Thursday February 23, 2006

Pottery Recordings

A couple of days ago on the LINGUIST List, Mike Matloff mentioned a story from The Raw Feed that claimed:

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.  Here comes the VIDEO (the interviews are in French, but you'll hear the pottery recordings as well).

Voices from six millennia ago!  Isn't that amazing?  I imagine this sort of recording would be a real boon for historical linguists...if the video weren't a hoax.

Well, hoax might be a little strong.  According to a followup message, the video was originally an April Fools' joke.  Matloff doesn't like it:

I do not see the humor in making such a film, especially in light of the fact that there is no subtitle or any indication whatsoever given that the video is a farce.

Aw, come on, Mike, turn that frown upside-down!  You have to admit it's pretty funny.

It's not particularly original, though.  There are at least three prior instances of this idea (ancient audio recordings in pottery) being used in science fiction.  One was in a 1979 short story by Gregory Benford called "Time Shards", in which a researcher tries to recover thousand-year-old sound from a piece of pottery thrown on a wheel and inscribed with a fine wire.  (I haven't read it, so I can't tell you if he succeeds—anybody know?)  The second was Rudy Rucker's 1981 story "Buzz", which includes a snippet of similar ancient audio recovered from ancient Egyptian pottery.  The third was an episode of The X-Files titled "Hollywood A.D." (spoilerific summary here) in which Mulder and Scully think they may have stumbled across the "Lazarus Bowl", in which the voice of Jesus is recorded in the same way.

So, you're thinking, it's nothing but science fiction, right?  Slow down.  Below, I've transcribed the text of a letter published in the Proceedings of the IEEE (August 1969, pp. 1465-6) that I saw mentioned a couple of times when I was googling around researching this post:

Acoustic Recordings from Antiquity

Abstract—Pioneering experiments establishing the principles of recalling ancient sounds from antiquity are reported.

Widespread research on recalling from the past actual sounds, voices, music, etc., adventitiously recorded by ancient peoples (or events) upon the "surface" or within the substance of a wide variety of objects and artifacts crafted (or evolved) from "plastic" media warrants intensified efforts at the present time, because of recent developments in electronic signal analysis which can ferret out "signals" buried in "noise".

This letter is primarily intended to call attention to the potentials of Acoustic Archaeology and to record the early experiments which established the principle.

Two areas of the author's investigation, which began in 1961, will be of interest: 1) the recording of sound on wheel-thrown clay pots, and 2) the recording of sound in paint strokes applied to canvas.

The sound-reproducing system used consisted of a crystal cartridge (Asiatic Corp., Model 2) such as is used in phono pickups.  The cartridge was connected directly to a set of inexpensive earphones (Trimm "Acme." 2000 ohms).  The chuck of cartridge could be fitted with "needles" of any suitable material, length, shape, etc.  In all instances the cartridge was held in the fingers and could be positioned against a revolving pot mounted on a phono turntable (adjustable speed) or "stroked" along a paint stroke, etc.

Sound Recorded on Pottery

First Example

This consisted of a pot of fine clay, hand thrown on a potter's wheel.  The wheel in this example was an old, student-made wheel, constructed of an automobile crankshaft and flywheel mounted in a (too) light wooden frame.  Persistently out of alignment, the wheel had a noisy vibration almost amounting to a chatter.  The pot produced on this wheel was fired at low temperatures.

When the pot was suitably mounted on the phono turntable and agaist the side of the revolving pot was held the phono cartridge (fitted, in this instance, with a "needle" consisting of a flat-ended sliver of wood three-quarters of an inch long) the low-frequency chatter could be heard in the earphones.

Second Example

This was similar to the first example except it was a commercial pot which had been hand thrown on a motor-driven potter's wheel.  The 60 Hz motor was mounted directly on the frame supporting the wheel to which it imparted a loud hum.  Using the phono cartridge as above with a similar needle, areas could be found on the surface of the revolving pot where the hum could be picked up.

In both examples, it should be noted, the last act of the potter, prior to removing the pot from the wheel, was to "smooth" the surface of the pot using the "sharp" edge of a thin rib of wood.

Sound Recorded in Paint Strokes

This is of particular interest as it introduces the possibility of actually recalling and hearing the voices and words of eminent personages as recorded in the paint of their portraits or of famous artists in their pictures.

First Example

A canvas affixed to a small, square wooden frame was so stationed as to be able to vibrate freely.  This it would do when "spoken to" or where subjected to music from a nearby phonograph—as determined by touching it to the "needle" (wooded sliver) of the crystal cartridge and listening in the earphones.

