Conservation Project: Auloi of Meroë, August 2015

Conservation and Collections Management

Since July 2014, much progress has been made in joining pieces of bone core and bulbs; now only small and featureless splinters remain detached. The connections between bronze tubing sections form many larger elements (see below) that are stable enough to be handled and used in the configuration of entire instruments.

Bronze tubing sections arranged in multiple rows

Ongoing materials analysis has also provided important information. Samples from wooden core material were dated by radiocarbon analysis to between 52 B.C. and A.D. 54, congruous to the burial of Queen Amanishakheto.

The precision of the fine mechanics of interconnected bronze tubes and their rotating sleeves continue to astound. A polished and etched metal cross section of one tube revealed a highly stressed metal structure, cold worked and annealed during manufacture. The seamless tubes were most likely cast from tin bronze and perhaps hammered. Final turning with a lathe-like instrument facilitated the perfect fitting of extremely thin and straight tubes, leaving distinctive parallel marks on the metal surface. In a few locations on the bronze tubes which have not been mineralized by corrosion, these marks can be observed under high magnification, as in the back-scattered electron image below.

Back-scattered electron image showing thin parallel marks on tubing

Music Archaeology

In late spring 2015, a group of music archaeologists, leading researchers of ancient music and in particular of auloi, arrived for a fortnight of intense study.

Group of specialists looking at auloi pieces around table
Clockwise from top left: Peter Holmes (Middlesex University London), Stefan Hagel (Austrian Academy of Sciences), and Olga Sutkowska (Universität der Künste Berlin), working with MFA conservator Susanne Gänsicke.

The goal of this study was twofold: assemble as many complete or near-complete instruments as possible, and prepare detailed documentation that will hopefully lead to the production of replicas that can be played. During this session, many important questions about the manufacture and mechanisms were addressed.

Two conservation scientists looking at computer screen
Peter Holmes (at right) and Richard Newman (at left), the head of scientific research at the MFA, examine small tube sections in the scanning electron microscope. Many more areas of tinning of tube sections and decorative elements were identified than had previously been recognized.
Specialist using pocket microscope to look at surface details
Peter Holmes uses a tiny pocket microscope to scrutinize surface details.
Image from digital microscope showing measurements of tear-shaped sound hole
A digital microscope allows accurate measurements within annotated images. An unusual tear-shaped sound hole is measured above.

After sorting tube sections by internal and external diameters and other distinctive features, and measuring distances between finger holes, tentative arrangements of the first pipes are made. Helpful to the process are two photographs taken of the fragments in situ in the burial, as well as the corrosion patterns on the outer bronze tubes. Equally valuable is a grid of relative finger hole distances that was based on known ancient scales, along with assessments of whether any given arrangement of finger holes could possibly be played by the human hand. The expertise of the music archaeology scholars and detailed studies of auloi in European collections have been indispensable. As a result, hypothetical layouts of eight pipes (some shown below), forming four instruments, have been created, with at least four more pipes and additional tubing sections remaining to be studied.

Pipe fragments laid out in hypothetical layouts