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Archaeology of instruments.

The application of archaeological methods to the study of musical instruments, broadly defined. Through analysis of material remains from earlier times, investigators seek to reconstruct, however tentatively, sound-producing artefacts and their functions, and relate these to instruments and practices that still survive. Complicating the picture is the problem that some cultures, including presumably early human, have had no concept of music as a distinct activity, yet virtually all have made use of sound-producing implements; even if not ‘musical’, these are all subjects for investigation, although undoubtedly, many such implements have gone unrecognized for what they are.

The late 20th century and early 21st have seen significant archaeological finds throughout the world, notably in China; many discoveries await thorough analysis, and earlier ones are being reinterpreted. This article outlines some salient aspects of the field; for further discussion and bibliography, see entries on specific regions and peoples (e.g. Latin America, Mexico, Aztec music, etc.) in GMO.

1. Objects of research.

Excavated objects, often fragmentary and made of various more or less perishable materials, sometimes can be supplemented by visual representations, inscriptions, literary and ethnographic accounts, and other evidence regarding music- and instrument-making. The importance of sound-producing artefacts in ancient cultures is attested by the contexts in which they have been found. For example, the remains of eight symmetrical and asymmetrical bull lyres, one round-bottomed (or ‘boat’) lyre, and two round harps have been excavated from the Royal Cemetery at Ur (c2600 bce) together with the bodies of the musicians buried with them. Although these are the only surviving Mesopotamian wooden instruments from this period, the existence of other types is known from depictions on cylinder seals, shell and stone inlays, and sculptures in relief and in the round. The inlaid front panel of one of the Ur lyres, for example, shows an animal orchestra with an ass playing a bull lyre together with a jackal playing a sistrum and drum, and a bear clapping and dancing. Such evidence indicates that lyres ranged in size from small, easily portable instruments to those as tall as an adult and that most had four to 13 strings. Five fragments of a pair of silver pipes were also found at Ur; the pipes have fingerholes but show no evidence of reeds. Clappers and sistra are depicted on the inlaid decoration of Early Dynastic lyres and on cylinder seals; drawings on pottery show small frame drums and women clapping their hands.

Many ancient Egyptian instruments have been excavated in reasonably good condition. Among the earliest idiophones are clappers, mostly decorated with animal heads and dating from Dynasty 1 (c2920–2770 bce); bearded human heads also appear in the Protodynastic period. But the commonest type of clapper (mostly of bone or wood) is in the form of a human hand with the head of the goddess Ḥatḥor below, and with the handle shaped as a forearm, an animal’s body or a plant-derived architectural feature. Pairs of clappers mounted on a handle are also found, as are castanets, though only from the Late period (the 1st millennium bce). Bronze cymbals of three main kinds (large, plate type; medium-size, cup type; small, clapper type) and crotala (small cymbals mounted on wooden or metal handles) date mainly from the Greco-Roman or Coptic (Christian) periods. Bells, used mainly for ritual or apotropaic purposes, also came late to Egypt; they are mostly of bronze, although more precious metals are sometimes used. The body of the bell is often ornamented with a head of the god Bes or a mythological animal. Jingles and rattles (of plaited straw, for instance, or terracotta) are found rarely, but the latter date back to the prehistoric period. In the arched sistrum (usually of metal) and the sistrum in the form of a naos or shrine (mostly of faience), the central feature is a Ḥatḥor head. Decoration often includes a cat (sacred to the goddess Bastet) and the uraeus (the snake associated with Edjo, Ḥatḥor, and Sekhmet). The ends of the metal rods used for the mounting of the sounding-plates may be shaped to represent the uraeus or a bird’s head. A model alabaster sistrum inscribed with the titles of King Teti survives (c2323–2291 bce; US.NY.mma).

The earliest Egyptian membranophone is a cylindrical palm-wood drum from Beni Hasan (Dynasty 12; ET.C.em); other examples are barrel-shaped and of bronze. The tambourine or frame drum has two main forms: it is either circular or rectangular with concave sides. The former type varies considerably in size and is often associated with the god Bes (e.g. a New Kingdom statuette in GB.L.bm) or outdoor ceremonies; a pair of richly decorated covering skins, inscribed with the name of the goddess Isis and dating from the Late period, is in the National Arabic Music Institute Museum of Musical Instruments, Cairo. The rectangular kind was much used at New Kingdom banquets and was always played by women.

Less common aerophones include the terracotta rhytons characteristic of the Greco-Roman period, the two famous trumpets (one bronze or copper, one silver) from the tomb of Tutankhamun (1333–1323 bce; ET.C.em) with richly decorated bells, and toy instruments such as an ocarina in terracotta (ET.C.em) moulded into the shape of a monkey. Surviving end-blown flutes date back to the Middle Kingdom; a damaged example from Beni Hasan (ET.C.em) is 91 cm long. Larger instruments have been found, and some less than half the size. The number of fingerholes is usually four to six (with three to eight as the extremes). The classification of pipes requiring either a single or double reed is more difficult, if only because the reeds rarely survive. Fewer instruments of the clarinet type (attested from the Old Kingdom) appear in collections than of the oboe type introduced in the New Kingdom. The National Arabic Music Institute possesses a wooden box of the New Kingdom that once contained, according to the Journal d’entrée, four ‘flûtes’, two ‘roseaux’ (reed pipes) without holes, and a pair of straws possibly intended for the fashioning of reeds.

