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Chavín de Huántar Archaeological Acoustics Project

Acoustic Measurement, Archiving, Analysis, Modeling, and Simulation/Installation


A collaboration between members of the archaeology and music departments at Stanford, this project seeks to explore the acoustic significance of the architecture and instruments of Chavín de Huántar, a monumental World Heritage archaeological site [1] in the Peruvian highlands predating Inca society by over 2000 years. Measurement and analysis of site and instrument acoustics will provide data for computational physical models that will be used to generate public interfaces, and academic and creative work.

Since 1995 Professor John Rick and Stanford teams have been excavating the site [2], revealing unique architectural features in both surface and underground structures. It is the underground structures, a complex of labyrinthine galleries, corridors, shafts and drains, that are of particular interest to this project, because explanations for their purpose and function have led to Rick’s hypothesis that they were constructed, at enormous cost in labor, to establish social hierarchy through sensory manipulation in the context of religious ritual: a priest-elite over the novitiates. Also, most of the underground galleries are original – all four walls, ceiling, and floor are still present and complete – an unusually intact condition for ancient architecture.

In 2001, twenty intact engraved, identically prepared Strombus (conch) shell trumpets were discovered by Rick in a gallery at Chavín, reinforcing his hypothesis that the acoustic properties of the site were fundamental to ancient ritual and perhaps even a determinant in architectural layout and design. What are the sonic characteristics of these trumpets and architectural structures? What can be determined regarding the relationship between the Strombus trumpets and the acoustic features of the site? Is there evidence of intentional acoustic design in Chavín architecture, and what would it imply for ancient cultural abilities and political strategies? Acoustic measurements, analysis, and models will help answer such questions, providing Rick with data to elaborate and refine his hypothesis regarding the importance of sensory manipulation in Chavín ritual.

Since an important area of research at CCRMA is computational physical modeling of acoustic sources and reverberant spaces, we saw the opportunity to join two disciplines with the purpose of extending Rick’s team’s mappings and CAD renderings of Chavín to include computer simulation of site acoustics, using recorded excitation sources such as Strombus trumpets, rushing water through canals, and human voice. Chavín de Huántar presents intact enclosures primarily without post-period modification; thus, acoustic measurements can be made throughout the site that reflect original conditions. Such an opportunity to research and archive unmodified ancient architectural structures is rare and timely: Chavín de Huántar is an important tourist attraction, and upcoming required site conservation work will inevitably cause irreversible alteration of its acoustics. It is therefore imperative that onsite measurements be made soon, precisely, and thoroughly. Given adequate funding, our team will be able to do this field work in summer 2008.


Our project is divided into three phases as noted in the timeline below. Phase 1, in progress since autumn 2007, has involved planning, data collection, analysis, and work on an invited paper to be presented at Acoustics08 in Paris this July; given adequate funding, Phase 1 will culminate with field work in Peru to generate a comprehensive acoustic analysis of the site, its materials and musical instruments. The academic and creative work of Phases 2 and 3 will not be possible without this data collection. The models developed in Phase 2 will provide a rich research base with which to simulate and evaluate a variety of acoustic conditions, architectural geometries, source placements and listening positions. In order to provide a public interface during Phases 1 and 2, a website chronicling the developing work and ideas using sounds and images will be constructed and maintained. Phase 3 will be a site-independent simulation to reconstruct the auditory-visual experience of the original galleries, exhibited at Stanford and potentially also in the Chavín museum in Peru. Additional creative projects are anticipated; for instance, it is likely that an Earth Sciences component will be added to help characterize and determine the presence of wall plastering within galleries. We would like to develop and/or consider other opportunities for engaging the Stanford community with our work in progress.


