Extraordinarily early music

What is understood as old and early music is highly relative. It may be medieval music, baroque music or early rock music from the Fifties. But if you are interested in the really old music, prior to the periods of the established history of music, you should go to archaeology.

Music archaeology is an interdisciplinary field that seeks to explore problems related to music or sound in the past, on basis of archaeological materials. It is historical musicology built on archaeology, a contribution adding width and depth to the history of music. On the other hand, it is an sub-discipline of archaeology, providing the archaeological past with music and sound.

How can we know anything about music in the distant past? And can we talk about music in our sense of the word? A history of music which seeks out material culture rather than confining itself to written documents or “works of art” produces a wider perspective of the musical past that is, generally, more oriented towards the culture of everyday life and of ordinary people. An archaeological approach to music history requires a broad understanding of “music” and “musical instruments”.

The concept of music is a fairly recent Western invention. For hundreds of years this term was reserved for the music of the Christian church. Still in the 17th century, scholars operated with a division between musica, which meant proper music of the church, and amusica, which meant non-music of the common people and peasants. What is interesting is to ask if these scholars’ comprehension of music was characteristic for a common understanding, in the sense that people were not concerned about considering their activities as music. Anyway, if we go far enough back, I am sure that there were no concept of music such as ours, denoting an exclusive activity separated from other activities. Actually, most of the languages of the world lack a word corresponding to “music”. Singing, playing, dancing and related activities are structured and conceptualized in various other ways.

One consequence of this could be to avoid “music” in music-archaeological research. Alternatively, we could use “sound” or “intentional sound”, and prefer “sound tools” rather than “musical instruments” etc. On the other hand, should we really abandon the concept of music? Should the functions decide? Prehistoric and “primitive” traces of music has often been placed in separate non-musical classes, as expressions of either purely practical functions (signal instruments, whistles for calling animals) or rituals (instruments used in religious practices). Examples of the latter might be the lurs (horns) of the bronze age. In a general history of Norway, for example, we can read that the lurs are not “real musical instruments” because they were used for rituals.

I believe that it is no viable alternative to give up the music concept. Another and better way would be to extend it, and operate with a broad understanding of music. This does not necessarily mean that “everything is music”, but the point is that a discussion of what is music and what is not, is rather unproductive. Anyway, it is important to be more concerned with themes and issues than words and concepts, which might have a limiting effect on thinking.

The difficulties with the “music” part of music archaeology, have lead some researchers to choose other terms, such as archaeo-organology, palaeo-organology or archaeomusicology. Still, music archaeology is the established term used in the Music Archaeology Study Group of the ICTM, and ISGMA. The international network includes different directions, perspectives and traditions, and every continent is represented.

A pioneer in the international music-archaeological community is Cajsa S. Lund of Sweden. For over forty years she has been active internationally and in Scandinavia. Through her research and outward oriented activities, music archaeology has become a familiar term in Sweden, among archaeologists as well as the general public. One of Lund’s projects from the 1970s, the inventory Riksinventeringen, recorded about 1500 finds of instruments and sound tools from the prehistory of Scandinavia (i.e. prior to 1050 AD. )

The primary music-archaeological source material consists of objects, instruments and sound tools, as well as contextual data from excavations. Cross- and multidisciplinarity is a characteristics of this area of research. Methods and sources differ, according to periods, topics and issues, but as far as possible, most music archaeologists seek to combine archaeological, iconographic, written and ethnographic sources. The latter, often referred to as ethnographic analogy, is an important method, like in general archaeology. A good introduction to methodology in music-archaeological research is given by A. Adje Both Yearbook for Traditional Music No. 41, 2009. Here is a summary of the article.

A fundamental research problem deals with the relationship between the material of the past and the researchers, who are modern people. No matter how neutrally we aim to describe historical data, and base the interpretations on relevant cultural contexts, we are inevitably influenced by the present society surrounding us. Most people, including music archaeologists, have ideas and theories about the music (or non-music) of the distant past. We can not excavate music from a neutral or objective past. Such a past does not exist, and everything excavated should be carefully interpreted. However, what we can and should do, is to be aware of the historiographical challenge – the dialogue between the music archaeologist and his or her material. An important concept is tradition, which enters into this dialogue, intentionally or unintentionally.

We can distinguish between modern tradition – such as living music traditions or academic traditions we are part of – and, on the other hand, ancient tradition, which means tradition in the ancient period in question. The issue about a possible continuity between past and present comes in as a separate part of the process, if it is relevant at all. This continuity might be found in living music traditions, but should be applied with care.

There is no simple answer to this problem, which is presented in the illustration below. Nevertheless, this is one of several methodological challenges in music archaeology, a sub-issue under the main question “how can we gain knowledge about the music of the (distant) past?”

Gjermund Kolltveit

Music archaeologist, ethnomusicologist, musician – Nesodden, Norway. Main research interests: sound and sound tools (e.g. jew’s harps, lyres, ringing stones, bells) in human culture and soundscapes.

1 Comment

  1. Knut Myrebøe on October 5, 2014 at 09:59

    Søndag morgen og NRK2 er erkjennelsen av at “Morgenstund har Gull i munn”! Som slektsgransker av mangehundreårig familietradisjon er jeg den første som fikk alt inn på PC på slutten av 80-tallet, mens mine foreldre ennå levde! Nå har jeg mangedoblet det jeg overtok, med ca. 6000 slektninger i databasen tilbake til tidlig middelalder. Deretter har jeg studert Folkevandringene og Språkvandringene. Og i dag fikk jeg servert Musikkarkeologi! Utrolig interessant både isolert sett og i sammenheng med det foregående. Musikk og instrumenter er også en slektstradisjon hos oss. Takk til Gjermund Kolltveit og dere andre! For en god start på dagen!

    Knut Myrebøe – Stavern – Tlf. 48130588
    Kvalitetssikring av Menneskerettigheter.

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