Thursday, January 18, 2018

King Tut's Trumpets

Image result for trumpet

Environmental & Science Education
Edward Hessler

Two royal trumpets (known as sheneb) were found in the tomb of the boy-king, Tutankhamun. Both were used to signal attention to important events.

These are horns without mouthpieces and valves. They made a single harsh note. The Greek Plutarch compared the sound to that of "a braying ass." Each trumpet included a decorated wooden insert--a stopper--to protect them from damage and to preserve their shape.  The horns fell silent in 1323 BCE when King Tut died from either illness or injury.

The royal tomb of King Tut was disturbed three times by robbers. The last plundering, the worst, was made by the English archeologist, Howard Carter on November 4, 1922 but it wasn't until February 26, 1923 that the Carter archeological team officially opened the burial chamber. One of the horns was noticed, cleansed with an ammonia solution and the wooden core coated in celluloid. It ended up in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Carter, of course, blew it, managing he said "to get a good blast out of it which broke the silence of the valley."

The horn was blown in 1933 by Percival Kirby, a professor with an interest in the musical instruments of Africa. In 1939 a military trumpeter fitted it (stuffed may be a better word) with amouthpiece and in the presence of King Farouk of Egypt ended up cracking and nearly destroying the trumpet. Thankfully, it was not broken beyond full restoration.

The horn has been played three more times since (again in 1939, then 1941 and January 1975). Here is British bandsman James Tappern playing two ornate trumpets, one of silver and gold, the other, a copper alloy during a BBC radio broadcast in April 1939.  The BBC announcer makes as much as he can of the occasion with his announcement: "The Trumpets of Pharaoh Tutankhamun! Lord of the Crowns, King of the South and North, Son of Ra."

Frank Holt, a historian at the University of Houston has written a popular account as told by the horn in AramcoWorld (beautifully illustrated with watercolors by Norman MacDonald). I owe the short description above to Holt's essay.

I disagree with Plutarch. Both horns have pleasing sounds, sounds that are perfectly suited to precede announcements and to demand the attention. While the horn has not been blown again, the horn notes in its account that "I have been on tour for some time now."

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