Music in the ground

I enjoy writing these blog posts, but even writing them every two weeks is becoming difficult. I now find myself searching for topics and looking for inspiration days in advance. The inspiration for this week’s post comes from a friend and colleague’s blog post from last week. Tim Rast runs a company called Elfshot which specializes “…in reproducing the ancient technologies of the Arctic, Sub-Arctic, and Newfoundland and Labrador.” Tim writes a blog about how he makes those reproductions. Last week’s post was about making reproductions of Dorset Pre-Inuit drums that were originally found at Button Point in the Canadian Arctic. That got me thinking about how many sites in this province have evidence for musical instruments. Several sites and artifacts immediately came to mind. But then I started looking through the files I have access to and I sent out some inquiring emails and found a lot more information than I realized was available. Thanks to Anton, Gaulton, Whitridge, and Gilbert for their help.

Many parts of musical instruments have been found on various European sites throughout the province. Starting with some of the earliest sites, several instrument parts have been found at Cupids and Ferryland. Jew, Jaw or Mouth Harps have been found at both sites. These harps “…consist of a flexible metal or bamboo tongue or reed attached to a frame. The tongue/reed is placed in the performer’s mouth and plucked with the finger to produce a note.”

Mouth harp found on the floor of the cowhouse at Ferryland which was destroyed in 1696.
Mouth Harp found on the floor of the cowhouse at Ferryland which was destroyed in 1696.

A few years ago the archaeologists working at Ferryland found part of a tuning peg from a violin or fiddle.

Fiddle or violin tuning peg from Ferryland. (Gaulton)
Fiddle or violin tuning peg from Ferryland. (Gaulton)
Drawing showing tuning peg of a violin.
Drawing showing tuning peg of a violin.

While these items are mass-produced intentionally as musical instruments the local population at both Ferryland and Cupids also made use of the tools they had around them to make musical instruments. At both sites, artifacts have been recovered that consist of Kaolin pipe stems with holes drilled in them that were likely used as whistles. These homemade instruments likely functioned like and sounded like tin whistles and they show the lengths people will go to, to make music.

Pipe stem whistle (?) from Ferryland. (Gaulton)
Pipe stem whistle (?) from Ferryland. (Gaulton)

On another European site on the south side of St. John’s harbour an accordion reed was found. The site consists of military fortifications where construction began as early as the late 17th century. The fortifications were destroyed and reconstructed several times up to the 19th century.

Accordion reed from the south side of St. John's.
Accordion reed from the south side of St. John’s.

Not a lot of musical instruments have been found on Indigenous sites in the province. That’s not to say they didn’t have musical instruments, rather the problem is most of the instruments probably would have been made from organic material, and the soils in this province, generally, are not good for organic preservation.

Of course, the first musical instrument was the human voice; unfortunately, that leaves no trace archaeologically. However, it is safe to assume all cultures sang songs. For example, we know the Beothuk sang songs. According to Marshall (1996:288-289):

Songs not only accompanied ceremonies and feasts. According to Shanawdithit they also told of special events; sometimes the occupants of two or three mamateeks sang together. Topics recorded by Cormack include other Indians, dead men, white men’s houses, white men’s guns and stages, white men’s dishes, beads, buttons, nets, hatchets, shirts, Indian bows and arrows, canoes, and boat stealing. This last topic may have alluded to the Beothuk’s stratagem of cutting fishermen’s boats from their moorings. Singing songs about natural phenomena, animals, and other resources in order to pass on knowledge about nature and to express respect and appreciation for their environment would have revived and verified communal traditions and memories. Drums or other musical instruments that accompanied the singing and dancing of other native tribes have never been mentioned in connection with Beothuk.

The Beothuk may not have had drums but Howley speculated they may have had a sort of rattle. On sketch 8 of Shanawdithit’s drawings we see a ‘dancing woman’. She is depicted wearing a fringed robe. Unfortunately, we can’t tell from the drawing what the fringe is made from. Howley (1915:249) suggests:

Whether these fringes are merely slashed pieces of deer skin or, what appears to me, from their shape more likely, bone or other ornaments, similar to those found in their burying places, which being attached to the dress would jingle or rattle, after the manner of castanets during the process of dancing. This belief is strengthened by the fact that the skin robe covering the body of the small boy in our local museum had such ornaments together with birds’ legs so attached to the hem of the garment.
Shanawdithit's drawing, 'Dancing woman'. (Howley 1915)
Shanawdithit’s drawing, ‘Dancing woman’. (Howley 1915)

We also know that to the Innu, musical instruments such as drums and rattles, as well as the songs that accompany such instruments, were very important culturally.

Innu drummer. (Armitage 1991)
Innu drummer. (Armitage 1991)

Frank Speck recorded the importance of music to the Innu in the early 1900s (Speck 1935:174):

When an individual has begun to concentrate his thoughts upon securing animals, or upon some other objective he desires to accomplish, he will sing and at the same time, if an instrument is available, accompany himself with the drum or rattle. It depends upon the occasion. The more frequently a hunter has occasion to resort to the power of sound in arousing his soul-spirit to activity in his behalf, the more likely he is to make for himself a drum.

