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12 April 2012
Western Europe's 'earliest string instrument' found in Scotland

The small burnt and broken piece of carved wood was found during an excavation in a cave on the Isle of Skye. Archaeologists say it is likely to be part of the bridge of a lyre dating back more than 2,300 years.
     Cambridge-based music archaeologist Dr Graeme Lawson said: "It pushes the history of complex music back more than a thousand years... And not only the history of music but more specifically of song and poetry, because that's what such instruments were very often used for. The earliest known lyres date from about 5,000 years ago, in what is now Iraq, and these were already complicated and finely-made structures. But here in Europe even Roman traces proved hard to locate. Pictures, maybe, but no actual remains."
     The remains, which were unveiled in Edinburgh, were found in High Pasture Cave, where Bronze and Iron Age finds have been made previously - including several antler/bone tuning pegs, and the remains of mid-winter feasting.
     Cultural historian Dr Purser said: "Stringed instruments, being usually made of wood, rarely survive in the archaeological record, but they are referred to in the very earliest literature, and, in various forms, were to feature on many stone carvings in Scotland and Ireland, and to become emblematic in both countries."
     Steven Birch, an archaeologist involved in the excavation, said deeper sections of the cave were reached using a flight of stone steps. "Descending the steep and narrow steps, the transition from light to dark transports you out of one world into a completely different realm, where the human senses are accentuated. Within the cave, sound forms a major component of this transformation, the noise of the underground stream in particular producing a calming environment."
     Dr Fraser Hunter, principal curator of Iron Age and Roman Collections at National Museums Scotland, said the fragment of musical instrument put "sound into the silent past".

Edited from BBC News (28 March 2012), Past Horizons (30 March 2012)

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