Europe’s ‘earliest string instrument’ found

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Archaeologists believe they have uncovered the remains of the earliest stringed instrument to be found so far in western Europe. 

The notched wood is believed to be the bridge of an ancient lyre [Credit: BBC]

The small burnt and broken piece of carved piece of wood was found during an excavation in a cave on Skye. 

Archaeologists said it was likely to be part of the bridge of a lyre dating to more than 2,300 years ago. 

Music archaeologist Dr Graeme Lawson said the discovery marked a “step change” in music history. 

The Cambridge-based expert said: “It pushes the history of complex music back more than a thousand years, into our darkest pre-history. 

“And not only the history of music but more specifically of song and poetry, because that’s what such instruments were very often used for. 

“The earliest known lyres date from about 5,000 years ago, in what is now Iraq, and these were already complicated and finely-made structures. 

“But here in Europe even Roman traces proved hard to locate. Pictures, maybe, but no actual remains.” 

The remains, which were unveiled in Edinburgh, were found in High Pasture Cave, where Bronze and Iron Age finds have been made previously. 

Cultural historian Dr Purser said: “What, for me, is so exciting about this find is that it confirms the continuity of a love of music amongst the Western Celts. 

“Stringed instruments, being usually made of wood, rarely survive in the archaeological record, but they are referred to in the very earliest literature, and, in various forms, were to feature on many stone carvings in Scotland and Ireland, and to become emblematic in both countries.” 

Steven Birch, an archaeologist involved in the excavation, said deeper sections of the cave were reached using a flight of stone steps. 

He said: “Descending the steep and narrow steps, the transition from light to dark transports you out of one world into a completely different realm, where the human senses are accentuated. 

“Within the cave, sound forms a major component of this transformation, the noise of the underground stream in particular producing a calming environment.” 

Dr Fraser Hunter, principal curator of Iron Age and Roman Collections at National Museums Scotland, said the fragment of musical instrument put “sound into the silent past”. 

Culture and External Affairs Secretary Fiona Hyslop added: “This is an incredible find and it clearly demonstrates how our ancestors were using music and ritual in their lives. 

“The evidence shows that Skye was a gathering place over generations and that it obviously had an important role to play in the celebration and ritual of life more than 2,000 years ago.” 

AOC Archaeology in Edinburgh worked on conserving the bridge. 

It was among several artefacts recovered from the cave in a project supported Highland Council, Historic Scotland and National Museums of Scotland. 

Source: BBC News Website [March 28, 2012]

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