Tag Archives: archaeology

Playing the harp in Kisimul Castle

Steach gu Ciosamul an aighir,
Far a faighte cuirm ri gabhail
Ol fìon o oidhche gus an latha,
Pìobaireachd na feadan lagach,
‘s clàrsach bhinn ga gleusadh mar ris…

I was at Castlebay this past weekend, to play the harp at the Galley Castles Conference organised by the Islands Book Trust. I played three times for three different events during the conference, all of them fairly informal. Though I didn’t get a chance to formally present a paper on my research into the medieval Hebridean harp music and instrument tradition, I was pleased to be able to discuss my research and work with a number of interested academics working in this area on the history and archaeology of the castles and society of the medieval Western Isles and the Lordship of the Isles.

Continue reading Playing the harp in Kisimul Castle

Tuning pin

I have acquired an interesting old tuning pin. This is an early Irish harp tuning pin, probably dating from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. I bought it from an Irish antiquities and coin dealer, who told me it was found in Co. Monaghan.

I’m very interested to consider this in the context of the surviving old harps, and to think about how most of us nowadays use modern pins, and how the differences have implications for the use and tuning of the harp.

Continue reading Tuning pin

Deskford “carnyx”

I was up in Aberdeen yesterday, interviewing for an education project themed around the Deskford carnyx. As part of my preparation I was reading up on the Deskford find as well as on carnyxes generally, and some ideas crystallised in my mind about this object specifically, as well as about the whole theme of reconstructing archaeological objects more generally. And the recreation of ancient music is perhaps the most difficult strand of reconstructing ancient objects, because the musical instrument is not merely a decorative item or a functioning tool, but is the living substrate of a whole other creative art, i.e. music making.

I was chatting with Maura Uí Chróinín in Kilkenny, about the “BC/AD” music-archaeology theme of this year’s Galway Early Music Festival, and she made the point that most music archaeologists seem to work on their own, outside of both the musical and the archaeological mainstream. The reasons for this are obvious enough, since archaeologists most often don’t have music training and musicians don’t have archaeological background, and so the majority of scholars on both sides feel un-qualified to judge or participate in music-archaeology work.

The late Iron age object from Deskford (my photo shown on the right, in the NMS) was excavated in the 19th century and so is, by modern standards, poorly recorded and conserved. It is in the form of a sheet bronze hollow boar’s head, and has with it a number of associated sheet bronze items which seem to form the palate of the boar’s mouth, its lower jaw, and a circular plate which is often assumed to have closed the open back of the head. The original descriptions also mention a wooden tongue mounted on springs but these are lost.

Early suggestions of its function were perhaps as a headdress. In 1959, Stuart Piggot published a paper suggesting it may have been the bell of a distinctive type of Iron Age long trumpet, called carnyx. At that date, the carnyx was known from classical art and literature, and Piggot drew attention to a lost example excavated in Tattershall, England, in the 18th century.

Piggot’s article included a speculative reconstruction of the Deskford boar’s head mounted on a long vertical tube, and despite his reservations and cautions, this image and the idea of the only extant carnyx surviving from North-East Scotland captured the public imagination. In the 1990s, John Purser led a team to build a working reconstruction of the boars head as a long trumpet bell, following Piggot’s drawing. This modern carnyx has been played extensively by trombonist John Kenny – I remember seeing him play it at a concert in Edinburgh some years ago.

In all this excitement, people forget that Piggot’s suggestion was just that – a speculative suggestion made at a time when very little was actually known about the carnyx. Now we have a lot more information available, especially since the publication of detailed information of the set of almost complete carnyxes excavated in 2004 in Tintinac in France. Looking over the depictions, the Tintinac examples (illustration left from Wikipedia) and the River Witham drawing publiushed by Piggot, I see a number of important features that could be said to characterise the carnyx. The tube is tapering along its whole length like a horn, and flares gently but markedly towards the animal head, which is not seperate in shape but forms a smooth continuation of the bore flare. The animal mouth is wide open, not constricting the bell of the instrument. In contrast, the Deskford head tapers the other way, severly constricting the bell of the reconstructed instrument – a recent acoustical study notes that it acts like a “trombone mute”. Also, the use of the circular dished plate to close the back of the boar’s head requires a thin tube, with a sudden step in profile as the tube meets the head. Again this has an adverse effect on the harmonicity of the instrument in contrast to the smooth expansion of the other extant and depicted carnyxes.

