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Archaeoacoustics is a fairly new branch of archaeology that studies the acoustic qualities of caves inhabited, or used ritually, during prehistory and ancient buildings such as the Newgrange tomb-shrine and Stonehenge. Studies sometimes include the use of instruments contemporary with the sites themselves.

The 'Devil's Chair'

I visited Avebury last weekend with my friends, Amanda and Pete, taking with me the newest of my Celtic lyres, wire strung and made from Oak. Towards the end of the day, we arrived at the huge southern entrance stone known in local folklore as ‘the Devil’s Chair’ due to a natural cleft, the base of which forms a comfortable seat in the southern face of the stone, the face that greets people arriving into the henge from the processional route along the West Kennett Avenue. At Amanda’s request, I broke my usual protocol against sitting in the seat so that she could photograph me with the lyre. It was then that we made a remarkable and surprising discovery.

Sitting in the 'Devil's Chair' playing the lyre. Photo by Amanda.

Sitting in the notch in this enormous sarsen stone, I began to play the lyre. As I played, I moved the instrument across my lap until it was facing into a hollow depression in the stone beside my right thigh. I don't know what prompted me to do this, presumably the spirits of the place, but I noticed as I did so that the volume of the lyre increased dramatically when the soundhole was aligned with the hollow and pointing at it. The amount of amplification was quite startling. So much so that I decided to explore it further. Standing up, I held the lyre as far away from the stone as I could lean and still manage to play it, then, continuing to play, moved it towards the stone. From about a foot and a half in front of the stone’s face, the increase in volume was very marked indeed, maximum amplification being achieved when the soundboard of the lyre was almost inside the hollow ‘seat.’ Such was the acoustic feedback coming off the sarsen stone that the last note played on the lyre sustained for much longer than the instrument was normally capable of, continuing to ‘ring’ for several seconds. I didn't count, but I'd guess a good ten seconds longer than usual, probably more.

My wire-strung Oak lyre

I thought the effect might be extremely localised and that you’d need to be right on top of the instrument, as I was, in order to appreciate it. Thanks to Amanda and Pete, I quickly learned that this was not the case. They were standing five or six yards away, between the sarsen and the busy main road that runs through the henge. When the lyre was facing away from the stone, any passing traffic drowned it out completely. When it was played facing into the stone, it was clearly audible, even over the sound of large lorries going by. We found that the effect varied depending on where you were standing in relation to the face of the stone, with particularly strong effects heard when standing at a shallow angle to it and at some distance to the side.

West Kennett Avenue as it approaches the henge

I tried calling into the ‘seat’ hollow and found the same effect, my voice being considerably amplified and thrown back at me. This led me to wonder if the effect might have been used to project sound towards the gap between the banks where the West Kennet Avenue reaches the henge. I would imagine that an instrument like a bull horn would have had considerable impact on anyone entering the henge at that point. The fact that the sound was being thrown from the entrance stone would have made its source hard to identify. I’ll have to try it on my next visit.

It’s amazing that I’ve been visiting Avebury for more than forty years, have taken part in ceremonies that have included the southern entrance stone for more than twenty years, but had never previously noticed this acoustic effect.

Pete made some recordings, and if they came out OK, I'll add them to this post.

Incidentally, I don't mean to suggest that an Iron Age lyre, played in Europe from at least 800 BCE, was contemporary with a Neolithic henge constructed between 2800 and 2200 BCE. Clearly it wasn't. The lyre just happened to be the only instrument I had with me. Next time, I'll take a bull horn and a clay drum...

Blessings of Caer Abiri,
Greywolf /|\

In the summer of 2010, archaeologists working on the Isle of Skye at a site called High Pasture Cave discovered most of the charred bridge of a lyre in amongst charcoal that had been scraped to one side in a large, stone-lined fire pit situated in the forecourt just outside the narrow entranceway through which the Cave is accessed. The bridge piece has been dated to around 500 BCE, early in the British Iron Age. Reconstructions of the instrument of which the bridge was a part have generally been modelled on a complete one found in a 6th century CE warrior’s grave at a site called Trossingen in Germany in 2002. It’s quite possible that this was indeed the type of lyre the High Pasture bridge came from.

