[Image: Horse skull via Wikimedia].
If you’re looking to install a new sound system in your house, consider burying a horse skull in the floor.
According to the Irish Archaeological Consultancy, the widespread discovery of “buried horse skulls within medieval and early modern clay floors” has led to the speculation that they might have been placed there for acoustic reasons—in other words, “skulls were placed under floors to create an echo,” we read.
Ethnographic data from Ireland, Britain and Southern Scandinavia attests to this practice in relation to floors that were in use for dancing. The voids within the skull cavities would have produced a particular sound underfoot. The acoustic skulls were also placed in churches, houses and, in Scandinavia especially, in threshing-barns… It was considered important that the sound of threshing carried far across the land.
They were osteological subwoofers, bringing the bass to medieval villages.
It’s hard to believe, but this was apparently a common practice: “the retrieval of horse skulls from clay floors, beneath flagstones and within niches in house foundations, is a reasonably widespread phenomenon. This practice is well attested on a wider European scale,” as well, even though the ultimate explanation for its occurrence is still open to debate (the Irish Archaeological Consultancy post describes other interpretations, as well).
Either way, it’s interesting to wonder if the thanato-acoustic use of horse skulls as resonating gourds in medieval architectural design might have any implications for how natural history museums could reimagine their own internal sound profiles—that is, if the vastly increased reverberation space presented by skulls and animal skeletons could be deliberately cultivated to affect what a museum’s interior sounds like.
[Image: Inside the Paris Natural History Museum; photo by Nicola Twilley].
Like David Byrne’s well-known project Playing the Building—”a sound installation in which the infrastructure, the physical plant of the building, is converted into a giant musical instrument”—you could subtly instrumentalize the bones on display for the world’s most macabre architectural acoustics.