamerican newsgroup.  and got some 
interesting responses including one on Tulum on 07/18  or 19 
and another regading Chichen Itza's "Musical Phallases" These  
were public posting and should be discussed in WFAE. 


You could also mention Chichen Itza's "musical phalluses". 
these are  a series of cones that produse musical tones when 
tapped with a  wooden mallet.   Supposedly, back in the '20s 
members of Morley's  team had some of them set out in rows 
like a xylophone and played  Xmas carols on them.  I've never 
read of any musicologist studying  them to determine their 
pitches and compare them with Western scales  and notation 
(has anyone else seen something of this sort?)  About 20  
years ago, the cones were laying stacked in piles behind the 
old park  entrance near the Castillo.  Someone put up a sign 
saying "Do not hit  with stones", so of course various 
tourists who otherwise wouldn't  have given the cones a 
second look banged away at the cones with  rocks, breaking 
many of them. 

C.M. (Carlos May)


Another example:  When I was at Tulum on the Yucatan coast, I 
seem to  remember that there was temple which gave a clear 
and long-range  whistle or howl when the wind velocity and 
direction were correct.  The guide, for what it's worth, 
stated that this was used as a signal to warn of incoming 
hurricanes and big storms. I heard it that day, and I don't 
think it was an accident that the sound was generated in  
this way. 

Looks like a pattern here. The Maya may have had a 
particular propensity for acoustic engineering.  Why not, 
they were great at engineering for specifically?  It would 
be interesting research problem. 


Subj:  Mayan Ruins & Unexplained Acoustics part 2
Date:  Wed, Nov 15, 1995 6:12 AM PDT

forwarded from sci.archaeology

Subject: Mayan Ruins & Unexplained Acoustics 2
From: (Wayne Van kirk)
Date: 9 Nov 1995 13:42:19 GMT
Message-ID: <47t0fr$>

Two additional Mayan sites with unexpected acoustics    

Palenque has a group of three pyramids from which a three way 
conversation can be held from atop. 
Kohunlich was also mentioned by an archeaolgist to have
"wierd" acoustics.
Various excerpts regarding the Great Ballcourt's acoustics


"The north Temple of the Great Ball Court is another example
of the Maya's ability to achieve beauty of proportion. The
inside wall which now is an effective sounding board, is
covered with a carved frieze still bearing traces of color.
Standing in this temple one can speak in a low voice and be
heard distinctly at the other end of the court, five hundred
feet away."


"Acoustically the court is amazing - a conversation at one
end can be heard 135 metres away at the other end and if you
clap, you hear a resounding echo  A remarkable feature of
the Ball Court is its acoustics A personn standing in one of
its ends may whisper being heard 170 meters afar. Or may
drop a coin and the sound travels that distance. The court
has no vault. It is open to the sky and has no continuity
between the walls, the prescenium and the throne of the
bearded Man If one stands in the center of the court, near
one of its walls and claps the hands, he will hear at least
nine times the echo of the clapping. Also if one yells. This
phenomena seems to be unique."

"Thru the Lens, Guide to the Ruins of Chichen Itza" 
by Jose Diaz Bolio 1971



"If it were a moonlight night and he wanted to give his
guests a special treat, he ordered a phonograph concert in
the Ball Court.  Tarsisio and the servants set up the
phonograph in the north temple, where the back wall slopes
forward and forms a perfect sounding board. At the opposite
end of the court the servants supplied cushions and the
guests sat on a raised dais among the half-ruined pillars of
the south temple that extends eighty feet across the end of
the Court. The acoustics were amazing, for the audience
could hear perfectly the strains of Sibelius, Brahms, and
Beethoven.The total effect was indescribable. The brilliant
Yucatecan sky formed a great overhead dome, the moon cast
ghostly light on the stone walls and the north temple, and
the calm air, rarely disturbed by a breeze, added a sense of
mystery to the setting. After the performance the guests,
awed by the uncanny effect, walked quietly back to the Casa
Principal through the moonlight, still under the magic
spell. One of the visitors in 1931 was Leopold Stokowski,
who spent four days with Morley. He brought the latest
recordings of his Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra and played
them in the Ball Court, at the Castillo, and at the Temple
of the Warriors. One staff member believed that if Stokowski
"and Morley could have found a sponsor, their plan to
conduct a symphony with instruments all over the place would
have gone through. We'd have loved it too." Actually,
Stokowski had a far more serious purpose, as he and Morley
attempted to learn the acoustical secret of the Ball Court.
At the time, the conductor was designing an open-air theater
for concert work. He and Vay spent hours placing the
phonograph in different positions in the Ball Court in order
to determine the reflecting surfaces. Theoretically, the
structure should have had poor acoustics, but as every
visitor to Chichen knows, it possesses amazing properties of
sound. After days of experiment, they failed to learn the
secret, which remains one of the unsolved mysteries of
ancient America."

