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Instruments - Through The Ages

Instruments - Through The Ages

Overview

Stone Age    

Bronze Age    

Iron Age    

Early Medieval

 

Through the Ages

To understand the role that music has played throughout the ages it is important to explore the full spectrum of origin, development and proliferation of music and instruments.  (painting on right by Sean O'Treasaigh). Music can been seen as audio expression existing along side visual art as a means to communicate and collaborate in entertainment, media, war and spiritualism.   The oldest instruments, usually bone flutes, recovered from deep caves in France and Germany have their origins at the same time and in close proximity to the first examples of cave art some 37 to 40,000 years ago.   Structured sounds and pictures have interwoven ever since.   The most immediate example that comes to mind is the remarkable success of the music video in recent years.

through the ages
Many cultures have music in their legends of origin.   A Particular ancient example that survives is that of Aboriginal people in North Australia who tell that a didgeridoo was played by a god and a man came out the end.     Music has a long association with war and conquest.   Some of the oldest visual images depicting war include horns, pipes and drums.   Instruments that were made specifically for this purpose have been evolved to a high degree.   From Persian mouth pipes in the centuries BC to Celtic war trumpas in the middle Iron Age to Highland war pipes which were deployed in battle in the great war of the early twentieth century AD, music has been used to embolden friends and terrify enemies.   Yet the greatest role of music is as a means of communication and emotional stimulation.   A song may tell a story of life in another time: it may contain a lesson to be learnt: it might draw tears of love or loss.   Music can induce feelings of spiritual awareness and communion or lift the spirits into happiness or ecstasy.

Music traditions and instruments have evolved to great heights of perfection and specialisation resulting in the new large diversity of sound and song that we have today.   By tracing back into music through the ages we can find the progression of steps which allowed a bow and arrow to evolve into a grand piano or a kudu horn to lead to a brass band.   Central to this story is the way instruments emerged in different parts of the world and then moved and interchanged through travel, trade and conquest.   These musical movements could help to verify existing knowledge of otherwise unrelated events or legends.   Continuing research reveals a far greater degree of movement and communication than previously thought.   A lute may begin its evolvement in China playing Chinese music and then be carried west all the way to Europe and though the music is different and the instrument may have been altered to suit another tradition yet it is still a lute.  

band
A fascinating aspect of music through the ages is the re-emerging of an ancient instrument into the present day musical traditions.   A sound that has been asleep for three thousand years is awakened and immersed in a living music so that it is altered and enriched by the experience.   The instrument is acting as an audio time capsule which can bring back a flavour of an era long gone but can also function as a ‘new’ sound which will enable a music form to evolve in a different way.   Thus the past really does become the future.