Of the main chordophones, the Egyptian lyre appears to date from the New Kingdom and to have been an Asiatic import. There are two types, symmetrical and asymmetrical, both with a rectangular soundbox. An example of the latter type, with fragments of the original stringing, was found at Deir el-Medina (Dynasty 18; ET.C.em). The history of the Egyptian lute is similar. Of the two distinct sizes, the longer has a soundbox of wood (the earliest soundbox of this type, perhaps Dynasty 17, c1640–1550 bce, is in US.NY.mma), the shorter of tortoiseshell. The slender neck was usually fretted and appears to have acted both as a fingerboard and as a basis for the attachment of the two or three strings (normally played with a plectrum), which were raised above the soundbox by a tailpiece. The lute of the singer Ḥarmose, found near the rock tomb of Senmut, is characteristic of the smaller type (Dynasty 18; ET.C.em).

Both arched (bow) harps and angular harps are represented. The latter seems to have been another New Kingdom Asiatic import and appears less frequently in collections (there is a large example of uncertain date in ET.C.em); originally a right-angled triangle in shape, the instrument later tended to have three acute angles. The arched harp is attested from Dynasty 4 (c2575–2465 bce) onwards and is most easily classified by the shape of its soundbox. During the Old Kingdom a soundbox resembling a shallow spoon or spade was preferred; during the Middle Kingdom a deeper, oval type like a ladle developed; and a smaller boat-shaped type is characteristic of the New Kingdom. These shapes did not supplant one another. The harps vary considerably in size and in number of strings. Museum collections provide representative examples of each type; a particularly fine model harp, perhaps from the tomb of Ani at Thebes and elaborately decorated, closely resembles the instruments illustrated in votive scenes (Dynasty 18; GB.L.bm).

Experiments have been carried out on the spacing of holes in Egyptian aerophones, and attempts have been made to reconstruct the stringing of the chordophones; but only in the case of the Tutankhamun trumpets and certain idiophones can there be any solid knowledge of how ancient Egyptian instruments sounded. Many theories have been put forward, but so far they are without adequate foundation.

Recent finds from late Neolithic tombs in China further illustrate the variety and importance of excavated instruments. These include bone flutes and whistles dating between about 6000 and 5000 bce. The most remarkable of these Chinese flutes have unnotched blowing ends and seven carefully spaced and meticulously drilled fingerholes. Appearing in Shanxi province and other sites dating to about 4000 bce and later are numerous irregular clay vessel flutes (later known as xun), each with one or two fingerholes. Most of these are kept at the Shanxi and Gansu provincial museums. Stone chimes (later known as qing), chipped from limestone or other resonant rock, date from 2000 bce and earlier.

The most significant finds of Shang dynasty instruments (c16th–11th centuries bce) have been unearthed in northern Henan province. The following instruments, most dating to about the 12th century bce, reflect very conscious attention to form, design, and acoustics: (a) small globular xun with three fingerholes and two thumbholes, some decorated with the stylized mythical animal face (taotie) typical of the period; (b) qing made from highly polished marble slabs in various shapes, both single and in sets of three, some carved with stylized motifs of tigers and fish; (c) nao (bronze bells), short and broad in profile, designed to be hand-held and struck with beaters; and (d) bronze barrel drums (tonggu, not to be confused with the large gong of the same name still played by ethnic minorities), resting horizontally on four legs, with a raised saddle-shaped decoration on top. These instruments and others, which were in ritual usage during the Shang dynasty, are cited in ancient oracle bone inscriptions.

Instruments uncovered from several Zhou sites (c11th century bce–256 bce) are of even greater abundance and diversity. Most significant are those found in the tomb of the Marquis Yi of the Zeng state (Zenghou Yi), Hubei province, a site in central China dating to about 433 bce. Found together with ritual vessels, weapons, gold, jade, and lacquerware were two ensembles of well-preserved instruments, including (a) a visually stunning set of 65 bells (bianzhong) arranged on an ornate, three-tiered frame and reflecting different suspension methods and construction types (zhong); (b) a complementary set of 32 L-shaped stone chimes (bianqing) arranged on a two-tiered frame; (c) a ten-string qin zither with a short soundboard; (d) a five-string zhu zither with a long, narrow soundboard; (e) 12 se zithers with 25 strings and a broad soundboard; (f) two transverse flutes of the chi type; (g) two panpipes (paixiao), each with 13 bamboo tubes; (h) six mouth organs (sheng or he), with varying numbers of bamboo pipes inserted into gourd windchests; (i) a large wooden barrel drum (jiangu) mounted on a pole held upright in an ornate bronze base; and (j) three small barrel drums of different types (gu). These instruments are housed at the Hubei Provincial Museum, Wuhan.

Other late Zhou instruments unearthed from sites in central China include a surprisingly early zheng with positions for 13 strings (c6th century bce) and many relatively thin drums now known as niaojia gu (‘bird-frame drum’, c5th century bce), each suspended by cords between two carved wooden figures of large birds standing on the backs of crouching tigers. Appearing earlier in China than in Southeast Asia, bronze drums (suspended like gongs) have been found in southwestern China in extraordinary numbers, one instrument dating to a 6th-century bce site. Many Chinese bronze drums are kept at the Yunnan Provincial Museum, Kunming.

Among Han sites (206 bce–220 ce) containing musical instruments, most significant is the tomb of Mawangdui in Hunan province, dating to the 2nd century bce. Unearthed from tombs 1 and 3 are instruments similar to the earlier finds but including (a) two 25-string se, each with four top-mounted string-holding pegs (similar to the Zenghou Yi se) and, remarkably, with silk strings and bridges intact; (b) one seven-string qin, similar in shape to the older Zenghou Yi qin but with a longer soundboard and the now-standard seven strings; (c) one thin zhu, with positions for five strings; (d) two long yu mouth organs, one consisting of 23 pipes mounted in a wooden windchest, with many of its metal reeds intact; (e) one set of 12 bamboo pitchpipes (yulü), tuned chromatically within a one-octave range; and (f) two chi transverse flutes, with fingerholes on one side rather than on the top. These instruments are held by the Hunan Provincial Museum, Changsa.

