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Margaret Gowen & Co.
Visit the Margaret Gowen & Co. website for further information on this and other findings.
Listen to the sounds of the 4000 year-old wooden pipes.


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4000 Year-old Music?
Unique prehistoric musical instrument discovered in Co. Wicklow, Ireland.
By Margaret Gowen. Published by Margaret Gowen & Co., 17 May 2004.

Archaeologists discovered a set of musical pipes believed to have been used 4,000 years ago by prehistoric man in Ireland, making them the world's oldest wooden instruments. The six wooden pipes, which are not joined, were found during excavations of a housing development site near the coastal town of Greystones, south of Dublin.

Archaeologists for Margaret Gowen & Co. Ltd recently made the unique discovery of a set of prehistoric pipes, thought to be from a musical instrument. 

Engaged by Mountbrook Homes and Ballymore Properties Ltd to fulfil a planning requirement to monitor site preparation work for a residential development at The Glen, Charlesland, Greystones, Co. Wicklow, the archaeological team under director Bernice Molloy made the discovery during the archaeological excavation of a burnt mound (Fulacht Fiadh) site. 

The site, thought to be a cooking site, is one of several partially preserved sites revealed by soil stripping and archaeological investigation which are related to Bronze Age settlement in the location. The archaeological sites have been revealed, investigated and fully recorded in a highly successful, collaborate project with Mountbrook Homes and Ballymore Properties Ltd. 

Prehistoric pipes in-situ.

The find consisted of six, graded cylindrical wooden pipes, five arrayed side by side at the bottom of a well-preserved rectangular, wood-lined trough that once held water. The largest is damaged but was over 50cm long. The pipes had been covered and possibly concealed when the site was abandoned. A peg used in the construction of the wooden trough lining has been radio-carbon dated to between 2120BC and 2085BC.

Back in the laboratory, careful cleaning and initial research on the slender and beautifully crafted pipes has identified that they are made of yew wood. They are not perforated, like a recorder or flute, but do have features that suggest they are a set, and that they were attached to something that no longer survives.

With no direct parallels for the pipes, work has been under way to establish what kind of an instrument the pipes might have come from. The experts consulted suggest that the pipes, which lack finger holes (like those on a wooden flute tin whistle or recorder), may have formed part of a multi-flute instrument or pipe organ. These instruments utilise the different lengths of the air column in the pipes to generate the melodic or harmonic content of the instrument’s musical sound. 

Close-up of prehistoric pipes in-situ.

At present, experts including Dr. Peter Holmes, an expert in the reconstruction of ancient instruments from the UK and Simon O’Dwyer, who is shortly to publish a book on early Irish musical instruments, and have been assisting the archaeologists in the analysis of the pipes. Dr. Ann Buckley from University College, Maynooth and Frank Cullen and artist and wood carver have also examined the pipes. 

Coincidently, work on other early Irish wooden musical instruments has been under way and two papers written by Greer Ramsey of the Armagh County Museum and a Scottish expert, John Purser, are shortly to be published by the Ulster Journal of Archaeology.

The combined weight of research and expertise assembled so far suggests that the find is truly unique and that we may have the remains of the earliest wooden piped instrument ever found in an archaeological context in Europe. Research suggests that the earliest recorded wooden musical instruments from an archaeological context date to the 5-6th century BC while the pipes from Charlesland are more than 1000 years older. On the other hand, simple bone flutes and whistles have been found from earliest prehistory going back to Neanderthal man. So, music formed an important part of prehistoric life.

Ireland does not lack musical instruments of prehistoric date. Most notable are the truly spectacular cast bronze horns of the later Bronze Age and Iron Age. The only other wooden instruments, all made of yew wood also, are a set of four curved pipes from Killyfadda, Co. Tyrone (400BC) the Bekan Horn from Co. Mayo dating to 700AD and a short conical wooden horn from the River Erne in Co. Fermanagh dated to 700AD also.

It is still unclear how the instrument might have been played. Nothing is known of the mechanism, if any, used to make individual pipes ‘speak’ but the assembled instrument might well have been a precursor to the ancient pipe organ. However, initial experiments have indicated that the pipes generate the notes E flat, A flat and F natural. E flat is common pitch for many ancient Irish horns.

The method of creating the hollow pipes is also not yet established but it is clear that a lathe was not used.

Source: Margaret Gowen & Co.

Further remarks
Associação Gaita-de-foles

There are still doubts about if this supposed instrument is either a pan-pipe or simply some kind of "primitive" wooden tube organ.
According to the archaeologist Margaret Gowen; "It appears to be 1,000 years older than anything I can find on record, certainly in Europe. "There is a suggestion of an early Chinese composite instrument like pan pipes with a gourd that is the wind chamber going back to about 1500 BCE, but that is an illustration rather than the instrument," on the other hand, a similar instrument (a wooden pipe organ) at least 2000 years old (dating back to roman times) has been found in Hungary.  
The chance that this might be a kind of instrument that could be attached to some sort of flexible bag, such as a bagpipe, is unlikely.
This instrument doesn't have any kind of blowpipe or chanter and the pipes are disposed in a way that doesn't support that theory.
Besides, until today, no artefact of the kind has ever been found.
The absence of archaeological evidences of such instruments makes the origins or history of the bagpipes to be, still today, involved in much speculation.


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