Last week both Mirabillis.ca and Celtica Studica linked to stories about an incredible find of five Celtic battle trumpets, or carnyxes (singular carnyx). The 470 objects and fragments of objects, (the find is stupendous in terms of the objects) were found at the end of September during a dig at Naves, in Correze in southern France, in a ditch hollowed out of a Gallic-Roman temple. Their find doubles the number carnyxes (or really, pieces of individual carnyxes) we have. Four of the carnyxes end in boar’s head bells, the fifth, a snake.
This isn’t the only time carnyxes have been found. Sometime around 1816, in a field in Deskford, near Leitchiston, in Banffshire, Scotland, the remains of a carnyx were found, one of only 5 to be found Europe-wide, until now. Dating as far back as between 100 and 300 C. E., the fragment was the “head” or bell of the carnyx, featuring a wild boars’ head (see the image on the left), was made of beaten bronze sheets and brass findings. At Deskford, in north-east Scotland, the finest example of the surviving carnyx parts was found, amongst other offerings, in a peat bog.
The carnyx is held vertically when played, so that the sound emerges from the bell of the trumpet, about 10 feet from the ground, well over the head of most men. When properly played, the carnyx is both loud and penetrating. Diodorus Siculus, discussing the Gauls, wrote “Their trumpets again are of a peculiar barbarian kind; they blow into them and produce a harsh sound which suits the tumult of war” (Hist. 5.30); later, Polybius in a description of the 225 B. C. E. battle of Telamon describes the terror of the Romans at the onslaught of the Celts. He emphasizes
the dreadful din, for there were innumerable hornblowers and trumpeters and, as the whole army were shouting their war-cries at the same time, there was such a tumult of sound that it seemed that not only the trumpeters and the soldiers but all the country round had got a voice and caught up the cry
(Hist. 29.5-9; Cited in Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. 103).
The carnyx is frequently featured on ancient Celtic coins, on Roman sculpture, even on sculpture in India. Perhaps the best known example of the Celtic war trumpet in art is on one of the interior panels of the Gundestrup Cauldron (see image to your right). In the late 1990s John Kenny reconstructed a playable carnyx based on the fragments found in Deskford. He subsequently recorded several CDs featuring the carnyx, even working with performers like Kathryn Tickell, who features the ancient horn on her album Ensemble Mystical, on the “Burning Babe” track. You can hear a bit of John Kenny playing one here, or on his Voice of the Carnyx album here.