“Sounds of Roman Egypt” exhibition

On the evening of the 21st January 2019, our project exhibition, Sounds of Roman Egypt opened at the UCL Petrie Museum. We marked the occasion with a Private View, where visitors could see our display for the first time.

Sounds of Roman Egypt display cases in the Petrie Museum. Photo: © Hypercube Photography | Oliver Siddons

Friends, colleagues, supporters, and collaborators joined us to celebrate the completion of this aspect of our project. It was exciting to see the artefacts we have been studying displayed so beautifully, and alongside our replica instruments within the cases. Sound clips of the replica instruments being played to Roman rhythms and accompanying song are available through interactive laptops and complement the replica instruments which are on hand for visitors to handle and play.

Visitor using the laptops to hear the sounds of the replica Roman instruments. Photo: © Hypercube Photography | Oliver Siddons.

We were also joined by musician Alan Bryant who brought a range of percussion instruments to supplement our replicas, which visitors could have a go at playing themselves.

Impromptu jam session at the private view! The Bes bell replica (UC8976) is being played to the left, and bird rattle replica (UC34972) played centre. Photo: © Hypercube Photography | Oliver Siddons.

The evening was a great success and a wonderful way to kick off the exhibition’s run. Sounds of Roman Egypt will be on at the Petrie Museum until the 8th June 2019 and is free to visit. See here for more details: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/whats-on/sounds-roman-egypt

The booklets which accompany the exhibition. Photo: © Hypercube Photography | Oliver Siddons.

Announcing our Exhibition!

We’ve been working very hard behind the scenes here recently on an exciting part of our project – the temporary exhibition at the Petrie Museum, showcasing our research on the musical instruments in their collection and our work creating playable replicas.

The replica instruments. Photo: UCL Petrie Museum.

We are excited to announce that our exhibition opens to the public on the 22nd January 2019!

The exhibition reveals how different instruments were used to create particular experiences, for instance the role of instruments within religious and ritual activities, in the Egyptian home, and in processions and performances. Sound-making objects were important not only for entertainment, but also had practical uses in everyday life, for instance as toys, protective amulets, and alert or alarm sounds.

Project replica terracotta rattle, likely a child’s. Photo: Jo Stoner.

The replicas (discussed in blog posts here and and here, and based upon the sound-making artefacts within the Petrie’s collection) form an integral part of the exhibition. We have used this display as an opportunity to show the processes and technologies involved in their creation – from laser-scanning and creation of 3D virtual models by Kent Archaeology technician Lloyd Bosworth, to 3D printing. The craft replicas produced by University of Kent technicians Georgia Wright and George Morris, and local jeweller Justin Richardson in materials like ceramic, wood, and bronze are also included.

The original Bes bell which will feature in the exhibition alongside its modern replica. Photo: Ellen Swift.

Visitors will see the original Roman instruments displayed alongside some of the modern replicas, and learn about how they were used in the Roman period. Some replicas are also available to be handled and played, with additional sound recordings providing an evocative illustration of the sounds of Roman Egyptian life.

These sound recordings were created using computer software that mimics the acoustic qualities of specific interior and exterior spaces. Information on Roman buildings from archaeological excavations in Egypt has been used to allow us to hear the sounds of the instruments as though they were being played within these ancient spaces. Further evidence from ancient sources, such as musical texts from papyri documents, has allowed authentic tunes, rhythms and scales to be replicated. See below for a preview of one of the replica sets of cymbals (based on UC35798) played with one hand in the Paeonic 5/8 rhythm!

A lot of work has gone into the production of this exhibition from writing text for information panels (and making sure it is the correct length to fit the space!), to selecting which artefacts would be best to display (taking into account factors such as their state of preservation), to programming the computers with sound clips via a user-friendly interface. We also sourced an Arabic translator to ensure that non-English speaking visitors could benefit from the display. We are thus incredibly excited to share this event with you!

The 3D printed panpipes which will feature in the exhibition alongside their original Roman counterpart. Photo: Jo Stoner.

Finally there will be a series of public workshops based around our replica instruments aimed at both families and the general public to accompany the exhibition – please see here for further details. These workshops provide an opportunity to try out the full range of replica objects, hear live demonstrations, and learn how to play some ancient rhythms. A Key Stage 2 schools-pack with additional materials will also be available to download from the Petrie Museum website.

The exhibition is located in the pottery gallery of the Petrie Museum – further information including opening hours and the museum’s location can be found here.

