Let’s shed some light on ancient Near Eastern doublepipes!

Since the beginnings of the Workshop of Dionysus, a small number of replicas and reconstructions of doublepipes have become popular while others remain on the shelf. In this last category, we find the doublepipes of great civilisations that predate those of the Greeks and Romans. They present a dichotomy: on one side, they are simple instruments to make, at least in our industrial world; on the other, the musical theory embedded in their physical design is a conundrum. We don’t possess written keys that help unlock our understanding. In this short article, I introduce two venerable relics of the past. Their simplicity makes them very appropriate choices for doublepipe beginners!

Ur’s silver pipes

In the late 1920s, a silver doublepipe was found buried, broken and distorted (probably for ritual reasons) in a tomb at Ur (Mesopotamia). It is dated to around 2450 BC, making it the most ancient of all the doublepipes found up to the present day. In a study published in 2000, Bo Lawergren deduced that it was originally composed of two thin pipes measuring about 24 cm long, respectively with 4 and 3 finger holes (cf. Fig. 1 and a reconstruction by Marco Sciascia).

Fig. 1 – Old photograph of the parts constituting the two main silver pipes (with B2 revered). University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia (Neg. # S8-8251), from Lawergren (2000).

The revival began with single reeds, but in 2016, at Stefan Hagel’s suggestion, Barnaby Brown switched to using double reeds. These offer more flexibility (in sound and pitch), richer articulation possibilities and seem to be more reliable. Moreover, the existence and design of ancient double reeds is well attested (e.g. Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 – Egyptian reed and pipe dated from the Ptolemaïc era, i.e. between 323 and 31 BC, kept in the MIM (Inv. 3396), Brussels (Photo: © Katia Novoa, 2018).

Unlike Greek musical theory, Mesopotamian music remains quite obscure to us. Stefan Hagel (2016) showed that the tablets of Ras Šamra (Ugarit, modern Syria), dated to the 14th century BC, are a sort of tablature for a 9-stringed instrument. It notates a succession of dichords (i.e. chords consisting of two notes only) that may have been used to accompany a melody, either sung or played by one or more melodic instruments. Even if at first this sounds exciting, because dichords are child’s play for a doublepipe, we must avoid getting carried away. Why should Sumerian music of the 25th century BC have anything to do with the Ugarit tradition of the Bronze Age? After all, music that survives from the Middle Ages has little in common with that of the present.

An Egyptian doublepipe

Fig. 3 – Inscription on the bottom of the golden scarab:
nb.t (lady) pr (house) Makt (Maket)
i.e. ‘Maket, mistress of the house

In 1890 during an excavation at Kahun near Faiyum, the English Egyptologist Flinders Petrie found a pair of well conserved arundo donax pipes carefully stored in their reed case. The discovery did not go unnoticed at the time and the musician and musical journalist Thomas Lea Southgate published a paper on those “Egyptian Double-Flutes”. From this article, as well as from Petrie’s excavation report from 1891, we know that this instrument belonged to a woman, probably a member of the aristocracy. Her tomb was dated to the XXth dynasty (around 1100 BC) and her name and function can be read on a small golden scarab whose symbols are transcribed in Fig. 3.

Fig. 4 – Sketches by Petrie from the excavation report (1891).

These pipes are double the length of the Ur instrument. They may have used similar reeds, and interestingly, have the same number of finger holes, though not in the same places (cf. Fig. 4). Here, interpreting the pitches produced by the doublepipe is even more elusive, as the Egyptian civilisation did not leave any trace of musical theory. It seems that, unless the pipes were imported from outside Egypt (as some of the objects of the tomb were), they could be a key to understanding a bit more the kind of scales that sounded during the late New Kingdom.

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One Response to Let’s shed some light on ancient Near Eastern doublepipes!

  1. Daniel Sánchez Muñoz says:

    A. D. Kilmer already suggested in the 90’s (CANE 4, p. 2606) the existence of two musical systems in ancient Mesopotamia chronologically succeeded: a Sumerian one, and an Akkadian one, which is the documented one in our music theory texts and based on the 9 strings of the za3-mi2/sammû(m)-instrument, an instrument only documented at the earliest instance in a text of Ur III times (https://cdli.ucla.edu/P112567; check here rev. i 11)

    This Akkadian system places a 3rd “weak string” and a 4th string called “Ea the creator” (in the Akkadian version of UET 7 126) suggesting, in my opinion, the existence of a tone composed by two semitones. In this way, the idea of 9 strings as 9 notes might be revised, and perhaps just 8 notes, where 7 are essential. That explains why texts sometimes speak about 7 strings/notes and not 9 (above all in later texts), but it is only my personal perspective.

    High/right pipe of Silver Pipes suggests another thing, as the first note is A, but following hole has F#. Intermediate note is a conflict and perhaps lacked a semitone or something. That means, 2nd string/note/hole and not the 3rd one as in later system has the semitone.

    Scale sounded in Silver Pipes (A-x?-F#-E-D-C#), furthermore, seems to not make coincidence with the ebbubu-mode, which is an ancient Phrygian mode (Dorian mode today if I am right), while scale on Silver Pipes is a modern Jonian mode (a normal mayor scale, D major).

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