Bronze Age horns: Ireland’s oldest musical instruments

Irish Bronze Age horns, Ireland’s oldest musical instruments.
Irish Bronze Age horns from the Dowris hoard on display in the British Museum (© Jononmac46, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0). These were on loan to the museum for the duration of the Stonehenge Exhibition and are now back in Dublin.

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Ireland’s ancient cast-bronze horns represent more than half of all Bronze Age wind instruments found in Europe and the Middle East. Capable of creating rich music, these prestigious instruments were likely played during ceremonies, rituals or possibly even during battles.

Among the earliest musical instruments known in Ireland is a collection of around 100 large cast-bronze horns dating from the Bronze Age, about 3,000 years ago. Discovered in various locations throughout Ireland, the collection represents more than half of all known Bronze Age horns from Europe and the Middle East.

The Irish cast-bronze horns date mainly to the Middle and Late Bronze Age (c.1500–500 BC). The National Museum of Ireland has estimated that horns from Drumbest, Co. Antrim and Derrynane, Co. Kerry, for example, date to between c.800 BC and c.600 BC.

Irish Bronze Age horns from Drumbest, Co. Antrim and Derrynane, Co. Kerry.
Bronze Age end-blown horn from Drumbest, Co. Antrim and side-blown horn from Derrynane, Co. Kerry (© National Museum of Ireland, CC BY-SA 2.0).

The only older musical instruments known from Ireland are a set of six pipes carefully crafted from yew, which was excavated from a fulacht fiadh (or burnt mound) in Greystones, Co. Wicklow; the pipes date to around 2120–2085 BC.

Playing the horns

Once thought to be limited in terms of the range of notes they could produce, it’s now been established, through extensive experimental work using originals and replicas, that these instruments are remarkably sophisticated and capable of generating a wide range of notes, sounds and tones. This is largely thanks to experimental work led by Simon O’Dwyer of Ancient Music Ireland.

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Ireland’s Bronze Age instruments can be classified into two groups: the end-blown horn (or trumpet) and the side-blown horn. O’Dwyer, through his research, explored a variety of playing techniques. Similar to the circular-breathing method employed with a didgeridoo, a steady flow of air can be maintained by inhaling through your nose while simultaneously exhaling through your mouth. You can produce two notes: the fundamental (a low drone) and an octave higher, depending on the instrument. Overtones may also be played.

The end-blown horns involve blowing through a mouthpiece located at the narrower end, like a trumpet (as seen in the video below).

The side-blown horns are played from the side on an open mouthpiece (as seen in the video below). Using a lip-reed technique of playing facilitates the particular use of overtones.

When both types of horns are played together, they can make a full, rich and haunting sound. Playing these instruments well, however, demands a considerable level of skill.

Possible uses

The large bronze-cast horns could have served various purposes. It’s highly plausible that they were played during ceremonies and rituals, or perhaps they were used to convey signals or warnings.

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Among the collection of Irish Bronze Age horns, several feature a bronze ring connected to them, possibly used to secure the horn to its owner, making them more manageable to carry. Their portability raises the possibility that they were used as battle instruments.

Making the horns

A high level of technical expertise was needed in the production process to create these impressive musical instruments. Ireland has copper deposits, and tin was likely imported from Cornwall in England to produce the bronze. The horns were cast using clay moulds. There are distinctive design variations between the horns found in the north and those in the southwest, where larger and more complex examples have been discovered.

Typically, the side-blown horns were cast as one unit, but in some cases, they were cast in pieces that were subsequently welded together. The end-blown horns were more often made of multiple parts fitted together; regrettably, their mouthpieces are seldom recovered. The mouthpieces of the two end-blown horns from Drumbest, in Co. Antrim, are, in fact, the only surviving examples.

Many of the horns feature inscribed decoration, such as geometric patterns, grooves and bosses. O’Dwyer suggests the mathematical numeration used may be related to the tunes that were played at the time around Ireland.

Some bear signs of careful repair work. The side-blown horn found in Derrynane, Co. Kerry, for instance, required a weld repair when a break occurred near the mouthpiece due to its thin walls.

The high level of craftsmanship firmly establishes these beautiful, precise musical instruments as objects of exceptional prestige that were created to play and sound wonderful.

