STUDYING THE MUSIC OF PAST ERAS is challenging, even when written manuscripts are available. In archaeological contexts without written records, it becomes yet more difficult. However, a surprising amount can be learned by studying musical instruments from archaeological sites. Researchers studying the social and physical contexts in which music took place (Brown 2005) and the instruments themselves (Olsen 1990) have identified some roles music may have played in prehistoric societies. Music lends itself well to ritual; strategic use of ritual is one way Ancestral Puebloan leaders in the American Southwest established, validated, and maintained their social authority.
Courtesy of Emily Brown
Figure 1. One of more than 1,250 musical objects studied, this decorated gourd rattle from Canyon de Chelly National Monument (Arizona) is 5.3 inches (13.5 cm) in diameter. Collection of the Western Archeology and Conservation Center, Tucson, Arizona, Catalog No. CACH 811.
In the course of my research in nine museums, I studied more than 1,250 musical objects from the Four Corners area of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah, primarily from sites within 17 national parks, including Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Aztec Ruins National Monument, Bandelier National Monument, Pecos National Historical Park, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Mesa Verde National Park, and Wupatki National Monument. The different instrument types included bone and wood flutes; bone, wood, and reed whistles; copper and clay bells; shell trumpets; shell, stone, hoof, and nut tinklers; gourd, tortoiseshell, hide, clay, and cocoon rattles (fig. 1, above); bone and wood rasps; stone kiva bells; and wooden bullroarers. Curiously, I found no evidence of prehistoric drums other than the controversial foot drums—stone vaults dug into the floors of subterranean ceremonial chambers known as kivas and covered with planks. Drums may be a relatively recent addition to Puebloan culture, perhaps during the late 1400s or early 1500s. They may have been introduced through trade with nomadic Plains groups or native Mexicans traveling with Spanish groups. Though some rock art images suggest flutes were present in the Archaic period, the earliest instruments I found in museum collections were from the Basketmaker II period (AD 200–500). Of course, music made by the human body leaves no trace in the archaeological record.
Brown, E., 2009. Musical instruments in the pre-Hispanic Southwest. Park Science 26(1):46–49.
Available at https://www.nature.nps.gov/ParkScience/archive/PDF/Article_PDFs/ParkScience26(1)Spring2009_46-49_Brown_2619.pdf.