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Ancient Gallic horns discovered in France

From TheGuardian:

In the Asterix books, Cacofonix the bard is forbidden to sing because his voice causes wild boar, villagers, Normans and Romans alike to flee. But Cacofonix does play the carnyx, a long, slender trumpet-like instrument decorated with an animal’s head at the top end, and used by the Celts in the last three centuries BC.

The Greek historian Polybius (206-126BC) was so impressed by the clamour of the Gallic army and the sound of the carnyx, he observed that, “there were countless trumpeters and horn blowers and since the whole army was shouting its war cries at the same time there was such a confused sound that the noise seemed to come not only from the trumpeters and the soldiers but also from the countryside which was joining in the echo“.

When the remains of seven carnyx were unearthed recently, Christophe Maniquet, an archaeologist at Inrap, the national institute for preventive archaeological research (Institut National de Recherches Archéologiques Préventives), was curious to find out exactly what sound it produced when it drove the Romans mad, or was used to call upon the god Toutatis.

In 2004, more than 500 iron and bronze items placed as offerings to the gods were discovered a small 30cm-deep pit in Tintignac, in the Corrèze department. “These items were deliberately damaged so that they could not be used again by mere mortals,” said Maniquet.

Some 40 fragments were identified as being parts of a carnyx, making it possible to restore a tall, 1.8-metre-long instrument with a stylised boar head at the top – a first in archaeology. “Some carnyx pieces were discovered in England, Scotland, Germany and Italy, mainly in the 19th century, but the context was unclear and we have never found so many instruments in one go,” said Maniquet. The carnyx is a wind instrument, part of a sub-family of brass instruments defined by the presence of a mouthpiece. The sub-sub family would be natural brass instruments without valves. With its conical shape the carnyx resembles a soft brass instrument like the horn, with a more muffled sound than a cylindrical trumpet-like brass instrument.

Unfortunately since it was impossible to play the instruments the pious Gauls had so carefully dismantled, Maniquet asked an instrument maker to reproduce a brass carnyx of the same size. The archaeologist worked with experts from the acoustics laboratory at the Maine-CNRS University in Le Mans, headed by Joël Gilbert, a brass instruments specialist, who carried out an in-depth analysis of the specimen.

A study presented by a group of researchers and instrument makers in Le Mans last month, revealed that the resonance frequency determined the series of playable notes. In a well-designed instrument this resembles a harmonic series. If the musician had the base note he could easily produce others (mainly octaves, fifths and thirds), by modulating air flow and lip tension.

Leichestown Deskford carnyx & reconstruction. Museum of Scotland.

The carnyx has a fairly low base note because of its length but researchers found that the resonance frequencies obtained with the copy of the carnyx were far from harmonic. According to Gilbert, when he and his colleagues looked into this they suddenly had an idea. “The carnyx is not a primitive instrument and it was known for being very powerful. We therefore worked on the hypothesis that our copy was incomplete,” he said.

Maniquet believes that is quite plausible, especially since no one is really sure how the mouthpiece connects to the tube. The acoustics experts have pursued their research by doing simulations with a mathematical model, this time adding an additional part to a virtual carnyx. They tested two lengths, 10cm and 20cm, which produced a lower sound and altered the resonance harmony.

The simulations showed that the optimum length was achieved by adding a 10cm part, which could match an item in the catalogue of finds from the Tintignac site. Maniquet is now planning to build a second prototype instrument to include the additional 10cm. “That should make this carnyx more powerful and easier to play,” said Gilbert, confident that his calculations are correct.

Cacofonix can remain gagged; it seems that relief is on its way.

Filed under: Archaeology, , , , , , , , , ,

Mont-Saint-Michel at risk of losing its World Heritage Status

From Spiegel:

The French island abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel is at risk of losing its World Heritage Status because of plans to build wind turbines that could blight the spectacular view. Campaigners are up in arms, but French President Nicolas Sarkozy is determined to turn France into a world leader in wind power.

The silhouette adorns biscuit tins, aprons and coffee cups, and there is scarcely a travel guide for the northwestern French region of Brittany that doesn’t feature the unmistakeable profile of the island and its 11th century Benedictine abbey on the front cover.

Mont-Saint-Michel, located in a bay between the coast of Brittany and the Contentin peninsula in Normandy, is a symbol for the entire region. It is cut off from land twice a day at high tide and is one of France’s biggest tourist destinations, attracting 3 million visitors a year, tourists and pilgrims.

UNESCO, the United Nations’ culture and education agency, designates this unique place as a World Heritage Site. Mont-Saint-Michel and the bay were included in the prestigious list of places of global special cultural and physical significance in 1979. The judges as the time lauded the “unprecedented union of the natural site and the architecture” and fated it as an “unequalled ensemble, as much because of the co-existence of the abbey and its fortified village with the confined limits of a small island, as for the originality of the placement of the buildings.” Mont-Saint-Michel, they said, was one of the most important sites of medieval Christian civilization.

Ever since, the local authorities have striven to preserve the island and the abbey and even planned to demolish parts of the causeway and car and coach parks leading to the island.

But now the ‘Wonder of the West’ is at risk of losing its UNESCO status because of plans to build wind turbines close by. The UN culture and education agency has written to France asking it to explain the project, which would see three wind turbines erected 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) from the tiny seaside mount.

Sarkozy’s Wind Power Vision

Local campaigners are outraged by the project. “Do we want a nightclub around Mont-Saint-Michel?” asked Jean-Louis Butré, president of the environment group Fédération Environement Durable (FED). “The wind turbines can be seen from 10 kilometers away,” he told the Ouest-France newspaper. “Especially at night, when the lights blink.” He said the project was being driven by “enormous pressure from industrialists — the financial investments are huge.”

He’s probably right, too. French President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to put this nation of nuclear power at the forefront of wind power production. There are five concrete projects for wind turbines along the coast from the English Channel to the Atlantic, not including offshore sites already being planned.

“Our goal is to create a strong national industry to manufacture these products with the aim of exporting them,” Sarkozy said at the end of January during a visit to the Atlantic port of Saint-Nazaire. The plan is to build some 600 turbines with a capacity of 300 megawatts in a first stage by 2015. That means investments totalling €10 billion (nearly $14 billion), which Sarkozy said would create 10,000 jobs.

Epuron, the company that plans to build the turbines around Mont-Saint-Michel, has said it will use relatively small ones “to take account of the special nature of the place and the relative proximity to Mont-Saint-Michel.”

Local tourism, environmental and monument protection groups have mounted legal bids to stop the construction, but have failed. Their last hope is UNESCO.

UNESCO said it had received a response from the French government by the Feb. 1 date it had requested, and will now assess the impact on the site and decide what action to take.

The agency’s inspectors aren’t just concerned about Mont-Saint-Michel. The World Heritage status of three other French sites is also looking shaky: The port of Bordeaux, the grotto of Lascaux with its prehistoric cave paintings and the medieval town of Provins.

It is feasible that Mont-Saint-Michel could lose its cherished UNESCO status. “The World Heritage Committee can decide to delist it, but that’s a last resort and no one really wants that,” a UNESCO spokesperson told Reuters.

There are precedents. The Elbe Valley in Dresden was struck off the list in June 2009 after being blighted by a road bridge.

UNESCO inspectors might categorize the site as “endangered” when they next meet in early June. Even that would be an embarrassment for a cultural nation that has 35 sites on the World Heritage list, placing the nation at No. Five in the world ranking.

From Spiegel.

Filed under: Cultura, Heritage, , , , , , , , , ,

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