The Chronicle Review

Field Report: Music Archaeology, Digging the Hits of Yesteryear

The Trustees of The British Museum, Art Resource

Depictions like this one of a lyre, from 2600-2400 BC, help musicians build replicas of ancient instruments.
July 31, 2011

When a hootenanny struck up 3,000—or 30,000—years ago, no recording engineer was there to capture what went down.

Can anyone know, then, what ancient instruments like the aulos and carnyx really sounded like, how they were played, or in what contexts?

Ensembles exist that boast of performing ancient music; they release recordings. But music archaeologists often question the authenticity of such performances. They know that unearthed instruments reveal their sounds, but little else.

While scribes sometimes wrote down melodies, players today are hard pressed to deduce what rhythms, ranges, intervals, or harmonics were used. "The only absolute we have is the instruments themselves, the fact they exist," says Simon O'Dwyer, an Irish musician who specializes in playing ancient instruments of his country.

Overlooked Instruments

In the past, mainstream archaeologists often overlooked musical finds in their eagerness for evidence relating to preferred topics like wars, empires, buildings, and tools. "In museums all over the world, there are probably millions of objects that were instruments or parts of instruments but are not classified as such," says Arnd Adje Both, a prominent musical archaeologist based at the Reiss-Engelhorn Museums in Mannheim, Germany, who specializes in pre-Columbian musical culture.

Music archaeology began to take shape with impressive discoveries in the 1970s. In 1971, Anne D. Kilmer, an Assyriologist at the University of California at Berkeley, deciphered the oldest written music: a late Bronze Age hymn for singer and harpist. She cracked the 3,500-year-old Mesopotamian musical notation used to record the hymn. Inscribed on a cuneiform tablet excavated in the 1950s in modern-day Syria, it even included instructions on how to tune the harp. (For a recording of the harp, visit

Discoveries like those keep occurring. In 2008, for example, a University of Tübingen archaeologist, Nicholas Conard, and colleagues pieced together 12 fragments unearthed in a German cave to discover the oldest handcrafted musical instrument ever found—a flute, at least 35,000 years old and eight and one half inches long, made from the bone of a vulture wing. That, and similar finds, led Conard to speculate that as humans spread across Europe, their music exemplified the cooperation that allowed them to survive when Neanderthals could not.

In 2003 in Ireland, archaeologists found a set of six low whistles, the "Wicklow pipes." They appear to have been part of the earliest-known organ. At 4,000 years old—when the last megaliths at Stonehenge were going up—they are 3,800 years older than the next oldest organ, discovered in Alexandria, Greece. "They're a completely unexpected find," Mr. O'Dwyer says of the cylindrical wooden tubes. "They're bigger and wider than any of the melody wind instruments of the time."

Broad Context

What music archaeologists do is rather obscured by the name of their field. Not only a branch of archaeology, it intersects importantly with many fields. It may entail philology, as Kilmer's decryption did. It may entail poring over images, such as women tapping frame drums on Iron Age figurines excavated in Cyprus and musical scenes imprinted on Near Eastern seals.

Particularly useful, though, is the observation of living musical traditions—the field could almost be renamed historical ethnomusicology. After all, some musical traditions, such as those of Australian aborigines, thrived largely uninterrupted until recent times.

Luck and hunches help. In 2003, Cornelia Kleinitz, an archaeologist at Humboldt University, in Berlin, and her team stumbled on an astonishing musical instrument in the Sudan: hundreds of resonant boulders—lithophones—arrayed down a Nile River valley like a giant xylophone that players had struck with river stones.

Kleinitz even managed to use signs of wear on the rocks to figure out which had been struck most often, and in which likely order.

Kleinitz's team also noticed that the ringing boulders appeared to be in some sort of functional spatial relationship with rock-art images. That resonated with music archaeologists who study the acoustics of caves, temples, and even tombs that appealed to early humans as environments for social noisemaking.

The call for an "archaeology of the senses," modish in the parent discipline, and prompted by awareness that the past was multisensory, applies in music archaeology, too. There, the outcome, championed by such leading figures as Graeme Lawson, a fellow of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, is "archaeo-acoustics," the study of the role of sound in human behavior.

Music is most usefully understood in broad cultural context, say music archaeologists. After all, many cultures, ancient and more recent, have not separated what modern Westerners would call music from dance, or ritual, or other endeavors.

