the Pipe and Tabor compendium

the Pipe and Tabor compendium

essays on the three-hole pipe

The Earliest Tabor Pipes

by Yuri

A few wood pipes and literally hundreds of bone pipes with varied numbers of finger-holes have been recovered from archaeological sites dating from the Bronze Age to early medieval times. Bone pipes are made from mammal and bird bones that are hollow. One made from a Vulture's wing bone found in Germany is now being reproduced and played. An eagle bone pipe has now been copied in porcelain for sale.

However, there is some discussion amongst archeologists as to whether the holes in some of these pipes are artifical or made by other animals. One example is a pipe made from cave bear, Slovenia, dated from 50,000 years ago which is said to have been made by Neanderthal people. A reconstruction of this "produced five sweet tones in odd intervals". Altering the pitches by blowing and fingering could make the instrument sound like a modern flute (although with a small range)." also here . Occasionally only a mouth-piece survives; one from Sweden has been dated to the late neolithic period (c1800-1500 BC ). [English translation pg 8]

Those pipes that could have been played with one hand (with 2, 3 or 4 holes), are found across the Americas and Europe (mostly north and north-west). However there is no archeological evidence, as yet, that they were played with any percussion instrument.

One group of these pipes come from animals that were used for food such as sheep, goat, deer and to a lesser extent pig. They are made mostly from mammals' tibia bones: their shape narrows from a relatively wide mouthpiece to a slender midsection, and then widens again towards the foot. Players who were not concerned with precise intonation might have played these pipes with one hand. Overblowing cannot produce any useful scale as the inner shape of these flutes precludes this; you need a reasonably in-tune fifth and octave when overblowing each finger position to get the full scale that is used today. However it is possible that a different musical system was used when such pipes were made.

The other group of bone pipes that could have been played with one hand were made from bird bones; these have long, narrow bores with a nearly cylindrical inner shape like today's tabor pipe. Most flutes of this type have been found in England, the Flemish lands, Germany and Scandinavia. Few have the two-finger-hole on top and thumbhole underneath arrangement of modern tabor pipes; most have three holes on the front - the 'thumbhole' is rotated to the top. They can be quite comfortably played by gripping the pipe between the mouth, thumb and little finger, leaving the three remaining fingers to play. Overblowing on these is easy.

* pipe made from swan shin bone, Georgia (XV-XIVcc. BC)
* pipe made from goose bone found in Southgate Street, Gloucester, England
* pipe made from crane's bones, Lady Wootton's Green, Canterbury, [incorrectly labeled as being excavated in Rose Lane. ed.]; sound of reproduction Chinese crane flute
* pipe made from the dog's bone found in Park Street, Gloucester, England [wrongly interpreted when first excavated and is now identified as made from a crane's bone. Article no longer online, ed.]
* three-hole bone flute found in Austria, dating from Roman times, which is still playable

Some fairly similar bird-bone pipes with 4 or 2 fingerholes on top have been found that originate from many different pre-historical periods. These can be played one-handed and will overblow satisfactorily. Those with 2-fingerholes have gaps in the scale used in music today.

Two perfectly preserved pipes made from wood ** with 3 fingerholes on top have been found from 10th century France and 12th/13th century Russia. In France some other wood pipes have also been found.[click 'entertainment' for images]

The 3 earliest actual tabor pipes so far discovered come from Poland, with the suspiciously early date of 11th century, from Spain dated on the pipe 1402, and the Netherlands, early 15th century. The Spanish example is constructed from two halves, channelled out and glued together, then covered by snakeskin. This snakeskin cover is a fairly common folk practice in some European regions.

A bone pipe dated to 1260-1300, found in Monmouthshire, Wales, has 5 finger-holes and 2 thumbholes. It has been suggested that a reconstruction of this pipe is playable in the manner of the Spanish flabiol, which is still played on the Eastern coast of Spain and the Balearic Islands [ref map of Spain].

notes and references:

NB Random examples of excavated pipes are in a gallery here.
** This Russion article is sometimes not available on the internet so I have copied it with translation here.

1. An indispensable book is Frederic Crane's "Extant Medieval musical instruments: a provisional catalog by types" University of Iowa Press, 1972. This describes over 550 surviving medieval musical instruments located in art and archaeological museums known to the author. Since 1972 more pipes have come to light; but as yet there is no updated edition. Hundreds of bone pipes and two mediaeval wooden tabor pipes are catalogued with references to specialist articles. There is an exhaustive bibliography.

2. A useful article is Helen Leaf's "English medieval bone flutes - a brief introduction" Galpin Society Journal, 2006. This has a good bibliography with more recent dates.

3. An interesting article regarding the one English bone flute that might be an early form of the flabiol is Jeremy Montague's "Was the tabor pipe always as we know it?" Galpin Society Journal, 1997. It refers to the original article by J. Megaw, in which the pipe is described.

4. An amazing catalogue of more than a hundred more-or-less undamaged (at least clearly reconstructable) bone pipes with "fipples" is a book by Christine Brade,
" Die mittelalterlichen Kernspaltfloten Mittel-und Nordeuropas", 1975.
The pipes catalogued are mostly from the Middle Ages Northern Europe; all are outside Britain. There are a few bird-bone pipes with three or four fingerholes that are candidates for an "early type" of tabor pipes.



additions and modifications by experts in this field
updates and edits by Frances

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