Listening to the past: how to get to know Teotihuacán through music
All cities have their own characteristics: sounds, smells, dynamics. Paleomusicology tries to know archaeological sites through ancient instruments.
The most generalized ideas we have of archaeology are represented by images such as that of Indiana Jones, running through ancient ruins, or the enormous museums in Europe and North America with rows of objects from the American Indigenous people and African or Asian cultures.
Even, in Alejo Carpentier's novel, The Lost Steps, the main character - whose name we never got to know - goes into the jungle in search of indigenous instruments to take back to an European museum.
In other words, to take things from a place that seems dead to us in order to take them to another place with more life and, above all, power.
But this perspective leaves many questions open, not only about the objects but also about the way in which people related to them and, in general, about how life went on in these places.
Paleomusicology is the meeting point between archaeology and musicology and their questions are not so much "what did these people eat" or "how big were their families" but how did their instruments sound? how did they sound when they played them in their ritual spaces? what sensations would they seek to produce?
These kinds of questions are being answered by Arnd Adje Both, a researcher at the University of Huddersfield, for the city of Teotihuacán, one of the largest and oldest archaeological sites in Mexico.
Teotihuacan means, in Nahuatl, "place where men become gods", but this is not its original name: the city was already in ruins by the time the Mexicas found it, so the techniques for investigating the archaeological site have to be different.
What Both hopes to try at the end of the year is to use a technology similar to that used to measure and map hearing pollution in cities to record what happens when replicas of instruments made by the first inhabitants of Teotihuacan are played.
These first inhabitants did not leave written records or musical notations, so the experiments that Both is doing are not going to be a reconstruction of their music but, rather, of how the sounds felt in that space.
While it is true that there is some fictional creation in this exercise, the imagination has been fundamental to understanding the past. For example, the archaeological remains of the city of Troy were found thanks to the clues found in Homer's The Iliad.
Perhaps giving continuity to this type of research will allow us to relate to the past in other terms, seeking more understanding of others than possession of their property.