Experimental archaeology, instruments, and Vindolanda: TRACamp 2018

A couple of weeks ago, the project’s replica instruments (accompanied by Ellen and myself) got the opportunity to be played at an authentic Roman site. We were lucky enough to attend TRACamp at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall – an event run by the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference which combined papers on research using experimental archaeology, with a day of workshops and live demonstrations for members of the public who visited the site.

The site of Vindolanda, on Hadrian’s Wall – with amazing weather! Photo: Jo Stoner

We gave our paper on the processes of reconstruction for making the replica musical instruments from the Petrie, alongside papers from other researchers. Topics were diverse and ranged from the issues of working with modern craftsmen to reproduce Roman glass bangles (Tatiana Ivleva), to the production processes used by Roman potters (Graham Taylor), to the role of technology in reproducing light levels within Roman houses (Lucia Michielin) – the full list of speakers can be found here. The day was incredibly useful and provided a great opportunity to hear about the benefits and challenges that others working with both old and new technologies have encountered during their experimentations. The second day at the site saw us set up an interactive instrument session within the reconstructed Temple of the Nymphs near the museum in Vindolanda. The location was beautiful and also provided us with a great opportunity to hear the instruments played outdoors in a different environment.

The Temple of the Nymphs, where our instrument workshop was located, next to the stream in Vindolanda Museum. Photo: TRAC.org.uk.

The Temple is situated next to a stream, and the cymbals, clappers, and panpipes could all be clearly heard above the sound of the water, and as far as the workshop tents on the other side of the outdoor area. Members of the public had the opportunity to visit and learn about the different rhythms used in the Roman period, and to try them out on the percussion replicas – the pottery rattles, wooden clappers, and brass cymbals.

Ellen Swift playing the finger cymbals inside the reconstructed Temple of the Nymphs, Vindolanda. Photo: Jo Stoner

Visitors also learned about the processes involved in scanning and 3D printing the panpipes, as well as being able to have a go at playing them! By numbering each pipe on the replica, we were able to create instructions for playing a simple tune – the end phrase of the theme Ode to Joy by Beethoven – which many people successfully had a go at! Some of the insights that visitors provided us with were great – whilst discussing bells we had a fruitful conversation about modern practices of placing bells on horses to repel evil spirits. Many people also had suggestions about how the wooden clappers were originally tied together based on the extant holes – something we are still mulling over.

Some visitors to the Temple of the Nymphs try out some Roman rhythms on the wooden clappers. Photo: TRAC.org.uk

Whilst this was happening, other stalls on the site were offering further interactive events – and we managed to sneak out to take a look ourselves. Food specialist Sally Grainger had brought a range of different garum based sauces for visitors to try.

Food specialist Sally Grainger, with some of her fish sauce (garum). Photo: TRAC.org.uk.

One was in the form of a vinaigrette, mixed with olive oil, honey, black pepper, and reduced grape juice to produce a sweet and sour dip that was served with melon. The garum itself was potent but tasty! Smelling very similar to Thai fish sauce, it was rich in umami savouriness – something we learnt was thanks to the high levels of nitrogen that ensured its protein-based flavour.

Clothing expert Faith Morgan with a very willing model. Photo: TRAC.org.uk

One of the other stalls included reconstructed late Roman clothing – various tunics, cloaks, and mantles for men, women and children – all made based on patterns and dimensions from archaeological remains by clothing specialist and Kent alumnus Faith Morgan. These were available for visitors to try on, and set up next to reenactor Michael Gasparro who was on hand to create intricate Roman hairstyles for willing participants. The weather was beautifully clear but rather cold….which ensured that some of the conference attendees took the opportunity to try on the replica clothing! This resulted in an impromptu procession across the Vindolanda site, with our replica musical instruments a key part of it. The aim was to evoke the contexts and behaviours in which many of our instruments would have been originally used – for example, in religious processions and ritual activities.

The procession participants playing the Roman instruments in the fort of Vindolanda. Photo: TRAC.org.uk

It was a real treat to be able to hear the sounds of our Roman replicas drift across the original Roman fort and towards Hadrian’s wall. To see more photos from the two-day event, along with the full list of speakers and workshops, see http://trac.org.uk/tracamp-2018/.


Recording the replica instruments – with some clips!

We’ve been really busy over the past few weeks since the last of the replica instruments was completed. One of our most significant milestones is to have made a series of professional sound recordings using our instruments at the University of Kent’s School of Music and Fine Art sound recording studio!

The project sound recording team (from L to R): Ellen Swift, David Walsh, April Pudsey, Ada Nifosi, and Jo Stoner. (Photo: April Pudsey).

