Instruments of Prehistory

It may be that one of the key reasons for the lack of reference in the archaeological literature to musical instruments in British prehistory is not just an emphasis on economics, landscapes, or art but the poor preservation of the archaeological record.  From the Neolithic period the only recognised instruments from Britain are hypothetical bone flutes or pipes.  Of the five examples commonly mentioned, the example from Lincoln may be of Roman date, the Crane bone example from Wilsford, just to the south of Stonehenge, and the two examples, from Penywyrlod and Skara Brae are broken and fragmentary, and the Avebury instrument is lost.  At some sites perforated cattle toes, such as those from Skara Brae, may have been used as whistles.  We have a fragment of a possible Bronze Age horn from Scotland, but this is nothing in comparison with the large number found in Ireland.

This does not seem like a promising starting point but with the help of ethnography and better survival condition from other European countries we can expand our vision of the range of music that may have been played in prehistoric Britain.  So the likelihood of the possible flutes or pipes mentioned above being genuine is bolstered by the fact that the earliest accepted bird-bone and mammoth-ivory wind instruments from Geissenklösterle, Germany, are far earlier, ca 36000 BC.  Musical behaviour is very old and important.  Elsewhere in Europe, clay whistles and globular flutes are known from the 5th and 4th millennium BC, while many hundreds of clay drums are known from Germany and the surrounding countries of Northern Europe, with very similar artefacts known from China.  In France several examples of clay horns are known, which suggests that earlier precursors to the Irish horns may have existed in Britain.  This supposition is strengthened by the importance of cattle in ceremonial contexts from the earliest Neolithic and beyond; although horn also does not survive well.  This is a key point: ethnographic assessments of hunter-gatherer societies suggest unaltered organic material was used for instruments, so if they survive there may be no sign that they were instruments by our modern-day standards.  At Charavines, France, a 42 cm tube of elder was discovered which has been interpreted as a flute, perhaps played in the style of a Scandinavian overtone willow-flute, or maybe it was a tube to blow on a fire.  A bullroarer survives from Denmark, ca 8500 years old, and these were still in existence in the twentieth century.  Similarly in Denmark a bow has survived, from approximately 7000 years ago which may have been used as a musical bow, as found in southern Africa and South America.  Bows may also be used for drilling, starting fires and of course hunting.  In addition to this range of possible instruments we have the human body, equipped from rhythmic clapping and stamping and various forms of singing and chanting.      

When looking at objects we assume they had one function, but pots may be used as drums as readily as a small piece of bone, shell or acorn cup as a whistle.  And it is very unlikely that the scarcity of the British prehistoric musical record reflects the nature of the music in the past.   

 Dr. Simon Wyatt


4 Responses to “Instruments of Prehistory”

  1. helmer lyster Says:

    very interesting,no doubt that drums, flutes,whistles,horns are of early origin,stringed instruments seem to be out of the picture,but the reason might be the material from which they were made.

    1. ruperttill Says:

      As you suggest, stringed instruments like musical bows may have existed earlier, but leave little trace in the archaeological record due to the materials used to make them.

  2. jonpip Says:

    Hi folks. Does anyone know of any information on ceramic Neolithic drums? I know that pots have been suggested as potential candidates, but as a non-musician, I would have thought that having a base would limit its function as a drum? Any thoughts appreciated. John

    1. ruperttill Says:

      The idea of a drum is of course a modern idea. If you put a skin on a beaker to keep its contents in, and you tap the top of it,
      and it makes a noise, is it then a drum or a container? We don’t know for sure the uses of things in many cases. One case where
      we are pretty sure is the TRB ceramic drums, which have no bottom, so would be pretty useless as a container.

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