Bringing Europe′s stone-age musical instruments to life | Music | DW | 20.05.2019
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Bringing Europe's stone-age musical instruments to life

"Look, don't touch!" is the motto of many archaeological exhibitions. But German Archaeological Institute's (DAI) 190th anniversary party featured historic replicas of ancient musical instruments that can be played.

"While you live, shine / Have no grief at all / Life exists only for a short while / Time demands its tribute."

These simple lyrics hardly seem out of place in the present day, despite having been written thousands of years ago to one of the world's oldest complete melodies. Penned during the Hellenistic period of Ancient Greece (323 to 31 B.C.), this uplifting poem was inscribed on a stone pillar by a man named Seikilos and discovered by archaeologists in present-day Turkey.

A replica of the stone was on display, accompanied by an audio recording of a Viennese choir singing the song, last Friday in Berlin at an event celebrating the 190th anniversary of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI). The event featured representatives from the DAI's international branches presenting their latest finds.

A stone with greek writing stands in an exhibition with other exhibits in the background (Fritz Fabert)

The Seikilos stone (left, in an exhibition) features song lyrics in ancient Greek that sound rather modern

The Seikilos stone was part of an exhibition called "Archaeomusica: The Sounds and Music of Ancient Europe," the fruit of a 5-year research project by the DAI's Orient department. Through interdisciplinary collaboration, archaeologists, instrument makers, ethnomusicologists, musicians and other specialists came together to combine their research on Europe's earliest instruments and create playable replicas of each instrument.

Although the Archaeomusica project ended in 2018, the instruments are currently in the DAI's collection and a wide-ranging selection was brought to the event in Berlin, from bone pipes to golden trumpets. Attendees could see and touch replicas of some of the first musical instruments to be played in Europe, ranging from the Paleolithic period c. 40,000 B.C. to late antiquity, or the 3rd-8th century A.D., while simultaneously listening to their sounds through audio headsets.

A hand reaches out to touch a 3D landscape (DAI/Eva Götting )

The DAI undertakes other interesting, multidimensional projects such as this 3D landscape modelling of Palmyram Syria

Bullroarers and mammoth bones 

The earliest sound tools known to archaeologists today are from the Paleolithic area, part of the early Stone Age, when the first anatomically modern homo sapiens are thought to have arrived in Europe. The earliest known European instruments were cave finds from southern Germany.

"This does not mean that the that humans didn't make music before," Arnd Adje, a music archaeologist who curated the exhibition, pointed out. "But by that time, we can say, ok, they played on bone flutes, bone pipes then later bullroarers, which are little objects that are swung and whirled through the air and make a buzzing sound."

Later bone rasps and mammoth bones, found in present-day Ukraine, were probably used in percussion ensembles. Only hard materials like antler horn, perforated shell and bone have stood the test of time. "It's just a small selection of all possible sound instruments they may have played" Adje said, as instruments like wooden drums covered in animal hide also may have existed.

Tools made of stone in a circl (picture-alliance/dpa)

This tools from the Stone Age were used for hunting. Musical instruments from the era that have lasted until today are also made of hard materials that preserve well.

What makes the Archaeomusica collection unique is that each replica instrument can be loaned and played by trained musicians.

"Thousands of musical instruments are stored in museums worldwide," Adje said, and in many cases the objects are in display cases or locked away in storage and out of reach. These real instruments generate the most interest from musicians, who, lacking archaeological qualifications required to handle the old instruments, are barred from playing them.

Archaeomusica's reproductions are based on painstakingly gathered research and created with materials as close to possible as the originals.

"It's a huge treasure because in most cases we have no clue about the actual music that was played," Adje said. This means the possibilities for new collaborations on these ancient instruments are abundant. A Baroque musician would use his or her technical skills to freestyle a tune on an ancient Greek double flute differently than an indigenous person in Papua New Guinea playing the very same instrument, Adje explained. "It's just fantastic to explore these objects and look at what other possible sounds that these objects generate."

Read more: Sound magician: Mongolian composer Zulan modernizes ancient musical traditions

The outside of the DAI in Berlin (picture-alliance/dpa/J. Kalaene)

The DAI has branches all over the world, with its central location in Berlin (above)

A new area of interest in architecture

Although many may associate archaeology with the excavation of large structures such as tombs and temples, the field today is actually much broader. As it widens, the area of music archaeology is gaining momentum, since it deals with what Adje called the "soft aspects of the past." 

"We try to get behind these material remains to learn more about what the people thought or felt, and that is really interesting with this research because it's so open and experimental. It's music performance, it's digging, it's acoustical analysis."

In looking back at the past, one might even find that it's not so different from the present. Adje pointed out that in the period around 40,000 B.C., "These instruments can produce music which is very much comparable with what we know today," but of course, they could have also produced music which might now be classified as "noise."

In contrast to later periods, there are no written records and few paintings from this time, so no one really knows how these ancient humans preferred to jam. Maybe this mystery will inspire new collaborations on these instruments.

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