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Their symbolism

Some academics have argued that the conical shape of these Bronze Age horns may have been modelled after bull horns, while the low sounds they emit remind us of a bull bellowing. This has led some to believe that these instruments were inspired by the bull cult, which may have originated in the Mediterranean.

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Research has been carried out into the cattle horns which preceded the bronze musical family. O’Dwyer, along with a team of experts, observed that some bull horns grow straight out on each side of the head, whereas cow horns grow outward and then twist either forwards or backwards, resulting in bull horns having two planes and cow horns having three. Since all of the bronze horns from Ireland are designed on two planes, it could suggest that these designs drew inspiration from bull horns.

Cattle have been the mainstay of Irish farming since the Neolithic. The Táin Bó Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), an early medieval Irish tale, features magical bulls. But during the early medieval period (c.400–1169 AD), it was the milk-producing cow, not the bull, that was the universal mobile unit of wealth and a person’s standing in society was determined by the number of cows they owned. This probably relates to the fact that systematic dairying had become an essential part of the Irish economy by this time.

A scene from the Táin Bó Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) featuring the magical bulls.
Mosaic mural by Desmond Kinney in Dublin’s Nassau Street featuring a scene from the Táin Bó Cuailnge and the magical bulls (© William Murphy, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0).

It’s plausible that cattle enjoyed special status in Ireland long before the early medieval period, and the Bronze Age horns could serve as evidence of this.

Decommissioning the horns

While many location finds are not recorded, Ireland’s ancient horns have most commonly been found in peat bogs, marshes and other watery locations. They often form part of hoards containing other metal objects, but some single finds are also known.

What’s striking is the consistent deposition of these horns in pairs or even multiple pairs, with both end-blown and side-blown variants found together. This phenomenon strongly suggests that the two instrument types were played together.

The horns may have been carefully positioned in watery locations as part of ritualistic deposition practices; for instance, they could have served as votive offerings to deities. On the other hand, they could represent personal belongings hidden during times of danger, but this seems less likely given the frequency of their discovery in wet environments.

Where are the horns now?

Most of the surviving horns were rediscovered during the 18th and 19th centuries via chance discoveries. They then found their way into both private collections and museums, including the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, the Ulster Museum in Belfast, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and the British Museum in London.

In 2021, an Irish bronze side-blown horn, dating to about the 7th or 8th century BC, fetched £162,500 at Christie’s auction house in London.

The Dowris hoard

With an impressive 26 examples, the Dowris hoard contains the largest assemblage of Bronze Age horns found in Ireland. In total, this remarkable hoard contained over 200 metal objects, ranging from weapons like swords, axeheads and spearheads to containers like cauldrons and buckets. This is the only hoard where musical instruments and other unrelated artefacts occur together.

Dowris hoard.
Some items from the Dowris hoard found in Co. Offaly (credit: Notafly, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0).

The 26 horns were not the only musical instruments found in this Late Bronze Age hoard; there were also 48 crotals – an artefact unique to Ireland.

A crotal is a hollow, pear-shaped object containing a loose pebble, a fragment of baked clay or a piece of bronze. Designed to produce a rattling sound when shaken like a rattle or bell, the crotals may have been played in conjunction with the bronze horns during musical performances.

Irish Bronze Age crotals from the Dowris hoard
Irish Bronze Age crotals from the Dowris hoard on display in the British Museum (© Jononmac46, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0). These were on loan to the museum for the duration of the Stonehenge Exhibition and are now back in Dublin.

This exceptional hoard dates from about 900–500 BC. It was discovered in the 1820s by two men digging trenches for potatoes in boggy ground near Lough Coura in Dowris (or Whigsborough), not far from the town of Birr in Co. Offaly.

We cannot be sure if the hoard represents one deposit or a series of deposits over a longer period, but in either case, it signifies considerable wealth. Its contents are currently housed in the National Museum of Ireland and the British Museum, while the location of some of its artefacts remains unknown.

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The wonderful research by Maria and Simon O’Dwyer greatly enhanced this article, and we recommend visiting their Ancient Music Ireland website to learn more about Ireland’s musical past.

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