A team of researchers was studying the archaeological inventory of the Natural History Museum of Toulouse in France, when a large seashell caught their attention. First unearthed from the Marsoulas cave in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains in 1931, the conch—bigger than a human head—was filed together with other artifacts and sat inside the museum for decades. But when archaeologists took a fresh look, they realized it wasn’t just an ordinary oceanic fossil. They found that the conch had been carved into a wind instrument capable of producing specific notes—essentially a musical instrument that archaeologists propose may have been played for ceremonial purposes.
“When it was first found in 1931, it was interpreted as a loving cup,” says Philippe Walter, director of the Laboratory of Molecular and Structural Archaeology at Sorbonne University and co-author of a study released today in Science Advances. Walter’s lab ran a battery of tests to determine what else the conch could be. The ancient dwellers used loving cups to share drinks at various occasions or ceremonies, but the conch proved to have a more artistic purpose. “As we examined it, we progressively realized that it was an exceptional object,” says Walter.
The Marsoulas cave is a well-known archaeological site, and is one of the many excavations in the southwestern Europe that ancient societies called their home. A group known as the Pyrenean Magdalenians inhabited the cave about 18,000 years ago, leaving behind wall art and various objects, including the conch. Early humans were known for making simple musical instruments even before that time—such as flutes carved from bird bones, but the “conch instrument” would be the oldest of its kind known today, explains Carole Fritz, the study’s coauthor, who leads prehistoric art research at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).
The archaeologists who found it 80 years ago had presumed that it simply broke off due to wear and tear, but because the conch’s tip is the strongest point of the shell, the modern-day team suspected some human handiwork.
When Walter placed the conch into a CT scan, he indeed found many curious human touches. Not only did the ancient artists deliberately cut off the tip, but they also punctured or drilled round holes through the shell’s coils, through which they likely inserted a small tube-like mouthpiece. To keep the mouthpiece in place, the Magdalenians are believed to have used some sort of sticky organic material, which could have been clay or wax, but the team couldn't determine exactly what. “There just wasn't enough material to tell what it was,” Walter says.
What he could tell was that the seashell’s horn had been decorated with traces of red pigment. Painted as series of red dots the size and shape of fingerprints, the touches covered the opening of the shell. Moreover, artistically, that red dot style was strikingly similar to the large image of a bison that the Magdalenian artists had painted on the cave’s wall. (The paintings in the cave were discovered in 1897, Walter says, and described in the 1932 article in Nature.) These stylistic similarities can be indicative of some special ceremonial practice where the seashell horn was sounded near to the bison’s picture for spiritual, celebratory or other reasons.
Curious how the conch would sound today, the team consulted a professional horn player. “It was a very big emotional moment for me” says Fitz. She was worried that the ancient conch may incur some damage, “because it was an original shell and we didn’t know how the shell would react.” But the wind instrument performed well, releasing three sounds close to the notes C, C-sharp and D. “And the sound was truly amazing,” Fritz says. Walter adds that that the three notes isn’t the limit of the shell’s abilities, but rather just a quick sound experiment. “There are many other possibilities,” he says.
The mouthpiece would likely make it easier to blow air into the conch, because in its current state, it is uncomfortable for the players to hold their lips around the conch opening, Walter says. It also may have helped control the amount of air blown in, which could’ve affected the sound.
Margaret W. Conkey, an archaeologist at the University of California Berkley, who extensively studied the Pyrenees area and is familiar with the Masroulas cave but wasn’t involved in the project, is excited about these developments. She describes the findings as a “terrific example of the archaeological research and reasoning” that deepens the interpretation of the lives and customs of prehistoric humans. She also points that the study proves that aspiring archeologists don't always have to discover a new excavation site to unearth prehistoric treasures. Examining an already existing collection may yield equally exciting results.
Researchers believe that the shell originated from the Cantabria region in today’s Spain as did some other objects from the cave, such as a spear point fragment carved from a cetacean bone. Yet, the conch was found in the Pyrenees foothills, miles away from the nearest ocean or sea, which meant that it was an important object that people carried along. These hunter-gatherer societies were mobile and moved across large distances, says Conkey. And while they spent a certain amount of time in caves, they also spent a lot of time in the open air, convening at certain meeting points at specific times of year, where they found mates and traded objects. “These people had a very material and symbolic world,” Conkey says. “They made bone needles and clothing, and exchanged things and made pigments,” she explains—and they carried their belongings with them on their journeys. So even if a particular group may have not been frequenting the shore, they may have traded the conch from a group that did.
She adds that the Magdalenian people also valued sensory experiences, including those produced by wind instruments. Sounding a horn-like instrument inside the cave with good acoustics likely produced a powerful feeling. “Marsoulas is a small cave and this is a very large conch,” Conkey says. “Can you imagine how it would have sounded in there?”
That's exactly what the team wants to do at some point—sound the shell inside the Marsoulas cave, next to the bison painting. “When we played the shell in the [lab] it was totally amazing, it produced a very strong sound,” Walter says, but it might resonate even stronger or more nuanced in a cave, because “the cave acoustics is very specific.” It would be so interesting to hear and feel what feelings it would invoke in humans 18,000 years later. “It’s beautiful to think about the possibility of using it in the cave,” he says.