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Local archaeologist shares discovery about early music

Colorado has rocks that, well, rock. They are called lithophones, and a local archaeologist who first came across these strangely shaped stones 40 years ago is finally sharing their musical story.

Longmont archaeologist Marilyn Martorano first laid eyes on the long, baguette-shaped rocks almost four decades ago, as a volunteer at what is now Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in southern Colorado.

The clearly hand-shaped stones, which had been discovered in the area, were housed in the on-site museum when Martorano first saw them. They were a strange set of artifacts for which no one had yet determined a use. Martorano put them back into their drawer, assuming that someday someone would figure out their purpose.

Thirty years later, Martorano borrowed the rocks from the museum to study. While many had postulated that the rocks were tools for grinding, the absence of typical marks led Martorano away from that theory. She studied for three years, without success.

The day before she was to return the rocks to the museum, a friend sent her a video that showed a collection of stones from Paris--stones that looked exactly like those she’d been studying. The rocks, musical stones classified as lithophones, had been found all over the world, but never in Colorado. After watching the video, Martorano started tapping the mysterious stones, and their purpose was suddenly clear.

After obtaining a grant from History Colorado State Historical Fund to study the lithophones, Martorano has learned much about the strong desire early humans had to express themselves.

“The rock is very dense, usually volcanic, granite or basalt. In order to be shaped, it can’t be hit too hard or too soft,” Martorano said.

She presented some of her findings and artifacts during her open-to-the-public presentation on Nov. 8 at Front Range Community College (FRCC). FRCC instructor and Niwot musician Michael DeLalla had heard about Martorano’s work on public radio, and reached out to her, not even realizing that she was also a local resident.

“Some lithophones were left roughened, possibly to increase resonance,” she said, “and others were highly polished.”

Some of the Colorado-found lithophones have residue of what is believed to be ochre, a natural pigment that early humans used as decoration or for ceremonial purposes. And some have distinct hand-carved designs on them, possibly for simple aesthetics or the mark of the person or group who fashioned the musical stones over 6,000 years ago.

Another fascinating aspect of these visually uncomplicated artifacts is that each has two acoustical nodes; two spots that are difficult to find at first, but are the only place in which the lithophone can be attached to rope or wood or held in order to not compromise the sound. These nodes are “dull areas” that these early musician/quarriers had to determine, along with whether or not that particular rock even had a decent tone.

“The rocks were first selected for their acoustical properties,” said Martorano,”and then they had to be made into a certain shape. What the material is matters, what the ends are shaped like matters. Then how they are held and what they are played with matters.” Martorano demonstrated the different tones achieved by hitting the lithophones with wood, antler and bone. The lithophones produce sounds ranging from the sound of tapping on a crystal glass, to a wooden marimba, to a xylophone.

“Out of the 22 artifacts we studied, we got a minimum of 57 notes out of them. That’s at least two different notes from each stone,” Martorano said, adding that “56 percent of the notes made by the stones are the notes played on the black keys of the piano--the pentatonics. Those are the most commonly used scales in music in civilized societies around the world.”

While most of the stones Martorano has studied have come from the San Luis Valley area, lithophones have been found in the eastern plains of Colorado and near Salida as well. One Colorado percussionist, Jeff Shook, has found several lithophones while digging post holes.

“They’re out there,” Martorano said. “We just need to open our minds to the fact that sound was so important in the past. This shows that early man had so much more going on than just hunting, eating and trying to stay alive. They wanted meaning to their lives.”


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