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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Gentleman's Magazine
Vol. 215, Dec. 1863, pp750‑753

The text is in the public domain.

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 p750  Acoustic Pottery

[It will be gratifying to our learned contributor, the Abbé Cochet, to find that his anticipation of the discovery of acoustic pottery in England has been borne out. As will be seen by the dates, some of the discoveries were made quite independently of his researches.]​a

Sir, — The notices of Acoustic Pottery in your last Number, from the pen of M. l'Abbé Cochet, are both useful and interesting; and the subject, if fully investigated, may lead to some practical results in reference to a matter of very great importance. The extraordinary impetus given to ecclesiastical architecture by the Gothic revival has led to the erection of a great number of places of worship many of them of considerable size and pretensions; very many more of equal, if not of greater importance, will doubtless be yet erected; and I would ask the question, What principles have guided our architects in the erection of these edifices in reference to their hearing capabilities? I fear that on this subject we are entirely at sea. I do not know of any modern Gothic church of size whose acoustic properties are satisfactory. It is an almost universal complaint, that in our lofty open timber-roofed churches it is impossible for the worshippers sitting towards the ends of the transepts and nave to hear either prayers or sermon. This being the case, would it not be well to enquire, how did our forefathers manage these things? Be assured that the acoustic qualities of their churches were not neglected. And here the antiquary steps in to the assistance of the architect, and researches like those of the Abbé Cochet solve in some measure the mystery. I think it a most desirable object to collect together a number of examples of these artificial aids to increase the effect and distinctness of sound, and the various conditions under which these artificial aids produce the desired effect. A well-arranged collection of such facts would enable us to form something like a system of acoustics for our churches. A human voice of ordinary power, clear tone, and moderate pitch, can fill only a certain number of cubic feet of enclosed space. This fact the ancients were fully acquainted with; and when compelled to increase the size of their public halls, theatres, &c., beyond the ordinary hearing capacity, they endeavoured to compensate for the increased size of the building by various contrivances, such as the adoption of peculiar forms and sections, the use of resonant materials, or the introduction of such ingenious contrivances as those described by the Abbé Cochet.

The ancients in their theatres used vases of clay or bronze, of peculiar forms, and which were placed under the seats, in one, two, or three rows, according to the size of their building. Vitruvius says:—

"It may be said that many theatres are built yearly at Rome, in none of which are these contrivances used, but all public theatres have many boarded surfaces, which resound by nature. We may observe this from singers, who when they wish to raise a loud note turn to the doors of the scene, and thus receive  p751 a help for their voice. But when the theatres are built of solid materials, as stone or marble, which are not sonorous, then these methods are to be employed. If it is asked in what theatre they are made use of, we have none at Rome;​b but in different parts of Italy, and in the Greek provinces, there are several. We have also the authority of L. Mummius, who destroyed the theatre of Corinth, and brought the brazen vases to Rome, and dedicated them in the temple of Luna. And many skilful architects who build theatres in small towns, use earthenware vases to save expense, which when properly arranged have an excellent effect." — (Book V c. 5.)

Belli says "that the greater theatre at Hierapytna, Crete, had at least one row of bronze echeia, the cells for which are very visible; and is indeed the best preserved of any of these theatres." At Lyttus "there were three rows of bronze vases (echeia) in this theatre, almost all the cells for which are still visible." (Falkener's Museum, vol. for 1854.) A similar provision is to be found in the ancient theatre at Saguntum. (Conyngham in Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 1790.)

At Scythopolis (the ancient Bethsau, in Syria) is an ancient theatre, in which are found seven of these recesses for echeia, in the position indicated by Vitruvius. (Irby and Mangle's Travels, p302.)

Arrangements of a similar nature were also found by Texier, in the theatre at Aizani; (see Texier, Asie Mineure, Paris, vol. I p113.)

It is well known that vases and pipes of earthenware were used in the construction of the domes and vaulted ceilings of ancient buildings with the same view. There is no doubt that these methods of increasing the effect of sound were well known to our medieval architects, and were no doubt handed down to them by their earlier brethren among many other secrets of the craft: that such was the fact, the examples quoted in your last Number, as well as others which I now produce, will amply testify.

A very interesting example of the use of acoustic pottery is to be found in the ancient church of St. Mary's, Youghal, co. Cork. This edifice consists of a nave, 114 ft. by 30, with aisles about 13 ft. in width; a chancel without aisles, 68 ft. by 26½; the extreme breadth across the transepts is 109 ft. The north transept has an aisle. The native and north transept retain the original roof of massive, rough-dressed, black oak. It has no clearstory. The nave, aisles, and transepts are of the thirteenth, the chancel of the fourteenth century. This latter portion of the church remained unroofed for a century and a half, but has, through the exertions of the present Rector, been restored to its legitimate uses. In the process of that restoration an interesting discovery was made by the contractor, Mr. Edward Fitzgerald, a gentleman of considerable antiquarian zeal. In the process of repairs the old plastering was hacked off the walls; and in so doing, the workmen discovered at the western end of the north wall of the chancel, and at about 25 ft. from the ground, a series of orifices, five in number, each formed in a piece of freestone, and varying from 3 to 6 in. in diameter, and which were found to be the vents of an equal number of earthenware jars, placed immediately behind them, and imbedded in the masonry: the vessels were placed at irregular distances from each other. On examination, the vessels were found to be lying on their sides, perfectly empty: some were well glazed, others unglazed. Mr. Fitzgerald had the masonry removed, so as to accurately ascertain the dimensions and form of some of them: the accompanying sketch, from a drawing by that gentleman (see Plate), gives an accurate representation of four of these echeia. (Trans. Kilkenny Arch. Soc., 1854‑5.)

