Some percussive discoveries

So far we’ve done a lot of work on the instruments held in the Petrie’s collection – our reconstructions of the bells, cymbals, wooden clappers, rattles, and panpipes form the core of this element of the project. These objects were selected for study as they had already been identified as musical instruments, or were clearly recognisable as such. However, our investigations of the Roman and late antique collections have revealed some additional – and previously unidentified – instruments!

3 pieces of pierced decorated bone with some original stringing, described on the Petrie Museum catalogue as “fittings”, but which we have now identified as a type of musical instrument. [Photo: Jo Stoner].
UC71328 refers to three associated pieces of bone within the Petrie. The largest piece is reminiscent of a handle, with a section decorated with carvings and cruciform designs. With it are also two pieces of square bone, each carved on one side with crossed and parallel lines. Each has two medium-sized holes drilled along one edge. These correspond with the holes drilled in the end of the larger bone segment. One of the holes even has the remains of some original thread in it, suggesting  the pieces were originally attached to each other, with the square plaques fixed to the main piece through the holes. This disarticulated artefact has no excavation information so we no longer know which site the item comes from. The catalogue does however date the artefact as Byzantine, a designation likely based on the inclusion of crosses within the carved design which suggests a Christianised cultural context. The catalogue also describes these pieces as fittings, and certainly many bone fragments within the Petrie Museum appear to have originally been fixed to larger objects, for example as decorative plaques for furniture.

However during the course of our research into comparative examples of instruments from Roman Egypt, we found this in the British Museum’s collection:

A wooden clapper in the British Museum (acc. no. 1914,0902.2), late antique in date, excavated from Antinoupolis, Egypt. Note the use of string to tie the separate sections together, and the incised cross and line decoration. [Photo: (c) British Museum].
This artefact is a clapper – a percussion instrument – from late antique Egypt. The object makes a noise when shaken from side to side in the hand, as the square plaques tied on to the end of the main handle element move and hit the central piece of wood. This instrument differs in design to the other kinds of clapper we have studied as part of our reconstructions, which instead are larger and rounder, with their hollow centre creating a loud sound when the two elements are struck together.

This example from the British Museum was excavated at Antinoupolis and the similarity to the bone pieces in the Petrie collection is striking. They feature the same drilled hole placement, the use of string to connect the separate pieces, and even the same incised crossed and parallel line design on the square plaques. The main difference is the material (wood rather than bone) and the lack of decoration on the handle. In fact, this similarity in decoration on the square clapper plaques has allowed us to make an additional new identification in the Petrie collection.

Piece of decorated and pierced wood from the Petrie Museum (UC69739) which was likely part of a clapper. [Photo: Jo Stoner].
UC69739 is a wooden square pierced with two holes along one edge. Again there is no excavation context but the item, dated as Byzantine, is described on the catalogue as a lid to a box. However, we can see that this wooden square is almost identical in design and decoration to the clappers set in the British Museum and the newly identified set in the Petrie, above. Thus it seems this little square was also once a part of a similar percussion instrument! These kinds of clappers were likely used in religious contexts, as well as during more general musical performances, within Roman and Byzantine Egypt. It’s exciting to see new identifications are still being made within the Petrie’s collections of artefacts, and that the reassessment of mysterious or unidentified artefacts can provide fruitful results.

You can search the Petrie Museum’s collection yourself online through their website – take a look here:

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