There is, however, an alternative, which is the type of lyre commonly known as the Lyre de Paule after a small stone statue of a late Iron Age bard unearthed in Brittany. This is a very different instrument, more akin to a Greek lyre. Similar lyres are shown on numerous Celtic coins, while the earliest known representations are scribed onto ceramic pots from the Hallstadt region of Germany and date from around 800 BCE.

This type of lyre, the earliest surviving name for which is chrotta, has fascinated me for decades, ever since I first saw an image of the Lyre de Paule. I now have one (left), and it's a beauty, thanks to the superb craft skills of Koth na Fiach of Dark Age Crafts. However, I also have another, made for me in Oak some years ago by Jim, an electric guitar maker. It came without fittings, the idea being that I would provide strings, tuning pegs, etc. myself. Naturally, what with Druid courses to write, and concern as to whether my craft skills were up to the task, I never got around to it. The Oak lyre therefore stayed propped up in my dining room until my Dark Age Crafts lyre arrived, at which point I decided to have a go at completing the Oak one myself, using the one Koth made for me as a reference guide.

The first piece I’ve made for it is a bridge based on the one from the High Pasture Cave. First, I drew out the profile of the piece on a spare piece of well-seasoned Yew that was about the right thickness. The original being apparently for a three or five stringed instrument, I expanded it a little to accommodate seven strings, the number on the Lyre de Paule. Having sawn the bridge roughly to shape with a tenon saw, I cut out the ‘stepped’ shape at the two ends, sawing down from the top, then slicing in from the side with a whittling knife.

I then drilled two holes through the ends. I’m not sure what purpose these serve. It’s possible that it allowed the bridge to be tied in place on the original instrument, although bridges are rarely fixed in place on modern acoustic instruments, so this seems unlikely. They may be either to make the piece lighter, or simply for decoration, or both.

The next step was to cut the notches in which the strings will sit. For this, I used a small fret saw, clamping the piece to the front of my desk with a G-clamp. In order for the strings to all sit at the same height from the soundboard, it’s vital to get the V-shapes all cut to the same depth. This is fiddly, but will make a real difference to the playability of the instrument.

Next came the most fiddly, delicate and time-consuming part of the process, shaping the whole piece using a whittling knife. I started by hollowing out the base of the bridge, leaving just the oval ‘feet’ at either end. I then used the fret saw to cut along the line of all of the notches at the top at an angle, making them into flat-topped pyramid shapes. Using the whittling knife, I then pared down the ends to a rounded shape and hollowed out one side of the bridge. I then used a counter-sink drill on either side of the already-drilled holes.

Once satisfied that I’d got the overall shape as near as I could to the original, the last stage was to sand it down with two different grades of glasspaper, one rough, one smooth.

I have to say, I think the finished piece looks great and I’m really pleased with it. Just as well, as it took me the best part of five hours!

Now I just have to wait for some violin pegs and a hole reamer to arrive, make a tail-piece, find some strings, and put the whole thing together.

My Dark Age Crafts lyre having nine Nylgut strings, the Oak one is going to have seven wire strings. It’s going to be a semi-acoustic too, once the pick-ups I have on order arrive. Why semi-acoustic? Well, I have a hankering to see what a wire-strung Iron Age lyre sounds like when run through an effects unit and amplified. If I was an Iron Age bard, I’d have wanted that...

More pictures and sound files will follow. Meanwhile, here’s a tale of the Irish god of Druidry, the Dagda, and how he summoned his Oaken harp (bearing in mind that the words for ‘harp’ and ‘lyre’ in Celtic languages were interchangeable for several centuries):

Now Lugh and the Dagda and Ogma pursued the Fomorians, for they had carried off the Dagda’s harper, whose name was Uaithne (pronounced Oona). Then they reached the banqueting-house in which were Bres son of Elatha and Elatha son of Delbaeth. There hung the harp on the wall. That is the harp in which Dagda had bound the melodies so that they sounded not until by his call he summoned them forth when he said this below:

Come, Oak of two plains,
Come, four-angled frame of harmony,
Come summer, come winter,
Mouths of harps and bags and pipes!