These considerations alone make me instantly very suspicious of this idea, that the Deskford head represents the remains of a musical instrument. I can see no specific evidence to support this interpretation and I can see a number of problems, ways in which the Deskford head is markedly different in form from all of the other extant and depicted carnyxes. I would go as far as to say, the Deskford boar’s head is not a carnyx.

A number of descriptions of the reconstruction Deskford carnyx are at pains to point out that it involves a large amount of interpretative or newly-invented design, but that nonetheless it represents a fascinating working instrument that can “result in
instruments capable of playing a valuable role in the musical culture of the present day.”  (M. Campbell & J. Kenny, Acoustical and musical properties of the Deskford Carnyx reconstruction, Proceedings of the Acoustics 2012 Nantes Conference). This is the rub – you invent a new instrument, give it an ancient name and hang it on an ancient cultural icon or artefact, and so set off in a new direction. This is not music archaeology; this is modernist cultural creativity, re-imagining ancient symbols for new purposes. If the purpose was really to get the ancient carnyx up and running, then there are the Tintinac examples ready to be exactly replicated; compared to that, a new instrument using a copy of the Deskford boar’s head as its bell has virtually no archaeological or music-archaeological value. Clearly it is not intended to do music-archaeology work; instead it is designed and produced for present day national-cultural reasons, to provide a newly-invented iconic “ancient” Scottish sight and sound.

We are not so far away from the invention of the gut-strung lever harp in the 1890s, and the neglect of the historical Gaelic harp…

One final thought: many modern depictions or recreations of carnyxes emphasise its long S shape, with a vertical tube topped by a 90 degree bend to hold the animal head, and with another 90 degree bend at the bottom to hold the mouthpiece horizontal while the tube is vertical. It seems to me that all the ancient carnyxes did not have this 90 degree bend at the bottom – some may have had an oblique mouthpiece cut in the lower end of the vertical tube, but the normal arrangement seems to have been a plain mouthpiece on the end of the long tube, as seen on the Tintinac example illustrated above. So the player has to tip their head right back and blow almost vertically into the instrument. A very different playing position with all its implications for sound production!

In the Cave of the Picts

Yesterday I packaged up a menagerie of instruments and rode on the train all the way to Elgin, and then out to the coast and down a pretty extreme scramble down the cliff and along over the rocks to the Sculptor’s Cave, on the shore of the Moray Firth. I had been asked to play music in the caves for recording by the European Music Archaeology Project.

One of the caves contains Pictish designs carved on the walls, so I prepared some early medieval repertory and as well as the Queen Mary harp, I took with me the two lyres – the replica Trossingen lyre with horsehair strings, and the early Irish lyre with iron, latten and silver strings and with the Iron Age lyre bridge from Uamh an Ard Achaidh on the Isle of Skye. Also I took the bowed lyre or jouhikko, and the trump or jews harp, and the tambourines, and both my horns – the short early medieval style end-blown horn and the long Bronze-Age style side-blown horn.

The site was beautiful; there was almost no view over to the Black Isle because of the haar, but the sun was shining, the gulls were loud and the archaeological team from Bradford were friendly and working hard on their trenches.

Unfortunately there were serious technical problems with the recording equipment and there were also clashes between access times and train times, forcing me to leave early before high tide cut the caves off, and so in the end I only managed to do a few short takes with the lyres, harp and big horn in one of the caves. Bill Taylor was there as well, and he did some takes in one of the other caves after I had left. All in all, it was fun to play in this venue, and wonderful to spend all day exploring and investigating this powerful and fascinating place.

Dupplin Cross

On the way back from Edinburgh this afternoon we enjoyed a large detour which included a stop at the old church in Dunning. Inside this preserved medieval building in the care of Historic Scotland, is the early medieval Dupplin Cross.

