February 23, 2006

A phonographic phony

There's a Belgian video clip (in French) that's been making the rounds, purporting to show an amazing new archaeological find. Here is a description of the video from The Raw Feed:

Belgian researchers have been able to use computer scans of the grooves in 6,500-year-old pottery to extract sounds -- including talking and laughter -- made by the vibrations of the tools used to make the pottery.

The link to the video got passed around online quite a bit, even showing up on the moderated Linguist List. The possibility of hearing voices from 6,500 years ago would obviously be an unprecedented breakthrough in the study of ancient languages. Unfortunately, the whole thing is a hoax, as acknowledged by the clip's creator, Bilge Sehir. On Sehir's website the video is described under the title "Poisson d'avril de journal televise" ("April Fool's Day newscast"), indicating that the story was concocted last year for Belgian television as an April Fool's prank. Sehir is a videographer who evidently came up with the stunt as an art project of sorts (an apparent accomplice is Phillipe Delaite, an art historian at the Liège Royal Academy of Fine Arts who poses in the video as a pipe-smoking archaeologist).

One tipoff for the careful viewer is a Latin phrase at the end of the video's voiceover: "Credo quia absurdum," or "I believe it because it is absurd." And the story no doubt has an appealing absurdity to it, so much so that it has been kicking around in one form or another since at least the late 1960s, with speculative roots back to the 1830s.

A search on the Usenet archive finds numerous discussions of the idea of phonographic pottery, in such newsgroups as sci.archaeology, sci.archaeology.moderated, sci.lang, sci.physics, soc.history.what-if, rec.audio.tech, misc.writing.screenplays, and most informatively, alt.folklore.urban. (Googling on paleoacoustics finds even more online discussion.) Everybody seems to have a vague memory of an old science-fiction plot relying on the possibility of unlocking ancient voices from the grooves of pottery or some other manmade creation. But the earliest speculations along these lines come from two science journals, both in 1969.

In the Feb. 6, 1969 issue of the New Scientist, the idea was discussed in the humorous "Daedalus" column by David E. H. Jones. (The column, in which Jones puts forth various harebrained yet somehow plausible scientific schemes, later moved to Nature, where it continued until recently.) As recounted in The Inventions of Daedalus, Jones wrote:

[A] trowel, like any flat plate, must vibrate in response to sound: thus, drawn over the wet surface by the singing plasterer, it must emboss a gramophone-type recording of his song in the plaster. Once the surface is dry, it may be played back.

As it turns out, an independent scholar named Richard G. Woodbridge III had already been working quite seriously on this matter. Woodbridge wrote in to "Daedalus," saying that the replication of his idea must be "one of those very, very odd coincidences":

How very odd, that I should have sent to Nature, a paper (dated 13 January, 1969) entitled "Acoustic Recordings from Antiquity"; which paper was perfunctorily rejected as being 'too specialized'. In my paper I noted my early experiments (1961) in the recording of sound (music, voices, etc.) on clay pots and on paint strokes applied to canvas (as in oil paintings) and the successful reproduction of such sound using a crystal phono pickup and a spatulate, wooden 'needle'.

Woodbridge would eventually find an outlet for his paper, in Proceedings of the IEEE, Vol. 57(8), August 1969, pp.1465-6. In truth, the "paper" is no more than a letter describing his experiments with making pots and paintings that could then be "played back." From analyzing the grooves of a pot, he claimed to have extracted the humming sound of the pottery wheel. Even more improbably, he said he could discern the word "blue" from an analysis of a painting's blue patch. ("Acoustic Recordings from Antiquity" is available in PDF form for those with an institutional subscription to IEEE Xplore.)

From these rather dubious origins, paleoacoustics was then explored in science fiction, notably in Gregory Benford's short story "Time Shards," appearing in the 1979 anthology In Alien Flesh. In the story, pottery from medieval England is analyzed to reveal conversations between the potter and his assistant in Middle English. (I haven't read Benford's story, but Kari Kraus on her Wordherder blog Accidentals and Substantives found it "really unsatisfying.")

More recently, the story line has shown up twice on American television. An episode of The X-Files ("Hollywood AD," Apr. 30, 2000) revolves around a bowl supposedly made in the presence of Jesus when he was resurrecting Lazarus. When the "Lazarus bowl" was played back, the rumors went, it had the power to raise the dead. And just last year CSI: Crime Scene Investigation had a similar plot ("Committed," Apr. 28, 2005), where the CSI team is able to recover voices from a pot made by a mental patient. On Digg, one of the forums discussing the Bilge Sehir hoax, a screenwriter for the CSI episode named Uttam Narsu wrote in to share this footnote he included in the original story treatment:

Recovering sound from pottery was suggested by Richard Woodbridge in "Acoustic Recordings from Antiquity", Proceedings of the I.E.E.E. 1969, pp. 1465-6). Years later, similar experiments were made in Gothenburg, Sweden, by archeology professor Paul Åström and acoustics professor Mendel Kleiner (see The Brittle Sound of Ceramics - Can Vases Speak? by Mendel Kleiner and Paul Åström, Archeology and Natural Science, vol. 1, 1993, pp. 66-72, Göteborg: Scandinavian Archaeometry Center, Jonsered, ISSN: 1104-3121). They were able to recover some sounds.