 Phase 1: Preparation and Onsite Measurements (work in progress since autumn ‘07) 
 Phase 2: Analysis and Generation of Computational Physical Model  (projected autumn ’08-’09)  
 Phase 3: Electroacoustic Simulation and Public Interface (projected ’09-‘10) 

Team Information


  • John Rick, PhD, Professor, Stanford University, Archaeology/Anthropology
  • Julius O. Smith, PhD, Professor, Stanford University, Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA)/Electrical Engineering (by courtesy)
  • Jonathan S. Abel, PhD, Consulting Professor, Stanford University, CCRMA
  • Patty Huang, MA, PhD Candidate, Stanford University, CCRMA
  • Miriam Kolar, MFA, PhD Candidate, Stanford University, CCRMA


  • John Chowning, DMA, Professor Emeritus, Stanford University, CCRMA/Music

Local Collaborators:

  • Christian Mesia, Ph.D, Instituto Nacional de Cultura, Lima

Team Background:

  • John Rick has been heading excavations and directing research at the Chavín site since 1995
  • Digital waveguide techniques were pioneered at CCRMA by Julius O. Smith III
  • Julius O. Smith and Jonathan S. Abel have been working together on acoustic array processing and related problems since 1985
  • Patty Huang is a PhD student working under Abel on physical modeling and analysis of reverberant spaces
  • Miriam Kolar is a PhD student with extensive field experience in recording engineering
  • John Chowning is a composer having long standing interest in spatial modeling
  • CCRMA has expertise in field measurements, psychoacoustics, digital signal processing, and artificial reverberation

Phase 1. Preparation and Onsite Measurements


  • Preliminary on-site tests [completed 12/07]
  • Preliminary on-site tests [completed 2/08]
  • Specification of equipment [ongoing]
  • Purchasing and assembly of gear [2/08 & ongoing]
  • Data analysis for Acoustics'08 invited paper [ongoing]

Simulation Trials in Stanford environments

  • CCRMA stairwell, hallways, “Pit”
  • SU subsurface spaces-“famous” steam tunnels
  • Outdoor space similar to Chavín Circular Plaza?

Specify Provisional Mapping (for sound source-receiver placements from CAD rendering) [in progress]

  • from each chamber to main space
  • least damaged areas
  • with and without plastering
  • peculiar geometries (e.g. , adjoining (comb-like) chambers, etc.)

Onsite Measurements at Chavín [projected summer '08]

  • Plastering of section of Chavín (selection of plastered sections is critical (soon after arrival to allow for drying)
  • Adjust mapping of source-receiver points

Measurements -- Sources

  • balloon pops
  • speaker-generated sinusoidal chirps
  • other signals
  • strombus trumpet live/recorded
  • record stream/water sound, wind noise
  • live/recorded human voice

Measurements -- Receivers

  • distributed mics
  • in-ear-canal mics


  • $3,000 (2/08) equipment -- funded by SICA grant
  • $13,500 (summer 2008) equipment, data collection costs, logistical support [estimated; final costs TBD]
  • $8,000 travel and accommodations (2 weeks on site) for 3 faculty, 2 graduate students
  • $500 (summer 2008) on site wall-building, plastering, and removal

Potential Sources of Funding

Equipment Loan

  • Sennheiser Research Lab

Acoustics'08 Paper

  • Presentation in Paris, June-July 2008

Phase 2. Analysis and Generation of Computational Physical Model


  • compare plastered and unplastered and extrapolate to the entire structure
  • IR measurement to render the modeled spaces
  • measurement processing to model the pristine state
  • Strombus trumpet

Physical Model

  • calculate acoustical properties of materials
  • rendering from architectural models
  • use waveguide mesh processing
  • Stanford invention of and current work with waveguide mesh allows effective method to address computation/simulation of acoustical spaces
  • process and match/fit measurements then extend to parts of site that aren't necessarily intact or accessible for comprehensive measurements (plastering).

Potential Funding Sources

  • National Endowment for the Humanities- Collaborative Research Grants [3]
  • National Science Foundation- Archaeology and Archaeometry [4]

Phase 3. Electroacoustic Simulation & Public Interface


  • Stanford
  • National Museum of Chavín

Public Interfaces

  • Work-in-progress documentation website
  • Virtual walkthrough (headphone tour) in present condition
  • Virtual walkthrough (headphone tour) in reconstructed condition
  • Enhanced reverberation system for visitor experience
  • Installations of replica in various formats (online, DVD, museum, show, etc.)

Conservation & Reconstruction

  • Quantify and compensate for support structures
  • Simulation of plastered walls