Subsequently, five similar jars, but of a smaller size, were discovered in the same position at the opposite side of the chancel. These orifices are now open, and the arrangement restored to its original purpose, and I can testify to the effect produced by these acoustic jars. I have frequently worshipped in  p752 the church, and have been many times struck with the fact that, when kneeling at the extreme end of the north transept, I could hear most distinctly the Communion Service, though read by a person of very moderate power. The voice appeared to have a peculiarly sonorous and ringing tone. The hearing in other parts of the church was equally satisfactory.

Now when we consider that the voice had to travel the length of the chancel, round the angle formed by the chancel and north transept, and from thence over 40 ft. to where I knelt, and that in a building having a high-pitched, open-timber roof, we must admit that some peculiar contrivances must have been resorted to in order to obtain such an acoustic property in this church. Mr. Evelyn (Memoirs, I.198) describes the construction of a fine room, having "a noble cupola," built purposely for music, "the fillings-up or cove between the walls being of urns and earthern pots for the better sounding."

We find a notice in "Notes and Queries" for Nov. 11, 1854, of the discovery in Fountains Abbey of jars, or urns of earthenware, imbedded in the base of the choir-screen.

In the same publication of Nov. 25, a correspondent states that a dozen or more of these jars were found in a line, at intervals, imbedded in the masonry under the stalls of the choir of the church of St. Peter Mancroft, Norwich.

The subject of acoustic is one almost entirely neglected by the architectural profession, though intimately connected with the success of the most important of their works, as churches, halls, theatres, &c. The above hints from mediaeval works may be worth their notice. Those who wish to study the science of acoustics will consult the "Builder," vols. for 1850, 1860; and an admirable article in the "Dictionary of the Architectural Publication Society," article "Acoustics," which gives a valuable list of works on this subject.

I am, &c.,

Robert Rolt Brash.


Sir, — A notice of the following curious discovery may not be uninteresting to the readers of the Gentleman's Magazine.

In pulling down the chancel of the parish church of Upton, near Southwell, Notts., during the present summer, in order to its rebuilding, certain vases were found embedded in the walls. They were six in number, three being placed on each side of the chancel, at the height of about seven or eight feet from the floor and at some six feet distance from each other, with their mouth facing the interior of the chancel. These, however, had been plastered over, and were not visible before the work of demolition took place. One alone of the vases has been preserved, and is now in possession of the Incumbent of the parish, the rest having been destroyed by the workmen. It is fortunately quite perfect, is of earthenware, without ornament, of rude manufacture, and of the form and dimensions shewn below.

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One of six Vases found in the Walls of
Upton Chancel.
Circumference, at base, 36 in.;
at neck, 26 in. Depth, 9⅛ in.

I believe the finding of such vases imbedded in the walls of ancient buildings is a very uncommon circumstance in this country; something of the kind, however, occurred at the church of Fountains Abbey, where they were met with in the foundation of the roodloft, partially filled with charcoal. What could have been the design of the Upton vases it seems very difficult to conjecture,  p753 and I shall be very glad if any of your archaeological friends can throw any light on the subject. I should perhaps add that the chancel was of the Decorated period.

I am, &c.,

J. S.

Oct. 16, 1863.

Sir, — I may mention that arrangements of pottery for acoustic purposes were found at Fountains Abbey, St. Peter Mancroft, Youghal, and St. Olave's at Chichester, as at Aberbrach in Brittany, St. Martin at Angers, and Clisson. — (Arch. Camb., pp139, 307; Walbran's Ripon, Proc. R. I. B. A., 1853‑4, p155.) The dome of St. Vitalis, Ravenna, is built of earthen jars, (Webb, Cont. Eccles., 438); and at Drontheim the vaulting-ribs are hollow, and communicate with the clerestory of the octagon and bosses, in the form of masks with gaping mouths. — (Munch's Drontheim, p46.) It must be remembered that urns full of charcoal were sometimes buried with the dead monks or canons near church doors, as at St. Denis and St. Germain des Prés. — (Martene, De Anc. Mon. Rit., IV.272.)

I am, &c.,

Mackenzie E. C. Walcott, M. A., F. S. A.

Thayer's Notes:

a The subject was taken up again — and amplified — by George C. Yates, in Antiquities and Curiosities of the Church (ed. William Andrews), pp34‑43.

b Maybe not when Vitruvius wrote, or maybe he just didn't know of any; we see how unobtrusive these acoustic vessels are, once installed. Here at any rate is my photo of some in the Circus of Maxentius on the Via Appia: technically not within the walls of Rome, but close enough.

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Page updated: 15 Oct 11