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Hearing the Ancient Past

We can visualise the ancient past thanks to a wealth of art, texts, and archaeological evidence; but what of its sounds? The music our ancestors played to celebrate spring, evoke battles and mythologies, and keep spirits high through harsh winters, largely remains a mystery. Led by Dr Rupert Till, the European Music Archaeology Project (EMAP) aims to reconstruct Europe’s musical past.

[quote=Dr Rupert Till]“The project is not really designed to recreate ancient music as such. You can’t really know what music sounded like thousands of years ago. But you can produce music that demonstrates the instruments and some of the techniques used.”[/quote]

It’s an exciting project. Dr Till, along with Bruno Fazenda, recreated a 4000-year-old acoustic ritual at Stonehenge. You can read more about this at the Sounds of Stonehenge blog. In another project, this time by physicists at CERN of all places, the sounds of the epigonion, a long-lost ancient Greek instrument, were recreated.

Thanks to EMAP, modern audiences will experience the mists of prehistory when flutes made of mammoth bone accompanied the painting of caves, the bittersweet strings of a Celtic lyre on the Isle of Skye, ancient Greek amphitheatres dedicated to Apollo; and I have no doubt the band kept playing when Nero burned Rome. With the exception of Justin Bieber, music has been and continues to be an essential part of our evolution. We hear it in the wind and sea, the deep earth and starry skies, in love, life, death, and birth. As Aldous Huxley wrote, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”

In Werner Herzog’s wonderful documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the fur-clad method-archaeologist Wulf Hein breathed life into a paleolithic flute (Amazon US/UK):

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