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Some Notes
on the
History of the Bagpipe
~ Page 2~

A possible beginning?
Assyrian Palace Carving, Circa 800 B.C.

A Possible Beginning?

There is no indication at all in the known historical record of when or where the idea of using an inflated leather bag as an air reservoir for a wind instrument originated. The very earliest depiction of an object that might be a bagpipe is a terra cotta figure currently residing in Berlin's “Staatliche Museum.” (See photo below) This much-discussed object is generally considered to be the earliest depiction of any sort of bagpipe. It is Hellenistic, probably (it is said) from Alexandria, and dates, supposedly, to the first century BC. It is controversial, and enigmatic. Is that a bellows under the "piper's" right foot or is it a time-keeping device? Is that a mouth-blown pan-pipe he's holding in his left hand, while, perhaps, the bag is providing air to a drone lying in his lap? Or is there a connection between the bag and the "pan-pipe" affair, which might operate like a Chinese Sheng (sounding a given pipe when a fingerhole is closed)? Might there be a bellows under the cloak on the figure's right side? All of these possibilities have been raised and argued.

Those of us who have looked at a lot of bagpipe iconography have learned that artists were often at a complete loss when called upon to depict bagpipes, with sometimes very bizarre results - as can be seen in our Confused Artists: Weird Bagpipes & Odd Pipers section of this site. This is not always the fault of the artists, as the written descriptions from which they sometimes were compelled to work were themselves hopelessly confused. So the elements of this figure might or might not have much relation to reality - we just don't know, and have nothing similar with which to compare it.

Much less enigmatic is the dramatic relief carving of a soldier fording a river, seen in the photo at the top of this page. This stone carving, from a throne room in the Assyrian palace in Nimrud (but presently resting in the British Museum) dates to about 800 B.C. The warrior is assisted by a "skin-float," probably a goat-hide. Other features shown in these palace-carvings are highly realistic, so this bag is probably depicted accurately. Note that the bag is equipped with a blow-pipe through which the swimmer can replace air that has leaked. Tie a simple reed-pipe into this device and Presto!, we have a bagpipe. It doesn't seem like it would have taken much of a leap of imagination to put something like that together.

The later Romans, who are often credited (despite a lack of hard evidence) with bringing bagpipes to Europe from North Africa, also employed similar skin-floats. What connection these, or those of the Assyrians, might have had to bagpipes is intriguing, but ultimately remains speculative.

An early mystery
The Berlin Terra Cotta, Circa 100 B.C.

To Be Continued...

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