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Ancient Musical Instruments: How Scholarly Communication Works, BAR 8:01, Jan-Feb 1982.

City of David fluteA bone flute discovered in the City of David leads to another and elucidates a Talmudic passage

A cow’s foreleg with six holes was illustrated in color in “Digging in the City of David,” BAR 05-04.
Archaeologists identified the perforated bone as a flute; by blowing into the hollow bone and covering different holes, different notes could be produced. The bone flute, recovered from a destruction level of the first century A.D., was found in 1975 in the first year of the ongoing excavations in the City of David, the oldest inhabited part of Jerusalem. (See Yigal Shiloh and Mendel Kaplan, “Digging in the City of David,” BAR 05-04.)

Scholars working on publication of the finds from Tel Dothan, a site in northern Israel, saw the bone flute found at the City of David and suddenly remembered a strange bone they had found on the south slope of Dothan in 1962. Dating to the Roman/Byzantine period (first-sixth centuries A.D.), the 12 centimeter long bone has only one hole preserved, with possibly an edge of a second hole. The intact hole is eight centimeters wide.

These facts alone were not enough to identify the artifact as a flute at the time it was excavated. With the discovery of the bone flute at the City of David, the Dothan excavators have been able to compare their single-holed fragment with the more nearly complete artifact from the City of David. It is clear that the Dothan fragment is also a flute. Both flutes were either unfinished or broken examples of a type of instrument called a “block” flute. The block flute has a solid mouthpiece penetrated by a narrow air passage which connects to the main hollow perforated air tube of the flute. (A modern recorder is an example of a block flute.) In both the Dothan and City of David flutes the mouthpiece portion is missing.

The discovery of the bone flute in the City of David excavation excited still another scholar, Dr. Noah J. Cohen, a specialist in archaeology of the Talmudic period. He immediately recalled the following passage from the Talmud-

“It is said [of a horned beast] that while it lives it has only one voice, but when it is dead it has seven voices … Its two horns [are fashioned into] two trumpets; its two legbones [are made into] two flutes; its hide [is made into] a drum; its large intestine is [made into strips] for harps; and its small intestines are used for citherns.”a (Kinnim 3, 6)

Apparently the making of flutes from legbones of animals was common, as this Talmudic passage confirms and as is now verified by the two cited examples recovered from archaeological sites.

a. Citherns are musical instruments resembling guitars.

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