The cross is very well presented in the base of the tower, and is extremely well lit with raking light from above, allowing a good appreciation of the relief carving. Of course I really wanted to see the harpist, King David I suppose, but all of the carved panels were really lovely. The inscription was on the back side and was the least well illuminated so there was no possibility of reading any of it.

Once everything is tidy and I am feeling less tired I will have a better look at my photographs and maybe will have somthing more to say about the David panel on the cross!

Until 1999, the cross stood on the nearby hillside, and although obviously the 1200-year-old carving and inscription is much better preserved now the cross is inside, it seems a shame that it no longer stands in situ, looking down over the ancient Pictish royal site at Forteviot.  I don’t believe the original site is signposted or marked in any way – wouldn’t it be wonderful if a cast or replica could be installed there?

Finlaggan

In 1995 I did not have the internet and I still watched TV! I remember seeing Time Team every weekend, was it Sunday early evenings? I was studying for my archaeology degree at that time, and the antics of the TV archaeologists was always an entertaining subject of discussion with my classmates. We had been out for week-long stints at Wroxeter and Bridgnorth and so had plenty of first-hand experience of what archaeology was like without film crews and national TV budgets…

I clearly remember the episode where the team visited Finlaggan, the medieval palace and administrative centre of the Lords of the Isles. I didn’t record it I don’t think, so I only saw it once live as it was broadcase, but I do clearly remember them showing a harp tuning pin from the excavations, and Alison Kinnaird playing her beautiful early clàrsach on site. I also remember the reproduction aketon that they made. I was actually inspired to make one myself – a very interesting exercise involving a lot of linen fabric and raw wool fleece!

I also recall sending off by post for the printed series brochure, which had a disappointingly small amount of background info on the programme. I don’t have this any more.

Anyway I suddenly thought, it must be possible to find info online about it, and sure enough there it is on Channel 4’s website. I haven’t watched the video yet but I listened to the audio and it brought back some memories!

Alison’s harp playing did make an impression on me; this was after I had got my first harp but before I had started seriously studying the playing technique and repertory. Listening again I recognised the English masque tune of the Battle of Harlaw.

I also found and downloaded the interim pre-publication versions of David Caldwell’s report on the NMS excavations at Finlaggan, from the NLS Repository.

All grist to the mill… one of my current projects is “music of the Lords of the Isles” (Ceol Rì Innse Gall perhaps?). Can I find / create enough medieval harp music to fill a programme of music that would have been heard played on the Queen Mary harp in the Great Hall at Finlaggan?

Blue Stane & Black Stone

There are two interesting stanes in St Andrews, and the other day I went and photographed both of them for you.

The Black Stone is on display in a glass case in the Museum of the University of St Andrews, though I remember years ago before the museum was opened, seeing the Black Stone standing in the big fireplace in Parliament Hall, below the old library. Apparently it used to be used as the ritual seat on which MA candidates would be seated, for their oral examination, and it was used for this purpose from c.1420 (when the University was brand new) through to the 18th century. It looks like it may be a Roman pillar capital; the bands are gilded, and it is extremely black. It is obviously connected to other ritual stone seats such as the Stone of Scone at Edinburgh Castle, and the Frith Stool in Hexham Cathedral.

The Blue Stane stands behind high railings, outside a pub of the same name, on one of the roundabouts on City Road, a hundred yards or so outside one of the old medieval gates of the city. It has moved around a bit over the centuries (since its first appearance on a 1580 map) but has always been beside a road outside the West end of the city. It is a kind of Dolerite from Drumcarrow Craig a few miles west. In olden times, men would pat it and women curtsey to it as they passed. It is said to have been King Kenneth MacAlpine’s coronation seat in the 9th century. Apparently there is another blue stane outside of Crail kirk but I have not seen that one.

strange brass rod

In the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, there is a little wooden box containing three brass or bronze tapered pins. The left and right hand ones are tuning-pins for early Irish harps, but the middle one is a mystery to me. It is labelled and described as a harp tuning pin but this is clearly rubbish – its tapered shaft is hexagonal and its wide end is in the form of a female bust with stubby crossed arms and bare breasts.

I really can’t think what this thing is!

I have looked at it on and off for about 10 years; I kept asking Hèléne La Rue if we could get it out and look at it but we never got round to it. But here’s my recent photo.