Science & Environment
11:40 am
Mon February 24, 2014

Translating Physical Pieces of the Past into Ancient Music and Culture

Archaeology is clearly far more than Indiana Jones-style hunts for legendary treasure, but can we really know what ancients were thinking? Or what their music sounded like?

Credit Illustration by Glinnis Fawkes

At the forefront of modern archaeology is a quest for the intangible, even ethereal, aspects of ancient life. Whereas traditional archaeology has used artefacts to illuminate fundamental questions about who lived where, and when, how they made a living, and to what degree they engaged in intellectual and artistic pursuits, practitioners of this emerging pursuit attempt to extract from these physical pieces of the past clues as to what ancients were thinking and feeling. It's the difference between uncovering and reconstructing ancient instruments, and trying to recreate the music they played (music which, of course, went unrecorded and largely undocumented).

In her book, The Parthenon Enigma: A new understanding of the West’s most iconic building and the people who made it, MacArthur Fellow and NYU Professor of Classics and Art History, Joan Breton Connelly, offers a reinterpretation of the Parthenon that bucks two hundred years of conventional wisdom. Far from a pinnacle of democracy, Connelly says the iconic building was a deeply religious space. Connelly's work also recasts the long-reviled practice of maiden sacrifices as noble and empowering to women. Her conclusions are based largely on new evidence (text of a recently recovered Euripidean play), but she says the old interpretation was flawed, driven by the imposition of the observers' own mores rather than an objective consideration of the available information.

Attempts to get inside the heads of the ancients or to recreate ethereal aspects of their lives are fraught with the danger of overreaching. Data is extremely limited. Take, for example, John Franklin's studies of ancient music. There are only 66 fragments of musical documentation - sheet music, as it were - on which to base recreations of ancient music.

Connelly and Franklin both acknowledge the limitations of the evidence available, and stress the importance of thoroughness and objectivity. However, they also say speculation and outright creation also have important roles to play in forging a meaningful relationship with and understanding of the ancients.

Franklin and his wife, archaeological illustrator and cartoonist Glynnis Fawkes, both indulge in what you might call playing with ancient music and literature. In addition to her more scientific work illustrating artefacts recovered from dig sites, Fawkes has illustrated comic versions of the Homeric Hymns to Aphrodite, Demeter, and Dionysos. Franklin draws on his expertise in music composition and electronic music to create digital remixes of ancient music.

Here's a song from John Franklin's record "The Cyprosyrian Girl: Hits of the Ancient Hellenes"