About this time two years ago, Wondercabinet turned its curious ear to the little-known case of the phonautograph and how it produced the first ever recording of the human voice, nearly two decades before Thomas Edison. Another, earlier post about Joseph Faber’s Euphonia illuminated an ingenious, if macabre, early invention aimed at reproducing it.
Both were invented during the modern era, during or just after the Industrial Revolution. Today’s post tracks back another two thousand years. Lacking mechanical means, our forebears still managed to document the sound of a singing human voice using a more permanent technology, giving us the world’s oldest lyrics and sheet music, etched in stone.
This info comes down to us by way of a funeral stele called The Seikilos Epitaph, found at Tralleis near the city Aidin, on the Western coast of what is now Turkey. The man who first brought it to light was named William Mitchell Ramsay, a Scottish classical scholar and archaeologist who will feature in future posts about the Phrygians and the cult of Kybele, subjects which form the backbone of my forthcoming novel, Mother of the Mountain. Ramsay didn’t know quite what it was–he documented every inscription he happened across–but his publication was the first step towards recovering its timeless music and message.
The epitaph itself is a piece of tubular marble, dated to some time between the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD. It wriggled from the earth during the building of the Smyrna-Aydin railway, the first ever in Asia Minor. Ramsay happened upon it in the home of Edward Purser, manager of the building firm (Purser’s wife was using it as a base for her flower pots). From Purser it passed into another private collection and was ultimately smuggled out of Turkey by the Dutch Consulate at the end of the Greco-Turkish War. Thereafter it disappeared (likely into another private collection) for another 40 years until the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen announced its acquisition. Turkey has been calling for its repatriation ever since.
The inscription begins “I am an icon in stone. Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance”. The lyrics of the song follow, a sort of Hellenistic Greek version of Carpe Diem:
The last extant line of the inscription reads “Seikilos Euter”, usually translated as “From Seikilos to Euterpe”. Many interpret is an elegy for the dead composer’s wife, but it is worth noting that Euterpe was the Greek goddess of song and elegiac poetry.
The musical notation comes from marks made above the lyrics, deciphered in 1891, and places the song in the suitably melancholy Phrygian mode. Numerous interpretations and recordings of it exist, but two of the loveliest are included here for your enjoyment.