What is Archaeomusicology? Definition, methods and research goals

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Mario Friscia

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Meaning of the word Archaeomusicology

The term Archaeomusicology derives from the fusion of two words: archaeo and musicology.

‘Archaeo’ indicates something related to an ancient time or civilization, something that can be studied through the collection, analysis and interpretation of archaeological remains. The word Musicology, for its part, refers to a specific subset of academic discourses which have the goal of understanding music in its theoretical, structural and historical aspects.

More precisely, the research field that we are used to call Musicology can be considered as the sum of two interrelated sectors: historic and systematic.

Another important branch of Musicology is Ethnomusicology that has sometimes been associated with Archaeomusicology, probably due to the fact that both share an interest in understanding a given musical phenomenon or instrument in relation to its socio-cultural context.

I shall return to the difference between these two fields of study in a moment.

Archaeomusicology, being a multidisciplinary universe open to a constant dialogue with other disciplines, overlaps with the above mentioned sectors of Musicology even if it has often claimed its own autonomy.

In addition to that, it must be recognized that it has much in common with Archaeology and its methodology, as we shall see later.

The fact that a field of study like Musicology has given birth to two sister disciplines, Archaeomusicology and Ethnomusicology, should come as no surprise.

In fact, something similar has interested the world of other academic fields such as astronomy, that has undergone a splitting process from which two new areas of study were born: Archaeo-astronomy and Ethno-astronomy.

Here too we find the prefixes archeo- and ethno- used to define the specific fields of investigation of the two subjects:

by using archaeo- we denote a research process that focuses almost exclusively on the study of the archaeological remains, and this is the case of Archaeomusicology; while the prefix ethno- is applied to those disciplines, like Ethnomusicology, interested in gathering data through a series of direct interactions with living cultural traditions and ethnic groups.

After explaining the literal meaning of the word Archaeomusicology now it’s time to give a more formal definition of this fascinating area of study.


A possible definition

Before trying to give you a definition of Archaeomusicology, I think it’s important to highlight the fact that sometimes Archaeomusicology and Music Archaeology are used as synonyms.

This habit of employing the two words interchangeably is essentially correct and fully understandable, even if the first term may sound misleading and sometimes a little bit obscure to the general public.

Another expression used to indicate the academic discipline that conducts research on the musics of the past on the basis of the archaeological evidence, in addition to Music Archaeology, is Archaeology of Music.

Anyway, we can define Archaeomusicology as the study of the musical life of the world’s most ancient societies, from the prehistoric communities to the literate cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia, through a set of research methods derived from Archaeology, Musicology and other disciplines.


Topics and research goals

If someone asked me to briefly explain what is the main research goal of Archaeomusicology, I would probably say this:

to discover, understand and outline, on the basis of archaeological evidence, how music was conceptualized, represented and performed by preliterate societies and the first great civilizations of the past.

But let’s dive deeper into some of the topics that are commonly explored by Music Archaeologists.

In the list below I’ve tried to summarize some of the possible research paths embraced by Archaeomusicologists:

• reconstruct the shape of ancient musical instruments and the relative playing techniques
• identify other sound-producing tools and ascertain their actual musical functions
• explore literary references to music
• study and interpret the depictions of musical instruments, musicians and music-related events represented on articrafts and other objects emerged from archaeological excavations
• dating the musical instruments
• discover and explain the socio-cultural contexts of music-making
• build replica of the instruments to better understand their original sound
• decipher and outline the music theory and aeshtetics of the past civilizations
• restore the original soundscapes of archaeological sites

I think there’s no need to say that this list is only exemplifying of the vast and multidisciplinary research topics that have been and can be covered by the scholars specialized in this area of inquiry.

In this documentary you can follow, step by step, the research process of an Italian archaeomusicologist, Francesco Landucci, faced with the difficult task of reconstructing an Etruscan aulos from a small fragment of bone flute found in Chianciano, Italy:



If you are curious to know more about the research work done by Francesco Landucci you can visit his Youtube channel by clicking here.