In total, we made approximately 70 individual recordings which served to record the noise each instrument made, including where possible their dynamic range (i.e. the quietest and loudest noises they can make). We set up microphones and decibel readers within the studio at both 1 and 4 metres distance so we have recordings of how each instrument sounds to both the player and someone standing nearby. This kind of data also allows us to consider the audibility of each instrument and the way that sounds would have carried.

The studio during recording. David is recording the decibel readings at the four metre mark; Ada is playing the long armed cymbals, which are based on UC35798 from the Petrie. (Photo: Jo Stoner).

We also recorded certain instruments playing rhythms and tunes recorded in documentary texts from Graeco-Roman Egypt. For example, the percussion instruments such as the wooden clappers were used to play a Paeonic rhythm which uses 5 beats to a bar (rather than the 4 beats we are used to in the modern period) and is attested in ancient evidence. We also played combinations of instruments together, to replicate the sounds of real performances. We were lucky to have the expertise of Frank Walker, the SMFA sound technician who made our recordings and guided us through the process.

Our ever-patient sound technician Frank Walker, as viewed through the recording studio glass. (Photo: Jo Stoner).

The technology available at Kent’s SMFA allowed us to create acoustic models of specific spaces. This means that the instruments we have recorded have been adjusted to mimic the effect of being played, for example, within a 2.5 x 11.8 metre open-air courtyard – as has been found archaeologically at the town of Tebtunis in Roman Egypt. Thus we have created similar acoustic effects to the original use contexts of the instruments.

The sound desk used to record the instruments playing. (Photo: April Pudsey)

Of course, we couldn’t describe these recordings without providing a couple of snippets for you to hear!

The first is a recording of a pair of cymbals with decorated handles, based on UC35798 from the Petrie Museum. These were clapped together with one hand, in the Paeonic 5/8 rhythm.


The second recording is of the 3D printed panpipes based on UC33270 from the Petrie.

[DUST TO DUST – by John Kirkpatrick – Copyright © English Folk Dance and Song Society]

This is a clip from a song, ‘Dust to Dust’,  written by folk musician John Kirkpatrick, in the Locrian mode. He wrote the song to draw attention to the existence of this scale, previously overlooked by English folk musicians. It is the same scale as the ancient Greek one which the replica is tuned to, and can thus be played successfully on our pipes, although the ancient Greek equivalent has a different name. The song is sung by a grave-digger discussing his work.

Despite the player not being a professional, we nonetheless get an evocative idea of the kinds of tunes originally played on such instruments. We have many more recordings from this session, several of which will feature in our final exhibition at the Petrie Museum, opening January 2019.

Our thanks go to John Kirkpatrick for allowing us to use his material in these recordings.

The metal replicas

We now nearly have a full set of project replicas! All the replica metal cymbals and bells have now been finished by Justin Richardson and we are ready for the next stage of research.

The full set of metal replica instruments. (Photo: Jo Stoner)

The metal replicas include 3 sets of cymbals, each pair finished in a different way to reflect the originals. Two pairs – the ones with the high shine finish – were created by shaping a flat disk of alloy over a mould, with the edges hammered slightly to mimic the caulked finish of the originals.

The replicas of cymbals UC33269 (a+b) attached to metal handles. the edges of the cymbals have been hammered to mimic the originals’ caulked edges. (Photo: Jo Stoner)

One pair has been attached to metal handles allowing the cymbals to be easily held and hit against each other, as seen in visual sources from the period. Another pair – these ones cast rather than hammered – are also attached to handles in the same manner, mimicking a specific example in the British Museum. Compared to the unattached pair, the handles allow a much louder sound to be created by banging the handles on the forearm of the player.

The replica of cymbals UC35798, made using the casting method. The handles they are attached to replicate those in the British Museum (EA26260). (Photo: Jo Stoner)

The range of bells with bracelets attached have been created to mimic not only the materials but also the size. The iron bracelets accurately reflect the diameters of the originals which would have been worn by small children; the bells themselves make delicate tinkling sounds.

The replica bell with iron child’s bracelet (UC58450). (Photo: Jo Stoner)

The Bes bell – one of our favourites – looks really impressive. Thanks to the laser scanning process, all the details have been preserved in the cast replica, including the thinned and worn ring at the back of the bell. This kind of wear pattern shows that the bell was originally rung side-to-side. Justin has also added some engraved detail to the headdress decoration which sparkles when it catches the light, and giving an insight into what the brand new original may have looked like.

