“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.

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/.


An Expert Visit: identifying production techniques

Our project relies upon collaboration with a number of different professionals whose expertise we are lucky to benefit from. Canterbury jeweller Justin Richardson recently joined us up at the Petrie to view the instruments first-hand; Justin will be hand-making replicas of some of our selected metal bells and cymbals using authentic materials and techniques, so he needed to identify the methods of manufacture used to create the originals. Many of the processes used in Roman Egypt are still employed by metalworkers today, and looking closely at the artefacts can reveal tell-tale marks on the surface of the metal left from specific manufacturing techniques.

Cymbal with pitted surface. Photo: Ellen Swift.

The first thing Justin noticed was that some of the cymbals have a distinctive pitted surface in places. This texture was created by the ‘sand casting’ method of manufacture. This process involves creating a mould by pressing each side of the object to be copied into damp sand, thereby leaving a perfect imprint. Molten metal is then poured into the cavity, leaving a distinctive mottled surface in the process. Sand casting requires an original version from which the mould must be made; this was likely forged by hand, with any hammer marks on the original obliterated by the sand casting process rather than being transferred onto the copies. Sand casting is a cheap and easy method of production, and produces a lower quality object than ‘lost-wax casting’ – making it ideal for an object as simple as a small metal cymbal.

Hammered and lathe-turned cymbal, with caulked edge. Photo: Petrie Museum.

In contrast, the surface of another one of the cymbals revealed hammer marks. It was also significantly lighter than the others, leading Justin to conclude the object had been made by hammering a flat disc of metal over a hemispherical mould to create a dome shape. He also identified a caulked edge – caulking is a metal working technique where the edge of a piece of metal is hammered, end-on, to thicken it up and make it appear more robust than the item actually is. Further identifiable traces included concentric circles on the surface along with a perfectly centred hole, revealing further work on a lathe. Justin’s technical knowledge also revealed some unexpected surprises. The two main copper alloys used for the instruments are brass and bronze; our modern understanding of these materials and the kinds of objects they make resulted in us expecting any brass objects to be handmade,  and bronze objects to have been cast – however the exact opposite of this appears to be the case! The manufacture of a bronze bracelet with a bell attached also caught us out.

Cast bronze bracelet with dot decoration (UC58537). Photo: Ellen Swift.

It would seem logical to make such a flat bracelet by cutting out a strip of metal from a sheet, and then bending it to shape, however closer inspection revealed the object to be cast; the decorative motifs appear soft edged rather than cut into the surface of the metal, and the indented dots revealed no ‘ghosts’ on the reverse. Ghosts are marks left on the reverse of a metal surface when tools are hit against it to produce decorative marks. However, as no such ghosts exist on the bracelet, it again supports the case that it must have been cast. Whilst unexpected, casting such bracelets makes sense as it allows mass production of identical objects with little effort or additional expense, additionally suggesting this bracelet was not a one-off, but in fact one of a batch produced.

We learned a lot from Justin’s visit that we can use when looking at other metal objects in the Petrie collection. We look forward to seeing the replicas and will post an update on them soon. If you’d like to know more about Justin’s work, you can find his website here.



Laser Scanning 1

As well as compositional analysis, a key element of our project is the laser scanning of our selected range of musical instruments from Roman Egypt. The Petrie has some amazing examples of instruments that struggle to survive outside of the arid Egyptian environmental conditions – we have wooden clappers, metal bells, reed flutes and panpipes. Laser scanning these items allows the recreations of these objects, either through 3D printing or through the making of replicas using authentic materials and techniques. This will allow the instruments to be played, giving us the chance to hear the music of Roman Egypt in the 21st century.

A copper-alloy bell on a child’s bracelet from the Petrie Museum; the thinness of the top section of the suspension ring indicates heavy wear, presumably over many years. Photo: Ellen Swift.

The Classical & Archaeological studies department at Kent is equipped with a laser scanner and our technician Lloyd Bosworth joined us up at the Petrie for a day of scanning. The focus of the day’s activities were the Roman copper alloy bells and cymbals from the collection. The scanner sits on top of its own freestanding tripod, and has a fully articulated arm on which the scanning gun sits. This means you can scan objects on a table by pulling on the trigger and moving something similar to a barcode scanner over the artefact. Simple really. Or at least Lloyd makes it look simple – after having a go myself it’s clear that it requires a lot of hand eye co-ordination in order to keep the scanning gun the correct distance from the object, whilst also capturing every surface of the artefact.

Lloyd scanning one of the bells from the Petrie collection. Photo: Jo Stoner


However, once I stepped aside it was a successful day, and Lloyd scanned all of our chosen objects. These included a round bell similar to modern sleigh bells – a particular challenge was trying to scan the gap in the surface where the ball-shaped clapper was inserted. Our selection also includes a number of small bells attached to tiny bracelets, which we think were worn by children as an amuletic device (and also perhaps to keep tabs on where they were!). We also scanned a fantastic bell in the shape of the head of Bes, the dwarf god of ancient Egypt who protected mothers and children, and whose worship continued into the Roman period.

Roman bell in the shape of the Egyptian god Bes. Photo: Ellen Swift.

Once all the scan data is processed, the digital models of the instruments can be passed to our craft practitioners who can use the highly accurate measurements and surface details to create our replicas. We’ll update again soon on our progress!