In Europe, much older instruments have been found. Among these is an incomplete flute made from a vulture wing bone, found in 2008 in the Hohle Fels cave near Ulm in southwestern Germany. At least 35,000 years old, the flute is broken but the remaining section, about 22 cm long, has four fingerholes and a V-shaped blowing edge. The same site has yielded other fragmentary flutes of somewhat more recent date. The claim of discovery in 1996 in the Divje babe I cave in Slovenia of a Neanderthal bone flute with fingerholes, made from a cave bear femur and dating to the Mousterian (c50–40,000 bce) has been much debated; majority opinion now holds that the holes are the result of gnawing by carnivores. The oldest surviving bullroarer is presumably one recovered from a Magdalenian site (c15,000–7000 bce) in the Dordogne, carved from a reindeer antler. Its edges are smooth, and one surface has an incised geometrical pattern. The interpretation of such ancient instruments poses significant problems of methodology, and conclusions about their musical properties and functions are highly speculative.

Later finds in Europe include evidence of idiophones, membranophones, aerophones, and chordophones. Some examples are mentioned here; for details, see individual entries.

(i) Idiophones.

Evidence from ancient Greece, Etruria, and Rome, most of it iconographic, indicates the musical use of clappers and castanets, clappers worn on the feet, small bowls, and handled bowls. Such idiophones do not seem to have been part of the original range of instruments in central, western, or northern Europe, and neither were the small metal bells found in the west exclusively in former Roman provinces, where they occur in great numbers and many varieties. They are more common in the east, for instance, in the Iron Age cultures of the Scythians and Sarmatians, and perhaps as imports of the imperial Roman period in Poland. Small bells and jingles have been found among the Slavs, Khazars, and Ugro-Finns, both sedentary and nomads, and were extremely common from the 1st century ce to the 14th century; they are also found in Bohemia and Poland in protohistoric times. Bones with serrated rings around them, lower jawbones (for example, of reindeer) containing teeth, and occasionally a horn with visible grooves (the Venus of Laussel in France, of the Perigordian period) have been interpreted as Lower Palaeolithic scrapers.

The largest group of pre- and protohistoric idiophones consists of rattles in many shapes. Perforated shells have been interpreted as Stone Age rattling jewellery. Many kinds of multifunctional metal objects of this nature are typical of the Villanova culture of Italy, the Hallstatt period of central Europe, and cultures of central and eastern Russia. Greek and Roman music used frame rattles comparable in shape to the sistrum, which originated in ancient Egypt. Scythian frame rattles were carried on the tops of poles; the rattling devices could be globular, drop-shaped, or disc-shaped and could also have the form of small bells and jingles. From the Neolithic period onwards, pottery rattles in the form of vessels shaped like animals, globes, eggs, cubes, etc. were common as grave goods in central and western, and occasionally in northern, Europe. In eastern Europe such instruments can be traced back to the 4th or 3rd millennium bce as grave goods. Many pottery rattles from the Lausitz culture of Poland have been found; analogous pottery rattles are known from several cultures of western Ukraine and Moldavia closely related to the Lausitz culture, particularly from the Vysock culture, and similar sound-producing implements in various shapes date from the Iron Age cultures of central Russia and middle and south Europe, some of them, shaped like birds, still in use in the Old Slav period. Such objects were particularly common among the Celts as grave goods buried with women and children. Egg-shaped metal rattles of bronze, made in Ireland and thought to be connected with the native cult of the bull, date from the Late Bronze Age.

(ii) Membranophones.

In Mediterranean classical antiquity, the frame drum was played by dancers, particularly women. It had a prominent role in the orgiastic cult of Dionysus, as depicted in much iconographic material. In the Neolithic Age pottery goblet drums or hourglass drums open at both ends occur as grave goods in an area covering Poland, eastern Germany and Hesse, and the Lüneburg region, and were usually buried with men; the rim of the upper opening is surrounded with protuberances, sometimes bored with holes, to help fasten the drumhead. No drumheads are preserved, however, and it cannot be absolutely certain that these objects were in fact drums; the same can be said of some cylindrical wooden objects from Scandinavia.

(iii) Aerophones.

Apart from the occasional Stone Age bone bullroarer, pipes, flutes, and horns of various types make up the extant pre- and protohistoric aerophones. It is uncertain whether any double-reed instruments were among them, with the exception of Greek and Roman auloi and tibiae shown on vase paintings, reliefs, sarcophages, and so on. Any single or double reeds would have been made of blades of grass or of canes and would have perished. Among the extant pipes are pottery vessel flutes, found from the Neolithic period onwards. Panpipes, which are particularly early, have been found in southern Russia (4th century bce), southeastern Europe, the Volga and Ukraine, and the Lausitz culture of Poland. From the wide distribution of such pipes made of individual bones, it has been argued that panpipes were common over a large area. In the west, depictions on situlas of the Hallstatt period show quite large panpipes. A few panpipes of the Gallo-Roman period have been preserved (Alesia in Burgundy, Regensburg, Holland, and Belgium) and consist of a piece of wood with individual holes bored for the canes. Viking panpipes were similarly made.

Bone pipes had a wide distribution as signal and decoy instruments, and pipes made of phalanges dating back to the Palaeolithic era, especially the Late Stone Age, have been found at various sites. However, many bone flutes seem to have been incorrectly dated too early. The scale of notes produced by any fingerholes, even if it could be ascertained, offers no indication of age.

Spectacular horns have been found in Ireland, dating from the Middle and Late Bronze Age; they are conical, with curved segments and ending in a straight tube, 50 to 200 cm long and made of an alloy of copper and tin. The longer horns were blown at the narrower end and could be extended by the insertion of a straight metal tube. There was also a mouthpiece, as the preservation of the necessary attachments for fitting one shows, but none has survived. The smaller instruments were blown laterally through a broad oval hole in the side; the upper end was closed off by a knob. The horns were made by casting metal in one or two parts.

