Conch shell tones

How old-fashioned is your taste in music? Researchers have recreated notes from a 17,000-year-old conch shell, found in a cave in southern France.

Discovered in the Marsoulas Cave, just north of the Pyrenees mountains, in 1931, the shell was initially thought to be a drinking cup. But a more detailed analysis, published today in the journal Science Advances, showed that the shell had been subtly modified by humans to attach a mouthpiece and use as a musical instrument.

Marsoulas Cave: fast facts

  • Excavations first bagan in 1983 by Henri Breuil and André Leroi-Gourhan
  • The cave is filled with images of humans, horses, and bison painted by prehistoric artists
  • These paintings are thought to be 17,000 years old
  • Marsoulas cave was closed in 1996 due to vandalism and graffiti

The researchers enlisted the help of a musicologist specialising in wind instruments, who played the instrument in a recording studio. With the mouthpiece of the shell protected to avoid damage to the artefact, the musicologist blew air through the shell in a similar manner to playing trumpet or trombone, which allowed the shell to vibrate at its natural resonance and produce notes. Three distinct tones were recorded, which were similar to the modern notes C, D and C sharp.

Conch shell
The conch is 31 cm in height, 18 cm in diameter (at the widest point) and up to 0.8 cm thick. Credit: © Carole Fritz et al. 2021.

The researchers used photogrammetry and x-ray fluorescence spectrometry to examine the outside of the shell, and CT scanning to inspect its interior.

They found that the outer lip of the shell (the labrum) had been removed, and two holes had been chipped away inside it – these might have been to hold a tube that was used as a mouthpiece, so players could protect their lips. The conch had also been painted with pigments similar to those used for the wall art found inside Marsoulas Cave.

There are many examples of wind instruments made from bone, but a musical conch shell is an unusual find from this time period.

“Around the world, conch shells have served as musical instruments, calling or signaling devices, and sacred or magic objects depending on the cultures,” the study authors write. “To our knowledge, the Marsoulas shell is unique in the prehistoric context, however, not only in France but at the scale of Paleolithic Europe and perhaps the world.”

A 3D interactive model of the conch shell can be found here.

The sound of the ancient conch © Carole Fritz et al. 2021 / playing: Jean-Michel Court / recording: Julien Tardieu / Image: Carole Fritz et al. 2021 / drawing: Gilles Tosello

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