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A Possible New Class of Prehistoric Musical Instruments from New England: Portable Cylindrical Lithophones

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Duncan Caldwell*
Marine and Paleobiological Research Institute, Vineyard Haven, MA 02535; and Department of Man, Nature, and Society, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France (


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 may 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 introduces a new avenue for the study of fossil sounds and rituals in both the region and continent because it is likely that similar artifacts will be examined for characteristic wear, tested acoustically, and recognized as the objects of prestige and ceremony that they may have been in their role as un-suspended musical instruments.



Con la excepción de un ejemplar, que se ha descrito como “campana de kiva” destinada a usarse suspendida, los grandes artefactos de piedra con sección circular u ovalada siempre han sido interpretados en la literatura arqueológica norteamericana como “afiladores” o “morteros.” Dos de esos objetos, particularmente largos, que se hallan en una colección de piezas prehistóricas de Nueva Inglaterra, obligan a interrogarse en cuanto al uso verdadero de algunos de esos objetos. La interpretación común de aquéllos bien podría ser errónea o incompleta, ya que dichos dos cilindros carecen de las características huellas de deterioro presentes sobre afiladores o morteros aseverados; por otra parte, tienen propiedades acústicas distintas; finalmente, son aparentados (en cuanto a materiales, sonoridades y morfología) a algunos probables litófonos de! Viejo Mundo, que eran tocados puestos sobre los muslos de ejecutantes sentados. Por lo tanto, estos dos objetos bien podrían ser los dos primeros litófonos cilindricos prehistóricos identificados en el continente americano, of reciendo alguna posibilidad para iniciar el estudio de sonidos y rituales fósiles en Nueva Inglaterra y el resto del continente. Es probable que otros objetos similares, después de examinadas las huellas de utilización presentes sobre ellos, y después de haber sido probados acusticamente, sean también reconocidos no sólo como instrumentos musicales no-suspendidos, sino además como objetos de prestigio y ceremonia.

Copyright © 2013 by the Society for American Archaeology.

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