Now that harp had two names, Daurdabla ‘Oak of two plains’ and Coircetharchuir ‘Four-angled music.’

Then the harp went forth from the wall, and killed nine men, and came to the Dagda. And he played for them the three things whereby harpers are distinguished, to wit, the sleeping-strain and the smiling-strain and the wailing-strain. He played the wailing-strain to them, so that their tearful women wept. He played the smiling-strain to them, so their women and children laughed. He played the sleeping-strain to them, and the company fell asleep. Through that sleep the three of them escaped unhurt from the Fomorians though these desired to slay them.

Blessings,

Greywolf /|\

At midnight on Monday, August 14th, 1967, the Marine Offences Broadcasting Act became law in the UK. This draconian piece of legislation, brought in by Harold Wilson's Labour government, made it illegal under UK law for anyone to broadcast a radio or tv signal outside of UK territorial waters if such a signal was aimed at an audience in the UK. Anyone assisting in such a venture, whether by actually taking part in such a broadcast, or by providing food or other supplies, was liable to imprisonment.

DJs, Robbie Dale and Johnnie Walker, on board the Radio Caroline ship, Mi Amigo, August, 1967.

Until that time, from 1964, British listeners had enjoyed a number of what were dubbed 'pirate' radio stations, mostly broadcasting from ships anchored just outside UK territorial waters. Prominent among them were Radio London, Radio England, and Radio Caroline, the latter run by an Irish national, Ronan O'Rahilly, whose grandfather, Michael O'Rahilly, had died in Dublin in 1916 during the Easter Rising, fighting for Irish independence.

In support of the legislation, the UK government told a series of blatant lies, falsely claiming, among other things, that the 'pirate' radio ships were a danger to shipping or that signals from them were interfering with aircraft and police, fire and ambulance services. The real reason for the Act was that the UK government were able to exercise control over the BBC and ITV, to the extent that, for most of its existence, MI5 maintained an office inside Broadcasting House. The 'pirates' were beyond state control and, therefore, deemed a potential threat to the state.

Ironically, Harold Wilson had gone out of his way to be photographed with prominent pop starts of the day, including The Beatles, just as his successor, Tony Blair, would do with the stars of 'Brit-pop' thirty years later. The BBC, at that time, broadcast very little pop music, so the burgeoning UK music industry was delighted with the additional airtime that artists got from the commercial 'pirate' stations. Support for the pirates was strong amongst the artists too, since it meant that millions more people were able to hear their work.

The 'pirate' stations also benefited from independent-minded and musically knowledgable DJs. One such was John Peel, whose Perfumed Garden Show, broadcast between midnight and 2am on Radio London, was required listening for anyone with a freak mind. He played poetry readings from Roger McGough and strange ditties from Tyrannosaurus Rex, interspersing them with tales of the Dibblers who lived at Peel Acres. Peel's final farewell from the Perfumed Garden is revisited here with a full track listing. Running Peel a close second was Johnnie Walker, whose shows on Radio Caroline would sometimes feature entire new LP releases being played in their entirety, without interruption. Again, for those of us who cared about music, this was bliss.

On the day that the Marine Offences Act came into force, most of the 'pirate' stations ceased broadcasting, and most of their personnel would go on to join the new BBC Radio 1 station, which essentially tried to clone Radio London, even to the extent of repurposing its jingles. What Radio 1 lacked, however, was any sense of independence. DJs' freedom of choice over what they played was replaced by an approved playlist. Eventually, John Peel managed to carve out a career for himself on Radio 1 that, in many respects, carried on what he had been doing in the Perfumed Garden Show, championing artists that his fellow DJs wouldn't, or weren't allowed to, play.