Examples of the lur found in Scandinavia and northern Germany mostly date from the same period as these Irish horns; some are older. Of the 60 or so that have been found, 16 are well preserved, although these have been reconstructed several times. Lurs, so called from the much later sagas mentioning war-horns, consist of two winding curves fitted together. A funnel-shaped mouthpiece is fitted to the narrower end of the conical tube, and the wider distal end terminates in a large, flat disc rather than a bell. These discs are said to have no acoustic function, though recent research has cast doubts on this; it has often been suggested that they are sun symbols. Lurs were frequently buried in pairs or in larger numbers, and occasionally with other objects. It is difficult to derive any detailed information from the only pictorial records of the instrument, in contemporary (or rather later) Scandinavian rock carvings or drawings. They are often depicted on board ships. It is also not clear how lurs were played: as solo instruments, in pairs, or in ensembles with other instruments. Horns of the earlier Bronze Age found in northern Germany (in Bodin, Teterow, and Wismar) have been described as precursors of the lur, but that theory is untenable.

Metal horns were typical of the Celtic La Tène culture. The carnyx was a long instrument with a thin tube and a speaking end (bell) in the shape of an animal head. A carnyx has been reconstructed in Edinburgh from an animal-head bell of the 2nd century bce discovered in Deskford; the movable lower jaw acts as a clapper. Pictorial depictions of the carnyx date from the 3rd century bce, for example on coins. Probably the best-known scene, showing three instruments, is on the Gundestrup silver cauldron of the 2nd to 1st century bce, found in a Danish bog. Celtic Iberian pottery horns have been found in considerable numbers in Numantia in Spain.

Few examples of the Greek and Roman horns known as salpinx, tuba, buccina, cornu, and lituus have been preserved; they are known principally from depictions on tombstones and other stelae, or from triumphal arches and other reliefs, but there is much written evidence for their function and use.

Excavated wind instruments also include the organ. The earliest known instrument of this kind was the hydraulis, with a blowing mechanism operated by water pressure. Partly preserved archaeological examples from the Hellenistic period have been found in Aquincum (Hungary, 228 ce) and Switzerland (3rd century ce). Long, well-preserved pipes and fragments of the body of an instrument dated to the 1st century bce were excavated in Dion at the foot of Mount Olympus in 1992. Depictions of the instrument appear in Roman mosaics, and references to and descriptions of the hydraulis occur from the 3rd century bce into the Christian period.

Little is known about the later history of the water organ in the West. In Europe, a pneumatic organ clearly existed side by side with the water organ for a while and then made its way into church music between 900 and 1200. No archaeological remains have been found either of these instruments or of the automatic water organs built by Arab and Byzantine makers.

(iv) Chordophones.

String instruments do not make their appearance in Europe until the Christian era, apart from the lyres, harps, and lutes of Mediterranean antiquity and their derivatives in southern Europe. A Scythian-Sarmatian harp from the 1st–3rd century ce was found in a Russian tomb. The Romans adopted the ancient Greek instruments, which also made their way into parts of eastern Europe; extant pieces are rare. It is not certain whether the lyres depicted on situlas of the East Hallstatt culture are from the same source. There is sporadic evidence of lyres in Europe in the 6th century; a fragment from the 2nd century was discovered near Bremen. Instruments have been found in the burial places of high-ranking individuals (at Oberflacht, St Severin, and Sutton Hoo). Such instruments occurred rather later in England, particularly the east of England, and about 1000 and later they were made and played by the Vikings. No archaeological remains have been found corresponding to the harps depicted on 8th- and 9th-century stone reliefs and stone crosses in Scotland and Ireland, which clearly refer to scenes from the life of David.

Africa has yielded rich findings of instruments and related iconography. In western Nigeria, for example, terracotta ritual pots excavated at Ife, dating from about 1100 to 1400, bear reliefs depicting Yorùbá instruments, including drums of the gbedu (gbẹdù) type, demonstrating an early presence of the characteristic Guinea method of cord-and-peg tension of a drum skin; they also depict edon (ẹdọn or horns) and a double bell of the Guinea type. The most famous West African artefacts relating to organology are the Benin bronze plaques from the 15th to 17th centuries; they show representations of slit drums, membranophones in great detail, bells, and even a pluriarc still used in Edo (Ẹdo) culture.

Near Kisale, Congo, artefacts from the 10th to 14th centuries include several types of metal bells, a copper aerophone, and what could be the iron tongues of a lamellophone. Iron Age technology produced notable instrument innovations in Africa, particularly from the 8th to 14th centuries. The history of single and double flange-welded iron bells in west, west-central, and southeast Africa has been largely reconstructed from archaeological remains, and recent data have closed gaps in their sequence of diffusion from West Africa, notably from the upper Sangha valley. Such iron bells are often associated with chieftainship or kingship. The proliferation of innovative types of lamellophones with iron lamellae in southeast Africa (Zimbabwe and the lower Zambezi valley) began during the Later Iron Age, 1000–1100. Besides single and double bells, excavated in the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, iron prongs that could very well be lamellae of a mbira dza vadzimu were also found.

Among the most spectacular remains from Africa are lithophones, such as one that was used by the Dogon of Mali, and rock gongs. Multiple rock gongs have been located in northern Nigeria. In several places across the West African savanna ‘ringing rocks’ were used in initiation rites. Sometimes their use was connected with mythology; for instance, the use of rock gongs has been documented at the site of the presumed origin of the Nyonyozi, a legendary and perhaps mythical people in Burkina Faso.

