Sounding Stones

Molly Johannson and Sarah McFalls, UCL Anthropology

This posting is one part of a wider project called Properties and Social Imagination – a collaboration between UCL Anthropology and Artists working at the School for Material and Visual Culture at Massey University, New Zealand. The project took several objects from the UCL Ethnography Collections and MA students and faculty conducted a series of experimental research projects, which explored the material properties, qualities and affordances of the collection.

This posting focuses on a Green Stone adze, from Papua New Guinea, and forms part of a wider essay which will shortly be published as a Material World Occasional Paper Series.


Over the course of the project we realised our interactions with the adze brought life to all types of stone, and subsequently also animated our surroundings. Sound and the lack thereof had been a reoccurring theme, and the properties by which we came to know the adze as more than an object. Sound defied our expectations and by doing so defined what the project meant for us.In order to further our research on the aural properties of the adze’s material, we began collecting noises from various stone interactions. We used them to show the transformation a material and object can go through. As urban areas are to a large degree stone based, we engaged with the stones and became aware of the noises of the city in a much more acute way. Listen to a city street you no doubt will hear a plethora of stone interactions, which has influenced our way of experiencing, and interacting with stone. Our collection process was simple in that we tried to isolate the noises that go unnoticed in the hustle and bustle of city life. As we listened to them one by one, we came to an unexpected realisation. Although what we heard did not reveal the actual material interaction, it did enable us to sense movement. For instance, in “stone interacting with bare fingers” (link below) we were able to hear the tonal shift produced while touching the adze. We challenged the assumptions and expectations about what sounds stones can make through our collection’s varied soundscape of the human-stone relation. This process exposed the complicated human-object relationship and the fact that some properties, such as sounds, are the result of an interplay that would otherwise be silent.

As an application of the research, we challenged curatorial practice in displaying “voiceless” objects. We focused on the sound of a material, in this case stone as the focus of a museum exhibition and we presented our ideas to the Massey University and British Museum. The project aim was to display our thought and work process, as well as functioning as a thought experiment for the museum professionals. We wished to see the practice when engaging with “voiceless” object in collections, or even in everyday life to be more open to experimentation and interpretation. In the case of the museum display much of the focus was on the question of how one can display something non-ocular in a setting predominantly favouring an ocular interaction. We also sought to present or display a relation.

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This is sound is from the making of our miniature adze. The stone is rubbed against the grindstone. First out of water and then they are both submerged. We focused to a large part of sound because of the experience of making an adze. The constant noise of the grinding and the shaping of stone is soothing, almost like the stone is taking over our body through its noise.

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A suitcase being drawn back and forth over cobblestones. The suitcase is empty and the zipper is jingling. Stone is a large part of our modern landscape. However, it is easily forgotten. When was the last time you contemplated the stones in the city, the stone symphony of the urban landscape.

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Bare fingers lightly touching the stone. We are all tuning forks, both people and stones and it is in interaction that we are made aware of each others sounds and what we sound like together. Be curious and explore what sounds you can make.

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Living in the city we hear this noise a lot. It is a jackhammer working away at stone at a construction site in London. The noise of the rock is overshadowed by the fast mechanical rhythm.

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This is a pavement stone against a brick wall. The texture of the stone is audible, scraggly and dry. You can hear the circles being drawn.

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This is the sound of the uneven pavement stone being tipped over and over again by a foot.


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