Iron-Age Civilization Known for Raucous Music Had a Mellow Side

Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World Ph.D. Candidate Sam Holzman finds a new type of music in Phrygian society.

Friday, November 18, 2016

By Susan Ahlborn

Ph.D. Candidate Sam Holzman

There’s this music that’s wildly popular. It’s loud. It’s exotic. It’s energetic. At the same time, some are concerned that the music might be eroding the characters of the people who listen to it, and in dramas it’s used to signify a Bacchanalian-type party.

Sound familiar? That was the status of Phrygian music in ancient Greece, and some of the people who worried about its effects were Plato and Aristotle.

The Phrygians (“Phryg” is pronounced as in refrigerator) lived in central Turkey from about 1000 B.C. through the Roman period. They’re most remembered now for King Midas, who was mythologized by the Greeks as the man who fatefully wished for the golden touch.

Phrygian music was also immortalized by being described in Greek and Roman writing. It used percussion instruments like drums, tambourines, and small castanet-like cymbals; and the aulos, a kind of double pipe that sounded like a cross between an oboe and a bagpipe and was so loud it could be heard on battlefields. For a long time, that was the only type of their music we knew about. Now, though, Samuel Holzman, a doctoral student in Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World, has discovered that the Phrygian soundscape had a softer side.

The Phrygian capital of Gordion has been extensively excavated by Penn and other schools since 1950. Over the years, they found a number of tortoise shells with holes drilled in them. “They’re really not much to look at,” says Holzman. “They’re some really, really pulverized little bits of bone.” Holzman, who came to art and archaeology with an illustrator’s skills, spent two summers working with conservators, archaeologists, and an animal bone specialist trying to put these tortoise Humpty Dumptys together again. “What drew me into this challenge was the 3–D puzzle—gluing little pieces here and there, drawing them and cutting out the drawings and trying to arrange them.” he says.

The team believed that the shells were musical instruments, delicately worked and similar to some found in Greece and Italy. The real breakthrough, says Holzman, was the mental jump of realizing that the strings for the instrument didn’t go through the holes in the shells. Instead, the holes were used to attach the shell to a wood frame that functioned similarly to a harp, while the shell acted as the sounding box, creating a lyre. It was startling, Holzman says, because the site wasn’t Greek and the instruments were among the earliest ever found.

“What’s delightful about these instruments is that we had a caricatured perspective of Phrygian music because Greek writers exaggerated what was exciting about it,” Holzman says. “So the lyres for the first time open up a perspective of what Phrygian music was really like.”  

Where the shells were found was also significant—inside a middle-class household storage area, along with loom weights. “In the ancient world, women did most of the weaving, especially at home, and this is interesting because we know that women were also musicians. So maybe this little cellar was where women in the household stored things, their working tools, and these instruments could be for their work songs.”

Holzman has published his findings in the American Journal of Archaeology and, though he’s working on his dissertation on Greek temple architecture, he plans to continue exploring the Phrygian music scene. “I think there’s a rich opportunity to tell a much broader story. We can confidently say that the soundscape of the capital of King Midas was considerably more harmonious than myths would have us believe.”