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18 September 2014
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Getting Involved: Archaeology Now

By Barrie Andrian
Experiments on artefacts

Image of an Iron Age rotary quern
Grinding flour using an Iron Age rotary quern ©
The many archaeological experiments that have taken place over the last 100 or so years are too numerous and complex to cover here, but a few examples have been selected to illustrate the range of some of the work approached so far and the potential for future experimentation.

Global communication via the Internet means that theories, methodology, and results of experiments may be shared and compared with greater speed and efficiency than ever before. This should lead to rapid advances in our understanding of ancient technologies and perhaps to more systematic developments in experimental archaeology.

'The tall, elegant horn topped with a bronze boar's head produced a deafening sound ...'

Experiments based on artefact discovery were carried out from as early as the 18th century, inspired by finds of objects such as the bronze carnyx (a horn-like musical instrument) from Lincolnshire and several Bronze Age horns from Denmark and Ireland. Some of the instruments were so complete that they were tested by blowing on several occasions - either end on, or from the side, as was the case for some of the Irish horns.

The discoveries also inspired bronze-working experiments to try to understand the properties of the metal in order to produce an accurate copies of the horns. Unfortunately, as part of one of these experiments, the Lincolnshire carnyx was melted down and was lost forever. Such a sacrifice would not be acceptable today.

The fascination with the potential sound of music in prehistory was not limited to early discoveries. When part of another carnyx was discovered in Deskford, Scotland, a working replica was made to test for sound quality. The tall, elegant horn topped with a bronze boar's head produced a deafening sound, and not surprisingly it is believed to have served as more of an Iron Age war trumpet than a musical instrument.

Images depicting these horn-like pieces appear on the Gundestrup cauldron from Denmark, while the Deskford carnxy is on display in the National Museum of Scotland. Further experiments in the sounds of ancient Scotland have been recorded by specialists and professional musicians using original and replica instruments.

Published: 2005-06-21

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