"Sylvanus G. Morley"
by Robert Brunhouse, 1971



"Chi cheen Itsa's" famous "Ball-court" or Temple of the
Maize cult offers the visitor besides its mystery and
impressive architecture, its marvellous acoustics If a
person standing under either ring claps his hands or yells,
the sound produced will be repeated several times gradually
losing its volume, A single revolver shot seems machine-gun
fire. The sound waves travel with equal force to East or
West, day or night. disregarding the wind's direction.
Anyone speaking in a normal voice from the ''Forum" can be
clearly heard in the "Sacred Tribune" five bundred feet
away or vice-versa. If a short sentence, for example, "Do
you hear me?" is pronounced it will be repeated word by
word... Parties from one extreme to the other can hold a
conversation without raising their voices.

"This transmission of sound, as yet unexplained, has been
discussed by architects and archaeologists ... Most of them
used to consider it as fanciful due to the ruined conditions
of the structure but, on the contrary, we who have engaged
in its reconstruction know well that the sound volume,
instead of disappearing, has become stronger and clearer...
Undoubtedly we must consider this feat of acoustics as
another noteworthy achievement of engineering realized
millenniums ago by the Maya technicians."

"Chi Cheen Itza" 
by Manuel Cirerol Sansores, 1947


Beside he Tiger temple stands the open oblong patio known
as the Ball Court, or Tlachtli, as which the Mexican
Department of Monuments fortunately uncovered and restored.
In the distant past, this court was an important place for
sports. The parallel stone walls are thirty feet high and
one hundred and twenty feet apart. In the exact center of
each wall, twenty feet from the ground, are two huge stone
rings, each carved to represent a serpent biting its tail.
The casual stranger would have to stand a long while under
these rings before making the right guess as to their use.
And his first discovery, if he had a friend at a distance,
would be that a shout uttered under either ring is echoed at
least a dozen times.                                    

Although the Great Ball Court has been reffered to as a
"Whispering Gallery" (National Geographic Jan. 1925), it is
unlike others including the Dome of St. Pauls Cathedral in
London, Statuary Hall in the Capitol at Washington, DC, the
vases in the Salle des Cariatides in the Louvre in Paris,
St. Johns Lateran in Rome, The Ear of Dionysius at Syracuse,
and the Cathedral of Girgenti.

All these are considered accidents. All  rely on curved
walls, ceiling etc to focus the sound, indeed the Whispering
Gallery effect is considered a acoustic defect caused by a
long curved surface.The Great Ballcourt has no curved
Three articles on the Castillo acoustics were published in
the Wall Journal during 1994, written by Frank Hodgson.  The
Wall Journal ( P.O. Box  1217, Lehigh Acres, FL 813-369-0451
fax) is a trade journal covering the highway noise barrier
manufacturing  and related industry. The Hodgson articles
seem to imply that the Castillo (Pyramid) at Chichen Itza
(located about two hundred yards away) can reflect sound in
a nonlinear way shifting the frequency upwards independent
of angle of incidence and unaffected by the character of the
incoming signal. Hodgson suggests that this shifting
effect could be harnessed to  produce  highway noise barrier
wall design that would reflect sound that was pleasant.
(from Truck noise to Bach!).  Also used for concert halls

Some say that when you clap your hands in front of this
pyramid the reflected sound resembles a ricocheting bullet.

They also say that when one speaks in a normal voice from
the top of the Castillo, another 150 yards away can hear the
words clearly even when the area is filled with tourists and
peddlers. Structures at Tikal are said to provide  similiar
acoustics .

The Castillo is also a Mayan calendar with 4 stairways of 
91 steps each and an upper platform for a total of 365. 
During the spring and autumn equinox a series of shadow
triangles are projected on the north staircase which has
serpent heads at  the base. The triangles undulate in assent
in March and descent in September.

Nonlinear echo, sound projection, large stone calender with
undulating serpent twice a year: Clever design


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