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Ancient Sounds

Cultural Perspectives

By Tim Hazell

As representatives of art, the science of acoustics, structural engineering, and relationships with the human body, musical instruments are older than civilization itself. Musicologists speak of corporal origins and, in the words of André Schaeffner, define this as “musiques corporelles” (body music). Hand clapping to accompany singers or instrumental passages is depicted in numerous tomb paintings and reliefs. Egypt in particular employed musicians using carved wooden “clappers” from predynastic times to the Hellenic period.

Archaeological excavations during the 1950s in the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit unearthed tablets containing cuneiform signs in the Hurrian language; one of these includes Akkadian, spoken during the eras of Sumerian, Amorite transitional, and succeeding Babylonian civilizations. These turned out to be the oldest known piece of music ever discovered, a 3,400-year-old cult hymn from about 1,400 BC.

Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, professor of Assyriology at the University of California, deciphered the instructions contained in the text for the first time in 1972. The tablets containing the “notation” have since been interpreted by other scholars of antiquity and are thought to comprise the most ancient annotated song in the world, predating the second-earliest Greek example of harmony by at least 1,000 years.

Lyrics are indicated at the top of the tablet and the bottom half contains instructions for playing the music, in the equivalent of a diatonic major (“do, re, mi”) scale. The implications of a seven-note diatonic scale, as well as harmony existing over a thousand years before the earliest Greek examples, have challenged musicologist theories about the origins of simultaneously-sounded musical notes. The odds that the number of syllables would match the notation seem to rule out random coincidence.

Ancient Greek music has emerged from a handful of ancient documents inscribed with a vocal notation devised around 450 BC, consisting of alphabetic letters and signs placed above the vowels of Greek words. Ancient Greeks composed music and verse meant to be accompanied by the lyre, reed pipes, and various percussion instruments between 700 and 450 BC. These are known from paintings and archaeological remains, allowing researchers to establish the timbres and range of pitches they produced. Modern scholars have been able to reconstruct and perform these fragments.

Very few examples of authentic “recipes” survive before the classical epoch, but meticulous ledgers kept by Egyptian scribes record payments in staples such as bread, onions, garlic, and fish. Here is a version of a New Kingdom (1500 BC) marinade. Use as a flavoring for chicken.


1 tbsp. coriander seeds

2 tsp. cumin seeds

1 tsp. cayenne pepper

Coriander, mint, and/or spring onion, finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

Salt and black pepper to taste

Drizzle of olive oil

Splash of balsamic vinegar


Lightly toast the coriander and cumin seeds in a small pan. Coarsely grind in a coffee or spice grinder. Combine with the other marinade ingredients in a mixing bowl. Rub into the chicken. Refrigerate and marinate overnight. Grill or roast as desired.


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