One station, however, remained on the air; Radio Caroline South, moored off the Frinton, Essex coast on the good ship, Mi Amigo. As midnight struck and the Act became law, two DJs and a skeleton crew remained on board. Those DJs were Johnnie Walker and Robbie Dale. They celebrated their new status as literal outlaws by playing The Beatles 'All You Need Is Love' and Pete Seeger's 'We Shall Overcome.' For the next few days, they kept up 24-hour broadcasting between the two of them until a tender arrived, bringing another DJ to help out. From now on, Walker and Dale could not set foot on British soil without fear of arrest. Any UK citizen who gave them a Mars bar or a bite of a sandwich risked the same. However, thanks to their efforts, the ideal of free radio survived.

Johnnie Walker wrote the following piece, broadcast repeatedly from Radio Caroline during that summer, in which he speaks of freedom and hope, ending with the words, "No man will ever forget Monday, August 14th, nineteen hundred and sixty seven." This man hasn't...

Blessings, peace, love, music and freedom,

Greywolf /|\

Hallstadt Iron Age bard with chrotta, circa 800 BCE.

About a quarter of a century ago, I became fascinated by a musical instrument called a chrotta, a type of lyre played in Iron Age Europe from at least 800 BCE up until around 400 CE and the forerunner of many modern instruments, most notably the harp. At that time, no one was making replicas of them or even seemed interested in them. Despite the prominent role played by bards in early European societies, a role maintained to some extent in the countries of the ‘Celtic Fringe’ to this day, most books on the European Iron Age ignore the music of the period completely.

As a musician, I wanted to get my hands on a chrotta, to see what they sounded like and to figure out how they might have been played. One way and another, from building roundhouses to making frame drums and bone flutes, I’ve spent a good deal of the last 20 years doing things that increase my sense of community with our ancestors. Unfortunately, my craft skills are not up to making lyres from scratch.

Now, thanks to the far greater skills of fellow chrotta enthusiast, Koth NaFiach of Dark Age Crafts, who I had the good fortune, or gods’ guidance depending on your belief system, to meet at Tewkesbury Medieval Festival this year, my 25-year quest is finally fulfilled. Here, then, is my Iron Age lyre. I've added a soft leather back strap by which to support the instrument when playing it standing up, as was the common Iron Age practice so far as we can tell. I’ve also made a plectrum from a piece of horn. At my request, Koth made a bridge for the lyre based on this Iron Age one found on the Isle of Skye.

I still have a couple of other things to do, like painting Wolf heads on the tops of the uprights and possibly adding a horn wrest plate like one found at Dinorben in North Wales. I also need to make a padded bag to carry it in. Incidentally, I will also be making an Iron Age bardic costume when I have time and enough floor space to mark out and cut the material...

As for how it sounds, it's hard to describe in words, but I'd say that, appropriately, the chrotta has a more 'primitive' sound than my harp when playing the same notes with similar length strings. It sounds like the hand-made, one-off folk instrument it is, rather than a production line ‘concert’ instrument. Another way to put it is that the chrotta sounds 'real.' The harp is nylon strung and the chrotta strung with Nylgut, an artificial material designed to have a sound close to the quality of real gut strings but with a better ability to maintain tuning, and without animals dying. While I get my own recordings together, check out this video of Koth playing my lyre's big sister (mine has nine strings, allowing almost two octaves using pentatonic tuning, Koth's has twelve)...

Koth's not the only one making reconstructions of these ancient lyres now. There's even a place in France that's holding regular lessons in how to play them. Chrotta-mania appears to be catching, even if it does take 25 years to spread!

I’m really looking forward to getting to know this beautiful instrument over the coming weeks and trying some recording. There are a number of early medieval stories, poems and prayers that I’d like to set to music with it. There’s even a genuine Gaulish healing spell I might have a crack at. Sounds amazing in the original, although, when translated, it's all about expelling phlegm!

Stay tuned for further adventures as I transform myself into an Iron Age bard.

Meanwhile, if you'd like to join the chrotta revolution, Koth is still taking commissions. Here's a link to his Contacts Page...

Greywolf /|\