Archaeologist's hunch and a 3D printer bring Bronze Age music to life
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Archaeologist's hunch and a 3D printer bring Bronze Age music to life

Unlike Oscar Wilde's father William, Billy O Foghlu has never breezed through archaeology.

O Foghlu's detective work was rewarded one night when, late home from taking his dog to a vet, he placed what he believed was a replica 2000-year-old mouthpiece into an Irish horn.

The replica of the Spearbutt of Navan, left, compared with the modern French horn and trumpet mouthpieces.

The replica of the Spearbutt of Navan, left, compared with the modern French horn and trumpet mouthpieces. Credit:Stuart Hay ANU.

William Wilde, a great archaeologist in the 1860s, had wrongly identified the mouthpiece as a spear butt. O Foghlu didn't believe him. Studying at the Australian National University's archaeology department, College of Asia Pacific, the 27-year-old Irishman put his theory into practice.

Although he could not get his hands on an original bronze artefact, O Foghlu worked from exact measurements to produce a replica using 3D printing. A week later, the mouthpiece turned up at his place from the Sydney printers.

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Billy O Foghlu with an instrument he made while at Kakadu National Park, replicated from a buffalo horn.

Billy O Foghlu with an instrument he made while at Kakadu National Park, replicated from a buffalo horn.

"I took it out, walked to the replica of the horn I had made already in the sitting room, and stuck it in and it worked," he says. The replica Iron Age horn suddenly came to life with a rich, velvety tone.

As a child, O Foghlu travelled from Ireland to Australia and back before coming to Canberra to study several areas, including Iron Age Irish music.

He says Wilde did much of the groundwork for classifying most of Ireland's artefacts and his referencing still holds true today. When Wilde came across some small brass objects, he thought they were spear butts. One or two had shafts of wood stuck inside them.

O Foghlu's mind started questioning accepted wisdom when other artefacts were found that were certainly spear butts but looked more like brass doorknobs than a musical instrument's mouthpiece.

Wilde didn't have much time for his own interpretations when studying artefacts. "At the time he was doing it for the Royal Irish Academy and he kind of breezed through a lot of artefacts. It wasn't his fault – he just had so much stuff to get through," O Foghlu says.

"As you can imagine, when you talk about an artefact which is 2000 years old, you really have to look at it and have a basic idea as to what it can do without having to touch it or do anything like that.

"For the last few years, I kept coming back to these artefacts, because Irish Iron Age horns were slightly more advanced than Irish Bronze Age horns. For a few hundred years before this, there is a huge, rich, surviving lot of artefacts for Bronze Age horns," O Foghlu says.

But the Iron Age horns he was studying were represented in only six or possibly seven artefacts, and there was a whole lot less evidence from which to interpret things. Always missing were the mouthpieces.

"These horns were not just hunting horns or noise-makers," he says. "They were carefully constructed and repaired. They were played for hours. Music clearly had a significant role in the culture."

Complex Bronze Age and Iron Age horns have been found throughout Europe, especially in Scandinavia. However, the lack of mouthpieces in Ireland suggested the Irish music scene had drifted into a musical dark age.

"I needed to prove a mouthpiece befitting the level of complexity the horns exhibit existed at the same time, in the same location," he says. O Foghlu became intrigued by the so-called Conical Spear Butt of Navan.

"Originally I was being silly, I was trying to make one out of clay. If you look at these and you actually compare this spear butt to things more like 17th- and 18th-century mouthpieces, they actually look quite similar."

One day at Questacon, the National Science and Technology Centre, while watching a 3D-printing demonstration, he had an idea. He contacted a 3D printing studio in Sydney and asked if they could print this spear butt – or mouthpiece, or whatever it was – in plastic. The studio asked for more information.

"Well, actually, it's in bronze and they said that it was fine.This only took a week and a few emails. They printed it off in a wax mould and sent it to a foundry to be cast, so the resulting piece is actually made in the identical way as the original 2000-year-old artefact was made."

O Foghlu says the 3D replica mouthpiece didn't function as well as a modern trumpet mouthpiece, because the latter is made with fine skills. But his replica was quite amazing.

Replicas of Irish horns had been made and played previously without a mouthpiece. "I think I can remember William Wilde's quote: 'The want of the mouthpiece made it difficult to play upon,'" O Foghlu says.

The addition of a mouthpiece would have given greater comfort and control to ancient horn players, and may have increased the range of their instruments.

However, few mouthpieces have been found. This may be explained by evidence that the instruments were ritually dismantled and laid down as offerings when their owner died, O Foghlu says.

"A number of instruments have been found buried in bogs. The ritual killing of an instrument and depositing it in a burial site shows the full significance of it in the culture.

"Tutankhamun​ also had trumpets buried with him in Egypt. Contemporary horns were also buried in Scandinavia, Scotland and mainland Europe – they all had integral mouthpieces too."

John Thistleton is a reporter for The Canberra Times.

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