The Bes bell (UC8976) replica – note the replicated worn suspension ring. (Photo: Jo Stoner).

The bell with the gilded suspension ring has also been recreated. The series of loops attached to the top make it difficult to swing the bell to create any significant sound; instead it is most effective when holding onto the loop attached to the body of the bell itself. This kind of information will help us to interpret the original’s method of use and the range of sounds it likely made. The other similar bell (UC35794) makes a surprising and unpleasantly high pitch noise when rung.

Replica of bell UC33261, with gilded suspension ring. (Photo: Jo Stoner).

Not all of the bells had the clappers in place. Where possible we have recreated the originals exactly, using steel and copper alloy clappers to reflect those used on the extant originals, thus ensuring all the bells can now produce a sound. These metal replicas join the rest of our completed reconstructed instruments  – the craft-made reed and 3D printed panpipes, pottery and 3D printed rattles, and the 3D printed clappers. We now have quite the selection! The final replica yet to be finished is a pair of clappers that are being carved using a wood router, using the data from the laser scan – this should arrive by the end of June.

Our next step is to record these replicas playing. We intend to use the sound recording studio at Kent’s School of Music and Fine Arts in Chatham to record the instruments playing in an interior space. The software available means we can specify the size of the room the instruments are played in along with the presence of soft furnishings, plastered surfaces, and different temperatures. We will also record the instruments playing in an outside open space, to mimic their use in a processional context.

These recording sessions are scheduled for later in the month – we will be recording our progress and will update the blog as soon as we have some preliminary results.

The replica bells and cymbals – an update!

We have an update on the status of our metal instrument replicas! To recap, local Canterbury jeweller Justin Richardson is making replicas of a number of the metal  Roman bells and cymbals in the Petrie Museum, using alloys and manufacturing methods as close to the originals as possible. The aim is to play these replica instruments to reveal the sounds of Roman Egypt, and to see how different production methods and materials might have affected their sound. We recently met up with Justin to get a progress update.
Justin Richardson with some of the bell and cymbal replicas. Photo: Ellen Swift.
The process began with the 3D laser scanning of our selected objects – this data was used to make wax models which were then used to create casts in metal. This, along with sand-casting (discussed in our other blog post here), would have been the most common methods of casting metal in Roman Egypt.
There were however a few problems encountered along the way. Some of the objects we scanned created models where the walls of the bells and cymbals were very thin. This is because during their lives the surfaces of the instruments had worn down through use. However, this thinness resulted in castings that had large holes and with sections missing. We therefore had to edit our scanned models to increase the thickness of the instrument walls in places, thus ensuring a successful cast during the next attempt. This does however mean that the finished replicas will represent the instruments as they had been when new, rather than the older worn versions we now have in the museum collection.
The replica bells, cast using moulds made from the 3D models of the laser scanned originals. Photo: Ellen Swift.
Another challenge was presented by the clappers inside the bells – these are the articulated pieces of metal that cause the bell to ring when they touch the walls. The clappers could not be laser scanned as they moved around, and in a couple of examples were no longer extant at all. Instead we had to rely on what we could see by eye both in terms of style of clapper and material. It appears that both bronze and iron were used for clappers, with several different styles in use – therefore we have tried out a range of examples in the replica bells to reflect this. The cymbals also presented us with a range of different production techniques and materials. Brass, bronze, and copper are all represented, as are the techniques of both casting and hammering. For our replicas, there will be a pair made in spun brass, and a pair cast in bronze – this will allow us to see what kind of difference there is in sound quality.
One of the original Roman cymbals with a thinned wall (UC33268B). Photo: Ellen Swift.
 Justin and his team are now adding the final touches to the replicas. One of the bells had a ring that was originally gilded (as identified by the XRF analysis) so that element will also be replicated. The cymbals also need metal attachments added in the form of U-shaped metal handles. Finally, several of the bells were attached to metal bracelets, which are also being made. These bracelets are made of iron, but we cannot source iron of suitable dimensions to use for this. Instead Justin will be using steel, which is more difficult to work with than the original iron.
The bell that originally featured gilding – this decoration will also be included on the replica. Photo: Ellen Swift.

Once the replicas are completed, our next step is to create a recording off them being played. We will be using software that can mimic the acoustic qualities of any space, so we hope to replicate the sound of music as played in typical houses known archaeologically from Roman Egypt!

