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.

The Jorvik Syrinx

In the Coppergate excavations, a unique musical instrument was discovered.  It was a syrinx, or pan flute.  While many pan flutes consist of cane or reed tubes lashed together in a row, the Jorvik syrinx is a solid block of wood with the parallel “tubes” drilled into the top edge of the block. This instrument is the only syrinx to be found in any Viking digs, so it is unknown how common this sort of instrument was in Viking culture.  The musical scale it plays, however, points to the instrument being a distinct item of that culture.

Flute maker, Keith Glowka (of Buffalo Moon Flutes in central Texas), conducted research into this instrument and made replicas of the Viking syrinx in early 2019.  Most of his research was based on detailed measurements and photos of the original instrument.  That critical information was provided by JORVIK Viking Centre and the York Archaeological Trust.  In making reproductions of the syrinx, every effort was made to replicate the dimensions, sound, and appearance of the original.  For clarity, refer to the photo of the Jorvik syrinx next to one of its replicas.

The original Jorvik syrinx was made of boxwood, a rather shrubby plant that produces very narrow planks of lumber.  In modern times, boxwood planks are hard to find and are very expensive.  Poplar was the wood chosen for this project since it has an appearance similar to boxwood.

The Jorvik syrinx has five holes of ascending depth, producing a scale of A-B-C-D-E (no sharp or flat notes).  This is not a major scale, as was assumed at the beginning of the project.  Rather, it is the first five notes of the A natural minor scale. The instrument is a small and rather high pitched flute.  The scale that the original Jorvik flute plays matches the same five notes that are used to play the ancient Nordic folk song, “Dromte Mig en Drom.”  That song consists entirely of those five notes and is easily played on the replicas of the Jorvik syrinx, as demonstrated in the recording.

By using the hole depths and diameters taken from the original instrument, the replicas were generally in tune, with most notes being flat to a some degree. Small amounts of beeswax were gradually packed into the bottoms of the bores to bring the notes up to correct pitch on the replicas.  This has been a common practice for tuning pan flutes since the time of the ancient Greeks and continues to this day.  Since beeswax was found in considerable amounts in the Jorvik excavations, it may likely have been used to tune the syrinx.

Final details of shaping the replicas were based on measurements and photographs of the original.  This included a roughly incised design of a cross on one side and an “X” mark on the other.  It is unknown whether these designs were added by the maker of the instrument or, perhaps, by someone who later possessed it.  A small hole through the lower side of the Jorvik syrinx would appear to be for a strip of leather used to hang the instrument around the neck.  However, such a leather thong was no longer attached to the instrument by the time of its excavation.  The original Jorvik syrinx was damaged, with the edge on one side being broken off to expose a cross-section of the bore for the highest note.  That broken section of the flute was reintegrated into the replicas to restore the flute to its original playing condition.

To finish the wood, hempseed oil and linseed oil were chosen.  Both of these oils have been confirmed as being part of the diet of the Viking inhabitants of Jorvik and have been used as wood finishes since very ancient times.  Hempseed oil imparts very little sheen to wood and does not leave a sticky residue when dried.  Therefore, it was ideal for oiling the insides of the replicas’ bores.  Linseed oil, on the other hand, gives more luster to wood.  Although it can leave a sticky residue, that residue can be buffed smooth. So, linseed oil was used on the outer surfaces of the replicas.

While the original Jorvik syrinx is simple in terms of musical characteristics, size, and appearance, it would have been a difficult instrument to make with the tools available to a Jorvik craftsman.  The hand turned spoon drills used in those times would have meant many long hours of tedious work. The holes are very closely spaced, so drilling through one bore wall into an adjacent bore would have been hard to avoid.  Not drilling through the sides of the instrument would have also been a challenge.  Even with the modern tools shown in the photograph, great care had to be taken in making the reproductions.

Fourteen replicas were started, but only six made it through the process.  Much credit is to be given to the Viking maker of the original Jorvik syrinx!

Musical instruments

  • Bone tuning key found at Coppergate.
  • 'Buzz bones.'
  • 'Buzz bone' made from pig's foot bone.
  • Panpipes made of wood.
  • Lyre bridge made of wood, found at Coppergate.
  • Bone tuning peg. Pegs were used for tuning stringed instruments such as harps and fiddles.
  • Antler tuning peg.
  • Bone tuning peg.
  • Bone whistle.
  • Iron Jew's harp.
  • Iron Jew's harp.

Games and pastimes artefacts

  • An archer’s bracer made of leather protected the bowman’s forearm when an arrow was loosed. The bowling ball is made of wood.
  • Dice were used in medieval games and were made of different materials such as bone jet and ivory.
  • Gaming counters were made of different materials such as stone, fired clay or bone and could have been used for a variety of board games.
  • These pegs were made of bone and antler and were used for tuning stringed instruments such as harps or fiddles.
  • ‘Buzz bones’ made from pig’s foot bones. Threaded on a twisted cord they were made to spin and buzz by pulling the ends of the cord.
  • Bone die.
  • Die made of ivory, found at Coppergate.
  • Jet die.
  • Stone gaming counter.
  • Bone gaming counter found at Hungate.
  • Bone gaming counter.
  • Medieval chess piece made of jet.
  • Medieval bowling ball made of wood.
  • Archer's bracer.

Installing the artefacts at Barley Hall