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Echoes from the Past: Unveiling the Mysteries of Lithophones in Ancient Egypt

Lithophone is a musical instrument made from stones or rocks. It is a type of idiophone that produces sound when struck, tapped or rubbed with a stick. Lithophones were used in various parts of the world since ancient times. They were found in different archaeological sites across the globe.

Person playing an ancient lithophone
Ancient Egyptian Lithophone

The keepers at an archeological site in Egypt say that this particular stone, came to earth from the heavens.

One of the most famous sites where lithophones were found is the Saqqara necropolis in Egypt. The site contains a number of lithophones that date back to the 3rd millennium BCE. Some of them were used in religious rituals and ceremonies.

In China, lithophones were used during the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). They were found in the tombs of nobles and royalty. The Chinese lithophones were made of jade, marble and other types of stones. They were also used in religious ceremonies and were believed to have healing powers. It is also said that the Qing, or sounding stone, is mentioned in the Analects as one of the instruments played by Confucius.

In North America, lithophones were used by the Aztecs and the Mayans. They were made of volcanic rocks and were used in both religious and secular music. Lithophones were also found in other parts of the world, such as Indonesia, Thailand, and Zimbabwe.

Now that we understand where lithophones have been found, let's explore the lithophones of Sudan and Egypt.

Revelations from the ancient Dar en-Njoum rock gong of Sudan

The Fourth Cataract region of Sudan is rich in history and culture, and during the 2009 survey, it was discovered that the rock art landscape also had an acoustic aspect in the form of rock gongs or lithophones. One such lithophone was found near the Nile, about 500m away from the village of Dar en-Njoum. This large lithophone is surrounded by graves and tumulus clusters that are provisionally dated to the Kerma period.

Kerma was a powerful city-state that existed in the Nile valley from around 2500 BCE to 1500 BCE. The people of Kerma were known for their skilled pottery and metalworking, as well as their elaborate burials. The discovery of the lithophone near Dar en-Njoum provides further evidence of the rich cultural heritage of the Fourth Cataract region of Sudan.

Features of the Lithophone:

  • It is a boulder composed of granite gneiss weathered out of the surrounding bedrock

  • Estimated weight of 3 tons

  • The slab is lifted off the ground on three and a half of its four sides, to a convenient ‘playing height’ between 720mm and 780mm above the (present) ground surface

  • The cryptocrystalline microstructure of stone and the degree to which a rock is freestanding are what afford resonance.

  • A total of 115 cup marks and distinct percussion zones measuring up to 120mm in width and nearly 40mm in depth were identified

  • Most percussion zones and cup marks are located along the eastern, northern and southern edges of the slab, including the largest and deepest.

  • Players would have been positioned immediately to the east of the slab, standing upright and facing to the west toward an open space, where larger numbers of people may have gathered

  • It was played primarily with players positioned around the slab rather than anywhere on the rock gong itself.

  • Good sound effects can be achieved by just dropping a fist-sized hammer stone on the rock surface or into a cup mark from a low height and letting it jump back into one’s hand. The wear on the rock surface is negligible from this type of gentle impact, which means that the cup marks will potentially have taken a long time to form.

  • Dark, fully re-patinated cup marks would last have been played hundreds if not thousands of years ago and not significantly since, while cup marks of light color were used much more recently.

  • Striking the rock gong created an audible metallic ringing sound, with a main single pitched frequency audible as well as other, weaker harmonics.

  • Using quartz as well as other, softer stones as hammer stones was far more effective, with the harder quartz resulting in the most distinct sounds

  • One hammer stone was used by each individual, alternating between two cup marks. Rock gong play would be coordinated with other players, who would strike neighboring sets of cup marks in an agreed rhythm.

  • A series of strikes, perhaps two per second, allowed resonances in the stone to build up and become more sustained. They did not fade away.

  • The gong was found in the midst of a cluster of rocks, which may have been used to amplify the sound of the gong.

  • Because it is situated amongst graves and clusters of tumuli that appear to date to the Kerma period (c. 2500-1500 BC), this rock gong was – at least for part of its use life – located in the center of an active mortuary landscape.

Egyptian Lithophones

Lithophones were played in ancient Egypt, where they were used in religious ceremonies and believed to have healing properties. The Egyptian lithophone was made of a variety of materials, including basalt, granite, and limestone. The stones were carefully selected for their size and shape, and then carved and polished to produce the desired sound. The lithophone was played by striking the stones with a mallet or another stone, producing a range of tones and rhythms.

The use of lithophones in ancient Egypt is a testament to the importance of music and sound in their culture. The Egyptians believed that music had the power to heal the body and soul, and that it was an essential part of religious and social life. The lithophone was just one of many instruments used in ancient Egypt, including harps, flutes, and drums.

When examining lithophones on archaeological sites today, we can observe that the lithophones found in Egypt share similarities with those found in Sudan. Both types of lithophones have percussion marks primarily on one side and are elevated off the ground to enhance resonance.

If you are interested in experiencing the sound of an ancient Egyptian lithophone, it is likely that you will need special permission to visit one of the archaeological sites where they are found. This permission is granted by the Ministry of Antiquities and may require clearance from other authorities as well. It is important to note that these sites are often fragile and should be treated with care and respect.

Listen to the tones of an Ancient Egyptian Lithophone in the video below. If you would like to see a lithophone in person, book a trip with Mohammad Awyan and learn more.

In conclusion, the ancient Egyptian lithophone was a unique and important instrument that played a significant role in their culture and religion. Its use in religious ceremonies and belief in its healing properties demonstrate the importance of music and sound in ancient Egyptian society. Lithophones can produce a wide range of sounds, from soft and mellow tones to sharp and percussive sounds. They can be played using mallets, hammers, or even bare hands. Despite their unique sound and beauty, lithophones are not as widely used as other types of musical instruments, but they continue to fascinate and inspire musicians and music lovers alike.

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