Visual sound recording pre-dates Edison’s phonograph

It was called a phonoautograph and it saved sounds in symbols on paper. Unlike the phonograph, though, it couldn’t play those symbols back. Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory can.

“This is a historic find, the earliest known recording of sound,” said Samuel Brylawski, the former head of the recorded-sound division of the Library of Congress, who is not affiliated with the research group but who was familiar with its findings. The audio excavation could give a new primacy to the phonautograph, once considered a curio, and its inventor, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, a Parisian typesetter and tinkerer who went to his grave convinced that credit for his breakthroughs had been improperly bestowed on Edison.

Scott’s device had a barrel-shaped horn attached to a stylus, which etched sound waves onto sheets of paper blackened by smoke from an oil lamp. The recordings were not intended for listening; the idea of audio playback had not been conceived. Rather, Scott sought to create a paper record of human speech that could later be deciphered.

But the Lawrence Berkeley scientists used optical imaging and a “virtual stylus” on high-resolution scans of the phonautogram, deploying modern technology to extract sound from patterns inscribed on the soot-blackened paper almost a century and a half ago.

It’s like hearing braille! Amazing how well it worked too:

[audioplayer file=”″ titles=”Phonoautograph recording”]

Donkey reverence in early Egypt

At a funerary complex in Abydos, archaeologists have uncovered the skeletons of 10 donkeys buried with full honors. The bones date from 3000 B.C.

No other animals have ever been found at such sites. Even at the tombs of the kings themselves, the only animals buried alongside were ones full of symbolism like lions. […]

“They were very surprised to find no humans and no funerary goods, and instead to find 10 donkeys,” said Fiona Marshall, a professor of archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis.

“It was just a spectacular discovery,” said Dr. Marshall, one of the few researchers in the world dedicated to understanding the history of donkeys. “It’s not exactly what an Egyptologist would expect to find.”

Eat your heart out, cats! The asses beat you to it.

Barbary lions in the Tower of London

Genetic analysis confirms that the two lion skulls found during a 1937 excavation of the Tower of London are north African Barbary lions, most likely gifts for the Royal Menagerie.

Dr Richard Sabin, Curator of Mammals at London’s Natural History Museum, said the results were the first genetic evidence to clearly confirm that lions found during excavations at the Tower of London originated in north Africa.

He said: “Although we have one of the best mammal collections in the world here at the Natural History Museum, few physical remains survive of the Royal Menagerie.

“Direct animal trade between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa was not developed until the 18th Century, so our results provide new insights into the patterns of historic animal trafficking.”

I’m not sure what new insights he means. I mean, it seems to me not much can be gleaned about the pattern of the traffic from knowing about the mere existence of the lions in the middle ages.

Anyhow, it’s still just cool. There aren’t any Barbary lions left in the wild now, and there are only about 40 in captivity.

60 Minutes does the James Ossuary

The James Ossuary, the bone box inscribed “James son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus” that made the news 5 or so years ago when it was “found” by antiquities dealer Oded Golan, and then found by the Israel Antiquities Authority to be a forgery, is back in the news again.

60 Minutes did a story on the ossuary. They even track down an Egyptian craftsman who has forged tablets for Golan in the past.

An interesting side-note:

The question [of whether the inscription was forged] comes up because the ossuary was not dug up at an authorized excavation, where every shard is scrutinized by scholars. Like most so-called antiquities, it just turned up in the shop of an antiques dealer, which is another way of saying it was looted.

The Israel Antiquities Authority has a special unit of archaeological detectives trying to stop this trade. They spend their nights burrowing underground on the trail of tomb-raiders, like those who may have stolen the ossuary from the tomb of James. The trouble is, no one has any idea when that happened, or where.

But we do know where it turned up: in the Tel Aviv apartment of Oded Golan, an Israeli entrepreneur, amateur pianist, and one of the world’s biggest collectors of biblical antiquities.

Here’s a good example of another aspect of the looting trade. The traffic of illicitly excavated antiquities is peppered with forgeries — a little fakeration can add value to a sale, and it’s a lot easier to sell fakes when you don’t have to trouble yourself to prove provenance — and there’s a very fine line between “collector” and launderer/fence.

The 60 Minutes segment:

13 million historical photographs searchable online

Not quite yet, but the Smithsonian is working on consolidating their massive collection of photographs spread across 19 museums in 700 archives and special collections with the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.

It features a search engine that will eventually give visitors access to all the photographs in the collection, as well as offer curated exhibitions, public forums and educational programming.

Until now, a search for pictures of the 19th-century American West by William Henry Jackson, say, would lead a scholar on a scavenger hunt through the National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Even then, the process might yield only a fraction of the Jackson images held by the Smithsonian.

“The site is first and foremost dedicated to making the institution’s photography collections more accessible and visible to the public,” said Merry A. Foresta, director of the project and former senior curator of photography at the Smithsonian Institution. “We’re not there yet, but hopefully soon you will be able to search on ‘Native American’ and find collections in Natural History and Anthropology, the National Portrait Gallery, American History, American Art, Air and Space and, of course, the National Museum of the American Indian.”

It’s a cool site already, and not just because there are thousands of beautiful and historically significant pictures to browse, but also because of the essays and commentaries from photographers, curators, even Hugh Hefner.