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could fogoUs hAVe been used as rItUaL sPaCeS?

by Jessica Beechey

Fogous are man-made Late Iron Age underground buildings that are unique to Cornwall. They are largely unexplored by professional and amateur archaeologists, acousticians, and historians. There is no definite explanation for their historical function, only speculation they could have been used for storage, refuge, or ritual. Through examining the history, acoustics, acoustemology, and acoustic ecology of both fogous and similar structures worldwide, I devised a lengthy project exploring sound-based ritual, art in caves, the underworld, acoustics, and many other topics to support my personal theory that these subterranean spaces could have been used for sound-based ritual purpose. 


Although I could go on at length about the research from this project, I have included one small section, one of my favourite areas of research, titled ‘Caves, The Underworld and Heavy Metal’. 


Caves are an archetypal entrance to the underworld, and it is commonly believed that retiring to a cave is “the equivalent to a descent into the underworld” (Cooke 1993, p.298). Pan, part-human, part-goat, the son of Hermes, haunted caves and other underground structures whilst playing his pipes, whilst his father, a psychopomp, escorted the dead to the underworld. This obsession with the lure of the underworld dates far back into ancient theology, where caves were considered a symbol of the whole world. People believed they serve as a conduit for the deceased and function as an entrance to the underworld, allowing spirits to both descend and ascend. 


On the topic of spirits haunting the caves representing the underworld, archaeoacoustician Steven J Waller wrote that caves capture the spiritual agency of sound reflection, meaning, the reflection of sound created the impression that noises were originating from spirits within the rocks and stones. Beyond this, there are theories that a cave echo relates to characters in ancient mythology and the underworld. The placement of cave art creatures could have been a visualisation of what neolithic people heard calling back to them, suggesting that the soundscape of caves could have been a sign of ritual communications with the supernatural.


My favourite example of this mythology is the belief in the Pacific North-West Coast of ‘The Sa^a’ (or ‘Echo’). The Sa^a, a humanoid entity, possesses the skill to mimic the sounds or voices of any creature. Residing in a cave near Blunden Harbour, you can discern Echo's presence by her imitation of the surrounding sounds.


To conclude the project, I applied my research to a performance in Carn Euny fogou, located near the village of Sancreed in Cornwall. The performance, titled ‘Sudronen in a fogou’, demonstrated that repetitive music of the Minimalist movement performed in these mystical underground structures can elicit a state of altered consciousness, the optimal condition for rituals. The hauntingly beautiful idea of caves responding to human actions influenced me heavily when constructing the performance. I wanted to encourage the performers to react to the movement and noise of the audience around them, as well as the cave itself. 


Cooke, I.M. (1993) ‘What is a Fogou?’ in Mother and Sun: The Cornish Fogou. Penzance: Men-An-Tol Studio.

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