In the Western Hemisphere ancient instruments have been excavated mainly in Mexico and farther south. Many are made of ceramic, marine shell, metal, and other durable materials; presumably instruments of wood, skin, and other soft organic materials have perished. In Peru, for example, archaeological ceramic whistles, ocarinas, whistling jars, curved and straight horns, and ceramic single-headed drums have been found, as well as a transverse flute with two fingerholes from coastal Moche culture. Archaeological panpipes from the coast, especially from Nasca culture, have also been discovered, and their pitches have been extensively analyzed.

Finds in Mexico likewise include many types of aerophones, including duct flutes and end-blown flutes made of clay, jadeite, reed, bone, and metal, and conch horns and their clay replicas (often with inserted clay mouthpieces, and exactly reproducing internal and external detail). Two of the many types of flutes are distinctive. Triple and quadruple flutes of the Teotihuacán culture, dating from 400 to 600 ce, were tuned to play untempered triads, suggesting that their music incorporated a concept of harmony. A second type, dating from the period just preceding European contact, is a double flute, with similar placement of fingerholes on both tubes; it was apparently tuned to produce a beating effect between the near-unison pitches of the two tubes. It was also frequently perforated as if to be hung on a string, and might have been used for signaling, as it can sound very loud.

Practically no archaeological evidence survives of indigenous chordophones in the Americas, where string instruments seem to have been introduced by the Spaniards.

2. Classification and analysis.

A useful classification system has been outlined by Lund (1980): (1) objects whose primary purpose was to produce sound, such as bronze lurs, bone flutes, bells, and jingles; (2) objects whose primary purpose was probably to produce sound, such as pig-bone whizzers; (3) objects which, judging by analogous items, were made to fulfill more than one function, including that of producing sound (such as items of personal adornment made of snail-shells or bronze plaques); (4) objects probably not made with the intention of producing sound but whose construction and primary function enabled them to do so, for example, metal bracelets; and (5) items whose function is unknown but that can produce sound and therefore could have been used do so intentionally, for example, items of bone with carved grooves, which could have used as scrapers; these can be classified on the basis of analogy, the context of the find, and/or other circumstances. This preliminary classification system assists in locating finds geographically, chronologically, and typologically, with the aim of placing them firmly in a specific culture.

Reliable analysis and dating usually require cooperation with scientists, conservators, and other experts. When an artefact can still be sounded without risk of damage and is not too greatly distorted through shrinkage or breakage, acoustic properties can be tested and the possible range, pitch(es), and sound spectra can be recorded. If the instrument is damaged, or if only parts of it survive, replicas can be reconstructed. For reasons of conservation, copies are increasingly being used even when an artefact is well preserved. The data thus generated might or might not correspond to the sounds the instrument was intended to make, since the original playing techniques or tuning system (if any) are nearly invariably unknown, but they serve as a starting point for further experiments, as for example in testing the acoustic properties of various relevant sites such as caves and canyons. Comparison of the resulting data with data from similar objects can lead to more precise dating and cultural identification.

3. Typology.

Typology, the process of locating a find within a developmental sequence on the basis of its form, decoration, and style, remains basic to the ordering of past material remains, though it has rarely produced useful conclusions concerning musical instruments. However, Broholm, Larsen, and Skjerne (1949) successfully used typology to establish a relative chronology for northern European lurs. Although the method has been used to establish chronologies for Neolithic pottery drums and Bronze Age rattling ornaments, it has so far failed to provide reliable chronological information on such items as bone flutes or string instruments.

Modern scientific techniques, such as dendrochronology, metrology, and radiocarbon dating, can often provide valuable if not infallible clues for dating. Recently, statistical methods, cladistics, and other approaches pioneered in evolutionary biology have broadened the avenues for investigation of archaeological instruments.

4. Reconstruction.

Present-day musical instruments and practices offer points of departure in reconstructing archaeological instruments, although methodological problems arise in the tracing of musical practices back in time. Scholars can study modern instruments in detail, but when embarking on a historical account they usually begin with the earliest known records from the region concerned. Quotations and analyses of evidence between these extremes generally derive from literature, not from material evidence, for the objects themselves are usually unavailable. In later history, moreover, archaeologically documented instruments whose function is difficult to determine have usually been traditional or folk instruments, and few specimens are preserved; examples are the rattle and the bullroarer, for which there is archaeological evidence from many parts of the world although iconographical sources are rare.

An impressive example of the reduction method is Alexandru’s study of Romanian panpipes (1984): Gheorghiu Zamfir’s playing of the panpipes provides his point of departure, and he mentions the virtuoso playing of Romanian performers in the earlier 20th century and in Russia in the previous century; he also detects their influence on 19th-century Russian composers, traces the panpipes back to the 15th century in Romania through descriptions and iconographic studies, and considers the earliest archaeological evidence, from Roman times (the panpipe can be traced back to third-millennium bce ‘Ochre culture’ graves in Ukraine). Weis Bentzon (1969) used a similar approach in his study of the Sardinian triple reed pipe, the launeddas, tracing it back to the double pipes of Pharaonic Egypt.

Another approach relates a modern musical instrument or practice to what might be very early archaeological evidence without involving source material from the intervening period. The aim is less to discover what a musical practice was like in the past than to ascertain that it took place, and did so in a way similar to modern practice. Alice Moyle (1981) compared the Australian didjeridu with cave paintings from Arnhem Land in northern Australia that are at least 1000 years old and show several typologically different groups of players. Terminological investigations, studies of the material of which modern instruments are made, of regional distribution, of the player’s handling of the instrument and the way it was held as depicted in the rock art as compared with modern practice, led to the conclusion that other customary musical elements have been preserved along with performance on the didjeridu—for instance the use of certain idiophones as featured in song. The author based her conclusions on early wax cylinder recordings, demonstrating how aspects of the historical development of musical instruments can be posited through this projection into the past of modern observations.

5. Written and oral sources.

Four principal groups of verbal sources can be distinguished.

(i) Complementary accounts.

