Sunday, May 6, 2018

Five Ancient Musical Instruments from Ireland

The Wicklow Pipes, c. 2200-2000 BC

In 2003 a remarkable artefact was recovered during an archaeological excavation carried out by Bernice Molly at Greystones, Co. Wicklow. It consists of six carefully worked wooden pipes, which represent the world’s oldest surviving wooden musical instrument.

They were discovered in a waterlogged trough belonging to an Early Bronze Age burnt mound (c. 2120-2085 BC). Fashioned out of yew wood, the pipes were found lying side by side, in descending order. They ranged in size from 57cm to 29 cm long, although not all were complete. Internally they had been hollowed out, with the resultant internal diameters being approximately 2 cm across. However, there was no evidence for finger holes.

Instead, the ends of some of the pipes had been worked to a stepped taper, suggesting that this end was originally contained within an organic fitting. This may indicate that the pipes formed part of a composite wind instrument, such as an organ fed by a bag, or else a complex pan-pipe like device.


Two Late Bronze Age Horns from Co. Antrim,   900-600 BC

These two Late Bronze Age horns were discovered in bogs located in Drumbest, Co. Antrim and Derrynane, Co. Kerry. Made from bronze they were originally cast in clay moulds. They represent sophisticated pieces of early metal-working and were undoubtedly valuable items, whose deposition in a bog may represent ritual activity.

During the Late Bronze Age there were two main types of horn Ireland. One blown from the end and the other from a side mouthpiece, with both types being illustrated above. In general, the end-blown horns are mainly found in the southwest of the country, while the side-blown horns have a more even distribution.

They appear to have been  popular instruments and to-date over 122 have been discovered in Ireland (Coles 1967, 117). Amazingly, this accounts for over half the total number of Bronze Age horns that have so far been found in Europe and the Middle East (after Wallace 2000, 25).

When the horns were blown they probably made a noise similar to a didgeridoo.


Crotals/Rattles from Dowris, Co. Offaly,         900-600BC

These distinctive bronze balls/pendants formed part of huge Late Bronze Age hoard which was uncovered at  Dowris in Co. Offaly during the mid-19th century. Hollow-cast and pear-shaped they typically contain a loose piece of bronze or stone inside, which rattles when the pendants are shook. This may indicate that they represent a rather simple form of musical instrument.

Known as crotals, from the Latin crotalum, meaning rattle, the pendants are generally about 12 cm long and can weigh up to 270 grams. They have a loop at one end, indicating that they were probably suspended, although they appear to have been too heavy for attachment to normal clothing. A uniquely Irish artefact, crotals are not recorded from outside of the island.


The Loughnashade Trumpet, Co. Armagh,                    c. 100 BC 

The magnificent Loughnashade trumpet is one of the finest surviving horns of the European Iron Age. It was discovered during drainage works at the site of a former lake (Loughnashade) in Co. Armagh. Alongside it were three other horns, which have since been lost, and a collection of human skulls and bones. This array of finds is suggestive of ritual deposition and it is likely that the lake was a site of some importance for the inhabitants of the nearby royal site at Eamhain Macha/Navan Fort.
Dating from circa the  1st century BC, the trumpet measures  1.86 m in length and is made from curved and rivetted sheets of bronze.  The decorative flange at the end  of the instrument is covered in an abstract floral design which is executed in repousse ornamentation. It has been suggested that originally there may have been a second, attached stem-piece that would have lengthened the trumpet and given it an overall S-shaped profile (O’Dwyer 1998).

The original function of the trumpet is uncertain but it may have been used during special ceremonies or possibly even warfare. There are numerous classical accounts which detail how the Gauls and other continental Celtic tribes used similar bronze trumpets as war-horns. For example in c. 60-30 BC the Greek historian, Diodurus Siculus wrote this description,  ‘their trumpets again are of a peculiar barbarian kin, they blow into them and produce a harsh sound which suits the tumult of war’.


The Brian Boru Harp, c. 15th century AD

Also known as the  Trinity Harp, this instrument is one of Ireland’s national symbols. Its image has been used on Irish coinage and state insignia and it it was also the model for the famous Guinness logo. According to to the 18th century antiquarian, Charles Vallancey, the harp was once owned by Brian Boru. However, this is highly unlikely and instead it was probably constructed in the 15th century.

The harp is decorated with intricate carvings and originally contained fittings for twenty nine strings, with an additional 30th fitting added over the course of its life. The person who commissioned the harp is unknown, although it does bear the O’Neill coat of arms, suggesting that this family once owned it.

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