What is it?
The Carnyx was a long Celtic trumpet made of beaten bronze and held vertically
so that the sound travels from more than three metres above the ground. It was known through much of Europe from about 200BC
to 200AD and was widely depicted - notably on the Gundestrup bowl which shows three carnyces being played simultaneously.
The best surviving part of a carnyx was found in North East Scotland
and exhibits local design elements. The end of the instrument is in the form of a wild boar's head, and it has a movable tongue
and lower jaw. The craftsmanship is superb. The reconstruction was co-ordinated by myself as musicologist, made by John Creed,
with archaeological advice from Fraser Hunter, and in consultation with John Kenny. It was funded jointly by a Glenfiddich
Living Scotland award and by the National Museums of Scotland, who own both the original artifact and the reconstruction.
Read more from this author John Purser and the others mentioned
in this piece at The Carnyx web site
John Kenny playing the carnyx.
The Deskford Carnyx is the head of an Iron Age lip-reed instrument.
Found in the North East of Scotland around 1816, it has long been recognised as a masterpiece of Celtic art, shaped to resemble
a wild boar with its upturned snout and decoration which mirrors the folds of skin around a boar's face.
It is a complex composite construction, wrought from sheet bronze and
brass. This helps us date it because brass is not native to Scotland; it represents recycled Roman metal. Along with other
evidence, this suggests a date between c. 100 and 300AD for its construction.
Today only the head survives; it lacks the erect crest, ears, enamelled
eyes, wooden tongue and long cylindrical tube which it once had. For evidence of these we must turn to other examples.
The Carnyx was once common throughout much of Europe, although only five
fragments are known to us, of which Deskford is the finest. It flourished between 300BC and 200AD, and found widespread use
in Britain, France, parts of Germany, eastwards to Romania, and beyond. Bands of Celtic mercenaries took it on their travels;
Carnyces were present at the attack on the Greek sanctuary at Delphi in 279BC; Carnyces defied Julius Caesar in Gaul; Carnyces
faced Claudius when he invaded Britain. They are often represented on a sculpture in India, proof of the far-flung connections
of the Iron Age world. Yet they are not, as is often stated, purely a Celtic instrument; they were also used among the Dacians,
in modern Romania. The term Celtic is, in any case, a difficult one. The idea of a Pan-European Celtic culture is a myth;
rather, aspects of art and technology were shared over wide areas among diverse cultures. The Carnyx was one facet of this.
Clearly the Camyx can only be understood in an international context.
It is to Europe and beyond that we turn for parallels. Yet it must also be studied in its local context if we are to get the
full picture. Although it is of a type found across Europe, this is a specifically local variant. The decoration is typical
of metalwork in north-east Scotland at the time, where there was a flourishing tradition of fine bronze-working.
The local context can also help us understand its fate. The original
account of its discovery records that it was found at the bottom of a moss. Excavations by the National Museums of Scotland
over the past four years, directed by the writer, have examined this findspot. We can now show beyond reasonable doubt that
the Carnyx ended its life as a sacrifice, a votive offering to some unknown god. There is a widespread belief that wet locations
were sacred places where you could contact the gods. Valuable finds often occur in peat bogs as gifts to win a deity's favour.
At Deskford we have evidence of a series of offerings made in pits cut
into the peat; smashed pottery, joints of meat, a cache of charm-stones. These are the offerings of the everyday, the tokens
of a farming people asking their gods for good weather or thanking them for a fine harvest. The Carnyx was more than this;
it must have been a spectacular sacrifice, at a time of great danger or great celebration. Before being offered to the gods,
it was 'killed' by dismantling it, and perhaps only the head was placed in the bog.
The impetus for this research came from John Purser and his desire to
make a reconstruction Carnyx. The design for the reconstruction was based on the extensive European parallels mentioned above.
Although surviving examples are few, there are many depictions of Carnyces, especially on Roman triumphal sculpture and coinage;
the legions encountered it in battle, and thought it so strange that it was used as an emblem of the tribes they fought. This
gives us a wide range of comparative material, of varying quality. Some factors in the reconstruction are inevitably speculative:
the original length and diameter of the tube, for instance, is unknown, although the dimensions fall within the known range.
More awkward is the nature of the mouthpiece, for which evidence is poor. However, the reconstruction is as accurate as we
can make it on current knowledge.
What did we learn from it? We learned that a combination of archaeology,
craftsmanship and music is a powerfully creative one in deciphering such fragments. We learned about the effort involved in
making these instruments; it took four hundred hours to craft the reconstruction, showing what prized possessions they must
have been. And we now know something of what it sounded like. A reconstruction can never recreate the sounds of the past;
apart from imponderables in the instrument design, we know nothing of Iron Age views of music. However it can evoke these
sounds, and show what could have been played on such instruments. As the contents of these recordings
by John Kenny show, the possibilities are greater that anyone could have believed. It makes a fitting tribute to the craftsmen
and musicians of almost 2000 years ago.
Fraser Hunter, Dept of Archaeology, National Museums of Scotland
Illustrations © NMS