Recreating the sound of Tutankhamun's trumpets

By Christine Finn
Archaeologist and presenter, Ghost Music


Tutankhamun's trumpet was one of the rare artefacts stolen from the Cairo Museum during the recent uprising. The 3,000-year-old instrument is rarely played, but a 1939 BBC radio recording captured its haunting sound.

Among the "wonderful things" Howard Carter described as he peered by candlelight into the newly discovered tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 were two trumpets, one silver and one bronze.

For more than 3,000 years they had lain, muted, in the Valley of the Kings, close to the mummy of the boy king. Found in different parts of Tutankhamun's tomb, both were decorated with depictions of Egyptian gods identified with military campaigns.

Both became exhibits at the Cairo museum, but when it was broken into during the recent uprising, the bronze instrument vanished. Luckily, the silver one was away on exhibition tour.

Egyptologists were already reeling from the loss of many of the country's antiquities, and many found the theft of one of the oldest surviving musical instruments in the world particularly poignant.

Many such objects would have been looted and melted down in ancient times, says Oxford Egyptologist Margaret Maitland. "There was a real lack of precious metal so there was systemic retrieval," said Ms Maitland.

The trumpet was recently found - reportedly with other Tutankhamun artefacts in a bag on the Cairo Metro.

Due to the fragile nature of the trumpets, their sound has only been recreated on a few occasions.

Early radio broadcasters saw the potential for an extraordinary recording, and in 1939 the Egyptian Antiquities Service was persuaded to take part in a BBC broadcast to the world from the Cairo Museum.

Rex Keating, a radio pioneer who helped convince the museum, was chosen to present it to an estimated 150 million listeners worldwide one Sunday afternoon.

To set the scene, he first interviewed Alfred Lucas, one of the last survivors of Carter's team, and the man responsible for restoring Tutankhamun's treasures.

With five minutes to go before the trumpet sounded, the watchmen's lanterns failed, and the museum was plunged into darkness. A candlelit Cairo was put through to London.

Mr Keating then counted down to the broadcast: "One minute to go. From the corner of my eye I can see Lucas, striving to look unconcerned - but the quivering of the script in his hand betrays his agitation...".

image captionThe gilded bronze trumpet was recovered recently along with several other missing objects

Mr Lucas's concern was understandable given the story Mr Keating once told about an earlier attempt to play the silver trumpet in front of King Farouk of Egypt.

His story goes that the precious instrument shattered, possibly because of a modern mouthpiece being inserted to play it. According to Mr Keating's colourful account, Mr Lucas was left as shattered as the trumpet and needed hospital treatment. The instrument, at least, was repaired.

And then the moment came. Listeners were enthralled.

The musician chosen for this legendary broadcast was bandsman James Tappern. His son, Peter, also a trumpeter, recalled how this was the story of his childhood, and one his father loved telling:

"He was actually quite proud of it," he says.

But the only recording his parents had of the original broadcast, a fragile 78 record, was broken in a house move. It was to be decades before he finally heard the original BBC recording.

"I was astonished with the quality of it," he said. "How the original trumpeters played them is totally beyond me… [my father] used modern mouthpieces but the actual expertise he used is quite astonishing."

The good news of the trumpet's return is unlikely to herald a rush of archaeologists trying out ancient instruments in museums, says Ms Maitland:

"It is very tempting to want to hear what these instruments would have sounded like, but it's just too dangerous, especially when these are some of the only examples."

King Tut's curse

A whole science has sprung up around the study of ancient music, where the original instruments are too fragile to play or no longer exist.

Archaeologists and archaeomusicologists are still able to get a sense of how they might have sounded.

Richard Dumbrill, considered the world's leading authority on the Music of the Ancient Near East, is one. He reconstructed the Silver Lyre of Ur, discovered by Leonard Woolley in modern-day Iraq around the same time that Tutankhamun's tomb was excavated.

image captionThe trumpets were first played just before World War II broke out, but could they really summon war?

Mr Woolley, a brilliant archaeologist, recognised a pile of twisted metal in a tomb as the remains of a 5,000-year-old lyre. He poured wax into the space where the instrument had lain to recover the shape.

Mr Dumbrill used the cast and Mr Woolley's notes to recreate the lyre, including the animal gut strings. The sounds it makes conjures up a world even more ancient than Tutankhamun's.

The Lost Sound Orchestra, as its name suggests, aims to bring other ancient worlds to life. Using laptops, experts try to make digital sound from virtual instruments - such as those shown on ancient Greek vases. They started with the epigonion (an ancient stringed instrument) from the 2nd Century BC.

But this is not just an academic exercise - the project creates the possibility of an orchestra of lost sounds gathered from all over the world via digital technology.

As Tutankhamun's trumpet echoes once more, the loss - and return - of such a celebrated artefact is convincing some of Tutankhamun's celebrated curse. Not least the trumpet's apparent ability to summon up war.

Bandsman Tappern had, after all, played the trumpet shortly before World War II broke out. Cairo Museum's Tutankhamun curator claims the trumpet retains "magical powers" and was blown before the first Gulf War, and by a member of staff the week before the Egyptian uprising.

Ghost Music is on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 19 April at 1330 BST, repeated Saturday 23 April at 1530 BST. Listen online via the BBC iPlayer.

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