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Lithophones – Colorado's first rock music


October 2, 2019 | View PDF

Sal Martorano

Archaeologist, Marilyn Martorano will be giving the first lecture of the Now and Then Lecture Series hosted by the Niwot Historical Society. Her presentation on musical rocks called lithophones will include a demonstration of the rare prehistoric artifacts.

The 2019-2020 Niwot Historical Lecture series begins with a bang – a bang on an ancient musical instrument that is. In the first of four planned lectures for the upcoming season, archaeologist Marilyn Martorano, will discuss the lithophone, one of the rarest prehistoric artifacts discovered in Colorado.

"I always loved the archeology in the San Luis Valley, it's so diverse - from prehistoric times thousands of years ago to the historic period," Martorano said, "but I never thought I'd be studying stone artifacts that are instruments. That wasn't anything I had any ideas about until just a few years ago."

Born and raised in Alamosa, Martorano has been digging in her own regional backyard so to speak. She holds a masters in anthropology from Colorado State University and has worked professionally across the Rocky Mountain area including for the park service in the Great Sand Dunes and the forest service before starting her own consulting firm – Martorano Consultants LLC.

Her more than four decades of digging and researching has led to her being a highly sought-after leader in both research and cultural resources management. Martorano has worked to establish many National Historic Landmark designations in Colorado and has won several professional awards.

Her love for the past came to her early in life. Both of her parents had a deep interest in archeology. Her father taught at Adams State College and every summer family travels meant stops at every historical site on the road. Growing up in the San Luis Valley offered an abundance of evidence of prehistoric people. Martorano has an appreciation for the importance of history and wants to be sure it's shared with the public.

She first laid eyes on the cylindrical smooth stones (some as long as two feet) at the Great Sand Dunes. The initial guess was that they were grinding or digging tools. But it was striking that their "use patterns" and large size were inconsistent with being simply utilitarian. So the odd rocks were tucked away for many years awaiting an epiphany that would pinpoint their purpose.

In 2013, Martorano discovered the rocks were something more moving than tools. A YouTube video sent to Martorano by a colleague showed a French researcher with drawers of the same type of artifacts that soldiers had brought back from Africa in the early 1900s. When the researcher tapped on the rocks, they resonated. Called litho for stone and phone for sound in Greek, the highly modified rocks from the Great Sand Dunes finally had a name and became part of a category of relics found all around the world.

Suspended on a lap or legs, hung vertically or placed horizontally atop a rope, the reverberating rocks each emit different tones when knocked on or rubbed with a mallet.

"It kind of opened a whole new realm, at least for me, thinking about music and sound for ancient folks," Martorano said.

Why did our very early predecessors, who were hunter gatherers moving from one locale to another, find these belongings so necessary that they carried them even though they weighed up to 10 pounds apiece? Were the sounds made for pleasure, communication or were they perhaps used in ceremonies?

"It's really interesting to me that they were spending the time to make these artifacts, which are so amazing when you look at them. They're pecked and shaped so beautifully and they're heavy. To me that means they were really important because you wouldn't be carrying them around unless it meant something," Martorano said.

Martorano's presentation will cover where these ancient musical instruments are found and will explore the research being done to uncover their mysteries.

Attendees will have an opportunity to see and play lithophones on loan to Martorano from the Colorado History Museum and San Luis Valley collections. Some of the lithophones on display are thought to be 6,000 years old or older.

The lecture will take place on Wednesday, Oct. 9, at the Left Hand Grange, 195 2nd Avenue, Niwot. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. for pre-lecture coffee, snacks, and conversation. The presentation begins at 7 p.m. Admission is free to Niwot Historical Society members and $5 for non-members. The hall is handicap accessible.

The Niwot Historical Society's mission is to preserve, collect, and protect the history of Niwot and the surrounding area. To join the Niwot Historical Society, which is a 501(c)3 non- profit organization, an individual membership is $15 and families are $25. All donations are tax deductible. For additional information, please visit NiwotHistoricalSociety.org.


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