Roots of Reed in Ancient Times

  April 25, 2022   Read time 3 min
Roots of Reed in Ancient Times
The earliest evidence for instruments with expanding bore that we have so far found comes from the fifth century BC, whereas the evidence for those with cylindrical bore goes back at least two thousand years earlier, so we shall take those first.

The earliest so far known is the pair of silver pipes found in the royal cemetery at Ur in Iraq, dating from around 2450 BC.2 These, like the somewhat later Egyptian double pipes, are very narrow in bore. Francis Galpin gives the lengths as about 101 ⁄2 inches, despite their fragmentary state, and the bore diameter as three-sixteenths of an inch, which suggests that they would have had a reed of straw, perhaps a single reed like that of the Welsh pibcorn. The Egyptian instruments that we see in wall paintings look longer but similarly narrow, whereas those few that have come down to us from Egypt are rather shorter, much the length of those from Ur.

The earliest references to the Greek aulos come from Homer, recording events of around 1000 BC in verse first written down a number of centuries later, and therefore to be treated with as much caution as the identification of the biblical instruments. There has long been argument and debate on whether the aulos had double or single reeds—at least there has never been any doubt that it was indeed a cylindrical-bore reed instrument, despite the common translation, even among archaeologists (who should know better) and those who label representations of it in museums, as a “double flute.” Heinz Becker cites Theophrastus (c. 300 BC) to prove that the reed was single, whereas the majority of illustrations on Greek pots clearly show that it was double.

There is so much definite evidence for each type of reed that we can only assume that some players used a double reed and some a single reed, perhaps in different periods or in different styles of music. What is certain is that the aulos (plural auloi) was a pair of pipes, held one in each hand, occasionally with the two pipes parallel so that the player could finger across both pipes with each hand (as with the single-reed double pipes to which we shall come shortly), but far more commonly held divergently so that each hand could finger only its own pipe. They were played by both men and women, frequently while dancing or processing, and players often had a strap, called the phorbeia, across their cheeks to support them and, presumably, prevent their distension under the air pressure.

This suggests that circular breathing, sometimes called “cheek-pumping,” was used. This is a technique common in many parts of the world with all wind instruments, allowing the player to produce a continuous and uninterrupted flow of melody. It is also well known among glassblowers and those who use Bunsen burners or similar equipment with a blowpipe. One fills the cheeks with air while blowing out from the chest and then breathes in through the nose at the same time as blowing out from the cheeks, using the muscles of the cheeks instead of those of the diaphragm. Excessive use of this technique can lead to distension of the cheeks, puffing them out like balloons. The skin may stretch so much that it fails to return to shape, forming dewlaps worse than those of bloodhounds. This deformation can sometimes be seen today with players of the West African shawm (alghaita) and would have been abhorrent to the ancient Greeks with their emphasis on bodily perfection.