When it comes to musical instruments anything that still plays and is even 200 years old can fetch wildly high prices at auction. But, archaeologists in France have now been able to study an instrument far older and more valuable than any Stradivarius violin. What they discovered in a cave is now the oldest known conch instrument in the world.
The horn was actually found in 1931 in a cave in the Pyrenees Mountains of Southern France by Henry Bégouën and J. Townsend Russell. At that time the shell horn, which bears a series of hand-applied dots, was thought to be a “loving cup” which is a cup traditionally used by the whole community to drink from at weddings and ceremonial events.
The shell is most likely from the species Charonia lampas, a sea snail whose northern limits reach all the way to France and Ireland. The nearest shore where this animal could have come from is about 125 miles away from the cave in which the horn was found, making this a prized possession for the people who used it in ancient times.
Using radiocarbon dating a team of researchers have found that the horn dates to about 17,000 years ago, and belonged to an Upper Paleolithic group known as the Pyrenean Magdalenian. The team was comprised of researchers from the Université de Toulouse, Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Museum d’Histoire Naturelle, and the Sorbonne.
The horn has traces of red pigment still visible as decoration and this pigment and style matches the cave paintings where the object was first found.
Researchers also found “important alterations” of the shell, including a reduction the shell lengthwise along the final, outer ridge. There are also traces of a brown residue which scientists now believe was some kind of ancient glue to keep a mouthpiece attached to the “playing” end of the shell. The ends were also opened up so that air could flow through the horn easily.
The only older musical instruments ever found are bone flutes which date back to between 43,000 and 35,000 years ago, making them the oldest musical instruments known to man. However, the Pyrenees conch horn is the oldest shell instrument to be discovered to date. A 3D model of the horn was created so that researchers could study the item without doing any damage to the original.
The sound it makes is deep and clear and might have been used to in ceremonies of the Magdalenian people. The instrument was studied in detail and sound recordings of the horn being played were created for the study. The findings of this research were published in the February 2021 edition of the journal, Science Advances.