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Many, many years ago I caught part of a radio play or story (possibly adapted from a book) about recovering audio from stone. The idea was that, since sound vibrations are absorbed by their surroundings and diminish but never disappear (!?!?), it should be possible to recover the voices of people from history. I believe Michelangelo was one of the voices the scientists had caught and recorded.

The play/story isn't The Stone Tape, what I'm looking for is more of a technical thing about listening to well-known figures from history, more hard sci-fi than horror, if I remember correctly.

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    I recall a story but can't remember the name, but the audio was recovered from pottery scribed by needles while the pottery spun on a potter's wheel. What they recovered was pretty mundane conversation. I believe the story was by Benford or Bova, but couldn't swear to that. – Emsley Wyatt Aug 4 at 1:09
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    I have a dim memory of a short story like this, maybe in early Omni magazine, late 70s or early 80s. – LAK Aug 4 at 1:46
  • Rudy Rucker wrote "Buzz" using this idea, but it's just a tiny input to the story, and won't be what you're looking for. – Ross Presser Aug 4 at 15:21
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    Also, this idea did appear in a real journal: Peter K. Lewin, "Preliminary Studies in the Extraction of Human Sounds Engraved Accidentally into Ancient Vessels", Speculations in Science and Technology, #3, August, 1980. (Citation from Rucker's book.) – Ross Presser Aug 4 at 15:24
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    Honorable mention for homophobic author Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch, which addresses similar themes, albeit not specifically with audio recorded in stone. – Lexible Aug 5 at 16:04
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Gregory Benford's 1979 short story "Time Shards" concerns a researcher who recovers thousand-year-old sound from a piece of pottery thrown on a wheel and inscribed with a fine wire as it spun. The sound is then analyzed to reveal conversations between the potter and his assistant in Middle English. http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/titlecovers.cgi?57461

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    Reminds me of an episode of The X-Files where the resurrection of Lazarus got recorded – Zommuter Aug 4 at 13:29
  • Amazingly enough, audible sound has actually been recovered from a pre-gramophone sound researcher working in 1860. history.com/speeches/worlds-oldest-recording – Chris Sunami supports Monica Aug 4 at 20:45
  • I think this is probably it. My memory is of the ideas being discussed so it's possible that I heard a review of the story with the Michelangelo detail being mentioned by one of the reviewers. The date sounds about right to, so I'll accept this answer. – Dave Gremlin Aug 5 at 12:23
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Could you have encountered an early adaptation of Gramophone of the Ages by Yefim Zozulya, published 1919?

Vandermeer's 2019 compendium, Big Book of Classic Fantasy claims to publish the first English translation (by Ekaterina Sedia) of the story but that's not to say it hasn't been adapted in other (Anglicised) forms before.

The rationale for the titular gramophone sounds really similar to your description:

...human voices, as well as other sounds, are recorded as invisible bumps on all inanimate objects near which they originated. Those bumps, according to Kuks's theory, are preserved for millenia, and new sounds merely deposit on top of the old ones, creating layers--just like dust, sand, and many minerals in nature.

The story is very grounded sci-fi. Kuks, the inventor of the gramophone, has been working on his theory for forty years before this breakthrough and wants to present his achievement to the Academy of Science. They don't listen to "well-known figures from history" but the revelations the gramophone unearths provides a social commentary; the story is set in a socialist Russia but the gramophone allows them to contrast their present utopia to a time "before socialism triumphed". In the story's climax, Kuks and his invention is rebuked for the history it reveals during its demonstration to the Academy.

Much less did they get the chance to listen to Michelangelo but in the course of testing the gramophone, Kuks, whose day job is as an advisor in the "Experience Workshop", suggests to a mason to take up the art of sculpture as he is more interested in shaping stones than breaking them apart.

This is a wild, wild, shot of course but while the scant details provided don't fit perfectly, it at least coincides.

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  • This does sound very similar. My recollection is vague, more of the idea than the story itself, but I would have heard it in some time in the 1980s I think. I don't remember the context of the Soviet Union though – Dave Gremlin Aug 5 at 12:21
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Maybe The Stone Tape? Except that's a TV play, not radio.

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  • I should have mentioned in the question that it isn't The Stone Tape, I'll make an edit. – Dave Gremlin Aug 3 at 23:58
  • There is actually a radio adaptation of The Stone Tape, though it came out in 2016: bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06g63fh – andrewsi Aug 6 at 14:53

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