Tag: archaeology

Book review: Sound tracks by Graeme Lawson

This is a review of Sound Tracks: Uncovering Our Musical Past by Graeme Lawson, a history of musical instruments discovered through their archaeological remains. Unusually for a book such as this the action takes place in reverse, starting from the present day and finishing several million years ago. Also unusually the chapters are very short, typically less than 10 pages. Chapters are grouped into 12 chronological periods. Each chapter introduces an object, or a few objects and discusses a wider issue prompted by the object. Issues may be something like the discovery of a music shop in medieval Oxford and how it is identified from court records relating to crimes (counterfeiting) committed by the owner, how different materials are preserved, or how an instrument has developed. Although unusual I liked this style, I thought it would work quite well for history lessons. It means my usual note taking process was modified, rather than writing notes on individual pages, I read a whole chapter and wrote notes on that.

It is a fair sized book running to 50 or so (short) chapters.

Sound Tracks is focussed on archaeological finds, in terms of quantity the most finds are small, ubiquitous instruments with metal, bone or ceramic components which means things like harmonicas, mouth harps, small whistles/flutes and the metal tuning pegs of instruments like harps. These items are found as discards but not commonly. Musical instruments are also found as grave goods. However, they are not as common as finds like weapons or jewellery – unsurprisingly since few are so committed to music that they would take their instruments to the grave.

Musical instruments are also found as “sacrificial” items – sound and often valuable items which have been systematically broken or destroyed are common in archaeology – what is not clear is the “why” of such breakages.

The oldest stringed instruments, dating back to 3000BC, found in Ur in Iraq were discovered because an archaeologist spotted several interesting looking voids in a tomb they were excavating and decided to fill them with plaster of Paris. They turned out to be lyres, and their approach meant the structure of the instruments were fantastically well preserved. Even in high status graves and tombs preservation is the exception rather than the rule.

Somewhat to my surprise shipwrecks are sites of sometimes remarkable preservation in musical instruments. In the right conditions artefacts will quickly be buried by anoxic sediments which gives excellent preservation – in fact on one shipwreck written musical notes were found (although the paper on which they sat had decayed away). Lawson cites violins recovered from the Kronan in Sweden (sunk 1676) and the Mary Rose (sunk in 1545). These examples show the effect of standardisation on instrument design often fine instruments are upgraded as fashions change. In some cases instruments from shipwrecks even preserve use patterns – showing what notes were commonly played. Related to shipwrecks, Lawson also talks about whistles and trumpets used not for music but for communication and command.

A recurring theme is that instruments often appear in the archaeological record “fully-formed”, that is the earliest examples found are fully-functional and sophisticated. The cause of this might be illustrated by the development of steel drums in Trinidad, this process started in the 1930s when the colonial authorities banned the traditional bamboo drums – in no more than 20 years the steel drum was fully formed in design. So musical innovation can happen in the blink of an eye. Furthermore, experiments in musical design are not preserved – at best their components will be reused, and at worst used as firewood. Pipes/flutes with evidence of deliberate, consistent tuning have been found dating back 40,000 years.

I was intrigued to learn that the earliest keyboard instruments were Roman pipe organs dating back 1700 years, this illustrates another feature of the archaeological record – the key specimen of Roman pipe organs was found in Hungary rather than back home in Rome. In another case, the understanding of Greek lyres was advanced by the discovery of a “bridge” on the Isle of Skye, in North West Scotland.

Musical instruments can represent incredibly advanced technology. For example, a chapter is dedicated to casting church bells in situ by digging a large pit at the host church, another to a carnyx from the late Iron Age, another to a carillon of 64 tuned bells from a Chinese tomb (dating back to the 5th century BC). There are numerous well-crafted tubes forming flute/wind instruments. Lawson is an experimental archaeologist, so has experience in trying to reconstruct these instruments – it is not easy, or without risk – one researcher died from inhaling toxic yew wood dust, another from trying to play his reconstructed instrument – he blew too hard!

Writing music is a bit outside the remit of this book because it is largely a historical exercise rather than an archaeological one although Lawson mentions some musical graffiti and the earliest example of lyrics and musical notation together found on a clay tablet dating back to 1300BC in Syria. This also touches on the theme of the relationship between poetry and music. There is some evidence that epic poems like Beowulf were performed with musical accompaniment.

The book finishes with a couple of chapters on what music might have existed in the deep past on the basis on human biology, genetics and cave art. The oldest wooden artefacts recovered date back 300,000 so there is a slim chance of discovering musical instruments back to this time.

I really enjoyed this book, the short chapters worked very well for me and I’m interested in music.