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STONE AGE

Bone flutes
The oldest artefacts ever recovered that have been positively identified as musical instruments are bone flutes.   There have been numerous finds in caves throughout Northern Europe.   The earliest date from 40 to 35 thousand years ago.   Their age coincides with the emergence of the first rock art.   Recent experiments have indicated a possible link between the visual images in caves and the surrounding acoustic properties, suggesting that music may have been played as part of a ritual which also included rock art.
Many types of bone are used for flutes and whistles.   Most commonly employed are the leg or wing bones of birds.   The oldest flute from Geissenklosterle in Germany is fashioned from the radius of a hooper swan.   Animal bones from sheep or goats are also employed and in certain cases even human bones.   The earliest bone flutes in Ireland date from the Viking era but there can be no doubt that bone instruments were common in Ireland much earlier and were probably introduced with the first human habitation after the Ice Age.   The simple tin or penny whistle, which is played so proficiently in Irish traditional music has its origins in a bone ancestor.
Stone flutes
Many ancient peoples used simple stone flutes to imitate birds or animals, sometimes perhaps in ritual stone whistlescelebration or as lures to entice a bird close enough to catch it.   Stones can be found on Stone trumpetthe shoreline of Ireland which have small holes in them and through them.  
These stones were bored by a shellfish which drilled holes through them and left them to be washed up on the beach. 
With careful searching many stones with a variety of numbers of holes can be found.   In one instance a stone was recovered from Killiney beach in Dublin with three interconnected holes through it.   It was subsequently discovered that with a little practice a full scale could be played on it.
Stone percussion
It is the most natural thing in the world to take a small stone into each hand and click them together in a rhythmic beat.   The size, shape and density of the stones will determine the sound of the click.   The harder the stone the sharper the sound.   Certain large rocks were revered for the ringing sound thy made when struck.   Many, known as ringing rocks survive in situ and some bear the marks of being repeatedly struck over a long period of time.  
precussion stonesFlat rectangular stones of lengths that vary from short to long if carefully chosen, could be tied together, presented side by side in a line and struck with wooden sticks.   If each was picked for the particular note it produced then together they would make up an early marimba which would sound very good in the hands of a proficient player.
Bow and arrow
The bow and arrow is a very curious musical instrument. The fact that it has another purpose as a weapon is unusual.   It is interesting to pose the question which came first.   It is not hard to imagine somebody tying a stringBow and arrow? onto a piece of stick tight enough to bend the stick and thus tension the string so that when tapped lightly with a short stick it would sound. The tone can be amplified and varied with the mouth cavity of the player or by attaching a hollow vessel at one or other end. Thus the first stringed instrument appears, yet one day the players young son might be fiddling around so that he accidentally notches the tapping stick on the string and then pulls with his finger and lets go so that the stick flies through the air.
Of course he wants to do it again and then he wants to show others until someone realises what had just been invented. Which came first? Native tribes in Central Africa still employ both the bow and arrow and the musical bow in their hunting and music traditions.
Animal horns
Hollow animal horns such as those of cattle sheep goats or antelope were probably the first lip reed instruments.   With the advent of agriculture horns were easily accessible and simple to construct.   All that was required was to Texan cow horncut the end off and carve a cushion mouthpiece or to drill a mouthpiece into the side of the horn near the closed end.  
Horns of this nature are still played throughout sub-Saharan Africa while a ram’s horn when carved and blessed by a rabbi becomes the shofar, an important part of the Jewish faith.  In Ireland there have been no animal horn finds from prehistory.   However, one carved cow horn of unknown age was found during renovation in a public bar in Connemara (see ‘Prehistoric Music of Ireland’), and there is still a living memory of a fertility ritual which took place near Pilltown, Co. Kilkenny.   When an older man married a younger woman, animal horns and bottles with the base removed were blown from the hills around the area to help give him success on the wedding night or as quoted ‘to put lead in his pencil’.   The last time this ritual took place was in 1935.   It is quite possible that the tradition Texan cow hornmay have had its origins in prehistory.   The evolvement of the great cast bronze horns of the later Bronze Age must have had its origins in animal horns.   Their flowing curves and regular shape closely resemble cattle horns and it is thought that they were evolved as a part of a bull cult.   Many examples of similar cults are found in the prehistoric world.
Bodhrán
The Bodhrán or ‘deafner’ is a simple frame drum.   A frame drum may be best described as a narrow hoop of wood with an animal skin stretched and secured to one side.   Frame drums are common both in prehistory and  the present day.   There is uncertainty as to the actual age of the bodhrán tradition in Ireland but the unique swinging sideways style of playing which is employed only in Ireland probably indicates that the bodhrán has been a part of Irish music since its earliest origins.
Bodhran and stick  While it is true to say that probably none of the music from prehistoric Ireland survives into the present, yet the bodhrán is a living part of Irish music.  It produces widely varied and complex rhythms which are ideally suited to the flowing intricacies of the tunes.   In recent times the sound of the bodhrán has begun to move out of its traditional role in Irish music into new disciplines.   Experimental collaboration with African drumming and dance rhythms have proved very successful and clearly point to a new and bright future for it.
Bones
A pair of curved lengths of bone that are carved from the ribs of a cow are played to produce a fast rhythmic clicking percussion.   The two bones are approximately 12 cm long and 3 cm wide and are gripped together in the fingers of one hand so that when the hand is held upright and swung evenly from side to side the bones will produce the sound.   As with the bodhrán, the exact age and origin of the bones is unknown.   Yet the swinging hand motion is similar and it is possible that they both come from the same time.

