The Ancient Mouth Harp That Still Makes Music

Fagjun | Published 2018-01-15 09:06

Deep in the Altai Mountains in Russia, archaeologists found a 1,700-year-old mouth harp that was still capable of making sound.


A 1,700-year-old mouth harp [Photo by Andrey Borodovsky, The Siberian Times]

A 1,700-year-old mouth harp [Photo by Andrey Borodovsky, The Siberian Times]

 

Mouth harps, also known as Jew’s harps, are lamellophone instruments held between the performer’s lips or teeth, then twanged by the performer’s finger to produce sound. They are found in various cultures and are considered to be one of the oldest instruments in the world. In fact, a Chinese drawing from the fourth century BC apparently shows a musician playing a mouth harp. It’s therefore no surprise that ancient mouth harps may turn up in archaeological excavations.



The Instrument in Cheremshanka


The five mouth harps found in the excavation sites [Photo by Sergey Gorokhov, The Siberian Times]

The five mouth harps found in the excavation sites [Photo by Sergey Gorokhov, The Siberian Times]

 

The surprise, however, is when a mouth harp that’s nearly two millennia old is still capable of producing music. Archaeologists had uncovered a total of five mouth harps from two archaeological sites, Chultukov Log 9 and Cheremshanka. Andrey Borodovsky, a professor at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that he personally was able to play one the harps from Cheremshanka himself.

 

The instrument was about 4.3 inches long and 3.3 inches wide, made from the ribs of a cow or a horse. It dates back to the time when nomadic Hun tribesmen controlled the southern part of Siberia about 1,580 to 1,740 years ago. The harp was found alongside another one, though this second one wasn’t preserved as well as the first one. Three other harps, though unfinished, were found in Chultukov Log 9.



Superior Craftsmanship


A mouth harp in use

A mouth harp in use

 

It was found that the instruments belonged to the Maiminskaya cattle breeders, a culture that had been part of the nomadic Huns.

 

Craftsmen of the era produced mouth harps by taking the middle part of an animal rib then splintering it into two parts. Though a lot of cultures made the same kind of instrument, researchers found that the technique used by the craftsmen in Altai were superior.

 

Though Borodovsky found that the mouth harp can still make the music it made 1,700 years ago, he was also able to detect a small distortion in the sound because of damage in a very small part of the instrument.

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