Clues in the catacombs

It makes perfect sense, when travelling around the world for a radio series about sound to keep your ears open – to listen closely to the spaces in which you find yourself in the hope that their sound now will somehow evoke the sounds of the past. Yet we need to keep our eyes open too. It turns out that many of the best clues to ancient soundscapes are entirely visual.IMG_4164

When Matt and I were in Rome, one of the places we visited was the ‘Catacombs of Priscilla’. This underground warren of long echoing passages leading occasionally into small chambers was dug out of the rock between the first and fifth centuries AD. It’s a wonderful place to record – a welcome acoustic contrast to all the open air sounds we’ve gathered above ground. But, contrary to popular legend, Christians didn’t actually conduct elaborate rituals or take refuge here; they just came to the Catacombs to bury their dead – and rather quietly. Save for the faint ringing of tintinabula, very little hard-core noise-making seems to have taken place during one of these funeral rites.

In fact, we’re in the Catacomb of Priscilla simply because of the extraordinary paintings on its walls. In one room there’s what looks like Moses striking water from a rock; nearby, it seems, Daniel among the lions; around a corner, what’s surely a Last Supper. In other words, Biblical scenes telling us very loudly that we’re in the world of the first Christians of Rome.

But these images demand a closer look. Is it really the Last Supper? Or might it actually be a pagan banquet? Many of the inscriptions and images found in the Catacombs turn out not to be in the Latin of Rome, but in Greek; some burial chambers seem more Jewish in design. In fact the imagery in this underground city draws on traditions stretching back in time to the first millennium BC and from as far away geographically as North Africa and the Middle East. It reveals a world above ground – in the streets, temples and private houses of ancient Rome – in which many different religious cults and traditions were co-existing – a world where rituals were constantly being borrowed, copied, adapted. And it allows us to start imagining what this world above ground would have sounded like. Perhaps it wasn’t quite as restrained as later Christian teaching would have us believe – infused as it was with more eastern, more pagan ideas, in which feasting, dancing, wild singing and other ‘ecstatic’ practices were widespread. Through using our eyes, we’ve started to sketch out – even if only very tentatively – the soundscape of daily Christian life as it began to take root in the Europe.IMG_4185

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