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EARLY BRONZE AGE

Wicklow pipes
In the winter of 2003 a number of wooden tubes or pipes were uncovered during a rescue archaeological dig at Charlesland, Co. Wicklow near the East coast of Ireland.   In December 2003 the pipes were formally identified by Simon playing the Wicklow PipesPrehistoric Music Ireland as parts of a wind instrument and named ‘The Wicklow Pipes’.  
Subsequently Dr. Peter Holmes was invited by Prehistoric Music Ireland and The International Study Group of Music Archaeology to present a study paper of the pipes at their world conference in September 2004.   A carbon dating test was performed on the pipes and the result being 4170 + or – 30 placed them at the transition from the Stone Age into the Early Bronze Age.   Dr. Holmes presented the paper to great acclaim at the conference and an experimental reproduction of the originals was played successfully.   They were blown briefly by Pat Kenny for the first time in public on the live television chat show called The Late Late Show in December 2004.   In early 2005 the first composition for Wicklow pipes, double bass and marimba by Michael Holohan was performed as part of a concert in Drogheda, Co. Louth.   The great age of these pipes and the undoubted complexity of the design and manufacturing involved, place them in the forefront of recent music archaeological finds and there is no doubt that further research will reveal a great deal more about them and the people who played them.

Middle to Late Bronze Age Instruments

Bronze Horns
By far the largest collection or family of prehistoric metal wind instruments is that of the Bronze Age horns of Ireland.   The known total of 104 individuals and at least another 20 reported missing represent more than a third of the entire surviving number of prehistoric metal horns in the world.

There can be no definite explanation as to why such a disproportionately high percentage of instruments should occur on a relatively remote island off North Western Europe.   Perhaps many were preserved by the extensive blanket bogs in Ireland.   Numbers may have been deliberately concealed from attackers or marauders. The survival of so many horns may indicate that many more instruments existed in their time.   If bronze horns were made in great numbers they would undoubtedly have played a major role in the artistic and or spiritual practices of the people.   Irish bronze horns occur in a variety of shapes and sizes yet there is a definite continuity that is present in the entire collection.   There are two main location groupings.

The North East of Ireland, including counties Fermanagh, Tyrone, Antrim, Armagh, Down and Louth.

The South West quadrant including counties Cork, Kerry, Tipperary, Offaly, Limerick and Clare.

Most of the surviving instruments are incomplete but a surprising number remain intact and in very good condition.

Crotal
The word crotal is Gaelic meaning rattle or bell.   A total of forty survive from the late Bronze Age.   Thirty nine were found as part of The Dowris Hoard near Birr in Co. Offaly and the remaining single example is from Co. Antrim.   CrothalThe largest are approximately the size and shape of an avocado.   They are hollow cast bronze and most have a stone or pebble inside which moves around when the crotal is shaken in one hand or between two hands causing a rapid rattling or high pitched ringing.   By employing deliberate swinging or shaking, definite rhythm patterns can be played.   It is also possible to hang a number of crotals around the waist from a belt and they will ring when the person dances up and down.   The origin of the crotal is unknown.   They must have been important to the people of their time.   The value of bronze and the high level of casting and welding employed to make each one would cause them to be very expensive. 
Yet all but one were found together in the same location.   It has been suggested that they, with the horns, were used as part of a bovine cult and their distinctive shape represented the scrotum of a bull.   Yet a crotal clearly consists of a single entity while a scrotum appears as two.   More probably they were designed to fit snugly into a hand so that the distinctive high tinkle could be played at an appropriate moment.  

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IRON AGE

The Killyfaddy Four
The Killyfaddy four are a group of four wooden tubes which were recovered together from bog land in Killyfaddy, Co. Tyrone in the early 19th century AD.   Each tube or pipe was fashioned from two halves of a solid curved cylinder shape of wood which had been split along its length.  
A semi circular channel was carved into the inside of each half so that when the two were brought together a cylindrical internal bore was achieved.   Three of the tubes are similar in length, 72 cm in width, external 4 cm and cylindrical internal bore of 22mm.   At one end of each, the external wood has been carved into a gradually narrowing cone, while at the other end they have been widened on the inside.   The fourth however, differs in that it is shorter than the others, its overall length being 67cm and there is an odd carving at one end.   Rather than a widening on the inside, a definite looking ‘male’ fitting has been cut with a sharp raised shoulder arrangement that appears to have been specifically designed to accommodate an extension of some kind.
All four tubes have approximately the same diameter along their internal bore though three of them bear evidence of fine sanding or smoothing work on the inside surface while clear chisel marks can be seen on the fourth.   Each Killyfaddy fourtube has a number of metal pins (probably bronze) tacked into the wood along either side of the split lines.   There are also tiny holes which probably indicate where pins may have been. In 2002 the tubes were formally identified as being fashioned from yew by Dr. Ingelise Stuitz and their age established with carbon dating at 2340BP + or – 30.

