Prehistoric stone chimes thousands of years old to make music in Paris

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 March, 2014, 10:36pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 March, 2014, 10:36pm


Thousands of years after they resonated in caves, two dozen stone chimes used by our prehistoric forefathers will make music once more in a unique series of concerts in Paris.

Known as lithophones, the instruments have been dusted off from museum storage to be played in public for the first time to give modern man an idea of his ancestral sounds.

After just three shows - two today and a third on Monday - the precious stones will be packed away again, forever.

"That will be their last concert together," said music archaeologist Erik Gonthier of the Natural History Museum in Paris, ahead of the production.

"We will never repeat it, for ethical reasons - to avoid damaging our cultural heritage. We don't want to add to the wear of these instruments."

Dubbed Paleomusique, the piece was written by classical composer Philippe Fenelon to showcase the mineral clang and echo of instruments from beyond recorded time. They will be played xylophone-style by four percussionists from the French National Orchestra gently tapping the stones with mallets.

The point is to highlight our ancestors' musical side, which Gonthier says is often overshadowed by their rock-painting and tool-making prowess.

In fact, he believes, there might have been a strong link between music and visual art in prehistoric caves. "These were the first theatre or cinema halls," he speculated.

The instruments, carefullycrafted stone rods up to a metre in length, have been in the museum's collection since the early 20th century.

They have been dated to between 2500 and 8000 BC, a period known as the New Stone Age, characterised by the human use of stone tools, pottery-making, the rise of farming and animal domestication.

For decades, their solid, oblong shape made experts believe they were pestles or grinders of grain. But that perception changed a decade ago, thanks to a stroke of fortune.

Gonthier, a former jeweller and stone-cutter, discovered their true, musical nature when he tapped one with a mallet in the storeroom of the museum in 1994. Instead of a dull thud he heard musical potential, and decided to investigate further.

"I found some packaging foam in the trashcans of the museum I made two rests that I placed under either end of the lithophone, and tapped it. It made a clear 'tinnnnggg," Gonthier recounted.

"My heart beat like crazy. I knew that I had found something great."

Gonthier named his first lithophone "Stradivarius" after the famous makers of string instruments. Five years after his discovery, "Stradivarius" and dozens of other stones in the museum's collection were officially recognised as lithophones.