Posted by: Johan Normark | October 13, 2009

An archaeology of water pt 3: seeing with the ears within caves

In two earlier posts I have outlined an archaeology of water. This is part of the theoretical tools I use in my current research on climate change and cave use. One can extend this discussion to my upcoming research on the senses from a posthumanocentric perspective as well.

The anthropologist Tim Ingold (2000:271) asks “can the blind person…ever enjoy an experience comparable to that of the sighted of being placed in something like a landscape that can be taken as a totality, with its infinitely variegated surfaces, contours and textures, inhabited by animals and plants, and littered with objects both natural and artificial?” The rational for this question is that it is usually argued that with our sight we get an instant feel of being in a landscape. For the blind that needs to touch his/her surroundings it takes a greater deal of time to experience the surroundings. Hearing is also seen as being directed since sounds come from one location and disappears quickly. However, the soundscape in a city has more or less omnidirectional sounds. However,these sounds are therefore seen as fragments of the whole world the sighted can see. Can the blind person therefore sense a surrounding landscape at an instant moment as a person with the sight intact?

According to John Hull, who was not born blind, rain can create such an experience. Rain drops fall everywhere and at the same time around the blinded person. They reveal the details of the surfaces where they fall. Rain therefore brings contours to everything and a steady rain creates a continuous acoustic experience. Ingold concludes that “rain does for the blind what sunshine does for the sighted, bathing the world in sound as the sun bathes in light.”

Rain drops falling on the plazas, temples and range structures of ancient Maya sites probably created similar acoustic experiences. Even more obvious are the water movements in dark caves. Bruchez (2007) discusses the soundscapes of Mesoamerican caves and argues that dark reverberant spaces have been chosen for rituals where sound is intensifies trance states or induce aural experience. The soundscape within caves emerging after rainfalls can be considerable (due to water flows and seepage). This also varies depending on the rise and fall of the water table. Sounds cease when cool dry air warms and moisture evaporates. However, in “light” of Ingold’s discussion one can see the water related acoustics in caves as a way to bath the cave in sounds accessing other perceptions not experienced on the surface. Here water, as a constituent part of a greater assemblage including senses, material objects, cave, etc, would have been a catalyst for intensive processes on different scales.



  1. Interesting.When I was a professional gardener my senses became attuned to weather conditions.A plantsman can smell rain along time before it arrives.You could also look at a landscape and know it’s water bearing capabilities by the flora.

  2. Some neuroscientists argue that the human brain is a “cultural artifact” which means that it is very plastic and adaptable according to what we do. If you are a gardener or agriculturalist you will detect patterns or phenomena that people like me will not be able to see, hear, smell, taste, etc. This also means that our mind is extended to other entities beyond our physical reach.

  3. My father was from the mid north of south australia and taught us to read the sky for rain

  4. Very interesting observation. I have never thought about the acoustic effects cause by raindrops falling on different places and things. As I read, I closed my eyes for a moment and tried to feel how different the sound of raindrops may have been.

  5. Barb and BK: this reminds me that I wrote another post on the history of silence a while ago:

    Even snow flakes create sounds. We just need to sharpen our attention.


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