Oldest instrument is dug up in Skye cave

The remains of what could be the oldest stringed instrument to be found in Europe have been discovered in a remote cave on Skye. 

The standing section between trenches 2 and 15, within the forecourt area outside the stairwell entrance to Bone passage, before the start of excavations in 2010 [Credit: High Pasture Cave Webcite]
The burnt fragment was dug up last year during an archaeological project. It is believed to be at least 1,500 years old and pre-dates any similar item previously found on the continent. 

The artefact, which resembles a bridge of an early stringed instrument, was unearthed in Skye’s High Pasture Cave – a focus of Bronze Age and Iron Age research since 1972 – and is currently being examined by experts at Historic Scotland. 

Rod McCullagh, a Historic Scotland Archaeologist, said: “The cave has provided many fascinating discoveries, including a burnt fragment of a small wooden object that we have asked experts to study as it appears to be the bridge of a stringed instrument.” 

Until now the oldest stringed instruments found in Europe have been lyre harps dated around 600AD, which were played by Vikings throughout Scandinavia. 

However most of the artefacts discovered at the High Pasture Cave are much older, with many of the finds dating back to the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age, up to 2,000 years earlier. 

Until now it was believed that the only instruments made during that time were flutes, pipes and bronze instruments such as crudely fashioned trumpets. But the Skye instrument could date from around 500 AD and may have been left there by later inhabitants of the caves. 

McCullagh added: “The archaeological excavations at High Pasture Cave in Skye have revealed an astounding site. The work has recorded the remains of almost a thousand years of ceremony, ritual and feasting.” 

The cave is around 1km south east of the Skye village of Torrin in a shallow valley on the north side of the mountain Beinn an Dubhaich. There are around 320m of hidden passages on the site and since research began in the 1970s, a number of bronze and iron age structures have been discovered, as well as some stone-built structures of prehistoric and historic age. 

In 2005, the remains of three humans were found in a blocked stairwell, which were believed to date from the Iron Age around 2,000 years ago, while a wide range of artefacts of stone, bone and antler were recovered from other areas of excavation at the site. 

Source: The Scotsman [February 26, 2012]

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