The megaphone from the Kvalsund Ship presented in Barcelona

Earlier this month I participated in the European Association of Archaeologist’s 24th annual meeting, a huge conference with lots of different topics and sessions. This time, in Barcelona, three of the sessions were devoted to music archaeology and archaeoacoustics. My paper was about communication at sea, a place without hard surfaces for reflection of sound waves. One way of being heard over noisy environments at sea is to use a megaphone. My “case” was the funnel-shaped artefact from the 7th century Kvalsund Ship, from Herøy, Sunnmøre. This might be the earliest known megaphone, perhaps used for communication on board. The Kvalsund Ship — excavates early 1920s — was 18 meters long, had ten pairs of oars, and lacked traces of any sail. It was a rowing ship, and therefore the megaphone very likely could have been used for coordination of the rowing.

At the conference I presented my interpretations along with my own reconstruction of the megaphone, based on the drawings in the publication by Shetelig and Johannessen from 1929. Below some photos from the work with the reconstruction. If anyone has any information on megaphones or sound communication at sea, I would be delighted to be informed. First, here is the abstract for my paper:

Sound communication in non-reverberating acoustical spaces

Acoustic spaces or sound spaces are natural or man-made structures used for sound, or with sound as an integral part of religious ceremonies, gatherings or feasts. As shown in an increasing number of archaeoacoustic studies, some of these designated spaces, such as caves, megaliths – and later – theatres, churches, halls and other man-made structures, are used or constructed specifically because of their acoustic properties.

However, in many situations and places, people could neither make benefit from architectural structures nor natural spaces for acoustic communication. Some natural environments are especially unsuitable or demanding for communication purposes, with few hard surfaces that naturally reverberates and amplifies sound waves. People have therefore made use of certain techniques or specially designed contrivances of for communication purposes. One such place is at sea or in costal landscapes where the ocean and/or wind is the «keynote sound» of the soundscape.

In a ship excavated in Kvalsund, Sunnmøre, on the west coast of Norway, the archaeologists found a wooden funnel-shaped 72,5 centimetre long object, interpreted as a megaphone. The ship, which probably was a seagoing vessel, was dated to the 7th to 8th century AD. Based on reconstructions and experiments, this paper will discuss the acoustical function of the possible megaphone. It will also discuss other methods of communication at sea – with sound producing devices, or with other means, such as the whistling language used in whale hunting by the Siberian Yupik people, south of the Bering strait.

Gjermund Kolltveit

Music archaeologist, ethnomusicologist, musician – Nesodden, Norway. Main research interests: sound and sound tools (e.g. jew’s harps, lyres, ringing stones, bells) in human culture and soundscapes.

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