A reconstructed rattle…and a question

The reconstructed musical instruments are arriving thick and fast! We are now in possession of a number of items: 3D printed and craft reconstructions of panpipes and a double flute, pottery rattles of various forms, and carved wooden clappers, with just the metal bells and cymbals yet to be finished. (We will discuss all of these in more detail in a future post!). In particular, one of the rattles has been through several stages in its reconstruction process.

The remains of a Roman rattle in the Petrie museum, which forms the basis of one of our reconstructed instruments. Photo: Petrie Museum

UC71557 is thought to be a fragment of a Roman rattle, with only one half of the original object still extant. The first step was to laser scan the artefact to produce a digital 3D model. This was then used to create a 3D printed replica.

Our 3D printed copy of the rattle fragment. Photo: Jo Stoner

The next stage was for our colleagues in the School of Music and Fine Art to use this 3D print to create a complete mould, replicating the missing section by using the other surviving half. This mould was then used to produce a complete replica of the rattle, filled with ceramic pellets as we have identified from other more complete rattle examples in the Petrie.

The 3D printed model alongside the finished clay craft replica. Photo: Jo Stoner.

So now we have a complete rattle that fits nicely into the palm of the hand, and makes a pleasing noise when shaken. It does however raise another question – what does it represent?

What kind of fruit or nut is this? Tell us your suggestions! Photo: Jo Stoner

This Roman rattle is clearly in the form of a kind of fruit, nut or seed – but we aren’t clear as to what kind. We have been looking to plants native to Roman Egypt, with the most obvious candidate being a date – however at around 6cm in length, our rattle seems too big for this (as well as rounder in shape). So we are slightly stumped – please let us know if you think you recognise what kind of fruit, nut, or seed this is!

3D-printed panpipes

Our first musical instrument replicas have now been made!

Dr Ellen Swift and the replica panpipes. Photo: Jo Stoner

The small set of reed panpipes have been successfully 3d printed, using the data from our laser scanning. This was done by the School of Music and Fine Art. You can see from the pictures that the reproduction is identical in terms of size and shape. And excitingly, they also make a noise when played!

The original panpipes in the Petrie Museum. Photo: Ellen Swift.
The 3D printed panpipes – note the angled cut to the pipe openings. Photo: Jo Stoner

These pipes produce a range of high pitch notes when the top ends (which are cut slightly slanted, as seen in the picture above) are blown down. Our printed copy is made from PLA – a biodegradable thermoplastic produced from organic materials such as corn starch. The material that an instrument is made of naturally affects the sound it produces – so far, we believe the PLA is a fairly good analogy for the reeds the original panpipes’ used as it has a similar level of flexibility. The kind of reeds that were used to make the original set of pipes are practically impossible to acquire for replicas, as they are not sold as a product, and also require many years of growth to reach the required size thickness. So whilst it might seem anachronistic to use this plastic, it actually allows us to match a lot of the other variables such as size, shape, and thickness, that are essential factors in producing an authentic sound. The interior of each individual pipe was recreated on the digital scans by our technician Lloyd, using the original diameter measurements (you cannot scan inside the pipes due to their shape).

The original set of pipes has one tube sealed with what appears to be a plug of wax. In our reconstruction, this was the only pipe that made a sound when blown. We know from the ancient literature (e.g. pseudo-Aristotelian Problems 19.23) that plugging pipes with wax was a standard practice. Wax was used not just to stop the tubes, but to tune the notes; the precise tuning depended on the depth and shape of the wax, with a greater effect seen the shorter and narrower the pipe is. Ellen thus plugged the rest of the panpipes with wax and discovered that not only could the set as a whole now be played, but furthermore they played a scale.

The replica with wax plugs (originally beeswax would have been used). Photo: Jo Stoner

We know quite a bit about ancient Greek music from the Classical period to the early 4th c. AD thanks to treatises on harmonics by ancient authors such as Aristoxenus, Ptolemy, and Aristides Quintilianus. Musical scales were based on tetrachords (a series of four notes) and our pan pipes play two diatonic tetrachords linked by the note at the end of the first, and beginning of the second, chord. The notes, however, are surprisingly high compared to examples that we have from written musical notation. Further research is ongoing!

Of course, it was necessary to test the panpipes properly, and what would be more suitable than an excerpt from an original piece of 2nd -3rd c. AD music? So here we have a video of Ellen playing line 13 from Pap.Berlin 6870, followed by a demonstration of the scale.

EllenPanpipes final
Ellen demonstrating the reconstructed panpipes! Video: Jo Stoner

Our warmest thanks go to our advisory board member Dr David Creese of Newcastle University, who advised us extensively on the more technical aspects the panpipes and ancient music theory.