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Portable Cylindrical Lithophones

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  • Portable Cylindrical Lithophones

    Lithophones are rocks which produce musical tones when struck with wood. They are little known in NA, but this may be due to their very close resemblance to cylindrical pestles. However, they will not show the usage wear typical of such pestles. Recently two such examples were identified from New England. This is preliminary research in the United States, but it is likely this class of artifact is more widespread then previously realized. The article below describes the New England examples, as well as pointing out certain perforated rods and "whetstones"  found in mortuary contexts that may also turn out to be varieties of lithophones. It has even been suggested that the giant stones at Stonehenge in Great Britain could, and perhaps did, serve as lithophones!! "Acoustic archaeology" is a relatively new branch of the discipline.
    Abstract and original publication info:
    - 2013. A Possible New Class of Prehistoric Musical Instruments from New England: Portable Cylindrical Lithophones.
    American Antiquity, Vol. 78, No. 3 (July): 520-535.
    With one exception, which has been described as a suspended “kiva bell,” long stone rods have been interpreted throughout the archaeological literature of North America as whetstones or pestles. Two particularly long rods in a collection of prehistoric artifacts from New England raise questions as to the real use of some of these objects. The prevailing interpretations of the two artifacts might be incorrect, or at least incomplete, because the rods lack the kinds of wear that are found on most whetstones or pestles. They also have different acoustical properties from true pestles, which are usually shorter, and are identical in materials, acoustics, and form to probable prehistoric lithophones from the Old World, which can be played on the lap.
    The identification of the pair of rods as good candidates for being the first known cylindrical, two-toned prehistoric lithophones from New England, and their apparent linkage to early-to-mid Archaic funerals between 9000 and 5000 BP introduces a new avenue for the study of fossil sounds and rituals in both the region and continent.
    Photo of New England example in use:
    Rhode Island