Myth-busting the acoustics of ancient Greek theatres – or not?

Miko Flohr, 19/10/2017

It sounds like a classic anecdote of the inevitable progress of science: while everyone had long believed that the acoustics of Greek theatres were astounding, scientists had now finally done their measurements, and had concluded that it was all different. Contrary to what tour guides tell you on site, you cannot normally recognize the sound of a coin being dropped on stage when you’re in the highest row of the cavea. You can hear paper being torn only to half way up the seating. If you want speech to be recognizable for the audience further away from the orchestra, you need actors to speak loudly. Thus, lo and behold, on closer inspection, the stories told by local tour guides appeared to be a little bit exaggerated, and it emerged that there were limits to the acoustical qualities of ancient Greek architecture.

Actually, the story left me a bit surprised. Here we have a team of acoustical scientists who boldly go where no-one has ever gone before, bring in a couple of microphones and speakers, do some measurements and a bit of computing, and call the press to share their amazing discoveries. Except that the discoveries were not, in fact, so amazing, and there are some serious questions to be asked about the way in which this team of scientists conducted their work and organized their project. This does not so much concern their actual measurements – they will be competent acoustical scientists, they know their field, they know how to measure sound, and they will probably have built up an accurate picture of the acoustical qualities of the environments that they investigated. I assume their methodology is innovative and successful, and will contribute to changing their scientific field.

Yet no myth was busted, since, basically, no such myth ever existed. True, many classical scholars will believe that the acoustics in Greek theatres were reasonably good (which the measurements confirmed), and some classical scholars in the past have made exaggerated claims comparable to those made by tour guides, but this is not an idea that dominates the study of Greek (or Roman) theatres nowadays. If anything, one could argue that there is no such thing as an articulated position shared by the field, though I guess discourse about theatre and audience has highlighted quite a few of the acoustical complexities involved in staging a performance in a Greek theatre. One could add that there is reason to assume that acoustics, though important, were not always top on the list in theatre construction – many theatres were built as prestige projects and may have been larger than the average expected audience. Thus, in practice, the acoustical scientists seem to have attacked a strawman. This should be no surprise: despite the name of the project (‘ancient acoustics’) no classicist or archaeologist was ever involved in it, and the publications listed at the end of their papers do not include any archaeological or classical scholarship. Indeed, they did not even bother to make any references to publications detailing the theatres where they did their measurements!

Does this absence of classical scholars matter? Yes it does. First, it meant that the project misunderstood the state of scholarship regarding the acoustical qualities of Greek theatres – typically, one of their papers starts with the claim that ‘The theatres are renowned for their alleged exceptional acoustics’ without any reference to academic literature actually stating this. Secondly, I am at a loss why it is at all possible to go measure sound in an archaeological context without an archaeologist present to guide the handling of this valuable and often vulnerable heritage, which can be extremely challenging to understand even for professionals. Thirdly, if it is an aim for the project to understand the acoustical qualities of Greek theatre architecture (which is what they state on their project website), then you certainly need a specialist to compile a credible sample and to decide which of the 600-odd Greco-Roman theatres are going to be measured. The present selection is not defended, and looks odd. Epidauros, though exceptional, makes sense, the odd theatre at Argos and the (probably roofed) Odeon of Herodes Atticus much less so.

The fourth point, however, is crucial: you need an archaeologist, or significant familiarity with the archaeological literature, to understand how measurements of the current acoustics relate to the ancient acoustics that the project is said to be all about. If one wants to know whether the Greeks were ‘ahead of their time’, as the dutch version of the project website claims, you are not talking about simply measuring the buildings in their present state, but about modelling their acoustical landscape in their ancient state – or rather states, as many theatres went through several building phases that can only be understood by studying their archaeology to quite some detail. In short: the ancient acoustics project should have been designed with an experienced classical archaeologist on board right from the start. It is a strange, and almost indefensible omission – imagine a classical archaeologist working in a chemical lab without a chemist present. Interdisciplinarity is a good thing. Extradisciplinarity is not.

There’s a bigger point here, too: the acoustical scientists are not alone. There appears to be a tendency among scientists to use the classical world – and particularly certain famous anecdotes – as a test case for developing and testing methodologies in their own field. The fall of the Roman Empire has been used by climate historians as a test case for relating climatic change to historical events, as has, more recently, been true for the role of volcanic eruptions in the fall of Ptolemaic Egypt (and particularly Cleopatra). There are I do not know how many attempts to measure the amount of lead and heavy metal contamination in Roman tap water. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but while many of such stories have made it to the press (Classics sell!), very few have actually made a serious impact in Classical Studies. This is because in many of these studies the emphasis lies on the scientific analysis and its technicalities, not on integrating it with the indefinitely more complex and fragmented historical and archaeological material, or on connecting it with current discourse in classical scholarship. In other words: we, classical scholars, need to be at the drawing table of such projects more often, and we need to make sure that there is space for our approach to the matter as well, and for our critical tradition. And if we’re by accident or design not at the drawing table, we need to make clear – if necessary publicly – that that is not normal, and not acceptable.