These arise when the author is personally acquainted with the instrument being described. The instrument can be contemporary with the writer or part of the archaeological past, and the writer provides information complementary to that which might be arrived at by modern analytical methods. Examples are Hero of Alexandria and Vitruvius in Rome, who give detailed descriptions of the hydraulis in the 1st century bce. The Classical writers credit the Alexandrian engineer Ctesibius (fl 283–246 bce) with the invention of the hydraulis and the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus confirms that it was played in the circus in the 3rd century ce. In the 8th and 9th centuries Arab scholars translated the writings of Classical antiquity, especially those of the Greeks. Muristus gives an account of the organ accompanied by a drawing showing its construction, but no archaeological evidence indicates whether it still existed. The depiction in the 9th-century Utrecht Psalter might not be organologically accurate.

A good example of the way in which archaeology and written information interlock comes from the cultures of East Asia. China, for instance, still has the qin, which seems to be first mentioned in writing in the Shijing (‘Classic of Poetry’, c7th century bce), and subsequently in the Zhouli (‘Rituals of Zhou’, c3rd–2nd centuries bce) and Liji (‘Classic of rituals’, c1st century bce)—these two sources being compilations of philosophical and ethical concepts dating to the time of Confucius. One of the earliest depictions of the qin is on a painted brick found in Nanjing and dating from the Six Dynasties period (420–589 ce). The classification of instruments by material in both the Zhouli and Liji texts can be applied to a range of instruments still preserved intact and in use.

(ii) Imaginative descriptions by contemporaries.

In this case the writer clearly does not know the instrument being described, or does not know it well. The archaeological findings are already part of the past. Accordingly, one must expect to find mistakes that can no longer be corrected because they were made by contemporary writers—for example, accounts by missionaries ignorant of indigenous music and impeded by prejudices. Archaeological material and descriptions of music from Late Antiquity have also been preserved. The geographical and cultural environment of Hellenistic Alexandria, where a wide variety of cultural elements met, subsequently mingling and—especially in the case of syncretist religions—becoming superimposed one upon another, contributes to the confusing quantity and typological variety of instruments that have been preserved. Travellers, traders, priests of oriental cultures, and the early Christian church and scholars (including philosophers, lexicographers, and historians), all of whom wrote their impressions, were diverse in their origins and educations, and their classification and interpretation of many objects, processes, and phenomena elude comprehension. It is difficult, then, to match actual artefacts to written sources, since one cannot tell which instruments are meant. The written sources themselves are imprecise and often imaginative. This group includes Jewish and late Babylonian references to music, often handed down to the present day, although their accounts are obviously distorted. Finds of musical instruments and depictions of musical scenes in Israel are rare, and attempts to identify them by comparison with biblical allusions have had little success.

(iii) Myths and legends.

These accumulate around instruments of the past. It is not clear whether the authors of such accounts, usually anonymous, knew the musical objects themselves. Myths and legends can be regarded as end-products of oral tradition. They are most productive of reliable content when evidence of the culture that produced them continues into historical times and thus outsiders might have recorded them, so that they can be checked as written versions of an extant oral tradition. This process still continues in areas of the Andean cultures of South America. An example is the Colombian legend of El Dorado in which the cacique of the Muisca people presents to his wife, sunk beneath the waters of Lake Guatavita, a ceremony accompanied by music. The scene of the cacique navigating the lake with his subjects on a large raft has been depicted many times in gold and in greatly reduced format. Two of his companions carry rattles and some depictions also show wind instruments. Pipes, flutes, and trumpets, as mentioned in the legend, are among the archaeological finds of Colombia, and numerous accounts by missionaries and European conquerors relate how the instruments were played. Even when their accounts of the instruments are inaccurate, and they condemn the dances as heathen magic, these descriptions, together with the legends, provide some confirmation of the way in which the archaeological finds were used and their significance in ritual and musical life. The El Dorado legend is thus a good example of this way of testing the sources. Another instance concerns the many legends constructed around the sounds and functions of early Christian handbells in the early missions to Ireland.

(iv) Oral tradition.

Oral tradition, even if transmitted by persons without personal knowledge of old instruments, can be useful as an adjunct to archaeology, but experiments have suggested that oral tradition cannot be traced back more than three generations. Wachsmann (1971) indicated both the limits and the potential of oral tradition in east African societies with no written language. The researcher will acquire information on the basis of (a) the direct observation of processes in music history; (b) the informant’s personal memory; (c) the informant’s report, comprising hearsay and legends; (d) historical examination of accounts by travellers and others; and, following from the last point, (e) working hypotheses and speculation on long-term developments. The archaeological record itself is called upon only when all other means of investigating traditions and historicity are exhausted. It seems that all historical evidence should be interpreted before going back (or forward) to the archaeological artefact or findings.

6. The discipline.

Early chroniclers of cultures made only passing references to instruments in the distant past; moreover, few authors had themselves seen the evidence preserved in situ or even in collections. As far as Europe is concerned, it is not known whether or how closely those who wrote about proto-historic and classical Mediterranean civilizations were familiar with the instruments of their past and present. But the early Church leaders of the eastern Mediterranean area knew exactly what they were condemning when they fulminated against the music produced by non-Christian communities. Through them and their interest in the musical customs of their time a good deal of knowledge has come down to modern organologists, as it also has from Greek and Roman authors of the centuries around the time of the birth of Christ, writing from their own points of view. However, even if it is assumed that religions with their musical instruments and musical practice lasted longer in the Roman provinces than in Rome itself or in Alexandria, by the 6th and 7th centuries ce, when Isidore of Seville (d 636) was writing his encyclopaedic work, the Etymologiae, Roman culture had all but died out. Many misunderstandings of an organological or terminological nature, some of them connected with tradition, come from the writings of this period. Pseudo-Jerome’s famous letter, from the mid-9th century (Epistola ad Dardanum), describes a purely speculative range of instruments with no archaeological equivalents, and the account it gives of their sounds is wholly imaginary. Nothing is known from the period about instruments that might now be regarded as archaeological evidence, and in the area around Alexandria (by then long since destroyed) and ancient Egypt in general an independent musical life was obviously in existence, using instruments entirely different from those known to Classical antiquity.

