From gongs to stalactites: Rock music with a difference

There are places where the rocks sing. To our Stone Age ancestors, ambling across the world in search of the global village, they were a source of spiritual delight. To us, standing on the edge of our one galaxy in one hundred billion, they are still a source of wonder.

Stone chimes, it seems, are fairly common. Called lithophones, they are used as bells in Ethiopian and Coptic churches as well as in some Vietnamese temples. Stone chimes have been found in Chinese archaeological digs, notably in the tomb of Zeng Houyi, excavated in 1978, which also contained a set of bronze bells fashioned in 433 BCE. Stone chimes were used in Confucian ritual orchestras and survive today in similar groups in Korea.

In the south-western province of Sichuan, Chinese archaeologists found two large stone chimes dating back to the Shang Dynasty (16th-11th centuries BCE). They were found in the Jinsha Ruins in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan. In 2001 builders working at a construction site came across ivory and jade lying in the mud. Since then, experts have dug up more than 1,000 precious artefacts made of gold, jade, bronze, and stone, and nearly one ton of ivory.

In 2004, in southern India, archaeologists rediscovered a forgotten site where ancient people used boulders to make musical sounds. Kupgal Hill in Karnataka carries rocks with unusual depressions intended to be struck with small pieces of granite to produce deep, gong-like notes. One dyke also contains hundreds of rock art engravings (called petroglyphs), many of which date to the late Stone Age.

Such “rock gongs” are a larger form of lithophone. Huge slabs of stone that resonate when struck have been found in Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Uganda, and Zambia. They were brought to public attention in 1956 by anthropologist Bernard Fagg, who linked the geographic distribution of rock gongs to cave and rock paintings, suspecting that they were used in shamanistic rituals.

In South Sudan, the British Museum has been working with the Sudan Archaeological Research Society to survey, record, and excavate the region around the Fourth Cataract of the Nile prior to the damming of the river. Their efforts have helped prevent the loss of historically important sites which include rock art and rock gongs dating back to between 5000 BCE and 1500 CE.

James Blades, professor of percussion at London’s Royal Academy of Music and omniscient when it came to musical instruments that could be struck, lists rock gongs in his book Percussion Instruments and their History (1971). He, too, conjectured that rock gongs were used in religious ceremonies to provide an accompaniment for singing and dancing. “They are also used as anvils by African smiths; possibly the earliest blacksmith discovered their musical qualities, as Stone Age man may have recognised the pitch of stalactites.” Now there’s a thought!

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