Acoustics Were Deliberately Designed Into Ancient Arenas

Studies of Mayan venues suggest the importance of sports sound

The ancient Mayans loved their sports, even if losing players and coaches might have had to forfeit their heads instead of just the lease on a Range Rover Defender. However, it turns out that they also liked their sports venues to sound good.

Recent airborne lidar imaging of a Mayan settlement, straddling modern Mexico and Guatemala and mostly built between 1000 BCE and 150 CE, revealed the presence of previously unknown canals, dams, terraces, temples, and ceremonial complexes, as well as a massive ballfield. As it turns out, those ancient arenas had some rather remarkable acoustics.

A “whispering gallery” is believed to have been a design feature of the Mayas’ Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza.

According to a 2006 paper submitted to the Acoustical Society of America, the Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza, which has been dated to 1142 CE, has two acoustical features that were noted during excavation in the 1920s. A whispering gallery permits voice communication between temples located 460 ft. apart (anyone who has experienced Grand Central Terminal’s Whispering Gallery will understand the effect), and a profound flutter echo can also be heard (at the 0:23 point in the video) between the two large parallel walls of the playing field, who are 270 ft. long, 28 ft. high, and 119 ft. apart. The acoustical artifacts were originally considered unintentional, but later research — interpreting architectural, psychoacoustic, and cognitive features of the Great Ball Court in the context of ancient Mayan culture — suggests instead that they were more likely design features.

Academic Study of Sports-Venue Acoustics and Architecture

In fact, an entire subset of archeological academia has grown up around the notion that ancient playing fields were designed with acoustics in mind. Such books as Archaeoacoustics, edited by Chris Scarre and Graeme Lawson and published by Cambridge University, and Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?: Experiencing Aural Architecture, by Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter (MIT Press), attribute legitimacy to scientific acoustical investigations of archaeological sites.

David Lubman, an acoustical consultant, analyzed the acoustical properties of the Great Ball Court in a paper delivered at a 2006 Acoustical Society of America conference.

“The whispering gallery,” he wrote, “permits excellent voice communication between two persons standing on the raised platform of temples on opposite ends of the ballcourt, 460 ft. apart. It also permits two-way communication between persons on either temple and persons anywhere on the playing field between the temples. The whispering gallery seems unique in that it has no curved surfaces and no continuity of construction except for the earth. I believe that the earth plays little or no part in its workings. I suggest that the physical mechanism of the whispering gallery includes an acoustic waveguide 272 ft. long. The waveguide consists of two smooth, parallel stone walls 119 ft. apart and 28 ft. high. The wide aperture of the waveguide’s opening appears to employ diffraction to efficiently beam sound into the end temples.

“The presence,” he continued, “of several distinct, unusual, and culturally meaningful acoustic effects at two of Chichen Itza’s monuments suggests the possibility of intentional design. … The possibility that the Maya intentionally designed an acoustic waveguide 864 years ago seems particularly exciting.”

In case you were wondering, the Mayans didn’t fool around when it came to the balls used on that playing field. They were very heavy, made of chicle, a raw material extracted mainly from Mesoamerican trees and also used to make chewing gum. It weighed 6-8 lb., and Mayan athletes could move it only using their hips, shoulders, knees, and elbows; feet, hands, or head could not be used.

The Mayans may or may not have made a science of sports-venue acoustical design, but they seem to have developed a technical language that would likely be familiar to sports acousticians today. As Lubman points out, certain Mayan glyphs have been reinterpreted as representing vibrant sounds and ballcourt echoes. There may even be a glyph for “flutter echo.”

It wasn’t all fun and games, though. Mayan sports had religious and even political implications: acting out creationist myths, satisfying the blood lusts of the gods that also happened to keep the sun and moon in the sky, or as proxies for conflict (a tradition of sports-based wars that remained in the region long after the Mayans were gone). Yankees-Red Sox? That’s kid stuff by comparison.

As sophisticated as sports-venue design has become, it’s useful to know that it has a history stretching back much longer than line arrays and Jumbotrons. Playing Maya Ball could have lethal consequences for the athletes, but they still had to sound good playing it.

Password must contain the following:

A lowercase letter

A capital (uppercase) letter

A number

Minimum 8 characters