A rare medieval bone flute has been discovered just south of Hillborough at Herne Bay in Kent.
Last summer, Cotswold Archaeology excavated several areas within a large development site, uncovering evidence for activity spanning the later Bronze Age to the medieval period. These features included part of a small, rectangular medieval ditched enclosure, a common find in this area of north Kent, which sometimes contain the remains of sunken-featured buildings. These are often interpreted as working huts associated with specific activities such as brewing or bread-making. What was more unusual about this particular enclosure, though, was the discovery of a worked-bone flute that had been placed in a small pit within its confines.
The instrument is remarkably well-preserved, and was found in association with medieval pottery dating to between the 12th and 15th centuries. It appears to have been carved from a sheep or goat tibia shaft and has five finger holes running along the top, as well as one thumb hole along the bottom. While research into this instrument has only just begun, it is believed to be a ‘fipple flute’, which is the same class of instrument as the modern-day recorder, and it may have once had some form of mouthpiece that has since been lost. If this were the case, a sixth hole on the top of the flute would have functioned as a sound hole instead of the embouchure hole.
Musical instruments are rare archaeological finds, but a similar example was found at Keynsham Abbey, Somerset, in 1964, associated with a mid-14th-century coin. Other medieval bone flutes and pipes have been discovered at Winchester, Ipswich, Flaxengate in Lincoln, and Coppergate in York.
Cotswold Archaeology’s post-excavation manager, Gail Wakeham, says: ‘It is our intention to laser scan and 3D print the flute as a replica object, and create a 3D model of the artefact, using photogrammetry, which will be displayed in our online Virtual Museum. This will allow finer details to be observed by anyone who is interested anywhere in the world, and provide an opportunity to get closer to the medieval musician who once entertained family and friends through his/her flute-playing.’
Post-excavation assessment of the site has only just begun, with full analysis and publication to follow. Cotswold Archaeology thanks Taylor Wimpey South East for funding the ongoing work; Simon Mason, Principal Archaeological Officer for Kent County Council, for monitoring the project; and Neills Materials Ltd for offering to scan and 3D print the flute. Fieldwork was led by Adam Howard and managed by Richard Greatorex.