The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology

Double-chambered whistling bottles:  A unique Peruvian pottery form

by Daniel K. Stat
Copyright ©1974 The Transpersonal Institute

The auctioneer blew into the spout of an unusually shaped pottery bottle,  and the vessel emitted a most peculiar whistle.  "A genuine article right out of King Tut's tomb,"  he declared,  and the crowd guffawed at the intended humor of his remark.  Steaming coffee,  stale donuts,  and fifty years of accumulation was the fare offered in the antler and cobweb bedecked barn housing the country auction.  With the exception of the ceramic jug which had drawn the crowd's laughter,  there appeared to be nothing of interest in the sale.  Ordinarily I would not have bid on the piece of pottery,  but on that particular evening I was accompanied by my friend John Hill,  who recognized it as bona-fide pre-Columbian art.

John had been associated with the H.F. duPont Winterthur Museum, and had carefully examined the Baltimore Museum's collection of early ceramics.  Advising me that the whistling jug was not only authentic pre-Columbian,  but also of an exceptional quality,  I decided to bid.  As we surmised,  there was no one at the sale who recognized the bottle for what it was,  and I was successful in acquiring it for a modest sum.  The following day I placed the vessel in my library never imagining the trail on which it would ultimately take me.

My new acquisition languished on a shelf for several weeks before making its presence known as something more than an archaic piece of pottery.  One afternoon I blew into the vessel's spout,  listening to the sound of the bottle's unusual whistle.  I was trying to envision the circumstances whereby the jug had been created and its possible place in the ancient culture which had produced it.  These thoughts disappeared as the vessel's sound filled my ears.

The pottery whistle had an attribute ordinarily associated with Hindu and Tibetan mantras.  Mantras are sacred syllables spoken or chanted in religious ceremonies to evoke a spiritual experience or inspirational state.  The very best mantras do not merely accept sacred association,  they elicit it.  The sound that I heard was forcing a sacred connotation which had neither been anticipated or solicited.  It was akin to the mantra  -  invoking a spiritual,  emotional,  and philosophical harmony with the universe.

Rather than ascribing this experience to a pottery whistle,  I decided to investigate the matter from as many vantage points as I was able to bring to bear on the subject.  Thus the trail that I was about to follow began by a visit to the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

I viewed the museum's exhibit of pre-Columbian art and was able to identify my artifact as having been produced by the Chimú,  an ancient South American civilization.  Navive to Peru, the Chimú had spread outward from the Moche Valley around the year 1000 A.D.  This river valley is located near the modern city of Trujillo and is among the most fertile in South America.  It is also the valley which contains the Sun and Moon Pyramids and the famed Chimú capital city,  Chan Chan.  The Chimor Kingdom and its predecessor Andean civilizations had anticipated many of the technical advancements later to shed such lustre on the Inca Empire,  including their famous roads,  cities,  and aqueducts  -  and this was the civilization which had produced my whistling bottle!

I contacted the renowned archaeologist,  Dr. Junius Bird at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  He very kindly took an interest in my investigation and invited me to examine his collection of whistling jars.  Dr. Bird informed me that they are a north coast Peruvian pottery form first appearing in the Salinar Civilization around the 5th century B.C.(1),  and described examples in his collection having a European Green Glaze,  the result of a later glazing technique introduced by the Spanish after their conquest of Peru in 1532.  This confirmed a known history of over two thousand years for this unique pottery form.  He further directed me to a paper written by Adrian Digby of the British Museum who attributes whistling "vases" to a Peruvian potter's "happy-accident."

The complexity of the bottle's construction,  however,  warranted a closer examination.  It is comprised of two chambers each connected to the other by an upper bridge handle which contains the actual whistle,  and a lower pottery ube that enables liquid to flow from one chamber to the other.  One of the chambers is usually modeled in the form of a bird,  animal,  or human figure;  while the other is globular with a tubular spout.

The traditional explanation for the whistle's function is that it acts as an air vent to permit the flow of liquid from one chamber to the other.  When the bottle is returned to an upright position after a portion of the liquid is poured from its tubular spout,  the remaining liquid seeking its own level flows into the effigy chamber through the lower pottery connection.  The liquid displaces the air in the figural chamber producing an air stream which exits the bottle through a small aperture in the back of the figural Indian's head.  This air stream is directed across the whistle's orifice which is located in the upper bridge handle,  causing the actual sound.  The current interpretation is that these bottles were "sounded" in this manner  -  by means of a liquid displacement of air.  However,  when they are "sounded" in this fashion the tone is barely audible  -  not at all the effect created when one blows directly into the tubular spout.

This "operational" variance coupled with the artifact's complexity seems to mitigate against the jug's inception and continuance as merely a potter's "happy-accident,"  and the whistle's function as only an amusing air vent.  Reinforcing this belief is the obvious difficulty of fabrication and the fact that other utilitarian pottery forms for containing liquids existed throughout the period of time whistling bottles were produced.

