About the Carnyx
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.
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