Irish Bronze Age Horn from South-Western Ireland

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In the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, there is a bronze end-blast trumpet [1884.112.2], a coirn na hEirreann, found while digging a drain at Kanturk, County Cork, dated from circa 1000 to 500 BC. It was purchased by Pitt Rivers when stationed in the British army Ireland between 1862 and 1866.

The trumpet is a conical and curved example of the horn family. It has six bosses at bottom and in two sections with four spikes on the upper section. The mouthpiece is missing.  Irish bronze horns are classified into Types I and II. Type I includes side-blow and end-blow trumpets with short inserted tube or mouthpiece.  Most are found in north-eastern Ireland.  Class II are non-decorated side-blow and end-blow trumpets, with plain bodies, the smaller flanged end often with four perforations.  Generally the bell has cast conical projections, often with four externally drilled holes.

The smaller piece displayed is the flanged and drilled tube-end, not a mouthpiece. Possibly the bell holes are for attaching an extension.  Class II trumpets are well attested in south-western Ireland, in Cork, Kerry, and Clare. One hundred and four Irish horns are known to exist today.

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Archaeologically the start of the Irish horn series dates from after the mid-eighth century BC and continued until the third century BC. Irish bronze horns have their origins in the Middle to Late Bronze Age. Made and played throughout the island from 1,100 BC to 700 BC, the earliest examples of these trumpets may have been made as far back as 500 BC.

Irish Class II end-blow trumpets consisted of two parts – a straight tube inserted into a curved horn to form a horn just over a metre long. They also had a mouthpiece, none of which have been found, nor any of the bell extensions.  End-blow trumpets, which are not musical instruments as such, were easily transportable two-note horns, could have functioned as ritual musical instruments. If such horns did became votive offerings, or ritual depositions (often in pairs), it may be that for sacred reasons mouthpieces were not deposited with the same hoard, or bog, or marsh.

Their shape and appearance as bull’s horns, making a deep bellowing sound, has suggested the horns were part of the ritual of a fertility cult associated with bulls. A rhythmic drone, nearly all known horns are tuned to a single pitch, was a sound that could have had deeply religious meaning for the ancestral Irish. Recent experimental horns produce a variety of sounds – a playing style resembling the Australian didgeridoo. Probably the two displayed examples are the same instrument with most of the tube and mouthpiece missing. Other apparent damage indicates deliberate intention suggestive of depositional ritual. This horn is a sacred object from ancient Bronze Age Ireland having its own aura of the numinous and the mysterious – not to mention that it was lovingly and skilfully cast for its purpose some 3000 years ago.

October 4th, 2005. First printed in the Newsletter of the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum  November, 2005..

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