The Loughnashade Trumpa
A sheet bronze trumpa from Amhain Macha (awin maka), Co. Armagh.   This is the most famous of the great marching trumpas (painting on right by Sean O'Treasaigh) of Celtic Ireland.   Currently kept at the National Museum of Ireland it is the only presently know survivor of a group of four that were found during drainage work at Loughnashade (lake of the treasures) beside the Iron Age stronghold of Amhain Macha in 1794.   An unsubstantiated report stated that one of the four   was given to a Captain Campbell.   A second was sold, the third went missing and the remaining survivor was brought to Dublin.   It is also recorded that a further two examples of these trumpas were found at Bushmills, Co. Antrim in the early nineteenth century and subsequently disappeared. 

The conical bell of the instrument is in good condition being finely finished with a distinctive circular decorated plate (now detached) at the end.   The remaining cylindrical tube is, however, very rough by comparison.   It would appear that the two halves may have in fact been parts of different instruments.   The overall length is just over 2 meters but because the metal thickness is 0.5mm or less the instrument weighs no more than 1 kilo.   Though the instrument is at present displayed in the National Museum of Ireland in a ‘C’ curved shape, it is now thought that originally these trumpas were assembled in an ‘S’ format and played and paraded vertically over the musicians head with the decorated plate facing forward.

The first reproduction has been found to play a good harmonic series from an E flat fundamental.   An interesting feature is that by using a certain pressure, a powerful (shockwave) tone can be generated which is further amplified and projected by the circular plate creating a blast of powerful sound which is very out of proportion to the size of the tube.   Such a technique would have been very valuable to trumpa players leading an advancing army into battle.

Ard Brinn
Probably the most delicate and sweetest sounding of the Irish Iron Age trumpas.   There are two parts surviving which were found at Ard Brinn, Co. Down in 1801.   The two tubes, one cylindrical and the second longer and Ard Brinn trumpaconical when joined make up an overall shallow S curve of 239.5 cm in length. 
The original centre connector and mouthpiece are missing, though the instrument is fitted with a brass connector which was made in the 19th century.   The tubes are joined along the inside curve by over 1,000 rivets.   A substantial amount of wear is visible where the instrument had been held in Ard Brinn being examined by John Creed of Scotlandthe two hands of a player or players.  
Clearly the trumpa was played many times over many years.   At least 12 notes in a harmonic series from a B fundamental can be played accurately with a similar spacing and back pressure to that of a trombone.

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Early Medieval Instruments

River Erne
The Loch Erne horn was discovered as drainage work was being conducted on the River Erne in the town land of Coolnashanton near Cleenish Island four miles south of Enniskillen in Co. Fermanagh.   The wooden horn banded with metal bindings is conical, 58cm long with a metal mouthpiece.   This find was of great importance as an image exists of two of these horns being played as part of an early Medieval musical group in the Hibernno-Saxon Canterbury Psalter of the 8th century AD.   The first reproduction of the Loch Erne horn was made by Dr. John Purser in 2001.
Mayophone   (Bekan horn)
The Mayophone or ‘guth cuilce’ is undoubtedly the most unusual of all the Irish prehistoric instruments.   The original was found in a bog during turf cutting in the townland of Bekan near Knock, Co. Mayo in 1791.   Though not in great condition yet most of the instrument remains and the complete length and width can be established.   Of particular interest is that the Bekan horn was played with a beating reed.   Exploration of the first reproduction revealed a multy note instrument which behaved in a similar fashion to a long lip reed horn and yet was played as a type of bassoon.   So perhaps it was a form of hybrid which was developed in the Medieval period and subsequently fell out of use.   It is remarkable that this unique and clever arrangement should have been preserved by a bog on the Western extremity of Europe.
 
   
 
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