Jew’s Harps in European Archaeology

The jew’s harp was one of the most popular instruments in the last millennium. Old lexical truths telling about Vikings, Saxons and Romans playing the jew’s harp are left. These are among the results of my research on jew’s harps.

During a period of about ten years I worked with jew’s harps from archaeological contexts. The external supervisor for my MA thesis, the Swedish music archaeologist Cajsa S. Lund, advised me to focus on this topic. Up to then (mid-ninetieths) this had been a fragmented area of research. My MA thesis considered Scandinavian material.

In 1997 I got a scholarship from The Norwegian Research Council to investigate the archaeology of the jew’s harp in entire Europe. For several years I collected and analysed materials from several parts of Europe. The research resulted in the doctoral thesis Jew’s Harps in European Archaeology (University of Oslo, 2004). It was revised and published in 2006 by Archaeopress, Oxford (BAR International Series 1500). The book can be ordered from Archaeopress.

The thesis, documents and analyses jew’s harps from archaeological excavations in Europe. The material represents several centuries of jew’s harp history; most of the finds are dated to the period 1200–1700 AD. The work chiefly focuses on technology, typology and chronology, and does not consider playing technique, acoustics or non-European materials. Here is a summary of the thesis:

Jew’s Harps in European Archaeology is a contribution to the research area music archaeology, which lies in the intersection between musicology and archaeology. A catalogue with records of 830 individual jew’s harps from archaeological contexts form the material basis of the thesis. The objects are collected from various museums and archaeological institutions in Europe. The United Kingdom (173 specimens), Switzerland (137) and Sweden (118) account for the largest numbers of jew’s harps found in the earth, followed by the Netherlands, Germany and France. The material dates to the late medieval and post-medieval period. Some vague sources from various European countries suggest that the Romans, Saxons and Vikings knew the instrument. This thesis concludes, however, that the oldest specimens found in datable contexts are from around 1200 AD. In the 14th and 15th centuries the instrument became very popular, with a very wide geographical distribution. The manufacture had the character of mass production. The popularity was accompanied by a variety of forms. An important part of the thesis focuses on technology and typology, seeking to find some order behind the morphological diversity. Among the results, the analyses demonstrates that there was a typological development from jew’s harps with small bows and long arms towards instruments with large open bows and short arms. Various iconographical and written sources suggest that the jew’s harp predominated in the lower social strata. Depictions of the instrument from the 15th century and later show that its place was among travelling pedlars, minstrels and jugglers, as well as fools and beggars. It is not included among the instruments of professional minstrels. As many as 275 specimens, or one third of the material, were found in castles. It is very likely that these instruments belonged to soldiers, who played the jew’s harp in their spare time. Since this was the great period for mercenaries in Europe, the soldiers probably had the instruments with them on their postings. Characteristically, the Italian name of the instrument is Scacciapensieri, meaning the dispeller of thoughts or worries.

A more thorough article about the work (not specifically about the thesis) was published in the Journal of the International Jew’s Harp Society (no. 1, 2004, pp. 79–85). The article is available here (pdf).

You can also download the introductory chapter of the thesis (pdf).

Here is a chart from the thesis that illustrates typological variation and movement in the material (fig. 3.16, p. 54 in Jew’s Harps in European Archaeology, BAR International Series 1500, Archaeopress, Oxford):Type chart

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. Francisca Gili on September 12, 2019 at 12:51

    Hi! It’s very interesting! I also research in music archaeology of the Andes. I am from Chile, South America. I have known your theacher Miss Lund in a meting of ISGMA. I am interested in knowing the most antique evidence of jew’s arp around the world. Can you guide me with some literature.

    Thanks a lot!!

    A big hug

    • Gjermund Kolltveit on September 19, 2019 at 00:40

      Hi! Thanks a lot.
      I dont know if I know everything written around the world. My knowledge is for the most part about Europe and Asia. I will email you some of my articles directly (since they are not available in open access).
      Speaking of the most ancient evidence: There are some great news from China now, where they have excavated a group of bone jew’s harps from the late Neolithic site Shimao in Shanxi province. I am invited there for a meeting where they present the finds and their significance. Very interesting!
      Best wishes,

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