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French archaeologists discover rare Gallo-Roman trumpet at the Roman Forum in Bavay


The discovery of a wind instrument has left archaeologists breathless. In April, researchers from the Nord department were surprised to discover three large suspicious slabs in the north-west corner of the Gallo-Roman cryptoporticus on the excavation site that was to precede the construction of the new covered walkway in the ancient Forum of Bavay, in France's Nord department. 


French archaeologists discover rare Gallo-Roman trumpet at the Roman Forum in Bavay
Credit: Département du Nord

Isolated, with a curious appearance and carefully wedged with small stones, these three limestone blocks from the Forum of ancient Bagacum contained a curious votive deposit: several small copper alloy tubes. Despite the fact that they look like small metal rods, these remains from the 3rd-4th century AD were found to be the dismantled remains of a Gallo-Roman trumpet. Measuring almost 2.70 m, this straight and decorated object is said to be one of the longest, most complete and best preserved trumpets discovered to date.




"We are fortunate to have a very well preserved object in addition to having an excavation context," said Patrice Herbin, head of the Archaeology and Heritage Department of the Nord. The Bavay instrument, which has come down to the 21st century in excellent condition, from its mouthpiece to its bell, was made up of several connected and detachable tubes, which could be dismantled to allow easy transport of this cumbersome piece of musical equipment. 


French archaeologists discover rare Gallo-Roman trumpet at the Roman Forum in Bavay
Credit: Département du Nord

This trumpet, which is well known from an abundance of iconographic sources, is a striking addition to a corpus that is as rare as it is uneven, as Patrice Herbin points out: "It is really very new, since only two other examples were known, which were found in the 19th century and restored, which means that not much can be done with them now".


Better still, the instrument discovered appears to be larger than the average Roman trumpet, which is usually around 180 cm long, although the site manager prefers to remain cautious on this subject. "It is possible that it looks bigger because we have all the elements, whereas the others are not complete," he hastens to say. 


French archaeologists discover rare Gallo-Roman trumpet at the Roman Forum in Bavay
Credit: Département du Nord

"The other known trumpets were reassembled in the 19th century," adds Véronique Beirnaert-Mary, the director of the Bavay Ancient Forum, "so it is very difficult to know whether pieces were not removed to make slightly radical assemblies. Despite its large proportions, the Gallo-Roman trumpet of Bavay is still within an order of magnitude that could have been quite common, and which finally only stands out with the few rare objects discovered. "On the Trajan column we also have large trumpets, very long, which seem a little disproportionate," Véronique Beirnaert-Mary notes.




Once stored in a leather case - or with a strap - of which archaeologists have only been able to find a few traces, the instrument differs little from the circular trumpets and horns found on the Italian site of Pompeii. "There are no valves, there are no holes, the instrument is really quite simple," observes Véronique Beirnaert-Mary. The object is nonetheless very skilfully made. 


French archaeologists discover rare Gallo-Roman trumpet at the Roman Forum in Bavay
Credit: Département du Nord

"These are quite precious instruments," says Patrice Herbin, who has high hopes for the carbon-14 dating of the leather traces. Not only will this give a better date for the trumpet, but it could also reveal, by comparing the age of the trumpet with its archaeological context, whether the instrument was hoarded for a longer or shorter period of time, like the bronze statuettes from the Bavay Forum or the precious vessels, for example.


But why was this trumpet consecrated and buried? Its stratigraphic situation and its burial under replaced blocks clearly indicate a late votive deposit, at a time when the monumental forum of Bavay was abandoned and used as an open-air quarry, in particular for the construction of a 2.5-hectare fortified area during the Later Empire and of its two successive enclosures. 


French archaeologists discover rare Gallo-Roman trumpet at the Roman Forum in Bavay
Credit: Département du Nord

The identification of the 3rd-4th century AD corresponds to a difficult period for Roman Gaul and its cities, a time when the Pax Romana was faltering, when the urban fabric was shrinking and new walls were being built. "We have some elements that show the probable presence of a military garrison at this time," notes Patrice Herbin, who has discovered more and more elements relating to the army on the site: traces of chain mail, weapons, military harness, barracks.




The trumpet was a key instrument in the musical panoply of the Roman armies, which gave it a place of choice, along with the horn, to sound tunes on the battlefield in response to specific orders. However, the trumpet was not only used for military purposes. 


French archaeologists discover rare Gallo-Roman trumpet at the Roman Forum in Bavay
Credit: Département du Nord

"It was also used for funeral ceremonies, for all official ceremonies," explains Patrice Herbin. By extension, the purpose of the votive deposit could be quite varied: "it may have celebrated an installation on the site, a feat of arms, a religious ceremony, ..." enumerates the archaeologist, who believes - according to the current state of the excavations - that the cryptoporticus where the trumpet was found could have been a domestic space during the Late Empire. "All hypotheses are open; we are really at the very beginning of the investigation."


Soon to be entrusted to the Parisian experts of the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France, the ancient instrument will undergo a meticulous cleaning and an archaeo-metallurgical and musicological study in the coming months. The trumpet will then be returned to the Bavay Ancient Forum and its Roman collections, perhaps by 2023, much to the delight of its director. 


French archaeologists discover rare Gallo-Roman trumpet at the Roman Forum in Bavay
Credit: Département du Nord

"There are none in England, none in Belgium, none in Germany; we're really onto something rare," Véronique Beirnaert-Mary is delighted to say. With the other objects unearthed during the preventive excavation of the forum, and its future covered walkway, the archaeological museum is already pleased with a "timely" discovery, only a few years before the new major chapter in its history.


Author: Simon Cherner | Source: Le Figaro [trsl. TANN; May 07, 2021]



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