Historic Pastimes & Musical Instruments

From playing pieces to medieval whistles; this research project is developing a new discrete collection to be displayed in Barley Hall to complement our school’s workshops held there.

A second element of this project has developed resources for JORVIK, where we worked with ancient musicians from the UK and Scandinavia playing replica instruments based on finds from excavations and documentary sources. The resultant videos can be viewed here and also in JORVIK, alongside displays of the instruments themselves, including panpipes, whistles, a bridge from a stringed instrument, ‘buzz-bones’ and an intricately carved bone turning key.

Project Reports

Games and Recreation c. AD1400-1700, by Nicola Rogers

Sigurd's song

Song is perhaps humanity's oldest art. Scandinavian folksongs, and probably Viking song, often uses notes and scales tuned differently to other forms of song in Europe.

Bowed lyre

The lyre was originally a plucked instrument, dating back thousands of years before the Viking Age. Around AD 950 the lyre began to be played with a bow.

Jaws harp

Instruments like this, made of metal, wood, bamboo, or even reindeer antler are found across Europe and Asia, from Scandinavia to Japan. There are archaeological finds of iron mouth-harps from Viking-age Scandinavia.

Swedish reed pipe

Reed instruments have a long history dating back thousands of years before the Viking Age. This is the simplest reed instrument, made from a single piece of water-reed.

Bone whistle

Bone flutes and whistles have a long history going back around 40,000 years. They are made from a variety of animal bones. Sheep bone flutes are common archaeological finds from the Viking Age.

Lyre passover

The plucked lyre was the main instrument of professional poets in the Viking Age such as Viking skalds, Celtic bards and Anglo-Saxon scops.

Early harp

Arch/bow harps without a forepillar are very ancient instruments found all across North Africa and Asia and date back thousands of years.


The kantele is an ancient instrument found around the Baltic. It would have been seen by Viking traders or perhaps played by Finns who worked as magicians for Viking nobles and kings.


Song is perhaps humanity's oldest art. Scandinavian folk song, and probably Viking song, often uses notes and scales tuned differently to other forms of song in Europe.


Instruments made to sound by vibrating the lips into a tube are very ancient. Complex metal examples date to the Bronze Age. Some horns had finger holes allowing melodies to be played.

Pan pipes

Panpipes are very ancient instruments dating back many thousands of years. Each note is made by a separate tube, which are blown over.


We don't know exactly what Viking drums looked like, there are no surviving instruments or images, though they are mentioned in Sagas and Norse poems.

Bullroarers are one of the few sound-making tools found on every continent. They are associated with ritual.

Lyre, whistle and voice

This song is the oldest piece of music from Scandinavia. It is called Drømde mik (I Dreamt a Dream). It dates to around AD 1300 and was written down in runes.

The calling

Cattle are often taken to graze on high mountain pastures in the summer in Scandinavia. Kulning (high vocal singing) was used both to call cattle to be milked and to send messages, and as music.

Willow flute

This traditional instrument is made in the spring from willow branches, when the sap begins to rise but before the buds have broken.

Lur horn

Various horns have been found dating to the Viking Age, including one found in the Oseberg ship burial. They were probably used in herding cattle, as signalling instruments or even as a form of echo location.

Musical Instruments

Games & Pastimes

David Scott