— BRIAN KEVIN
INFOGRAPHIC BY LIZ MEYERS
IN A DIM STORAGE shed at Pontificia Universidad Catolico del Peru, American archaeologist Dianne Scullin grabs an artifact from Peru’s ancient Moche culture, puffs out her cheeks and blows hard into one end, trilling a high note that echoes off the archive boxes lining the walls. “That would be an ocarina, rather than a whistle,” she says, setting down the thumb-size ceramic relic. “The difference is all in how you purse your lips.”
The 27-year-old Ph.D. candidate is in the early stages of a three-year study for Columbia University, sorting through hundreds of millennia-old, pre-Inca instruments from the archives at Catolica and the nearby Larco Museum, recording solo recitals on ancient trumpets, conchlike pututo horns and whistling bo les shaped like anthropomorphic wolves. Many haven’t produced a sound since 100 to 900 AD.
Scullin has worked on traditional archaeological digs, but as a music lover and trombonist, she’s drawn to a small movement among archaeologists to catalog sound with the same emphasis the field has historically placed on hard data.
Her audio archive notes the volumes and pitches emitted by each instrument, and phase two of the project will involve an “acoustic mapping” of Moche archaeological sites, suggesting where among the pyramids certain instruments may once have been played and heard.
As Scullin works, her one-woman jam sessions attract curious passersby. She clicks a button in GarageBand to replay a series of scales on the 1,200-year-old ocarina. “Not bad,” she says. “My husband says I should mix them together and play Beatles songs.”