Carnix: the musical weapon of the ancient Celts

The carnyx is a wind musical instrument used by the ancient Celts as a psychological weapon in times of war. It was widespread in western and central Europe and beyond, although we only know about a dozen or so fragments of it. Gangs of Celtic mercenaries carried carnyxes and used them in attacks on various shrines and military battles. They were also popular with other peoples, such as the Dacians in modern Romania.

The carnyx consisted of a thin bronze tube 12 feet long with straight bends at both ends. The lower end ended in a mouthpiece and the upper end expanded into a bell, which was usually decorated to look like a boar. Historians believe that the carnyx had a tongue that flapped up and down, amplifying the noise made by the instrument. The carnyx was played vertically so that the bell on the boar’s head stood out above the heads of the warriors. Its main purpose was to create more noise and disorder on the battlefield.

The carnyx was admired by ancient authors. The Greek historian Polybius noted that the sounds of the carnyx and the noise of the Gallic army created such a confused sound as if it came not only from the trumpeters and soldiers, but also from the terrain that joined in the echo. The Roman historian Diodorus of Sicily described the carnyx as an instrument that produced a sharp and rolling sound suitable for the turmoil of battle.

However, despite its importance, we know little about this instrument. In 2004, archaeologists discovered a hoard of ritually destroyed weapons, including seven carnices. Prior to this discovery, the remains of only five actual carnices had been found. One of the most impressive carnices was found in Deskford, Scotland in 1816. It had only a bell on the boar’s head and the mane, tongue and pipes were missing. Images of carnyx players have also been found on a Roman denarius and in a Gundestrup cauldron found in a Danish peat bog.

However, the most impressive discovery was made at Tintignac. One of the seven carnices found there was almost completely intact. When it was reassembled from 40 pieces, it turned out to be only an inch shorter than six feet in length, and the only missing section of tube was missing. Once restored, the Tintignac Carnyx was the first nearly complete carnyx ever found.

The carnyx is a unique and fascinating instrument used by the ancient Celts to create noise and disorder on the battlefield. Its majesty and significance are reflected in the findings of archaeologists who continue to expand our knowledge of ancient cultures and their military traditions.

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