An Instrument For The Ages

People have been playing ocarinas for thousands of years. The purposes of these instruments appear to be as varied as their sizes and shapes.

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This four-hole ocarina, which came from northwest Costa Rica, is shaped like a mythical animal. (c) President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. PM# 976-59-20/24969.
This four-hole ocarina, which came from northwest Costa Rica, is shaped like a mythical animal. (c) President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. PM# 976-59-20/24969.

Fall 2017: By Gayle Keck.

You might have had one when you were a kid. You might have encountered a magical one while playing a popular video game. You might even have an app on your iPhone or Android. Ocarinas captivate people today, just as they have for millennia.

These clay wind instruments, technically classified as “globular aerophones,” have one or more chambers. Players blow into, or sometimes over, a mouthpiece, placing their fingers on “tone-holes” to create different notes. Archaeologists excavating Mesoamerican sites have found ocarinas with numerous tone-holes. The most complex instruments have multiple mouthpieces and chambers, and are capable of producing simultaneous notes—sometimes even unusual wailing or buzzing sounds. The larger the resonating chamber, the lower the pitch; the size and thickness of the tone-holes can affect pitch as well.

There’s speculation that ocarinas traveled to Europe in 1527 with Aztec musicians who visited the court of Spanish King Charles V. They got their name from Giuseppe Donati, a nineteenth-century Italian musician, who dubbed his instrument “ocarina,” or “little goose.” Many modern ones do resemble that shape, but ancient ocarinas were incredibly varied, both in size and design. They range from tiny birds and turtles to larger, complex figurines; others create a mask-like effect when held up to the mouth. Still others have to be examined closely to discern that they’re musical instruments.

Archaeologists have found ocarinas in Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America; some of these instruments are more than 4,500 years old. They turn up in middens, elite residences, and burial sites. In some instances, archaeologists believe they were used in ceremonies, dances, processions, or even in battle, while in others, it seems they were toys or home entertainment. There is even speculation that ocarinas were used to achieve trance-like states or to cure illness.

Excerpt.

Read More in our FALL 2017 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 4. Browse Content of this Issue: Fall 2017 . Browse Articles Excerpts from our last issue, SUMMER 2017.

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