World’s oldest playable musical instruments: Listen

March 14, 2008

About that 5,200-year old animation: Was there a musical score to accompany it?

Certainly flutes could have provided accompaniment: Research establishes that several neolithic bone flutes found in China are 7,000 to 9,000 years old.

9,000 year-old flutes from crane bones, Brookhaven National Lab

A 1999 release from the Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) discussed the dating of the flutes:

Recent excavations at the early Neolithic site of Jiahu, located in Henan province, China, have yielded six complete bone flutes between 7,000 and 9,000 years old. Fragments of approximately 30 other flutes were also discovered. The flutes may be the earliest complete, playable, tightly-dated, multinote musical instruments.

Garman Harbottle, a chemist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and member of the Jiahu research team, helped analyze data from carbon-14 dating done in China on materials taken from the site. “Jiahu has the potential to be one of the most significant and exciting early Neolithic sites ever investigated,” said Harbottle. “The carbon dating was of crucial importance to my Chinese colleagues in establishing the age of the site and the relics found within it.”

These flutes were found in modern China, and the bowl with the jumping goat images was found in modern Iran. The spread of technology may have worked on a millennial time scale then. Did the flute technology cover the approximately 3,500 miles between the sites, in the 3,000 to 4,000 years in between their creation?

At least two .wav files exist of one of the flutes being played (here, and here), again from BNL; the actual tunes the flute creators played, we do not know, ASCAP and BMI did not protect the publication of the tunes.

What other astounding archaeological finds are out there, relatively unpublicized?


Sticks nix creationist pic

March 14, 2008

“Expelled!” producers gave away free tickets. They invited legislators personally. But only about 100 people showed up for an IMAX showing of the movie in Tallahassee, Florida.


Hey, I got 1,000 times that many people to click on an 8-frame .gif animation of an ancient goat. Real science trumps creationism again.

Real science is almost always more popular than faux-science and bad religion, but that will not stop creationists from creating trouble in any state agency in any state they can.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Pharyngula.

[Yes, I’m aware of the historical implications of the headline.]

Return to normalcy

March 14, 2008

For at least one hour this past week, the Bathtub got more than 11,000 hits. Who could have foreseen that a post about an ancient piece of pseudo-animation would catch the fancy of so many? I gather that the word “animation” played a key role in the enormous popularity of the post.

In two days the Bathtub got more than 100,000 hits; that’s big blog territory, about where WordPress phones and suggests it’s time to move to a paid format. The first day was chiefly driven by Reddit; the second day by Digg. At this point traffic is coming from about five different flagging services.

I wish other, more serious posts would merit such attention. In the real world, People magazine sells a lot more than Time, and a lot more than Natural History, and those magazines throw away an equivalent of the entire press run of The Journal of the Air Pollution Control Association just because of a crease in one page. Content quality bears no correlation to total circulation. But that’s my judgment; who can say that my judgment is better than the crowd’s? Santayana’s Ghost is a more amicable companion, but Galton’s Ghost haunts us, too.

So, some observations:

1. Archaeologists and anthropologists need to flack their finds better. The animated .gif was created in 2004 as best I can determine. I picked up the story from a tiny note in a monthly archaeology newsletter Kris Hirst’s blog at from, which picked the story up from a note on a piece of controversy about the bowl (regarding whether it was the Assyrian Tree of Life depicted or not). The bowl was found, depending on the source, in the 1970s or 1980s (surely someone knows which date would be correct).

In other words, this “news” has been kicking around for a quarter to a third of a century. What other magnificent archaeological finds would people find fascinating, if they only knew about them?

This is a constant problem. News gatekeepers — editors — generally do a good job, but the volume of news means many things people would find intriguing, get overlooked. Some day I’ll write up my experiences as a press secretary, telling how editors would repeatedly reject tips as “not news,” then run the items months later when the item came in through a different source, or a different route. (“She came in through the bathroom window,” the Beatles sang, and every press secretary understands why; the door and the grand staircase were occupied.)

The problem is compounded by the internet and computers. Most people who looked at the post did not start out the day wondering what had happened recently in archaeological digs in Iran. News reader filters for our “interests” may shut out things we really would be interested to see. I called it “animation,” and 100,000 people crowded to see. There’s nothing like an old fashioned newspaper to pique our interest in odd items we were not looking for at all, on pages where we read other stuff we were looking for.

2. We all need to marry the cyber world to the real world. I still know precious little about the artifact in question. Where can I find information on it? I don’t have access to archaeology journals. Without knowing exactly where to look on the internet, we are all at a loss as to where to turn. What museum is this piece in, if any? (If it’s not in a museum, Iran or its owners could auction it off at a pretty good price right now, I’ll bet.) Who were the Italians who found it? Where can we find the papers describing it? What about the 11-minute film mentioned in the press releases — where is that film, how can we see it? Those people who hold this information appear not to be plumbed into the tubes of the internets, or the spigots are turned off. There is an information vacuum here, and good, real information is difficult to find to fill it.

3. Most of us know precious little about the world; the internet is often limited in the help it can offer to cure our ignorance. Several commenters seemed to have some knowledge about Iran’s archaeological heritage. Most of us had never heard of the Burnt City, most of us still couldn’t find it on a map, and most of us don’t know where to go to get the next chunk of fascinating information. The internet is a great institution, but in these matters, it’s still hit or miss for people who really want to know. We’re missing the boat on using computers and the internet as education tools.

Readers: What else have we learned from this experience?

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