Although there are several interpretations on this webpage that suggests rattles were used to soothe infants, Speck also recorded the rattle being used in place of a drum (1935:182):

The service of the rattle is similar to that of the drum, it being a substitute at times for the drum. Occasionally, one sees the rattle itself used as a drumbeater in the performance of dances. It is considered a toy for children but as such I have never seen one used.
Innu rattle.
Innu rattle.

To the Inuit of Labrador singing (including throat singing) and musical instruments have long been an integral part of their culture. Parts of musical instruments, such as drums, have been found on precontact Inuit (Thule) sites in the Canadian Arctic and as far west as Alaska. Inuit skin drums are known as qilaut. They were made up of gut or hide stretched over a narrow wooden frame. The drum handle was bone or antler, and the frame – not the skin – was beaten with a bone or wood baton to produce sound. Although I don’t think qilaut have been found on precontact Inuit sites in Labrador, a badly decomposed wooden drum frame was recovered from an early historic period Inuit site on Tabor Island. Musical instruments such as the Jew, Jaw or mouth Harp and violin parts have been found on historic period Inuit sites in Labrador. (Kaplan 1983, Whitridge 2012)

Iron jaw harp from Mikak’s late 18th c. winter camp on Black Island, central Labrador; excavated by Amelia Fay. (Whitridge)
Iron Jaw Harp from Mikak’s late 18th c. winter camp on Black Island, central Labrador; excavated by Amelia Fay. (Whitridge)

The violin or fiddle parts were found by Kaplan on the Inuit site of Akulialuk 1 and in Ungava Bay by Lucien Turner. These instrument parts are not European-style violins but rather more likely Inuit-style tautirut.

Inuit tautirut from Payne Bay, arctic Quebec (Whitridge).
Inuit tautirut from Payne Bay, Arctic Quebec (Whitridge).

There is very little confirmed evidence for musical instruments in the precontact period in the Province. As far as I know, there is no evidence for musical instruments from either the Recent Period or Intermediate Period. In her Ph.D. thesis released in 2012 Patty Wells speculated that a collection of highly polished bead-like pieces from the Pre-Inuit site of Phillip’s Garden may have been from the inside of a rattle.

The top row specimens are all ivory and cylindrical with the exception of the specimen on the far left. The second row includes examples that have socket-like grooves in them. The fourth from the left in this row is made of sea mammal bone. The third row is made up of amorphously-shaped examples, and the bottom row is made of bone or antler examples that are generally cylindrical in shape. (Wells 2012: 274)
The top row specimens are all ivory and cylindrical with the exception of the specimen on the far left. The second row includes examples that have socket-like grooves in them. The fourth from the left in this row is made of sea mammal bone. The third row is made up of amorphously-shaped examples, and the bottom row is made of bone or antler examples that are generally cylindrical in shape. (Wells 2012: 274)

Tuck speculated that some of the small, round to oval, white quartz pebbles averaging one centimeter or less in diameter which were sometimes found in small piles with some of the burials at the Maritime Archaic burial site in Port au Choix may have been the contents of a rattle.

I have written previously about biface caches found on archaeological sites throughout the province. Perhaps one of the largest known caches was found in September of 2010 by Neil White and Marion Adams on Change Islands. The cache consisted of 32 large rhyolite bifaces.

Change Islands biface cache (Rast).
Change Islands biface cache (Rast).

Jim Tuck, who found several smaller biface caches in Labrador, theorized that along with being hunting/cutting instruments these caches could form part of a lithophone. These stones when laid out and arranged properly do make a musical sound. During Archaeology Day at the Rooms, in the Fall, Newfoundland and Labrador Archaeological Society members Maria Lear and Sarah Ingram set up several Ramah chert bifaces from the Spingle cache and were quickly able to play a stirring rendition of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In‘.

Musicians Maria and Sarah.
Musicians Maria and Sarah.

The only other example I am aware of in terms of musical instruments being found in a precontact context relates to flutes and/or whistles found at the Maritime Archaic burial site in Port au Choix and the Maritime Archaic burial site at L’Anse Amour. From Port au Choix, Tuck recovered what he referred to as three small whistles “…made from sections of goose ulnae. The two intact specimens measure 10 and 14.8 cm in length and all three examples have the ends ground. Two have a pair of perforations – one about 2 mm and a longer oval one opposite – and the third has a single oval perforation.”

One example is decorated with a fine incised spiral line crossed by longitudinal lines. Two larger specimens, probably essentially the same, were made from swan ulnae, one of which measures over 23cm in length. Two perforations are arranged as one in the smaller specimens, but the larger is trianguloid rather than oval. Neither produces any sound.  
Four flutes (?) were also found, one made from a swan radius, two from ulnae of the same species, and the third from the ulna of an eagle. All measure close to 21 cm in length, all have one end (the top?) cut obliquely with a pair of trianguloid perforations on either side below the cut and polished edge. In one case, there is no further modification save a series of short oblique lines between the oblique edge and the trianguloid perforations. A second example has a series of short nocks around the edge of the perforation and further, a pair of small perforations on opposite sides near the opposite end. The third example has horizontal lines above the larger perforation and two pairs of small perforations at the lower ends. The fourth specimen retains a portion of the trianguloid perforation but is too damaged to allow further comment.

