Well before Jimi Hendrix, Maya mega-sound systems boomed

Standing in the plaza at Tikal I imagined, as you do, thousands of Maya gathered together centuries ago listening to royal decrees or taking part in sacred rites and ceremonies. There’s a timelessness about the jungle and the ancient stone structures that excites the imagination, and soon I was part of a crowd looking up to the top of Temple I as rulers and shamans in brightly feathered costumes performed human sacrifices or addressed their people before setting off to war.

I distinctly remember at the time wondering how the people on the ground heard the rulers at the top, some 47 metres (154 ft) above. Were their words relayed down the long stone steps to the crowd? Did they have some sort of primitive megaphone system, or was it mostly spectacle with few words? It was the missing piece in my otherwise perfect personal reconstruction of a Maya ceremony.

I had the same experience at Belize’s Xunantunich and Caracol sites. How did rulers address the huge crowds covering these beautiful open expanses of land?

So I was very interested to read of new theories proposing that the design and construction of the temples themselves may have included ways to project the human voice and music over great distances using innovations in acoustic technology. In effect, according to some researchers, the Maya temples themselves were giant unplugged public address systems, colossal stone speakers, if you will.

With what we’ve learned about the Maya and their incredible advances in fields such as mathematics, astronomy, medicine and other physical sciences, this shouldn’t be surprising, but it still makes one wonder about how many other things we don’t know about these fascinating, enigmatic people.

According to a study recently presented by a team from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Maya building design, layout, construction, and finishes would have been especially good for projecting the human voice or sound from the sorts of musical instruments the Maya used.

Using modern sound-measuring instruments and a 3-D computer model of the site, the team concluded that sounds made atop a temple in Palenque could be heard clearly for over a hundred meters.

“We think there was an intentionality of the builders to use and modify its architecture for acoustic purposes,” chief archaeologist Francisca Zalaquett said recently.

The findings suggest that the Maya developed a type of stucco especially good at reflecting sound while the design of the structures would have amplified and directed it.

Suddenly, my image of the Maya ceremonies took on new life. What if the temples, all facing a large square were like guitar sound boxes, amplifying and directing words and music to the audience? It all made perfect sense and helped complete the picture in my mind’s eye.

This is what is so exciting about Maya archeology. It seems as if each year something new comes along that makes you scratch your head and say, wow! And, of course, you come back to the inevitable big question – what made these vibrant metropolises and their huge populations suddenly disappear after centuries of brilliant development and scientific advances?

Everyday new ground is being unearthed in Belize’s massive Chiquibul National Forest, where some 55 sq (142 km) miles of the ancient city of Caracol have been identified, the vast majority of which remains unexcavated. Bit by bit more pieces of a fascinating picture puzzle are coming together, and every now and then there’s a big discovery. From what we know, the ancient Maya was one of the most complex civilizations the world has seen, and what we know is still just a fragment of the entire picture.

With the approach of 2012 and more public interest in the Maya and Belize, I’m looking forward to some more exciting discoveries to feed a growing fascination with this part of our collective history and humanity.

Photo Credit: National Geographic

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