Over the past few months I’ve been going through the tedious process of digitizing a box of old, irreplaceable cassette tapes, trying to preserve their contents before ferrous particles jump right off the Mylar. It’s an eery feeling hearing my own voice from junior high, my grandmother’s voice as it sounded when I was a child, my first girlfriend singing. Amazing how these voices stir long-buried memories.
Some researchers are trying to wake much older ghosts, attempting to restore sounds from before the dawn of recording technologies. The theory is that a potter’s hands could function as a stylus, leaving an acoustical trail on the soft clay, similar to a record’s grooves. In theory, it might — might — be possible to decode those vibrations back to audible sound. Other attempts involve a painter and his/her brush, working soft paint. So far no dice, according to Hamp, though research into archaeoacoustics has been going on since 1969.
I seem to remember seeing a National Geographic article about this technique as a kid, and in that article, they reported hearing the clear sounds of a dog barking more than 2,000 years ago. Research is also going into extracting sound imprints from cave walls.
A new book on archaeoacoustics is available from the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.