Saturday, October 6, 2018


All 22 San Luis Valley
lithophones set up for a
playing demonstration.

This might seem like a stretch for RockArtBlog, but music is certainly an art form. Indeed, in the form of vocalizing, singing and humming, it was probably mankind's first art form. And in this case the music comes from rock. I am talking about lithophones, instruments where the notes are made by striking pieces of rock with some form of striker or mallet - think a xylophone made of stone. I have written elsewhere about instances in the painted caves of Europe where stalactites and flowstone sheets have been found with impact scars showing that they were utilized to produce musical sounds. (Faris 2010)

San Luis Valley lithophones
being played with 
xylophone mallet.

Now archaeologist Marilyn Martorano has proposed that a number of ground stone pieces from Colorado's San Luis Valley comprise one or more lithophones. (Martorano 2017) According to reports the stones were originally collected from a number of locations with the assumption that they might have been manos or some other tool but Martorano, having read of lithophones elsewhere, did some testing and found that some of the stones gave a clear ring when struck by a hard tool.

San Luis Valley lithophones.

She has since assembled a broad selection of examples and, with the help of a musician named Jason Reid, assembled them into a full lithophone which Martorano says has a range of 6 octaves. Most of the stones play two different notes depending upon where they are struck. All in all Martorano found 22 ground stone artifacts that had acoustic properties from the San Luis Valley. The fact that these lithophones were from different locations (and probably times) means they would have not been used as they have since been displayed in a single large assembly.

Ethiopian monastery lithophones
hanging in their frame.

It does, however, seem unlikely that the original inhabitants of the area, were unaware of the musical properties of their pieces of ground stone. Indeed, so-called "kiva bells" have been recovered in next door New Mexico from archaeological contexts. "So-called kiva bells were large suspended stones that resonated when struck." ( "Go find a chunk of stone, hang it from a tree or viga and strike it with another stone. Will it ring like a bell? It is perhaps hard to imagine, but stone bells used by Pueblo peoples in their underground kiva chambers 600 years ago were amazingly resonant." (Weideman 2013)

San Luis Valley lithophones.

This would seemingly make it likely that the pieces tested by Martorano could have been used in such a manner in their ones or two's, like chimes or gongs as part of a ceremony. Some kiva bells, though, have been found in caches, for example a cache of 23 were found at Cuyamungue, New Mexico and reported in an article in the newspaper The New Mexican (Wednesday, August 6, 1952;, access 4/3/2018).

So what is our conclusion? They are definitely real, they exist, and they can be played - they make musical tones. The interpretation might not be quite right, but the lithophones are real, and found right here in our magical San Luis Valley.

Marilyn is interested in continuing this study. If you know of any artifacts from the San Luis Valley or surrounding areas that could qualify as lithophones, please contact Marilyn Martorano,, or Fred Bunch at (Martorano 2017)

NOTE: The photographs of the lithophones are used with the permission of Marilyn Martorano.

This is a link to a KUSA, channel 9 news, Denver, story about the San Luis Valley lithophones (if the link does not work cut and paste this address into your browser) -

And this is a link to a NPR story about them (if the link does not work cut and paste this address into your browser)  -


Faris, Peter
2010 Music At Rock Art Sites (Continued), April 26, 2010,

Martorano, Marilyn
2017 Ancient Tones: The Lithophone,

Weideman, Paul
2013 Sounds & amp; Shadows: Ancient Instruments of the Southwest, May 10, 2013,, access 4/3/2018

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