The Dig: We Know Where the Bodies are Buried

Andrew Reinhard and I have been at it again. We wondered what the archaeology of Sutton Hoo might sound like. There are a lot of ways one could’ve approached this. We could’ve tried to recreate a soundscape – of the moment of the ship burial, or the moment of its excavation, for instance. We might have found tabular data from the various excavations and projects and maybe mapped the differing amounts of different kinds of artefacts by period they date to – or days they were found – or locations found in the earth (x,y,z making a chord, maybe). Maybe there is geophysics data (magnetometry, georadar, etc) and we could’ve approached things a la Soundmarks.

We instead looked at one piece of the public archaeology literature around Sutton Hoo – ‘The Sutton Hoo ship-burial : a handbook by
R. L. S. Bruce-Mitford as reproduced on the Internet Archive. I copied the text, and then divided it up into ‘documents’ of one page each. These I fed into a topic modeling routine I use in my teaching (written in R; see the course website). A topic model is a way of asking the machine, ‘if there are 15 topics in this corpus of material, what are they about?’. The machine will duly decompose the material, looking at statistical patterns of word use both in the ‘documents’ (here, individual pages) to try to sort those patterns into 15 buckets of words which we as the humans involved can then look at and say, ‘oh yes, that’s clearly a topic about English myth-history’. The result was this:


Notice how each chunk adds up to 1. I then took the underlying proportions for each chunk for four separate topics that seemed interesting: ‘coins date time hoard merovingian’, ‘sutton hoo swedish jewellery’ ‘gold plate figure purse buckle’ and ‘burial pagan grave christian east’. Those raw numbers, ranging between 0 and 1 (ie, the proportion each topic goes towards forming those chunks of writing) I multiply by 100 and then scale against 1 – 88 for the 88 key piano keyboard. Think of each topic as now a voice in a choir, each one singing their note on the beat. Muscially, a bit boring, but to the intellect, interesting; Andrew and I are still working with that data (mapping to instruments, remixing to bring out particular themes and so on). I am also interested in coding music, though I am very bad at it; I turned to Sam Aaron’s Sonic Pi live-music-coding synth. Building on some sample code I wrote a little piece that kinda looks like this:

with_fx :reverb do
   in_thread do
    loop do
     notes = (ring 20,50,21,50  etc etc: these are the proportions of the different topics for the first topic)
     notes2 = (ring 6, 14, 59 etc etc)
     notes3 etc 
     notes4 etc
     use_synth :piano
     play notes, release: 0.1, amp: rand, pan: rrand(-1, 1)
     play notes2, release: 0.1, amp: rand,pan: rrand(-1, 1)
     play notes etc
     sleep 0.25

with_fx :wobble, phase: 2 do |w|
  with_fx :echo, mix: 0.6 do
    loop do
      sample :drum_heavy_kick
      sample :bass_hit_c, rate: 0.8, amp: 0.4
      sleep 1

and then I let that play; because it’s a live coding synth, you can make changes on the fly and layer those changes as you play. So not just sonification, a kind of digital instrument and performance. It’s not just the data you’re hearing, it’s my coding choices and my performance ability. I sent the result to Andrew and he immediately saw how the emotional impact of that music matched the latent horror of the film, and recut the trailer appropriately. Below, you can here the result (and if dmca takes down the video, you can also see it on Twitter. This reconstitution of Bruce-Mitford’s writing, a kind of digital body horror on a corpus of thought perhaps. The archaeological uncanny always eventually emerges.


PS: Youtube hit me with a copyright infringement the instant I uploaded that video. If it doesn’t play, you might be able to see it here: