Digging Up Digital Music

Archaeological Institute of America - Archaeologists think of stone tools in terms of “technologies”—the particular ways that they were made and used—that help us understand the cultures that produced them. Today we have our own technologies, but they come and go at a vastly different pace. Their life spans are measured not in thousands of years, but in months and even days. To modern digital technology, 65 years is an eon.

A digital copy of the record was later made by the British Library, and Copeland and composer and musician Jason Long analyzed it. In studying the frequencies on the recording, they found some notes that the computer would not have been able to produce. Copeland and Long thought about what might have created these "impossible notes," including errors in the speed of the BBC's portable disc cutter. The researchers wrote a simple program and found that, sped up just a few percent, the recording perfectly matched the notes the computer could produce. With a little more cleaning up, the machine's original voice emerged. "It just sounded right for the first time," says Copeland. "We never knew it sounded wrong until we heard it right. We were able to dig up the original sound." Although it is only sound, it is a compelling reflection of its time.

Today, early artifacts of the digital age—chips, computers, equipment, diagrams, technical documents, even programs—are important historical records of developments that shape modern life, and they are at risk of being forgotten or destroyed. "The digital world moves so fast, it's constantly refreshing itself to such a degree that it is creating all kinds of opportunities for archaeology," says Christopher Witmore, an archaeologist at Texas Tech University who both works on ancient sites in Greece and writes about the archaeology of the more recent past. "Archaeology is rich enough to encompass all of these things."

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