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Beyond Stone & Bone

The Archaeology of Vinyl
by Heather Pringle
January 23, 2009


Over the recent Christmas season, my 21-year-old deejay nephew flipped through the large collection of vinyl LPs from the sixties, seventies, and eighties now shelved in our basement. Many is the time when I have privately cursed that collection, hauling heavy boxes of vinyl up and down steep flights of stairs on moving days. But my husband steadfastly refused to sell or pitch out anything—from the Dukes of Stratosphear to the Stranglers—and now I’m rather glad that he did. We now have a miniature museum of sound from the sixties, seventies, and eighties, complete with original shrink wraps and a few Andy Warhol covers.

But what will future generations – particularly future archaeologists—make of the hundreds of thousands of tons of vinyl recordings that our civilization pressed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? I expect most of you have seen that clever Pepsi commercial set in the future, where a middle-aged archaeologist leads his Pepsi-drinking students through a split level ranch house as if it were a Roman villa, and is unable to identify a dusty glass bottle of Coca-Cola. What will future researchers make of our record collections?

Well now we have a very good idea, thanks to Ofer Springer, an Israeli algorithms engineer. To fritter away some free time, Springer decided to analyze an old vinyl recording of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” the way a future archaeologist might. He first pored over the platter carefully,  examining it through a magnifying glass and taking note of waveformlike shapes in the record grooves. He then turned to oral history for clues, and recalled a legend that spoke “of a diamond needle that would vibrate when placed atop the revolving flat things,” and how “these vibrations, when amplified, would produce music.”

So Springer decided to create a digital needle and virtual turntable to play the LP. He first obtained a high-resolution image of the LP on a flatbed scanner. Then he wrote a piece of software to trace the image of the groove and produce sounds based on the wavelike patterns encoded there. Here is what he ended up with. Now take a listen to the original Vivaldi recording.

I found this exercise fascinating for a number of reasons. I think it attests the ingenuity of researchers who will not be stymied completely in the distant future when they stumble across the sherd of a Coca-Cola bottle or a fragment of old vinyl or other detritus from our disposable twentieth-first century culture. They will find clever new ways to decode them. But I think it is also an archaeological lesson in humility. Struggle daily as we do, we can never completely recover the reality of the distant past. It is always just there beyond us–in the deep grooves of an LP or the lost inscriptions of a Roman city.

Comments posted here do not represent the views or policies of the Archaeological Institute of America.

2 comments for "The Archaeology of Vinyl"

  • Reply posted by Stephen Strong (January 23, 2009, 1:04 pm):

    I find this fascinating, with the inclusion of a few current digital audio software experts, feel that it could be greatly enhanced in resolution within a very short time.
    As an Ex DJ that played vinyl on air including 78’s and 45’s and also as an audiophile and semi-pro audio engineer with a rather large collection of shellac and vinyl recordings. I myself have spent a few thousand hours digitizing recordings that are important to me. The means to do so is extremely tedious to achieve a result with high fidelty. Any means available to speed up that process would be fantastic. Heres hoping that
    further pursuit will be put in to this technology while those of us who lived with “vinyl” are current and not past.

    For anyone involved in digital archiving whether for personal, professional or institutional this is big moment.

    Hats off to Ofer Springer.

    Steve Strong
    Fort Worth, Texas


  • Reply posted by Angel Hamilton (January 24, 2009, 1:50 pm):

    I am an anthropologist and archaeologist and documentary filmaker and music lover and promoter and I find it very interesting how our culture of consumption is so disposable in its LP collections and how much money it takes to compile these collections and for those of us who love music and do not have any money it is disheartening that so much of the recorded music and film adn books are being thrown away in to the garbage and only money allows people to access it and its a bit unfair. I used to be able to go to the dump with my family which is where I developed my enthusiasm for the material culture of the collective human past and its a bit unfortunate that our children and families here in Canada are not allowed to travel through the dump looking for items to be reused because of lawsuits and safetey reasons which are valid and reasonable; yet, it is only within the flea markets, basements, garage stores and the few free stores that I know of where these items can be attained for someone as enthusiastic as me for these artifacts. So tell that 21 year old newphew that he is privilidged to have access to your basement of LPs. And for those of you who want to know more about the history of vinyl, check out Canada’s oldest radio station that is eighty years this year, CKUA.


About Our Blogger:

Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit

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