Essays and Such

Irish Cultural Society

of San Antonio Texas


Promoting Awareness of Irish Culture

Secret of Irish Bronze Age Horns Discovered

Secret of Irish Bronze Age Horns Discovered

Secret of Irish Bronze Age Horns Discovered

A traditional Irish musician, a British professor, and a British 
sculptor have solved the mystery of how to play large, curved 
metal horns dating from Ireland's Late Bronze 
Age (1200 B.C.200 B.C.).
One pair of the Drumbest horns, which date to the Irish Bronze Age, 
is shown above. The end-blow horn (top) emits a drone and the 
side-blow horn plays melodies when the horns are played like 
didjerydoos. The horns are in the Ulster Museum in Belfast, which 
kindly granted Ducas permission to use copy­righted photographs.

For more than 200 years, scientists and scholars had tried, without 
success, to discover whether these horns are, as suspected, musical 
The horns, which can be as long as 4.5 feet, seem impossible to play 
because of their very large end or side holes. Most experts had 
concluded that a wood or bone mouthpiece must have been necessary 
to play the horns, but no such pieces have ever been found.

The discovery of the horns' secret began when Prof. Peter Holmes, 
conducting a metallurgical study of Bronze Age castings, wondered 
whether the Irish horns might be played like the Aborigine 
didjerydoo of Australia.

The oldest known instrument on earth, the didjerydoo is a simple 
wooden pipe, varying in length from three to nine feet, with a 
large open mouthpiece (about 1.5 inches across). By using a 
technique called circular breathing - where a player breathes 
in through the nose while simultaneously blowing out through the 
mouth - the didjerydoo produces a continuous tone.

When Irish traditional musician Siomon 0 Duibhir learned of 
Holmes' theory, he was intrigued, because one of the instruments 
he plays is the didjerydoo. (The instrument is starting to be 
used on the Irish traditional music scene for bass and rhythm.) 
0 Duibhir contacted Holmes, and when sculptor John Summerville 
agreed to cast replicas, Holmes' theory was ready to be 

There are two types of horns, those with an opening on the end 
("endblow") and those with an oval opening on the side near the 
closed end ("side blow"). The original side-blow horns were cast 
in one piece, but the endblow horns were most often in two or 
three pieces which could be fitted together. The horns, more 
100 of which have been unearthed, are almost always found 
together, though the end-blow horn was always missing the section 
with the mouthpiece. A group of four found in Armagh, however, 
called the Drumbest horns, were intact because the end-blow horns 
had been cast in a single piece.

With the approval of the Ulster Museum in Belfast, where the horns 
are kept, 0 Duibhir, Holmes, and Summerville made molds from two 
of the Drumbest horns. 0 Duibhir also briefly played these ancient 
horns - successfully - as didjerydoos.

While waiting for Summerville to cast bronze replicas of the 
Drumbest horns, 0 Duibhir experimented with a plastic copy he made 
of the side-blow horn. After learning that it would not hold a 
note continuously, he discovered that he could actually play two 
full octaves in concert G pitch by using circular breathing and 
by controlling how hard he blew and how much he tightened his lips. 
He could even learn songs on the instrument.

In June, 1988, 0 Duibhir went to London to pick up the side-blow 
horn Summerville had finished casting. The sculptor had 
experienced a great deal of difficulty because he was trying to 
match the extremely high craftsmanship attained by the prehistoric 
Irish bronzesmiths. 0 Duibhir was delighted with the horn's 
concert G pitch and with the concert E pitch of the end-blow horn, 
which he picked up two months later.

By experimenting with both horns, 0 Duibhir has found that they 
were meant to be played together, a fact that may explain why 
they are often found in pairs. The end-blow plays exactly like 
a didjerydoo, emitting a drone in E with a high D relative, and 
the side-blow plays the melody from a fully chromatic, nearly 
three-octave range. 0 Duibhir describes the sound of the horns 
as "full and haunting."

We have no idea what music Irish Bronze Age musicians played 
on these horns or what other instruments they used, but at 
last we know the secret of how the horns are played, and 
their stirring sounds are no longer lost in antiquity.

Ducas explores the cultural heritage of 
Irish Americans and it serves as a link 
between the chapters and members of the 
Irish American Cultural Institute. Its 
name comes from an ancient Irish word 
implying a sense of heritage illuminating 
all aspects of one's life. Readers' 
comments and contributions are always 
welcome. Articles can be reprinted with 
the following acknowledgement: "Reprinted 
from Ducas, the newsletter of the Irish 
American Cultural Institute, St. Paul, 
Minnesota. "
Editor 	James Bohen
"Reprinted from Ducas, 
the newsletter of 
the Irish American Cultural Institute
IMI. XVIII, Uimh. 1
Vol. XVIII, No. 1
Page 2