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What Were Celtic Horns Doing in India 2,000 Years Ago?

A new theory suggests we could learn a lot about ancient European music from modern Indian instruments, and vice versa.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The carnyx is a bold musical instrument. An Iron Age beast found primarily in Western Europe between 300 B.C.E. and 300 C.E., it consisted of a five- or six-foot-long brass tube topped off with an animal head. Going off contemporary images, it was held high in the air when played. Though the Romans and Egyptians knew about it and even depicted it in art and on coins, it was an instrument very much of its own time and place.

Which is why it’s a little weird that a bas-relief at the Great Stupa in Sanchi, India, appears to show two Europeans playing carnyces alongside local musicians performing on their own indigenous instruments. That image, writes Australian National University archaeology graduate student Billy Ó Foghlú in a paper published in the Journal of Indian Ocean Archaeology, suggests that modern India could give us a peek at the lost musical traditions of ancient Europe, and vice versa.

But first, how did an instrument native to Ireland, Scotland, and France get so far from home? That’s actually the easy part—trade routes. South Indian ports were key stops on the lengthy trade routes that connected Europe, the Middle East, and Asia a couple thousand years ago. The long trips, some archaeologists believe, likely created foreign diasporas in port towns, much like they do today. Just as a modern traveler or expatriate might pack a guitar, Western European travelers of the time could have brought a carnyx or two.

It’s a little weird that a bas-relief at the Great Stupa appears to show two Europeans playing carnyces alongside local musicians playing their own indigenous instruments.

Then there’s the instrument itself. Though some had thought it a crude instrument mostly useful for scaring the daylights out of enemies in war, more recent demonstrations suggest it was sophisticated instrument played sort of like a didgeridoo. Of course, they wouldn’t exactly fit in with a modern Western symphony—and here’s where the connection to India starts to get pretty intriguing. As it happens, there are a number of surprisingly similar Indian instruments, among them the kompu, a C-shaped horn commonly played in festivals in Kerala, India. Like the carnyx, it produces a rich—if to our ears dissonant—sound.

“The musical systems and traditions of both regions developed independently, but … in response to similar tastes and needs, tastes and needs that are fundamentally different from those of modern Western musical systems but equally complex, important and interesting,” Ó Foghlú writes in an email. But, as the Sanchi bas-relief suggests, those systems were so compatible that European carnyx players could take part in an Indian musical performance two millennia ago.

For archaeologists, that means “it’s possible to gain new insights about each tradition from the other,” Ó Foghlú writes. Researchers could look to the modern kompu performance, for example, to better understand how the carnyx was played in its heyday, and carnyces unearthed in Europe could help build a better picture of the kompu’s ancestors, hardly any of which have survived.