Unveiling the Enigmatic Secrets of an Ancient Greek Sanctuary through Active Listening


Listening to the Past: How Archaeologists Are Using Psychoacoustics to Explore an Ancient Greek Sanctuary

Archaeologists have been “listening” to an ancient Greek sanctuary—and the research could shed new light on how the site was once used, according to a study. Typically, investigations of historic sites have relied on what archaeologists can see. But in recent years, new techniques have emerged, enabling researchers to explore them in different ways using other senses. One such method is known as “psychoacoustics”—a technique used to investigate how sounds are perceived by humans.

The Study of Psychoacoustics in Archaeology

In the latest study, published in the journal Open Archaeology, researcher Pamela Jordan of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands employed psychoacoustics to explore the ancient sanctuary of Zeus on Mount Lykaion in Greece and investigate how it may have been used by contemporary visitors. “What can we learn about a site’s distant past by listening to its current form? Psychoacoustics offers a promising, subject-centered approach in unlocking the sonic experience of past built spaces,” Jordan wrote in the study.

The Ancient Sanctuary of Zeus on Mount Lykaion

The sanctuary, located around 100 miles from Athens on Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula, was built into the southern peak of Mount Lykaion and was one of the most renowned shrines in the ancient world. In ancient Greek mythology, the mountain was said to be one of the locations where the deity Zeus was born and brought up.

Historical Significance and Rituals

At the southern peak of the mountain lies the remains of an altar to Zeus consisting of a large mound of ashes with a retaining wall, believed to be the result of centuries of ritual sacrifices. Excavations have revealed evidence of human activity at the site dating back thousands of years, suggesting that an earlier tradition of devotion may have existed prior to the worship of Zeus.

Connection to Ancient Festivals

The sanctuary also contains remains related to an early athletic festival held in honor of Zeus. Structures on a plateau, including a hippodrome and a stadium area, indicate the historical significance of this site in ancient celebrations, particularly in relation to the original Olympic Games.

Psychoacoustic Experiments and Findings

Between 2015 and 2022, the researcher and colleagues conducted several experiments using psychoacoustic techniques to play pre-recorded sounds and evaluate their interactions with different structures at the site. The recordings revealed significant connections between the hillside, hippodrome, and other buildings, shedding light on the sonic environment of the sanctuary.

Sonic Environment and Ritual Practices

The study suggests that the sonic environment and sound reflections within the sanctuary could have played a crucial role in ancient rituals and events. The findings indicate the potential significance of different areas within the site for spectating and participating in communal activities.

Implications of the Study

While the study’s results provide valuable insights into the sonic experience of the ancient sanctuary, further research is needed to better understand the intentional nature of the observed sonic effects and their significance in the context of ancient Greek rituals and worship practices. The study’s findings present a compelling case for the continued exploration of psychoacoustic techniques in archaeology and the potential for uncovering new dimensions of ancient sites.


Micheal Kurt

I earned a bachelor's degree in exercise and sport science from Oregon State University. He is an avid sports lover who enjoys tennis, football, and a variety of other activities. He is from Tucson, Arizona, and is a huge Cardinals supporter.

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