Commenting on the objects Tuck lamented: “Whether these instruments were strictly recreational, were utilized as game calls, or served a more esoteric purpose, we shall probably never know.” (1976:72-73).

From Port au Choix, artifacts 8-10 are thought to be flutes or whistles (Tuck 1976: 238)
From Port au Choix, artifacts thought to be flutes or whistles (Tuck 1976: 238)

Finally, the oldest known example of a musical instrument in this province comes from the L’Anse Amour burial. This site was composed of the burial site of a pre-teen Archaic child who was purposefully buried nearly 8000 years ago. The burial mound was approximately 8 – 10 metres in diameter, and covered in a layer of rocks. Under these were two more boulder layers. In the third layer, about 1 metre below the surface, the rocks were set on edge, forming a cist composed of two parallel lines of upright boulders. Under this, the archaeologists found a layer of sand, under another half a metre of the sand they found the skeleton, at a depth of over 1.5 metres below the top of the mound.

The skeleton was that of a child, probably about 12 or 13 years of age, and was lying prone in the sand with the head turned to the west. The sand surrounding the skeleton was stained red with ochre, and a flat rock rested on its back. Two concentrations of charcoal, one on either side of the body, showed where fires had been built in the bottom of the original pit. Above the head was a pile of eight knives or spearpoints of chipped stone and polished bone, and two other spearpoints lay at the left shoulder. On one side, at about the waist, we found a little pile of ochre and graphite paint-stones, and a carved-antler pestle for grinding the paint. An ivory walrus tusk lay in front of the face. Below the neck area we found a decorated bone pendant, a flute or whistle made from a hollow bird-bone, and, under the chest, a harpoon head and a crescentic object, carved from ivory -probably a decorated toggle that might have been attached to the end of a handheld harpoon line. (McGhee 1976:15)
The bird bone flute, pendant, paint stones and pestle found with the Maritime Archaic burial at L'Anse Amour (McGhee 1976:24).
The bird bone flute, pendant, paint stones and pestle found with the Maritime Archaic burial at L’Anse Amour (McGhee 1976:24).


Armitage, Peter 1991 The Innu (The Montagnais-Naskapi). Indians of North America.

Kaplan, Susan 1983 Economic and Social Change in Labrador Neo-Eskimo Culture.

Marshall, Ingeborg 1996 A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk. 

McGhee, Robert 1976 The Burial at L’Anse Amour.

Speck, Frank 1935 Naskapi: The Savage Hunters of the Labrador Peninsula.

Tuck, James 1976 Ancient People of Port au Choix: The Excavation of an Archaic Indian Cemetery in Newfoundland.

Wells, Patricia 2012 Social Life And Technical Practice: An Analysis Of The Osseous Tool Assemblage At The Dorset Pre-Inuit Site Of Phillip’s Garden, Newfoundland.

Whitridge, Peter 2012 The sound of contact: historic Inuit music-making in northern Labrador. Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology, St. John’s, October 4-6, 2012.

14 thoughts on “Music in the ground

  1. INNU wife and I worked for the IGA in 1966/67 at North West River. At some stage we were given an almost identical rattle. Our eldest son enjoyed it immensely (as it was light and noisy) but it unfortunately it did not survive sucking and chewing!

  2. HI;

    Great article! I’m a little surprised that you made no reference to ‘Santu’s Song’ from the work of John Hewson in your comments about aboriginal music sources. The song is probably on the web somewhere by now. I have a recording of the CBC interview with Dr Hewson from a few years back and the sound track of the song is very intriguing and, in a way, haunting.



    1. Oh, honestly, I completely forgot ‘Santu’s Song’! I started this post and the information just started pouring in from everywhere and I completely forgot that story. It would have been a great one to include too because it involves the Mi’kmaq. Thanks for reminding me!

  3. In 2009 we found the remnants of two harmonicas in a post-contact context within a house pit, with the majority of the post-contact artifacts dating to approximately 1860-1890 (commingled with much older bifaces, projectile points etc). This was in Boston Bar BC during our field school with Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
    I’ve always wondered what value a harmonica would have held; what could have been traded for one at the time of the gold rush?

    Fantastic read! This has always fascinated me, having degrees in both music and archaeology, I love any time they can intertwine. Thanks so much.

    1. Interesting.
      As far as I know harmonicas have not shown up here archaeologically but you would think they would if they were around because they are mostly metal. “what could have been traded for one at the time of the gold rush?” That’s an interesting question – what were they worth? Perhaps alcohol or tobacco, an item of clothing? In the Whitridge paper I cited at the end of the blog, Peter wrote that “an ironmonger in Sheffield sold them (jaw harps) for sixpence in 1736; this is the equivalent of about $4.50 today, which is precisely what the cheapest jaw harps go for on eBay.” I would assume harmonicas are a little more expensive than jaw harps.

    1. Thanks for the comment.
      No I do not know if bullroarers show up here, I will ask around to see if any one else knows.
      That’s an interesting idea for the lithic bullroarers.

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