Developer blog for the Holocene section, which aims to explore likely changes in the local sound environment since the end of the last glacial period 12,000 years ago.

28 OCTOBER 2012

Welcome to the Holocene

The start of a new site section exploring changes to the sounds of what’s now the Greater London area over the last 12,000 years.

THE HOLOCENE IS the geological epoch which began around 12,000 years ago with the passing of the last glacial period. Our present warm window of opportunity is what’s termed an interglacial. It’s part of the last of eight glacial cycles making up the 2.6 million year-long Quaternary period.

Throughout the Holocene, humans have been busy transforming the planet in ways they were unable to do before. In the previous epoch, the Pleistocene, there were no crops, no domesticated animals other than dogs, no writing or metallurgy, no villages or cities. The people of the late Pleistocene were similar to us in many ways but not quite the same, and there were far fewer of them.

This new part of the London Sound Survey sets out to make a well-informed account of the changing soundscape of the Greater London area for the entire Holocene period. Large tasks become possible once they’re decomposed into smaller tasks. The developer blog will help do that by building and displaying the palettes of images, references and sounds which will eventually be brought together in a new interface.

The simple guiding question will be: What did it sound like then? All tangents will eventually loop back to it, whether they’re explorations of the changes in language, climate, land use, society or technology. Some of the ground has already been prepared in modest ways with the historical references and radio actuality sections.

The oldest surviving recordings of a public event in London are the Crystal Palace cylinders of 1888. Written descriptions extend back another nine centuries. The very earliest accounts, such as those of King Athelstan’s coronation at Kingston-upon-Thames in 924 and the Danes’ destruction of London Bridge in 1014, were written by people far removed from the events they described.

Fairly reliable accounts of London sounds begin with Samuel Pepys’s diaries around 350 years ago. Inferences must be drawn for the remaining 97% of the Holocene, but there has never been a better time than now for gathering the information needed. More and more academic journals are available as electronic editions, researchers can be reached by email, and datasets of all kinds are becoming publicly accessible.

Those of us brought up in London, and who have stuffed some decades under our expanding belts, will already know from memory how the city’s sounds have changed. We have heard a fragment of the long shift from times where kinship and, later, class were the primary social facts, towards the present age of the individual. It is as individuals that we now choose much of what we hear.

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