Having drawn these preliminary conclusions, I consulted with the Electrical Engineering Department of the Franklin Institute Research Laboratories in Philadelphia.  They were not only equipped to,  but interested in,  analyzing the acoustical properties of the vessel.  They determined that the sound emitted is a pure tone in the 2400 hertz range which,  at the ears of the individual "sounding" the bottle,  attains a loudness of 105 decibels.

At the juncture,  I accepted Dr. Bird's invitation to examine his collection of whistling bottles.  With tape recorder and other sound measuring equipment,  Bill Hargens,  an electrical engineer from the Franklin Institute, accompanied me to the Museum of Natural History in New York.  Our subsequent measurements of eight selected (2) vessels established that all eight emit pure tones with intensities of 85-105 decibels recorded at the ears of the individuals "sounding" the bottle.  It is interesting to note that measurements of loudness other than at the ears of the "sounder" were of a lower intensity.

The next stage of my investigation was to determine whether any correlation existed between these recorded sound levels and current research on the effect of sound on human beings.  I obtained a survey of international research prepared for the E.P.A.'s Office of Noise Abatement and Control,  on the physiological and psychological effects of noise.

A number of researchers had determined that under the influence of audible noise,  primary vegetative reactions occur which effect the internal organs,  blood vessels,  and heart.  Dr. Gerd Jansen,  a prominent West German investigator at the Max Planck Institute,  has hypothesized that it is the intensity of the sound which controls these somatic responses.  Noise-induced nervous stress has been established as fact,  and the primary effect is the higher activation of the organism.  During Dr. Jansen's tests,  his subjects' most extreme reactions occurred at loudnesses of 80-110 decibels.  It is noteworthy that these intensities encompass the precise levels emitted by all of the Peruvian whistling bottles surveyed.

Medical tests conducted by the Franklin Institute with the cooperation of Hahnemann Medical College of Philadelphia were undertaken in December of 1973 to measure the physiological effect of "sounding" my whistling bottle.  At Hahnemann's Department of Physiology and Biophysics there were recorded in several subjects definitive bodily changes,  including:   heart rate,  blood pressure,  and respiration when "sounding" the vessel.

"Religion is sound,"  say the Tibetans.  In India,  Brahmins believe that man was created by means of the "breath" and that sound can vitalize the God in man (atman).  The liturgical chants of churches,  the incantations of primitive tribes,  and the Sanskrit mantras all suggest that mankind has an ancient intuitive knowledge of altering consciousness through auditory stimuli.  If indeed there is a scientific basis for auditory induced religious experience,  it is significant that the levels of sound emitted by Peruvian whistling jars are of an intensity which induce the most pronounced physiological effects.

Pal Keleman,  in his book Medieval American Art maintains that the Andean's technological achievements will be understood much before their stylistic interpretations are known,  for technical analysis in our age has advanced far more rapidly than our ability to penetrate the spiritual complexities of a vanished and alien world.  Having scientifically investigated the nature of these vessels,  I directed my attention to some of the metaphysical aspects of the situation.

One of the spiritual complexities that I noticed in the course of my investigation was a seeming significance that the Andeans attached to their ears.  Ceremonial knives made out of gold and other ritual art consistently portray dignitaries or Gods wearing intricately wrought golden ear plugs.  During the 16th century the Spanish conquerors identified members of the Inca family by these ear plugs and nicknamed the Andean nobility "orejones" or "big ears."  In numerous museums I saw pre-Columbian artifacts with emphasized ear plugs and concluded that this preoccupation with the ears may have denoted a ritual importance relative to the hearing of sounds.  Other than a few musical instruments,  the only sound left to us by these bygone peoples is the sound of their whistling bottles.

My study ended with another intriguing puzzle  -  the interpretation of the sea shell motif which appears in two place on my whistling bottle.  The figural Indian's clasped hands hold two sea shells closed together,  and the globular chamber is itself in the form of a shell.(3)  this recurrent theme holds forth a tantalizing clue.  According to Mr. Keleman,  the Andeans often sealed two shells together as a contrivance to hold a treasure.

Is it possible that for thousands of years Peruvian civilization utilized sound to effect psycho-physiological reactions?  Perhaps because of a more esoteric approach to life,  the Andeans discerned a reality not readily apparent to modern mankind,  and perhaps the shell motif does indeed signify a treasure left to us by these ancient Americans.


(1)   Alan R. Sawyer,  former director of the Textile Museum,  Washington, D.C.,  postulates that double chambered bottles evolved from single chambered vessels,  and that the Salinar may have gotten the idea from the south coast Paracas people who were using the whistle as early as 1000 B.C.  On the other hand,  Paul A. Clifford,  Curator of the Pre-Columbian Collection of the Duke University Museum of Art,  suggests Ecuador as the possible origin.

(2)  The vessels were selected on the basis of their ability to function and,  subjectively speaking,  "sound" a clear note.

(3)  Michael Coe,  Professor of Anthropology at Yale University,  believes the shell to be a thorny oyster  (Spondylus),  a much valued item among the civilized peoples of the New World.

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