Soundscapes and Community Organisation in Ancient Peru: Plaza Architecture at the Early Horizon Centre of Caylan

Article excerpt


Archaeological studies of sound transference are increasingly important as a means to unravel spatial functions, types of interaction, social control, and the role sound played in past societies (e.g. Watson & Keating 1999; Aaron 2001; Watson 2001; Moore 2005; Boivin et al. 2007; Abel et al. 2008; Rifkin 2009). In this article, we take an archaeo-acoustic, performance-based approach to understand social organisation at the Early Horizon urban centre of Caylan (800-1 BC), on the north-central coast of Peru. This allows us to track the transition of monumental acoustic environments, as coastal Andean groups abandoned large mound-plaza complexes in favour of enclosure compounds at the end of the Initial Period (1600-800 BC).

At Caylan, monumental plazas form the centre of over a dozen stone-walled, multi-room enclosure compounds hypothesised as co-resident, early urban 'neighbourhoods'. Plazas are built as sunken environments surrounded by decorated platform benches and high walls. The amphitheatre-like orientation hints toward the importance of acoustic-oriented interactions and experiences. Additionally, excavations have yielded large numbers of musical instruments, which attest to their usage for sonic activities. We present data recovered from excavations and from experimental sound tests carried out at one of Caylan's better preserved plazas, Plaza-A, located within one of the many compounds on site. Sound experiments indicate the transference of sound at different interactive levels, from personal to public.

Listening for ancient performance

Theories of performance provide valuable insights into past social dynamics and built settings. 'Performance' has myriad meanings and functions, but archaeologists have focused on performance's utility toward understanding socio-political mechanisms of cohesion through the (re)production of social norms (e.g. Inomata 2006; Inomata & Coben 2006). Debate exists with regard to the importance of large-scale performance in monumental space versus small-scale performance in non-monumental contexts (Goffman 1967; Hymes 1975; Hodder 2006; Houston 2006; Inomata & Coben 2006). We consider both to be legitimate venues for understanding different performative 'genres' (Turner 1987: 75). Here, we emphasise the genre of public performance associated with the use of a monumental plaza, under the precept that public interactions elicit extraordinary experiences salient from other, more mundane encounters necessary for the creation and maintenance of community (see Hymes 1975).

This study works from a perspective of performance which is defined as "aesthetic practices--patterns of behaviour, ways of speaking, manners of bodily comportment whose repetitions situate actors in time and space, structuring individual and group identities" (Kapchan 1995: 479, emphasis ours). These ways of speaking are the central focus of this paper as we track and map soundscapes at the ancient urban centre of Caylan. Our framing of social life in urban, enclosed space focuses on the articulation of social 'boundedness' (Pellow 1996). Pellow (1996: 8) states that boundaries are melded forms of cultural, conceptual and physical divisions whose combined relationship shifts through revision, resistance and renegotiation through time. Sound is an experienced medium of boundedness, and reflects broader notions of social order involved with the engineering of built acoustic environments.

The art of sound--music--is a crucial aspect of social boundedness and a cornerstone of festive performance. Cross (2001) suggests that music played ah evolutionary role in early human societies as an essential mechanism for complex social interaction, and that experimental archaeology provides a pathway to track the development of music through time. Schafer (1977: 6) surmises the origins of western music through two diverging traditions interpreted from Greek mythology, either as a materialisation of subjective emotion, or empirical experimentation and awareness of sonic properties in the natural environment. …