Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Residing in storage in the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle in Paris since French troops brought them back from the Sahara in the early 1900s are a set of ancient oblong stones long believed to have been to grind grain. The stones – some of them up to 3.2' (1 m) in length – have been dated to between 2500 and 8000 B.C., but their true use was only discovered only 20 years ago. Paleomusicologist Erik Gonthier, a former jeweller and stone-cutter, tapped one with a mallet in the storeroom of the museum in 1994. From it came a decidedly musical sound and 5 years later the stones were officially recognized as lithophones, which were played (EXAMPLE HERE) by resting them on brackets made of leather or plant fibers. Gonthier (IMAGE ABOVE) explains that each stone has 2 sound planes that can be found by tapping at 90° angles around its circumference. The public will be treated to a concert entitled "Paleomusique," performed 3 times this weekend, after which the stones will be packed away again forever to avoid damaging our cultural heritage. Gonthier states that our ancestors' musicality is often overshadowed by their rock-painting and tool-making skills. He believes there may have been a strong link between music and visual art in prehistoric caves: "These were the first theatre or cinema halls," he speculates. And the lithophones were designed to be portable. Not so, Stonehenge!

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