Some music archaeologists charge that historical musicologists too often impose an ethnocentric understanding of music based on the Western art-music tradition. Gjermund Kolltveit, a University of Oslo expert in the history and historic dispersal of the Jew's harp, says some colleagues combat that tendency by abandoning the term "music" in favor of "intentional sound" and by calling their field, none-too-sonorously, "archeo-organology."

'Different Aesthetics'

Some researchers are trapped by the idea that since the West has descended philosophically from the Greeks and Romans, it has descended musically as well. But "the aesthetics would have been completely different," says Both. Given the kinds of sounds that instruments could produce, and some of the known contexts of music playing, such as in ecstasy cults, he imagines Greek and Roman music sounding like "some modern-day ethnic group in some corner of the world."

Unfortunately, he says, ancient-music re-creators, whether of Roman, Greek, Mesopotamian, or pre-Columbian music, generally wallow in a "dark, mystical, hollow atmosphere—very slow, processional. There's nothing wild."

And they too often conceal what they are up to, charges John Curtis Franklin, a University of Vermont classicist. At popular museum performances, he says, musicians bop about pseudo-ritualistically in pseudo-Egyptian costumes summoning "an otherworld of lost, magical, mysterious sounds."

The squabble over re-creations matters to music archaeologists because it has an important research dimension: Experimenting with ancient instruments, along with building replicas of them, is the practical arm of music-archaeology research. "It is exactly where science and art meet," Both says.

Musicians' intuitions offer clues to musical pasts. O'Dwyer has introduced ancient Irish horns into modern Irish folk music, and that led him to explore the capabilities of the instruments. They can play overtones, for example, and may well have done so.

Of course, learning by playing presents pitfalls, too. Just because certain notes and scales can be played on an ancient instrument doesn't mean they were. In the case of, say, a Paleolithic flute made from bird bones or mammoth tusks, not all finger holes might have been used equally, or at all. Breathing techniques would have affected the sounds produced.

Andy Lowings remains game for the challenge. An English harpist (and tunneling engineer), he built a replica of the "Gold Lyre of Ur," one of four lyres discovered in 1929 in a 4,500-year-old mass grave of apparent suicides. Over the last few years, Lowings has obtained cedar, gold, bitumen, and lapis lazuli from the Middle East and elsewhere, to recreate the instrument. He has worked with a West Kenyan lyre player whose Luo people still play a similar instrument.

He admits to taking liberties in performances—"we're not academics who have to take it straight," he says. But as Susanna Rühling, the producer and director of the sparkling Musica Romana ensemble, based in Germany, notes, "every creation of historical music is a guess." Musicians can't easily leave gaps in performances, the way philologists do in incomplete texts.

High-Tech Approaches

The number of practitioners of music archaeology remains small—in the hundreds, not thousands, worldwide. But music archaeologists take heart in the modest growth of their numbers.

Among emerging directions are two championed by Lawson of Cambridge. He is leading a review of the large body of evidence produced by some of the pioneers of modern archaeology. Music was, for example, much discussed in the mid-1840s at the newly formed British Archaeological Association before falling out of favor.

At the same time, Lawson's Ancient Musical Instrument Surfaces Project is using advanced imaging techniques to study traces of ancient operation and handling.

Also going high-tech is ASTRA—Ancient Instruments Sound/Timbre Reconstruction Application. Its computer engineers, historians, musicians, and other researchers at several British and European institutions are using excavated fragments and other data to create digital models and then program them with complex algorithms.

That is allowing the ASTRA team to create a computer-based approximation of instruments like the Greek epigonion, a sort of harp known only from images and descriptions, and to surround it in performance by ASTRA's Lost Sounds Orchestra, including ancient instruments with evocative names like the barbiton (akin to bass guitar), salpynx (trumpet), syrinx (pan flute), and aulos (double-tubed oboe).

Other high-tech research includes neurobiological and psychological studies of whether humans are biologically inclined to prefer "natural musical intervals," which would presumably have influenced early performance practices.

They are not, Reinhard Kopiez, a music psychologist at Hanover University in Germany, reported in 2002.

That's one more vote for Both's wild-and-free jazz approach.

Peter Monaghan is a longtime contributor to The Chronicle.