Research groups and associations

Looking back at the academic history of Archaeomusicology and Music Archaeology there are three events that deserve our attention:

the foundation of the ICTM Study Group on Music Archaeology, officially established within the International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM) in 1981, and the creation of the International Study Group on Music Archaeology (ISGMA), launched by Ellen Hickmann and Ricardo Eichmann in 1998.

More recently (2013), the EU has funded the European Music Archaeology Project (EMAP) whose goal was twofold:

to deepen our knowledge about the role of music in ancient Europe and put on a touring exhibition that could help people discover the musical experiences of past societies.

The body of literature produced by these three research groups is so vast that I won’t even try to sum up all the invaluable insights and findings published over the years and covering a wide variety of issues, such as the reconstruction of ancient musical instruments and acoustic environments, the exchange of musical knowledge between diverse cultures, the earliest evidence of musical concepts and behaviors and so on.

The best way to describe the research methods adopted by archaeomusicologists and share with you some of their amazing discoveries is to turn to the official Youtube channel of EMAP.

I invite you to watch this video introduction to the exhibition “Archaeomusica: The Sounds and Music of Ancient Europe” hosted at the Abbey of Ystad (Sweden) from June 2016 to May 2018:



As Dr. Cajsa S. Lund says in the clip:

we cannot excavate music from the earth, unfortunately, we can only excavate the material traces of the music and that’s the instruments”.

Speaking of the difficult task of reconstructing an ancient musical instrument in the light of archaeological data, I want to end this section by sharing with you two clips focused on the Tintignac Carnyx.

In the first video you can follow the reconstruction process of the instrument, while the second clip allows you to hear its actual sound:




Archaeomusicology and Music Archaeology classes

To my knowledge there aren’t many universities that have launched courses specifically dedicated to the teaching of Archaeomusicology or Music Archaeology.

According to what emerges on the Internet, the only two faculties that offer students the possibility to attend such courses within a degree program are located in Sweden and Italy.

The first Faculty is the University of Linnaeus, which offers an online class in Music Archaeology, taught by Cajsa S. Lund and focused on the study of the methodology used by music archaeologist in dealing with the cultures of Northern Europe.

The other course, titled Music Archaeology, is available at the University of Bologna.

The classes are taught by Donatella Restani who concentrates on the ancient musics of the Mediterranean Area.

Of course, it’s possible that I’ve missed something or, even more likely, that some classes on Archaeomusicology have not been advertised online by their respective departments.

I promise myself to update this list once I become aware of other undergraduate courses centered on the relationship between music and archaeology.


Suggested readings

If you’re new to the world of Archaeomusicology or Music Archaeology I’d like to share with you a bunch of resources that can help you deepen the topic.

Let’s start by mentioning a book written by one of the most acclaimed experts in the field: Richard J. Dumbrill.

I’m referring to “The Archaeomusicology of the Ancient Near East” a work published in 2005 with the goal of analyzing the iconographic and textual references to Hurrian music.

What makes this publication unique, in addition to the detailed musical lexicon included by Dumbrill, is the fact that the author put the word Archaeomusicology in the title.

By reading this book you will familiarize with a possible interpretation of the cuneiform texts of Music Theory written in Sumerian, Babylonian and Hurrian.

If you want to access some free papers by Dumbrill you can find them here.

Moving to research papers, there are a couple of valuable contributions that deserve to be read: one of these is a PDF which makes a comparison between Archaeomusicology and Ethnomusicology.

To explore in more detail the history and identity of Archaeomusicology as a discipline, I recommend you to read this essay by Olsen (2007) called “The Complementarity and Interdisciplinarity of Archaeomusicology: An Introduction to the Field and This Volume.”

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Mario Friscia

Anthropologist of sound
music teacher

“Open your doorway to music cultures and listen to the world with gentler ears”

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