Hellenic Institute of Acoustics: Guardian Article on Epidaurus Failed to Cross-check the Science

The Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus, in Greece, July 10, 2017. Photo: Eurokinissi/Sotiris Dimitropoulos

An article appearing in the “The Guardian” that debunked the legendary acoustics of the ancient theatre in Epidaurus as “Greek myth” had failed to cross-check the facts and was based on conclusions striving for sensationalism and “five minutes of fame”, the Hellenic Institute of Acoustics (HELINA) said on Thursday.

In an announcement to the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA), HELINA said it felt obliged to comment on the article, which was not in line with the scientific findings and had been adopted wholesale by Greek media and websites.

According to Ionian University professor and HELINA board member Andreas Floros, there have been a host of scientific studies and peer-reviewed publications in scientific journals on the subject over the years, including an international conference organised by HELINA in 2011 on the acoustics of ancient theatres, whose findings showed the Epidaurus theatre’s reputation for good acoustics to be well deserved.

The specific study cited by the article, he added, was based on the conclusions of a group of Dutch scientists presented at a recent conference that replicated the sort of acoustic “tests” used by visitors to the site – such as dropping a coin or tearing paper – but were not necessarily a scientific way of measuring the acoustics of a venue. The study, according to HELINA, essentially overlooked the primary purpose of the theatre and what “good acoustics” means in this context.

“This theatre, from antiquity until the present day, displays acoustics that are suitable for presenting theatrical speech to a large audience, often greater than 10,000 people…’good acoustics’ for such a space primarily concerns this ability: to reproduce intelligible speech to even the farthest seats in the audience at a distance of almost 60 metres from the orchestra-stage of the theatre. This remarkable achievement in the acoustic design of the theatre has also been reported – in the case where the voice signal is strong – but not emphasised by the study on which the article was based,” HELINA’s announcement pointed out.

The Dutch scientist and the British reporter covering his study had focused on the cases where the voice signal was particularly weak, or used other sounds unrelated to hosting a theatrical performance, it pointed out.

“As is self-evident, for an accurate measurement at such great distances for hearing, the source-speaker must produce loud speech and the noise in the audience and other sources must be low. It should be noted that in antiquity, both the now destroyed scenery building of the theatre and the use of theatrical masks and the actors’ ability to project their voices would allow an even stronger transmission of sound to audiences,” the announcement said.

This was possible even in the present day, when audiences were quiet, and had been repeatedly proved by studies carried out by HELINA and other foreign colleagues, though this was not the case with loud, raucous audiences, especially in comedies, experimental theatrical techniques or actors requiring microphones. There was even a Greek study that showed for the first time that the acoustics of the theatre do not change when a quiet audience is present, HELINA pointed out, though this had failed to grab the media’s attention.

The recent “Guardian” article, it added, had to be viewed as “a quick way for [the British journalist and the Dutch team] to gain five minutes of fame, borrowing some of the global and timeless glory of this unique, 2,500-year-old monument.”