UD: November 2016
“For there were among them such innumerable horns and trumpets, which were being blown at the same time from all parts of their army, and their cries were so loud and piercing, that the noise seemed to come not from human voices and trumpets, but from the whole countryside at once”.
(Polybius, Histories, II, 29)
The most unique and distinct of “barbarian” musical instruments was the Celtic carnyx – a type of elongated war trumpet which was usually (but not exclusively) shaped as a boar’s head. The term “carnyx” is derived from the Gaulish root, “carn-” or “cern-” meaning “antler” or “horn,” the same root as in the name of the Celtic god Cernunnos (Delmarre X. (2003) Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise. Paris. p. 106-107). The instruments themselves were of bronze and played upright, as illustrated by their depiction on the Gundestrup cauldron.
Carnyx from the Gaulish sanctuary of Tintignac (Corrèze, Gaul), and examples depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldron
Reconstruction of a Carnyx found at Tintignac. The carnyx was 1.80m. long, and one of 7 found at the site (6 representing a boars head, and one a serpent)
(after Gilbert J., Brasseur E., Dalmont J.P., Maniquet C. Acoustical Evaluation of the Carnyx of Tintignac. In: Proceedings of the acoustics conference, Nantes 2012. p. 3956-3959)
Besides depictions on coins and other artifacts from the period, archaeological evidence of the carnyx has been found at Celtic sites throughout Europe, stretching from the British Isles to the Balkans, illustrating that it was common to the pan-Celtic tribes across the continent.
Celtic carnyx depicted on a Roman gold stater from 48 BC
Serpent headed carnyx from Tintignac
Boar headed carnyx from Deskford, Scotland (mid 1st c. AD)
Fragment of a carnyx discovered in the Celtic settlement of Epomanduodurum (Mandeure) in eastern France (2/1 c. BC)
“Their trumpets again are of a peculiar barbarian kind; they blow into them and produce a harsh sound which suits the tumult of war”
(Diod. Sic. V,30)
Scientific reconstructions of these strange instruments, based on archaeological finds (Gilbert et al 2012), confirm that the carnyx produced a distinctive eerie sound, unlike any other ancient or modern musical instrument, and was therefore ideally suited to the atmosphere of battle, for which it was created.
Carnyx discovered in a ritual pit at the Gaulish sanctuary at Tintignac
How the Carnyx may have sounded: