‘I’ve never been fortunate enough to handle one of these before,’ says Antiquities specialist Claudio Corsi, as he examines a 24½-inch-long (61.5 cm) bronze horn from prehistoric Ireland.
‘I think the last time one of them appeared at auction was half a century ago — and that was when Christie’s sold this same horn.’
The instrument dates from around the 7th or 8th century BC, about 300 years before the Celts arrived from mainland Europe and 1,000 years before Ireland’s first written language. It is thought to have been discovered somewhere near Derry, on Ireland’s northern coastline, around the turn of the 18th century.
Its opening is decorated with a series of incised geometric patterns and bosses. At the opposite end are two bronze rings that were perhaps used to tie it to its owner. Near the rings is a hole, about an inch across, that would have been used to blow the horn.
‘It requires a great amount of skill to play,’ says Corsi. ‘You have to circulate air in through your nose and out through your mouth simultaneously, as with a didgeridoo.
‘The Irish musician Simon O’Dwyer, who specialises in playing Ireland’s prehistoric instruments, can be seen blowing an identical horn on YouTube.’
This horn produces a single booming note between an A and an A flat, which has led some archaeologists to believe it was used to transmit signals — perhaps alerting people to someone’s arrival — rather than to play musical tunes.
Others have suggested that, given its conical shape, it may have played a role in bull worship.
‘Little is known about the everyday lives of the people of Bronze Age Ireland (2500-500 BC),’ says Corsi. ‘But we do know that they lived in thatched wooden dwellings and farmed.’
They also buried the dead in stone tombs and built mysterious monolithic stone circles, comparable to England’s Stonehenge.
A small number of surviving gold artefacts suggest that there was a social hierarchy, while excavated trumpets, pipes and rattles indicate that music was part of the culture.
This period in Ireland is characterised by the development of new, sophisticated metalworking techniques. Copper mined locally around County Kerry, for instance, was smelted with tin imported from Britain to create a strong bronze alloy.
Initially the bronze was poured into moulds to create axes and daggers. Later, sheets of bronze were beaten into cauldrons and horns.
‘When you consider its age and what it might have been used for, it really is a fascinating object’ — specialist Claudio Corsi
Today, around 100 Bronze Age Irish horns are known to exist. Most of these were excavated from peat bogs — where they might have been hidden for safekeeping or buried as part of a ritual — and now reside in museums, including the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, the Ulster Museum in Belfast and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.
The present example is one of the finest still in private hands, says Corsi. It was first recorded in 1830 in the collection of Sir Samuel Rush Meyrick of Goodrich Court, a Neo-Gothic castle in the West Midlands of England.
Meyrick inherited his passion for antiquities from his father and amassed one of the country’s greatest collections of historical arms and armour, much of which is now held in the British Museum.
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‘This horn isn’t one of the largest ever found, but in terms of quality and condition, it’s hard to beat,’ says Corsi.
‘When you consider its age, what it might have been used for, and how little we know about the ancient society that made it, it really is a fascinating object.’