Experimental Music Archeology
"Music archeology" - this word might lead to the assumption that we could just excavate the music of our ancestors and perform and hear it straight away. Unfortunately, this is not so.
By "music archeology", different scientists mean different things. While some use the term only for the pursuit of finds of musical instruments or at least parts thereof, for others it means, in addition, to deal with written sources of historical music. From the Roman era, there sometimes exist more finds of specific musical instruments, f.e. reed-instruments, than from the Middle Ages. On the other hand, sources of written music of the Romans are fewer, even though an ancient notation - as opposed to sources denying that fact - is known. Moreover, in most cases, the sources do not reveal for which instrument the fragment in question was meant - just like most medieval sources as well.
Therefore, musical scientists, musicians and archeologists try to find out the probable sounds of ancient instruments experimentally, by reconstructing the finds as close to the original as possible. This is an adventure which requests high skills as well as creativity. And some important facts should not be forgotten: not every complex instrument might have always been used to the utmost range of its facilities, and a masterly player can give a highly skilled performance on what at first may seem a simple instrument.
Not only the musicians playing historical instruments are bound to their own musical tradition and experience. Also the listener has modern hearing habits. Even if musicians try get as close as possible to the ancient sound, the modern audience will perceive them in a different way as the ancient listeners did.
Now, what instruments have been preserved from Antiquitiy? Most of them are wind instruments - reed instruments, flutes, pan flutes, and - rarely - remainders of small organs. Also some string instruments, as lutes and parts of lyres, as well as rattles and percussive instruments had been found. Many of these finds prove that the art of making instruments had been highly developed. This is most obvious with complex organs an the Auloi (aulos/Tibia). The latter were highly developed reed instruments with reeds similar to modern oboes, and mostly played in pairs. These Auloi were not only elaborately made of delicate materials like bone, metal or wood, but also featured mechanical tuning systems which turn up again not before the Renaissance.
Of many instruments, only small parts like pegs or string holders still exist. Other, better preserved instruments often lack parts. Knowledge of important devices like reeds or strings comes from written sources and pictures. Such parts rot in the soil and are practically never found. Music archeology is an interdisciplinary science relying also on helpful experience and research of historians, art historians and ethnologists.
Text: Merit Zloch, Archaeologist M.A., Harpist at Mvsica Romana