Very few European instruments are extant from the Migration period and the early Middle Ages. Generally, as at Novgorod, only fragments have been preserved as archaeological artefacts; they have been studied and reconstructed with varying degrees of presuasiveness. The Middle Ages often provided their own descriptions and interpretations of musical instruments and practices mentioned in the Bible. The educational canon of Classical antiquity, still being passed on until the 17th century, also introduced into textbooks some knowledge of ancient music, the names of instruments, and their religious and cultic connections. However, this was dead knowledge that failed to take account of archaeological finds, and it seems to have been unusual for medieval and Renaissance writers to have known about them. The 18th century brought a great many treatises on antiquities, including musical instruments. An interest in the ancient world became fashionable, especially after the publication of the writings of Winckelmann, in particular his Geschichte und Kunst des Altertums (1764), and the development of Egyptology that followed Napoleon’s campaigns. Outstanding works on musical instruments of antiquity and biblical times include Blanchinus’s treatise (1742) and Ugolino’s collection of 40 tracts on biblical and ancient musical instruments (1767). Many of these accounts, more particularly their illustrations, belong to the realm of fantasy, an approach corrected only towards the end of the 19th century by scholarly editions of texts and confrontation with the archaeological facts. Also in the 19th century, Fétis came close to an archaeological approach when he remarked that ‘les recherches archéologiques’ could contribute to extending knowledge of the instruments of antiquity (Histoire de la musique, 1869).

Instrument archaeology is a relatively young discipline. It was not until the 20th century that scholars recognized the need for precise investigation, interpretation, and description of the instruments themselves, for making replicas where possible, and for the use of whatever iconographic and written and oral sources are available. Bearing in mind modern archaeological techniques of excavation and analysis, and the wealth of objects in museum collections, it might be that a plausible picture of the musical life of a series of cultures could be reconstructed solely from archaeological working methods, and that such a picture could supplement the written and oral information.

A Study Group on Archaeomusicology was formed at the ICTM congress in 1981 to promote international archaeo-musicological research embracing organology, and this group was recognized in 1983 by the executive committee of the Council as the Study Group on Music Archaeology, from 1997 independent of the ICTM as the International Study Group on Music Archaeology (ISGMA; see conference proceedings of 1984 and following). A Music Archaeological Bulletin appeared in 1984–6, succeeded until 1990 by Archaeologia musicalis; the ISGMA also maintains an extensive bibliography, accessible online.


C. Sachs: Geist und Werden der Musikinstrumente (Berlin, 1929/R)

H.G. Farmer: The Organ of the Ancients from Eastern Sources, Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic (London, 1931)

O. Seewald: Beiträge zur Kenntnis der steinzeitlichen Musikinstrumente Europas (Vienna, 1934)

C. Sachs: The Rise of Music in the Ancient World, East and West (New York, 1943)

H.C. Broholm, W.P. Larsen, and G. Skjerne: The Lures of the Bronze Age (Copenhagen, 1949)

H. Hickmann and C. Grégoire de Mecklembourg: Catalogue d’enregistrements de musique folklorique égyptienne (Strasbourg, 1958)

R. Hammerstein: ‘Instrumenta Hieronymi’, AMw, vol.16/1–2 (1959), 117–34

H. Avenary: ‘Hieronymus’ Epistel über die Musikinstrumente und ihre altöstlichen Quellen’, AnM, vol.16 (1961), 55–80

B. Bayer: The Material Relics of Music in Ancient Palestine and its Environs (Tel Aviv, 1963)

H. Becker: Zur Entwicklungsgeschichte der antiken und mittelalterlichen Rohrblattinstrumente (Hamburg, 1966)

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A.F. Weis Bentzon: The Launeddas: a Sardinian Folk Music Instrument (Copenhagen, 1969)

K. Wachsmann, ed.: Essays on Music and Music History in Africa (Evanston, IL, 1971) [incl. K. Wachsmann ‘ Musical Instruments in Kiganda Tradition and their Place in the East African Scene’, 93–134]

F. Zagiba: Musikgeschichte Mitteleuropas: Von den Anfängen bis zum Ende des 10. Jahrhunderts (Vienna, 1976)

R.L. Crocker and others: ‘ Music and Archaeology’, IMSCR XII: Berkeley 1977, ed. D. Heartz and B. Wade (Berkeley, 1977), 844–68

C.S. Lund: ‘Methoden und Probleme der nordischen Musikarchäologie’, AcM, vol.52/1 (1980), 1–13

V. Megaw, ed.: ‘Archaeology and Musical Instruments’, World Archaeology, vol.12/3 (London, 1981) [incl. A. Moyle: ‘The Australian Didjeridu: a Late Musical Intrusion’, 321–31]

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E. Hickmann: ‘Terminology, Problems, Goals of Archaeomusicology’, Progress Reports in Ethnomusicology, vol.10/3 (1983–4), 1–9

T. Kin-woon: Shang Musical Instruments (diss., Wesleyan U., 1983); repr. in AsM, vol.14/2 (1983), vol.15/1 (1983), and vol.15/2 (1984)

T. Alexandru: ‘Die rumanische Panflöte’, Tibia, vol.9/1 (1984), 20–30

C.S. Lund, ed.: ICTM Study Group on Music Archaeology II: Stockholm 1984 (Stockholm, 1986)

