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Neat to know ~ Feature of the week

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The Oldest Seashell Instrument in the World

A rediscovery of an ancient treasure

Magdalenian Conch, Marsoulas Cave, Marsoulas, France 

Photo: Didier Descouens, CC BY-SA 4.0


We tend to think about people who lived in the distant past in simple terms: they ate, slept, hunted, and occasionally painted on cave walls.  Other than that, we might assume, there was not much complexity in their lives.  But experts who study ancient peoples would tell us something different –  that there was a whole other layer to their lives, including such things as rituals, art, and music.

Archaeologists are scientists who use material evidence to try to piece together prehistory.  Last month, there was a discovery within a discovery.  Researchers in France took a new look at an artifact that had been dug up 90 years ago.  They realized that it was much more than had originally met the eye….

In 1931, researchers had found a large conch shell at the Marsoulas Cave archaeological site in the French Pyrenees Mountains.  They brought it back to Toulouse, France, along with other artifacts from the famous cave, and put it on a shelf in the Natural History Museum of Toulouse.  They decided that the shell had been used as a ceremonial drinking vessel.

Recently, however, researchers from the University of Toulouse, were looking through some artifacts at the museum.  When they came across the shell, they happened to notice that it had some previously unnoticed holes that appeared to have been made by human hands.  Most striking was a 1.4-inch (3.5-cm) hole at the tip of the shell.  It had been thought that the hole was the result of natural wear and tear.  This was improbable, though, because it was in the hardest part of the shell and unlikely to break off on its own.  Using a microscope, the archaeologists saw that the hole was perfectly round with a smoothly crafted edge.  It must have been deliberately carved into the shell.  The scientists think that some kind of mouthpiece, possibly made of a hollow bone, had been inserted into the hole.  They found traces of a residue that might have been used to glue the mouthpiece in place.   Using a tiny camera, the scientists also discovered another hole drilled on the inside of the shell.  Finally, they identified markings made with the same red ochre color that was found in the paintings on the walls of the Marsoulas cave.

The researchers realized that the shell that had been sitting in Toulouse since 1931, was probably the oldest seashell wind instrument ever discovered.

The scientists estimate the shell instrument to be about 18,000 years old, matching the ages of other artifacts found at the Marsoulas Cave site.  A horn player was invited to blow into the shell.  This made Carole Fritz, an archaeologist who was part of the research team that published an article about the shell in the journal, Science Advances, very nervous.  It was a risky act that might have damaged the fragile instrument.  But luckily, all that resulted was the horn-player literally breathing new life into an instrument that had sat silent for so long.  The three pitches – C, C-sharp, and D – could be clearly discerned and were recorded.  To hear the haunting sound it made, click here.

Other facts about the Marsoulas cave conch shell

– The shell is from a big sea snail that probably lived on the Atlantic coast, somewhere in southern Europe.  It is a little over 12 inches (31 cm) long  and about 7 inches (18 cm) wide.

– One questions is, how did the shell even get to the Marsoulas cave, which is nowhere near an ocean?  The archaeologists think that the people who lived in this area were hunter gatherers and probably moved around quite a lot, following game.  Moreover, researchers have found artifacts at sites along the Atlantic coast that are similar to those found at Marsoulas.  These people might have made regular migrations between the Atlantic coast of northern Spain and their caves in the Pyrenees.

– Gilles Tosello, one of the archaeologists involved in the study of the conch shell in Toulouse, said that it’s possible the shell was not used to make music the way we think of music.  It may have been more of a means of communicating, possibly used in conjunction with other ritual art found in the cave.

– Conch shells were used as instruments in ancient cultures around the world.  From Japan to Peru to Greece, these natural horns are thought to have played a role in musical traditions, rituals, and celebrations.  Tosello said that until now, the oldest conch shell instrument was thought to be 6000 years old and from Syria.

– The scientists will make a model of the actual shell to use in further studies of how it produces sound and how well that sound can travel.  They also want to explore the range of pitches it can produce.  By using a replica, they won’t be putting the original 18,000-year-old artifact in any jeopardy.

– Tosello and his fellow archaeologists hope to someday hear the conch shell’s dark tones echoing once again within the walls of the Marsoulas Cave, where it had been played thousands of years ago.

Sources: France24, “Forgotten conch shell in French museum now thought to be world’s oldest seashell instrument,” https://www.france24.com/en/france/20210211-ancient-conch-shell-in-france-now-thought-to-be-world-s-oldest-seashell-instrument, February 11, 2021; Guy, Jack, edition.cnn, “Listen to the sound of an 18,000-year-old musical instrument,” https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/oldest-wind-instrument-scli-intl-scn/index.html, February 11, 2021; Shah, Karina, Newscientist, “Listen to the oldest known conch shell horn from 18,000 years ago,” https://www.newscientist.com/article/2267417-listen-to-the-oldest-known-conch-shell-horn-from-18000-years-ago/, February 10, 2021;