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The Carnyx: Music on the Iron Age Battlefield

This wind instrument was designed to intimidate opponents.

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  • A carnyx from the recently discovered Tintignac group.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Many history buffs would love nothing more than to reach back through time and feel close to the people of yesteryear. Perhaps the most potent way to transport oneself to another time and place is to listen to its music. Music has an instant psychological effect, evoking thoughts and feelings appropriate to its composition, yet unique to the listener. And in the case of early music, it is unmatched in its ability to place the listener in the shoes of the people of the past, to hear what they heard and feel what they felt.

In 279 BCE, an army of Gauls staged a raid on Delphi, the seat of Greece’s most important oracle. The Gauls were utterly defeated, but they apparently left a powerful impression on their enemies. Witnesses of the battle noted that the Gauls carried into battle great upright horns shaped like animal heads. These objects produced a haunting, barbaric sound that could signal and rouse allies while frightening and confusing enemies. 

This is the first written record of the musical instrument known as the carnyx. Later records of its use in battle also exist in Roman art. Romans were known to portray their enemies as powerful warriors in order to emphasize their own victories. On Roman coins used in the Celtic world, on tomb reliefs, and on the renowned Trajan’s column, carnyx players are depicted on the battlefield. Roman association with them is so widespread that the carnyx itself became something of a symbol for Celtic culture. 

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Apparently a great staple of that culture, the carnyx followed the Celtic people throughout Europe, with fragments of them found across Scotland, France, Switzerland, Germany, and Romania. Archeological finds suggest that the earliest examples date back to 200 BCE, while the instrument apparently fell out of fashion by 200 CE. 

The carnyx is a lip reed instrument, meaning that its sound is produced by the player’s lips. It has this in common with more modern brass instruments like the trombone, as well as traditional instruments like the didgeridoo and the shofar. These instruments work by amplifying a vibrating column of air produced by the player.

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  • A carnyx in the shape of a serpent's head.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

What sets the carnyx (and other traditional lip reed instruments) apart from their more modern counterparts is that these instruments lack keys, buttons, or slides—in other words, there are no built-in mechanisms for changing the pitch. The carnyx player can only do so by changing the pitch of their own voice. This makes it a challenging but versatile instrument, as it will amplify almost any sound that is made into it.

The bells of carnyces are usually shaped like animal heads, most often boars or serpents. The boar in particular, being a dangerous animal to hunt, symbolized skillful hunter-warriors. Boars depicted by carnyx bells tend to have raised crests, mirroring the behavior of boars when threatened. Therefore, it is easy to envision the carnyx as solely an instrument of war.

But in 1816, a heavily worn brass boar’s head surfaced from a peat bog in Deskford, in northeastern Scotland. What came to be known as the Deskford carnyx was an exquisite example of its kind. It had a soft palate, a moving jaw, and a wooden tongue, mounted on a spring so it would move as the instrument was played. The instrument could also be shaken, causing the tongue to hit the lower jaw and create a percussive sound. 

However, there is no record of a war concurrent to the Deskford carnyx’s creation. So was the carnyx used in times of peace as well?

Archeological evidence suggests that the Deskford carnyx was carefully deconstructed before it was placed in the peat bog. The Celts believed that bodies of water were sacred places, and small offerings were often left in them. This carnyx, intricately crafted of precious metals and lovingly placed in the peat bog, might have represented a far bigger sacrifice. Maybe its owner needed a lot of luck, or was making amends for a significant transgression. 

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But this calls into question its status as an instrument of war. Perhaps it was also used for ritual purposes. Composer John Kenny has suggested that, while Roman depictions of the carnyx in war always show it being held upright (over the combatant’s heads, so the sound would carry farther), it also could have been carried horizontally over one's shoulder. This would create a more somber procession, better suited for ritual. Some carnyces even have straight tubes, making them impossible to play almost any other way. 

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  • A bird-shaped carnyx.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

One of those straight tube carnyces was found at an archeological site located in Tintignac, France. The Deskford carnyx, being the best surviving example of the instrument, was the most widely studied for centuries after its discovery. However, in 2004, archeologists unearthed seven more carnyces, all in excellent (if not playable) condition and some even more complete than the one found at Deskford. Notably, one of the instruments, which was also in the shape of a boar, had two enormous, thin metal ears. It would have vibrated with the frequency of the horn, modifying and amplifying its sound. This Tintignac carnyx also uniquely directed the sound straight out of the boar’s wide-open mouth, creating a more aggressive sound.

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In an effort to reach back through time, modern musicologists and metalsmiths have taken on the bold task of replicating some of the most visually impressive carnyces so that their music might be heard again by modern people. Musicologist Dr. John Purser and silversmith John Creed collaborated on a replica of the Deskford carnyx, while archeologist Christophe Maniquet and brass instrument expert Joël Gilbert worked on one of the big-eared Tintignac boar. 

John Kenny, who also worked on the Deskford carnyx reconstruction, has gone on to establish himself as the world’s leading carnyx player. He has composed and recorded nine albums of music featuring the carnyx, in genres ranging from traditional music to modern jazz.