E. Mascher: Brauchgebunde Musikinstrumente in Niedersachsen: Studien zu Klanggeräten im Museumbesitz (Hildesheim, 1986)

E. Hickman and D.W. Hughes, eds.: ICTM Study Group on Music Archaeology III: The Archaeology of Early Music Cultures: Hanover, Hildesheim and Wolfenbüttel 1986 (Bonn, 1988)

E. Hickmann: ‘ Bild– und Schriftquellen zum Musikinstrumentarium der alexandrinischen Kultur um Christi Geburt’, Studia organologica: Festschrift für John Henry van Meer, ed. F. Hellwig (Tutzing, 1987), 217–28

L. Dongsheng and Y. Quanyou, eds.: Zhongguo yinyue shi tujian [Pictorial guide to the history of Chinese music] (Beijing, 1988)

K. DeWoskin: ‘Sources for the Study of Early Chinese Music’, Archaeologia musicalis, vol.2/2 (1988), 70–97

E. Hickmann: Musik aus dem Altertum der Neuen Welt: archäologische Dokumente des Musizierens in präkolumbischen Kulturen Perus, Ekuadors und Kolumbiens (Frankfurt, 1990)

K.-P. Koch: ‘Musikarchäologische Quellen aus dem östlichen Deutschland: Zwischenbericht’, Jahresschrift für mitteldeutsche Vorgeschichte, vol.75 (1992), 101–36

L. von Falkenhausen: Suspended Music: Chime-bells in the Culture of Bronze Age China (Berkeley, 1993)

R. Eichmann: Koptische Lauten: eine musikarchäologische Untersuchung von sieben Langhalslauten des 3–9. Jh. n. Chr. aus Ägypten (Mainz, 1994); reviewed by E. Hickmann, Journal of the American Oriental Society, April–June, 1998

M. Otte, ed.: ICTM Study Group on Music Archaeology V: Sons originels: préhistoire de la musique: Liège 1992 (Liège, 1994)

Å. Norborg: Ancient Middle Eastern Lyres (Stockholm, 1995)

F. Picard, C. Homo-Lechner, and A. Bélis, eds.: ICTM Study Group on Music Archaeology IV: La pluridisciplinarité en archéologie musicale: Saint-Germain-en-Laye 1990 (Saint-Germain-en-Laye, 1994)

E. Hickman, I. Laufs, and R. Eichmann, eds.: ICTM Study Group on Music Archaeology VII: Music Images and the Bible-Instruments: Jerusalem 1994–5 (Jerusalem, 2000)

L. Chunyi: Zhongguo shanggu chutu yueqi zonglun [Survey of ancient excavated musical instruments in China] (Beijing, 1996)

S. Zhou: Zhongguo yinyue wenwu daxi [Compendium of Chinese musical relics] (Beijing, 1996–) [multi-volume province-by-province archaeological series on musical instruments and historic visual sources]

E. Hickmann: ‘ Anthropomorphe Pfeifen und Flöten: ein Beitrag über Klang, Spiel und Kunst im alten Ekuador’, Sine musica nulla vita: Festschrift Hermann Moeck, ed. N. Delius (Celle, 1997), 321–41

E. Hickmann: ‘ Das heilige Signal: irische und schottische Handglocken aus der Frühzeit der christlichen Mission’, Glocken in Geschichte und Gegenwart, ed. V. Kramer, vol.2 (Karlsruhe, 1997), 375–82

E. Hickmann: ‘ Rätschafte Formen, befremdliche Töne: zum Verhältnis von Ikonographie und Klanglichkeit bei drei Gruppen altekuadorianische Schallgeräte’, Ethnomusikologie und historische Musikwissenschaft: gemeinsame Ziele, gleiche Methoden?: Erich Stockmann zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. C.-H.Mahling and S.Münch (Tutzing, 1997), 197–210

J. Braun: Die Musikkkultur Altisraels/Palästinas: Studien zu archäolgischen, schriflichen und vergleichenden Quellen (Fribourg, 1999)

J. Zhang and others: ‘Oldest Playable Musical Instruments Found at Jiahu Early Neolithic Site in China’, Nature (23 Sept 1999), 366–8

E. Hickman and R. Eichmann, eds.: ICTM Study Group on Music Archaeology VI: Musikarchäologie in der Ägäis und Anatolien: Istanbul 1993 (Istanbul, 2000)

E. Hickman, A.D. Kilmer, and R. Eichmann, eds.: ICTM Study Group on Music Archaeology VIII: Stringed Instruments in Archaeological Context: Limassol 1996 (Limassol, 2000)

E. Hickmann, I. Laufs, R. Eichmann, eds.: Music Archaeology of Early Metal Ages. Studien zur Musikarchäologie II (Rahden/Westf., 2000)

J. So, ed.: Music in the Age of Confucius (Washington, DC, 2000)

E. Hickmann, A.D. Kilmer, R. Eichmann, eds.: The Archaeology of Sound: Origin and Organisation. Studien zur Musikarchäologie III (Rahden/Westfalen, 2002)

I. Morley: The Evolutionary Origins and Archaeology of Music, or an Investigation into the Prehistory of Human Musical Capacities and Behaviours, Using Archaeological, Anthropological, Cognitive and Behavioural Evidence (diss., Cambridge U., 2003)

H. Leaf: ‘English Medieval Bone Flutes: a Brief Introduction’, GSJ, vol.59 (2006), 13–9

C. Scarre and G.Lawson: Archaeoacoustics (Cambridge, 2006)

A.A. Both and J.L.J. Sanchez, eds.: ‘Music Archaeology: Mesoamerica’, The World of Music, special issue, vol.49/2 (2007)

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Robert Anderson, Arturo Chamorro, Ellen Hickmann, Anne Kilmer, Gerhard Kubik, Thomas Turino/Vincent Megaw, Alan R. Thrasher (1, 5 (i))/R

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