With an artist's brush, paint strokes were applied to the surface of the canvas using "oil" paints involving a variety of plasticities, thicknesses, layers, etc., while martial music was played on the nearby phonograph.  Visual examination at low magnification showed that certain strokes had the expected transverse striated appearance.  When such strokes, after drying, were gently stroked by the "needle" (small, wooden, spade-like) of the crystal cartridge, at as close to the original stroke speed as possible, short snatches of the original music could be identified.

Second Example

This is to record the finding of a spoken word in an oil portrait.  The word was "blue" and was located in a blue paint stroke—as if the artist was talking to himself or to the subject.  Parenthetically, the search was long and tedious.  The principle, however, was established.

Many situations leading to the possibility of adventitious acoustic recording in past times have been given consideration.  These, for example, might consist of scratches, markings, engravings, grooves, chasings, smears, etc., on or in "plastic" materials encompassing metal, wax, wood, bone, mud, paints, crystal, and many others.  Artifacts could include objects of personal adornment, sword blades, arrow shafts, pots, engraving plates, paintings, and various items of calligraphic interest.

It is believed that this is the first public disclosure in this interesting field.

Richard G. Woodbridge, III
Box 111
Princeton Junction, N. J. 08550

I don't know what to think about this.  It could be engineer humor, though it wasn't published in the April issue.  The first three examples sound almost plausible—I can believe it's possible to make a very low-quality phonograph recording that way after a lot of trial and error—but what about the fourth one, where he actually claims to have found the word "blue" in a paint stroke?  Imagine Woodbridge crawling all over Princeton Junction, armed with his phono cartridge and earphones, gently stroking every oil painting he could find, week after week, searching for adventitious recordings.  Would the owners put up with that?  Would the cops put up with that?  I think I feel my leg being pulled.

[Update:  The term "acoustic archaeology" does seem to be in use, but it doesn't seem to refer to ancient recordings like the ones discussed above—rather, it refers to the study of the acoustic qualities of ancient buildings and spaces using modern techniques.]

[Update:  Benjamin Zimmer at Language Log has written a somewhat longer post on this subject.  There's some overlap, but he's found additional information on Woodbridge, and also mentions the term paleoacoustics.]

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It wasn't an ancient recording, but there was an episode of "CSI" that involved the technique.

Posted by: KCinDC at Feb 26, 2006 10:53:11 AM

I'm still trying to work out how anyone could take it seriously.

Posted by: Claire at Mar 4, 2006 3:49:38 PM

The TV show "Mythbusters" recently experimented with both the pot and painting recordings. They threw their own clay pots on a wheel and painted their own paintings whilst exposing both mediums to vocal and musical sounds when the objects were being created. Although their experiment with picking up the sound on painting grooves was not successful, (I must add here however, that they used a modern record player stylus to try to pick up the sounds in the painting experiments, and not a sliver of wood attached to a speaker - which I regarded as negating the entire experiment as the stylus was metal and not light enough to pick up delicate sounds), when the team did the sound experiment on the pottery, in one instance they definitely did hear background sound on one pot using a piece of straw as their stylus dragged around the surface of the pot.

Posted by: Jeanette at Apr 16, 2007 3:53:02 AM

This idea's been around a while. I'm sure it was quite a few years ago that I read a story where a man preparing things for some kind of time capsule was influenced by hearing a snatch of dialogue extracted from a thrown pot. It may have been in a SF anthology, since the story was set in what was the future at the time.

Posted by: Mez at Jun 22, 2007 5:16:59 AM

<sheepish> Didn't read beyond the cut before commenting. Was probably "Time Shards", and he does succeed, but I don't want to spoil the story too much in public.

Posted by: Mez at Jun 22, 2007 5:24:17 AM

In the collection "In Alien Flesh" by Benford there's a postscript to "Time Shards" where he says that the article you reproduced here is what gave him the idea for the story.

"... Otherwise, things are pretty much on the up-and-up. I got the notion while reading a paper in the Proceedings of the IEEE (1969, pp 1465-1466) where Richard Woodbridge first discussed the possbility. The method has been tried since, and it works..."

Posted by: Peter da Silva at Jun 9, 2009 4:50:46 AM

The mythbusters used a small sliver of glass as their stylus on a modern record player, and I don't recall them doing it on painting strokes. Just with the straw you had mentioned

Posted by: darren at Aug 13, 2010 7:59:19 PM

So they find the perfect Neolithic/Bronze Age pot and build a device to reproduce the captured sounds. The fidelity is astonishing. We hear with great clarity the sound of the potter's wheel turning.

Posted by: Pete Chapman at Nov 22, 2011 7:18:16 AM