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IN FEBRUARY 2006 a news report echoed around the internet, purporting to play back 6,500-year-old voices and other sounds from a clay pot. The pot allegedly had waveforms etched into a groove as a potter incised a line with a stylus while the pot spun. It turned out to be Belgian television's offering for April fool's the previous year. But Patrick Feaster's rendition of 1,000-year-old audio is no jape. In May he regaled the annual conference of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections with the latest in what he dubs paleospectrophony.
It was only with Thomas Edison's invention and commercialisation of the phonograph in the late 19th century that etching transient sounds reliably in solid matter for future aural reproduction became possible. Earlier efforts involved trying to capture noises on paper, by hand or using various contraptions. Back then sound scribes reasoned that if they transcribed audio in the right way, others would be able to replay it in their heads, says Dr Feaster, just as trained musicians look at a score and hear the music. It did not work out that way. Most human brains are not, it seems, quite plastic enough to make the leap from a visual representation to an aural one.