Book review: Buried by Professor Alice Roberts

Continuing with my Alice Roberts binge, I now review Buried: An Alternative History of the First Millennium in Britain. Following the theme of the two other books in the series, Ancestors and Crypt, Buried looks at history through the lens of seven burials. It finishes with a final, more general chapter which looks at identity and the balance between migration and cultural diffusion.

The first millennium covers the Roman occupation of Britain followed by the period sometimes known as the “Dark Ages” or the “Anglo Saxon Period”.

The first three burials are in the Roman era, they cover a weird pipe burial where the ashes from a cremation are buried in a lead container with a pipe leading up to the surface. This is believed to be a a facility for enabling mourners to symbolically eat and drink with the deceased. This was a funeral practice known in the Roman period and continued for a long time in, for example, Russia where food and drink were left on the grave. To a degree this is a chapter about cremation, which was the favoured Roman practice – sky burials were more the preference in Iron Age Britain – they leave little trace. After the Romans left inhumation became the common practice.

The second chapter is a somewhat traumatic one on infant burials in the Roman period, focused on the 97 infant burials found at the Yewden Roman Villa near Hambledon. Infants were often buried close to homes rather than in cemeteries in the Roman period. Some of the bones at Yewden show signs of cutting, it isn’t entirely clear why there are such injuries but obstetric surgery is a possibility. It has been estimated that infant mortality was as high as 30% in this period. There are hints that infanticide was practiced more widely than today on those infants who might today survive with treatment. These infant burials highlight the difficulty of understanding what was happening, and how people felt from fragmentary remains.

The last of the Roman burials covers decapitation, burials where the corpse has clearly been decapitated – it focuses on the Whelnetham cemetery at Bury St Edmunds. One thing that is becoming clear is that there is no such thing as a typical cemetery from this period, each of the burials in this book illustrates another variation from the “norm” – whatever that may be. Perhaps that is the result of the selections made by the author but it may be that in an era before mass communication and a strong nation state or church, burial was much more a local affair. Ultimately why bodies were decapitated before burial is unclear, sometimes it was as the result of execution or a final punishment for criminals in other cases it may have been a superstitious measure to prevent ghosts or other apparitions.

The diversity of burial practices is again highlighted in the next burials at Breamore in Hampshire dating from around 600CE where the local style seems to have been burial with a bucket amongst many other grave goods! The site was discovered after a metal detectorist discovered a very elaborate bucket which appears to have come from a workshop many miles away in the Southern Türkiye. It is here that the theme of Anglo Saxons, and how they came to replace the Romans takes place. The term “Anglo Saxon” has its own postscript chapter since it is a problematic term. For archaeologists it has a precise meaning: the period from the end of the Roman occupation to the Norman invasion but more recently it has been co-opted as an ethnic term meaning “white, of Northern European origin”. Some (approximately one) historical records suggest the Anglo Saxon takeover of culture in Britain was the result of mass migration or invasion. However, the writer of this history – Gildas – certainly had an axe to grind. It seems more likely that the apparent Anglo Saxon invasion was a cultural shift that came from longstanding trade links across northern Europe. The Roman invasion of Britain was more a replacement / coalition of the ruling class than a mass migration, although soldiers and mercenaries came to Britain from around the Empire. The Anglo Saxon “invasion” appears to have been more of a re-instatement of the Iron Age status quo drawing on existing trade and cultural links.

The next chapter is not focussed on a burial as such but on the Staffordshire horde, and the intensive study of a single type of jewellery and how it changes over time. Although dramatic, discoveries such as the Staffordshire Horde are frustrating since they come with no context, they are typically found with no accompanying burial, building or even roadway.

The local interest for me is in the sixth chapter, where Roberts looks at burials near Benllech in Anglesey – where we have been on holiday a couple of times. The “burials” are basically bodies thrown into a ditch, and the key question is whether they are part of a battle against Viking invaders. This again touches on the movement of people around Northern Europe and the degree to which they assimilated locally.

Towards the end of the Roman Empire it became Christian, and in the subsequent years Roman burial practices, and those countries where the Church prevailed, changed. Cremations were replaced with burials, grave goods fell out of favour (to the chagrin of modern archaeologists), and churches and cemeteries combined – in the earlier Roman period there were temples in settlements and separate cemeteries on the outskirts. In some ways the Roman Empire seems not to have fallen but rather have been replaced with the Catholic Church, based in Rome.

As I finish my binge on Alice Roberts I find her books make engaging reading, as well as archaeological detail they also cover historiography and the broader questions of the period the burials address. Buried addresses more of the historical record than Ancestors which focussed on an earlier period (where there were no historical records), and less of the ancient DNA work which is found more in the recent Crypt. Ancient DNA is particularly relevant to understanding disease. The field of ancient DNA is evolving very rapidly, even in the couple of years between the writing of Buried and Crypt.