Narsu said he included the footnote "so the staff was sure it was science, not science-fiction." And sure enough, in the script for the episode, Grissom explains: "In the '60s, experiments were done on clay pots and painted canvas. Scientists were able to ferret out sounds that were captured during the creative process in the clay and the paint." So Woodbridge's tenuous claims live on in popular science-y fiction.

There are other paleoacoustical predecessors that do not necessarily rely on pottery or paintings to recapture the sound of voices from the past. For instance, the BBC aired a movie in 1972 called "The Stone Tape" about an old room made of a type of stone that could store both sounds and images. And a commenter on Accidentals and Substantives noted a much earlier forerunner for such speculation, from Charles Babbage's Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, written by the computing pioneer in 1837 (discussed by John Picker in Victorian Soundscapes). Here is an excerpt from Chapter 9, "On the Permanent Impression of Our Words and Actions on the Globe We Inhabit":

The pulsations of the air, once set in motion by the human voice, cease not to exist with the sounds to which they gave rise. Strong and audible as they may be in the immediate neighbourhood of the speaker, and at the immediate moment of utterance, their quickly attenuated force soon becomes inaudible to human ears. The motions they have impressed on the particles of one portion of our atmosphere, are communicated to constantly increasing numbers, but the total quantity of motion measured in the same direction receives no addition. Each atom loses as much as it gives, and regains again from other atoms a portion of those motions which they in turn give up. The waves of air thus raised, perambulate the earth and ocean's surface, and in less than twenty hours every atom of its atmosphere takes up the altered movement due to that infinitesimal portion of the primitive motion which has been conveyed to it through countless channels, and which must continue to influence its path throughout its future existence.

But these aerial pulses, unseen by the keenest eye, unheard by the acutest ear, un-perceived by human senses, are yet demonstrated to exist by human reason ; and, in some few and limited instances, by calling to our aid the most refined and comprehensive instrument of human thought, their courses are traced and their intensities are measured. If man enjoyed a larger command over mathematical analysis, his knowledge of these motions would be more extensive ; but a being possessed of unbounded knowledge of that science, could trace every the minutest consequence of that primary impulse. Such a being, however far exalted above our race, would still be immeasurably below even our conception of infinite intelligence. But supposing the original conditions of each atom of the earth's atmosphere, as well as all the extraneous causes acting on it to be given, and supposing also the interference of no new causes, such a being would be able clearly to trace its future but inevitable path, and he would distinctly foresee and might absolutely predict for any, even the remotest period of time, the circumstances and future history of every particle of that atmosphere. Let us imagine a being, invested with such knowledge, to examine at a distant epoch the coincidence of the facts with those which his profound analysis had enabled him to predict. If any the slightest deviation existed, he would immediately read in its existence the action of a new cause ; and, through the aid of the same analysis, tracing this discordance back to its source, he would become aware of the time of its commencement, and the point of space at which it originated. Thus considered, what a strange chaos is this wide atmosphere we breathe! Every atom, impressed with good and with ill, retains at once the motions which philosophers and sages have imparted to it, mixed and combined in ten thousand ways with all that is worthless and base. The air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are for ever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered. There, in their mutable but unerring characters, mixed with the earliest, as well as with the latest sighs of mortality, stand for ever recorded, vows unredeemed, promises unfulfilled, perpetuating in the united movements of each particle, the testimony of man's changeful will. But if the air we breathe is the never-failing historian of the sentiments we have uttered, earth, air, and ocean, are the eternal witnesses of the acts we have done.

A very enticing absurdity indeed.

[Update: Tensor, said the Tensor has also blogged about the phony phonography, helpfully providing the text of the 1969 Woodbridge letter. Additionally, Bill Poser sends along a citation for another speculative paper on paleoacoustics:

Heckl, W. M. (1994) "Fossil voices", in Krumbein, W. E., Brimblecombe, P., Cosgrove, D. E. and Staniforth, S. (eds.) Durability and change: the science, responsibility, and cost of sustaining cultural heritage. Chichester and New York: John Wiley & Sons. Appendix 3, pp. 292-8.

An abstract to an article by Heckl with the same title can be found here.]

[Update, 2/28: Many people have said they have vague recollections of a 1950s science-fiction television show using a paleoacoustic plot line. Doug Throp and Barbara Zimmer helped pinpoint the likely source of these recollections: an episode of Science Fiction Theater called "The Frozen Sound," originally airing nationwide in late July 1955. Here is the plot summary as it appeared in the July 31, 1955 Washington Post:

Also, Martin Ternouth sends along another sci-fi variation:

One fiction reference you may not know is a short story by the English writer JG Ballard called The Sound Sweep. It's about a boy who is deaf and dumb and is employed to hoover away the sounds of everyday activity so that the audio patina of the centuries is left pure in cathedrals and concert halls. I understand that it was also the inspiration for the 1970's hit "Video Killed the Radio Star" by The Buggles - which was the first video ever played on MTV. ]

[Update 6/1/2009: This myth was also covered (and busted) on Mythbusters later in 2006.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at February 23, 2006 06:55 PM