Historical story

Fierce criticism of research into acoustics in Greek theaters

The acoustics of Greek theaters are not as good as many people think, scientists at Eindhoven University of Technology conclude. But archaeologists have strongly criticized the study. They do not consider it a new insight and call it unprofessional that no ancient historians or archaeologists have been consulted.

Myth debunked:You can't hear a pin drop in the back row of a Greek theater. The newspapers and websites have been full of it in recent days. Including the AD, the Telegraaf and The Guardian wrote extensively about it.

“We have performed very accurate measurements with advanced equipment. It has never been done this way before. We found that the acoustics were not as overly good as is often claimed in travel guides. For example, you can't hear a pin drop in the back row," says Constant Hak of Eindhoven University of Technology.


That seems like a new insight, but in antiquity circles it is not. It has been known for a long time that the acoustics of Greek theaters were not that great. “Nothing new has been discovered at all,” emphasizes archaeologist Jona Lendering. He works for Livy Education, is an independent ancient historian and wrote several books about antiquity.

The myth that the researchers from Eindhoven debunked does not actually exist in the circles of antiquarians. Hak and colleagues substantiate the so-called myth with the fact that travel guides sometimes state that the acoustics are special. “But I'm sorry, a scientist discusses with other scientists, building on the work of scientists. A real scientist disproves other scientists, not travel guides,” says Lendering. “I think it is good that known conclusions are tested again with other methods, but I don't think it is very scientific to ignore the previous research. You are then a bit showing off the feathers of earlier scientists.”

No antiquities or archaeologists were involved in the Eindhoven research into acoustics. “That is unprofessional and quite a bit arrogant towards archaeology”, says graduated classicist and archaeologist with a doctorate, Miko Flohr. He is assistant professor in ancient history at Leiden University.


Hak contradicts the criticism. “If you examine antiquity, you have a different task. Then you look at how it used to be. We do acoustic research. The fact that we have debunked a myth has appeared in newspapers and on websites, is a bit of an exaggeration. That was not what we wanted to do. That was not the case in the press release. We just wanted to take measurements. I don't really understand why antiquarians are making such a fuss about it. We just looked at the sound transmission. We have carefully studied the relevant literature for our research. Previous studies are certainly not unanimous in terms of results and are sometimes of lower quality. From a scientific point of view, there was therefore sufficient reason to thoroughly investigate this. We did this by being the first to measure sound transmission in such detail and, moreover, using better research methods/techniques than were available to our predecessors.”

No fewer than eleven thousand measurements were made by scientists from Eindhoven in three Greek theatres. They investigated theaters in Argos, Epidaurus and Athens (Odeon of Herodes Atticus). They checked to see if you could hear a falling coin, a strike of a match, a whisper and a tearing sheet of paper everywhere. “That's not the case, forget it,” says Hak. In the theater of Epidaurus, the sound of paper tearing and coins falling was recognizable up to the middle row. To hear the strike of a match, you have to sit even closer. The theaters have also been completely mapped using a laser. “Every unevenness is in our model,” says Hak. The results were published during the scientific conference Acoustics ’17 Boston.

The Eindhoven researchers chose these three theaters because they are so different. “The Odeon of Herodes Atticus has a back wall and has been refurbished. Epidaurus is large, has no back wall and is partly corroded. Argos is also very large, but completely dilapidated.”

Video from Eindhoven University of Technology about their research. By the way, the Greek theaters are referred to herein as amphitheatres, but this is not correct. Amphitheatres were built by the Romans and were oval.

Fantastic acoustics?

Flohr has reservations about the study because it was conducted in "semi-collapsed, plucked ruins." “You take measurements in a fragmentary, partly modern reconstructed, and therefore non-historical context,” says Flohr. Moreover, the measurements are also performed without an audience, which absorbs a large part of the sound. And a roof or rear wall has not been taken into account, which also affect the acoustics.

Hak agrees. But he also emphasizes that he does not want to claim anything about what it was like in ancient times. “We checked the acoustics in the crumbling theaters we examined. We have not done this for the antiquarians. Were the acoustics very different in the past? Yes, but that's not what we investigated. We just want to tell you something about how it is now.”

According to Hak, the antiquarians do not need to get excited about his research at all. After all, that is about how the acoustics are now and says nothing about the past. But that image is not reflected in the many articles that have appeared in newspapers and websites about Hak's research. It emphasizes that the research from Eindhoven is indeed about antiquity. De Telegraaf, for example, states:'Scientists have brutally punctured a well-known claim about ancient Greece.' Other reports, including AD and The Guardian, also emphasize that the acoustics must have been fantastic in antiquity.


Flohr is annoyed that his field has appeared in various media in this way. Mainly because of the way betas speak out about a field of research of alphas, without having contacted ancient historians or archaeologists beforehand. “It is yet another example of the way in which non-archaeologists without any sense of historical context believe that they can make all kinds of statements about ancient history and archaeology. Apparently, elsewhere in science, and especially in those branches of sport with a somewhat more empirical character, there is a certain arrogance that makes people think 'oh, we can do that for a while'. I find that very dull. No classicist will ever claim that he or she can change chemistry, mathematics, or physics, but we see that happening all the time.”

Hak does not regret not contacting archaeologists and antiquarians. But he would like to work with them on new research. “For us, it's about the technology, where we map something objectively. Alfas like to know how it was built. I don't know much about that, because I'm not a theater historian and I don't pretend to be. It would be nice if we could work together on a new project, for example to find out what the acoustics were like in theaters in the past. We have not investigated this now, but it is of course very interesting.”

Greece also criticized the publication from Eindhoven. Andreas Floros of the Hellenistic Institute of Acoustics, claims that scientific publications show that the theater of Epidaurus has excellent acoustics. You can read their response here. "Let the scientists from Eindhoven argue with that, instead of with a travel guide," says Lendering.