This fascinating artefact is a Bronze Age bone flute excavated by William Cunnington from bowl barrow Wilsford G23. The flute was found with the primary cremation, alongside 2 daggers, a pin and a perforated whetstone. With a highly polished finish it is clear that it was a prized object. The choice of bone is also unusual, being made from the radius of a crane (previously identified as a swan), suggesting that there was some significance in the choice of bone used.
This artefact calls into question the use of music in Bronze age Britain as, if this was indeed used as a flute, then it may show that Bronze age people used music in ceremonies or as entertainment. As this individual was buried with this flute, perhaps there were musicians in Bronze age culture, whose specific profession was to play music for the people. Similarly, bone flutes, also seen elsewhere, buried with individuals, may be found with those who had the ability to play them, as weapons were found with warriors in order to honour the deeds of their lifetime, after death.
The discovery of bronze and the subsequent innovations in tools helped people carve higher quality instruments and this is clear in the sculpting of a rudimentary mouthpiece into the bone for ease of playing. Equally, the two perforations along the same side, one sub-triangular, the other sub-circular, are good sizes for fingers to play it. There has also been clear degradation at the finger holes, whether from extensive playing before burial, or over the years since its discovery, which also saw the tube being broken twice, in line with the perforations, and glued back together. However, judging by the polished surface, it was well-prized in its day and thus probably played regularly.
A similar bone flute (also housed in the Wiltshire Museum), found nearby in Bell Barrow Wilsford G58, suggests that flutes, and perhaps other musical instruments, were found in Bronze age settlements. However, this other piece was crafted from a human tibia and radio carbon dating suggests that the tibia is in fact from a person who lived within the living memory of the man it was buried with revealing perhaps that, rather than being an ancestral relic it is possible that the instrument was made especially for the individual it was buried with¹. The crane flute on the other hand does not have this same explicit sentimentality however it may have been a prized keep-sake of the individual cremated in Wilsford G23 – a musician’s favourite musical instrument perhaps, or a reminder of a crane which they caught? It is all speculation, though it must have had a significant meaning for it to be buried with the individual. Overall, however, both instruments show a high polish which further suggests that musical instruments were widely prized, as the care taken, attending to the appearance, indicates that the flutes were not merely for playing, but perhaps also to be admired as aesthetic objects as well. So, while the origin of the bones is different, and the significance of them may have not been the same (the human bone flute perhaps acting as a reminder of a friend, and the crane bone flute holding some other personal importance), flutes, and music in general, may have played a large role in the lives of Bronze age people – whether in ceremonies, or purely for entertainment, this artefact is undoubtedly enchanting.
Written by volunteer Oliver Turney