Billy O Foghlú demonstrates the sound of the horn.

Screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET

Primitive music may not have been so primitive after all, as discovered by an archaeologist and Ph.D. candidate at the Australian National University College of Asia-Pacific. Billy Ó Foghlú, who believed that the bronze- and iron-age musical horns found in Ireland must have had mouthpieces, has 3D printed an object that vastly improves the sound of the instruments.

His research has been published in the ancient Celtic culture journal Emania.

The model for the mouthpiece, however, was something quite unexpected: a bronze artefact dating back to 100BC to 200AD called the Conical Spearbutt of Navan. Found in the early 20th century, the artefact (as the name suggests) was thought to have been mounted on the butt of a spear.

3D printing technology has been improving at a rapid pace in the past few years. While it has primarily been used for the manufacture of custom designed objects, it’s increasingly seeing use in the fields of paleontology and archaeology as a means of studying objects without damaging the fragile original artefacts. It’s also allowing museums to create replicas of artefacts that can be handled by the public.

In this case, the object wasn’t printed directly, but cast in a 3D printed mould. Using the exact measurements of the so-called Spearbutt, Ó Foghlú created a 3D model, which he then used 3D print the mould and cast the replica in bronze. He also created a 3D printed replica of a horn over two metres long, copying the thickness of the metal of the original object. He then put the two together and blew.

“Suddenly the instrument came to life,” he said in a statement.

“These horns were not just hunting horns or noisemakers. They were very carefully constructed and repaired, they were played for hours. Music clearly had a very significant role in the culture.”

The artefact would likely have been misclassified because it was excavated separately to the horns. Many iron- and bronze-age horns were discovered across Europe and Scandinavia, but very few mouthpieces were found in Ireland. This led to the impression that music in Ireland had regressed.

However, Ó Foghlú believes that so few mouthpieces were found with horns because they may have been ritually dismantled and separated when the horn’s owner died.

“A number of instruments have been found buried in bogs. The ritual killing of an instrument and depositing it in a burial site shows the full significance of it in the culture,” he said.

“Tutankhamen also had trumpets buried with him in Egypt. Contemporary horns were also buried in Scandinavia, Scotland and mainland Europe: They all had integral mouthpieces too.”

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The music of bronze-age Celts revealed through 3D printing