Let the sherds speak!

A recent ‘discovery’ on what appears to be French (Belgian?) TV made the rounds on a couple of mailing lists I was on recently — the claim was the researhcers were using new archaeological techniques to “recover sound from pottery that is hundreds of years old”:http://www.zalea.org/article.php3?id_article=496. The idea is that you can, for instance, recover the sounds of people saying things like “damn — why did it get so dark all of a sudden” in Latin off of vases that were dug up in Pompeii.

Not surprisingly, this turned out to be a “hoax”:http://www.makezine.com/blog/archive/2006/02/6500yearold_voices_recorded_in_1.html. It turns out that this idea has quite a history. The idea was first reported in the article “Ancient Recordings from Antiquity”:http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/Xplore/defdeny.jsp?url=/iel5/5/31123/01449244.pdf?isnumber=31123&prod=JNL&arnumber=1449244&arSt=+1465&ared=+1466&arAuthor=Woodbridge%2C+R.G.%2C+III&code=2 which appeared in the Proceedings of the IEEE in 1969. From there it appeared in Gregory Benford’s 1979 short story “Time Shards”:http://www.fictionwise.com/ebooks/eBook243.htm, which itself spawned episodes of “X-Files”:http://www.redwolf.com.au/xfiles/season07/7abx18.html and “CSI”:http://www.csifiles.com/reviews/csi/committed.shtml.

I don’t think anyone took this recurring hoax very seriously, but you know how it is — anything with a long enough Google Trail is going to convince someone that there must be something to the story. Also I sort of like the weird alignment of people who seemed most interested in this story — cultural studies types to whom this seemed technically feasible, the Boing-Boing/Make crowd who think it ought to be true even if it isn’t, and of course the fundamentalist Christians.

What immediately struck me about this idea of recovering sounds from old objects was that we ought immediately apply it ethnographies themselves. Who knows what sorts of sounds might be recovered from the Commaroffs’ copy of The Nuer? Or Geertz’s copy of Trance in Bali? Or, for that matter, Reo Fortune’s copy of Sex and Temperment…?


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

2 thoughts on “Let the sherds speak!

  1. Wasn’t there an ignoble prize awarded to someone a few years back who insisted that we could read the memory of water? That we could use sound waves from the molecules of water to determine its memory? I’m fairly sure the phrase “emotion” was used in reference to the water, as well.

    Would the individual sherds be crying out for their lost cousins, longing to regain the severed connection so dear to them?


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