Animal Bells in Early Scandinavian Soundscapes

E. Hickmann, J. Orlamünde and R. Eichmann (eds.), Studies in Music Archaeology VI. Current Challenges and New Objectives in Music Archaeology. Leidorf, Rahden/Westf.: 147–153 (2008)

The paper discusses Scandinavian animal bells in a context of pre-historical and early historical soundscapes. The term soundscape in this sense refer to a physical sonic environment as well as the ways of perceiving that environment. Bells, like other sound tools, never sound in isolation, in silent landscapes. They interact with and overlap, polyphonically, other humanly organized sounds as well as sounds from wind, water, vegetation and animals. Through investigations of their use and functions, of how they served as makers of time and space, the paper seeks to understand their cultural significance, and demonstrate how these sound marks were meaningsful symbols to people. The bells will be seen primarily as aural cultural artifacts. Animal bells are not uncommon artifacts in Scandinavian excavations. The majority of the archaeological finds are dated to the Viking Age (800–1050 AD). The oldest finds date to the Roman Iron Age (0–400 AD), although it is sometimes difficult to determine the function of excavated bells. The most common material in bells was forged iron, though bronze or other copper alloys were also used. Both pellet bells and open bells are found; forms and shapes vary. Bells are still used in stock-raising in Scandinavia. Sheep, goats, cows, but also horses have used bells.  There is a remarkable continuity of traditions around this artifact. What is often referred to as “ethnographical analogy” will be a relevant method in this case. Pastoral bells might be regarded as an important identity mark for shepherds, a kind of archetype sound. If an animal is lost or missing from the flock, the bell could help to locate it. This is the most obvious function of an animal bell, and the most important today. Moreover, animal bells have also protected animals against evil forces, or predatory animals, which were believed to result from evil forces. There are a lot of descriptions of rituals with bells that people performed in order to secure their power, including offering food in them or silencing them on certain occasions or places.  It is very likely to suggest a combination of functions; that animal bells were used for magical and ritual purposes, besides the practical functions.