Conservation Project: Auloi of Meroë, March 2019

Conservation and Collections Management

Since 2017, two more study sessions have taken place at the MFA, in summer 2018 and winter 2019. In August 2018, treatment continued with the creation of new joins, along with the ongoing evaluation of the musical capacities of the instruments. Perhaps most importantly, an inventory of pipe sections was begun. At the inception of the project, the majority of the extant bronze and bone pieces were in fragments. Now, most of the broken fragments with discernable features have been connected to form short distinct tube sections. All bulbs and reed holders and most sockets have been reconstructed. These specific sections were inventoried, labeled, photographed, described and are now catalogued in a database that will also hold analytical data and X-radiographs. To date, 200 individual sections, ranging from reed holders and bulbs to sliders, bells and various tube sections, have been recorded and labeled.

Section of a pipe labeled

All the pipes consist of shorter tube sections, although of greatly varying lengths, and were originally connected with interior bone or wood sockets to form longer playable pipes. Since there are often no direct connections between the individual tube sections, the position of the sound holes on the pipe walls plays a crucial role for pipe formation. A specially-developed software system has proven indispensable in analyzing hole positions and their potential relation to ancient musical scales, with calculations based on sound hole location allowing for verification of scale and tonality.

In 2018 the project was included in the “Ancient Music Beyond Hellenisation” grant application submitted by Stefan Hagel of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Funding was awarded by the most prestigious program of the European Research Council (ERC), allowing the Meroë find to be assessed within a wider context—the question of how adjacent cultures interacted with the music of Greco-Roman culture. The grant objectives also included completing and publishing a full documentation of the pipes and their musical interpretation, ultimately leading to the creation of playable replicas of several pairs by Peter Holmes of Middlesex University London.

The international group of scholars met again at the MFA in January 2019, after the database had been further refined and studied by the team members in Vienna. The identification of all the fragments in the database now allowed for immediate experimentation with rearrangements of the fragments on the computer, virtually modeling the resulting musical structure.

Computer program open on a laptop

3D-printed replicas also proved useful in the examination of the ancient pipes, providing a full visualization of the instruments, which, due to their fragmented state, cannot be picked up and handled.

3D-printed replicas of four pipes

With all individual parts of the two types of pipes available as 3D images that can be freely assembled, it became possible to check on the physical feasibility of hypothetical reconstructions. Concurrently, individual parts were further measured and recorded to allow faithful reproductions, and detailed drawings and measurements were prepared for the full publication.

Handwritten notes with drawings and measurements of a pipe section