Bringing Europe's stone-age musical instruments to life

The German Archaeological Institute celebrates 190 years

A meeting of minds

For its 190th anniversary, the DAI hosted an event in Berlin where its branches around the world gathered to present their most innovative projects. Many had unique visual aids, including 3D renderings of projects and even virtual reality installations, while others showed films of their discoveries, such as this spectacular wooden tomb complex from 1800 B.C. unearthed by the DAI in Luxor in 2004.

The German Archaeological Institute celebrates 190 years

A long-term project in Egypt

For 50 years, the Cairo office of the German Archaeological institute (DAI) and Swiss partners have been carrying out excavations on the Egyptian island of Elephantine (above). With finds of clay, pottery, bone, stone and organic materials, the collaboration shows how much knowledge a long-term project can unearth. The team also helped restore the damaged beard on the mask of King Tutankhamun.

The German Archaeological Institute celebrates 190 years

Open-source history

The Palmyra GIS project explores what can happen when years of data about Palmyra, Syria, are presented digitally and made publicly available online. The DAI has digitized maps and other information to show how the city has changed over time. It also works with students in Lebanon to transfer information to the region. Pictured is data from the program projected on a 3D model of the actual site.

The German Archaeological Institute celebrates 190 years

Bring up the lions

Among other things, the Rome branch of the institute has researched one of the Colosseum's wilder technical aspects: the contraptions used to lift animals to the arena to meet their gladiator foes. The group recently did a project that recreated the "elevators" from a series of lifts and pulleys, which brought the beasts up from their holding areas under the famous fighting ring.

The German Archaeological Institute celebrates 190 years

Ancient Chinese fashion

These pants discovered by the DAI's Beijing branch wouldn't look entirely out of place in today's fashion world. They belong to a collection of items worn between 3,000 and 1,000 years ago that were unearthed in west China, where the dry climate helped preservation. The pair of pants shown is a reproduction of the original and demonstrates the intricate weaving techniques used back then.

The German Archaeological Institute celebrates 190 years

An ancient melody

The Seikilos stone (standing left) is inscribed with one of the world’s oldest melodies. Written by a man named Seikilos and discovered in present-day Turkey, it bears a poem and composition notated in ancient Greek. It was part of the "Archaeomusica" project, in which DAI archaeologists, musicians and others presented reproductions of Europe's oldest musical instruments.

The German Archaeological Institute celebrates 190 years

Assistance from above

The DAI is working on a project in southern Hungary that makes use of the latest drone developments. It focuses on "tell" sites, mounds that form when years of settlements are built on top of one another, in this case from the Bronze and Neolithic Ages. Photos and videos taken by the drones help archaeologists make 3D models so as to better understand the landscape around these sites.

The German Archaeological Institute celebrates 190 years

Let the games begin

Many of the DAI projects focus on the world's most famous historical sites, such as Olympia on the Greek Peloponnese peninsula, the site of the first Olympic games way back in 776 B.C. This digital drawing shows the finished interior of the Leonidaion, the complex's largest guest house, as it will once reconstruction is completed.

"Look, don't touch!" is the motto of many archaeological exhibitions. But German Archaeological Institute's (DAI) 190th anniversary party featured historic replicas of ancient musical instruments that can be played.

"While you live, shine / Have no grief at all / Life exists only for a short while / Time demands its tribute."

These simple lyrics hardly seem out of place in the present day, despite having been written thousands of years ago to one of the world's oldest complete melodies. Penned during the Hellenistic period of Ancient Greece (323 to 31 B.C.), this uplifting poem was inscribed on a stone pillar by a man named Seikilos and discovered by archaeologists in present-day Turkey.

A replica of the stone was on display, accompanied by an audio recording of a Viennese choir singing the song, last Friday in Berlin at an event celebrating the 190th anniversary of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI). The event featured representatives from the DAI's international branches presenting their latest finds.

The Seikilos stone (left, in an exhibition) features song lyrics in ancient Greek that sound rather modern

The Seikilos stone was part of an exhibition called "Archaeomusica: The Sounds and Music of Ancient Europe," the fruit of a 5-year research project by the DAI's Orient department. Through interdisciplinary collaboration, archaeologists, instrument makers, ethnomusicologists, musicians and other specialists came together to combine their research on Europe's earliest instruments and create playable replicas of each instrument.

Although the Archaeomusica project ended in 2018, the instruments are currently in the DAI's collection and a wide-ranging selection was brought to the event in Berlin, from bone pipes to golden trumpets. Attendees could see and touch replicas of some of the first musical instruments to be played in Europe, ranging from the Paleolithic period c. 40,000 B.C. to late antiquity, or the 3rd-8th century A.D., while simultaneously listening to their sounds through audio headsets.

The DAI undertakes other interesting, multidimensional projects such as this 3D landscape modelling of Palmyram Syria

Bullroarers and mammoth bones 

The earliest sound tools known to archaeologists today are from the Paleolithic area, part of the early Stone Age, when the first anatomically modern homo sapiens are thought to have arrived in Europe. The earliest known European instruments were cave finds from southern Germany.

"This does not mean that the that humans didn't make music before," Arnd Adje, a music archaeologist who curated the exhibition, pointed out. "But by that time, we can say, ok, they played on bone flutes, bone pipes then later bullroarers, which are little objects that are swung and whirled through the air and make a buzzing sound."

Later bone rasps and mammoth bones, found in present-day Ukraine, were probably used in percussion ensembles. Only hard materials like antler horn, perforated shell and bone have stood the test of time. "It's just a small selection of all possible sound instruments they may have played" Adje said, as instruments like wooden drums covered in animal hide also may have existed.

This tools from the Stone Age were used for hunting. Musical instruments from the era that have lasted until today are also made of hard materials that preserve well.

What makes the Archaeomusica collection unique is that each replica instrument can be loaned and played by trained musicians.

"Thousands of musical instruments are stored in museums worldwide," Adje said, and in many cases the objects are in display cases or locked away in storage and out of reach. These real instruments generate the most interest from musicians, who, lacking archaeological qualifications required to handle the old instruments, are barred from playing them.

Archaeomusica's reproductions are based on painstakingly gathered research and created with materials as close to possible as the originals.

Related Subjects

"It's a huge treasure because in most cases we have no clue about the actual music that was played," Adje said. This means the possibilities for new collaborations on these ancient instruments are abundant. A Baroque musician would use his or her technical skills to freestyle a tune on an ancient Greek double flute differently than an indigenous person in Papua New Guinea playing the very same instrument, Adje explained. "It's just fantastic to explore these objects and look at what other possible sounds that these objects generate."

Read more: Sound magician: Mongolian composer Zulan modernizes ancient musical traditions

The DAI has branches all over the world, with its central location in Berlin (above)

A new area of interest in architecture

Although many may associate archaeology with the excavation of large structures such as tombs and temples, the field today is actually much broader. As it widens, the area of music archaeology is gaining momentum, since it deals with what Adje called the "soft aspects of the past." 

"We try to get behind these material remains to learn more about what the people thought or felt, and that is really interesting with this research because it's so open and experimental. It's music performance, it's digging, it's acoustical analysis."

In looking back at the past, one might even find that it's not so different from the present. Adje pointed out that in the period around 40,000 B.C., "These instruments can produce music which is very much comparable with what we know today," but of course, they could have also produced music which might now be classified as "noise."

In contrast to later periods, there are no written records and few paintings from this time, so no one really knows how these ancient humans preferred to jam. Maybe this mystery will inspire new collaborations on these instruments.