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The Music of objects

By Heather Burke

A soundscape is made up of the natural and human-made sounds that help to define an environment or a place. Although we tend to consider some sounds as “noise” — usually those things we find undesirable within our own cultural frame of reference, including other people’s preferred forms of music — all sounds are part of a soundscape. The ambient sounds of the Australian bush, for example, sound like this.

It is only relatively recently that archaeologists have given any attention to trying to reconstruct or understand soundscapes. As a human construction, sound is just as much a product of past activity as a three dimensional object, therefore sound can be argued to have artefactual qualities. Jeffrey Benjamin (2013) coined the term ‘sonifacts’ to describe sound artefacts, using the concept to create a ‘sonifactual assemblage’ for the way an industrial blacksmith’s shop in Michigan might have sounded when in full operation in 1916.

Musical landscapes are perhaps one of the most obvious kinds of soundscapes, especially those reconstructed from the literal ruins of music and connected to sounds that we can relate to directly in the modern world.

Music is a particular form of sound that uses pitch, timbre, rhythm and intensity, along with action, to create “social meanings that are both shared and deeply personal” (Blake and Cross 2015:83). It can be used for entertainment, aesthetic stimulation and social bonding, and often formed a means of cross-cultural exchange between Europeans and Indigenous people. For example, music was part of the official conception of Cook’s second voyage (Agnew 2001), and various colonial missions made use of music and musical instruments in gift exchanges with local Indigenous people. Beyond Earth, the harmonica and bells were part of the soundscape on the Gemini VI mission in 1965, and music, including that by Yolngu people from Arnhem Land, has been immortalised on the Voyager Golden Records.

Our work on the Archaeology of the NMP project has uncovered two ubiquitous musical instruments that appear on several NMP camp sites: the harmonica and the Jew’s (or jaw’s) harp. Fragments of the internal metal reeds from harmonicas were recovered from the camps of Lower Laura (Boralga) in Cape York Peninsula, Burke River (Boulia) and Eyre’s Creek in western Qld, and Mistake Creek in Central Qld. We recorded the iron frames of Jew’s harps at the Lower Laura, Coen and Barcoo camps. Interestingly, the Jew’s harp found at Lower Laura was excavated from Trench 7, an area associated with the Aboriginal troopers’ huts.

Jew’s harp, Trench 7, Square 7, Troopers’ huts area, Lower Laura NMP camp (BOR-027802).

The harmonica, like the accordion, was created by German manufacturers in the 1820s, its prominent role in maritime culture resulting in its export across the world. Introduced to Australia via the first German settlers to the Barossa in 1838 (Johnson 1997:97), unlike instruments such as the piano — which required an investment in fixed space — harmonicas were both portable and cheap, cementing their popularity with working class people (Daly 2016:284–285). Given their widespread accessibility it is not surprising that fragments of harmonicas have been found on historical archaeological sites around Australia, as well as internationally.

Ten hole harmonicas were amongst the most common. These could produce 20 notes: ten played while inhaling and ten while exhaling. They are usually referred to as diatonic in recognition of their dual note function. The strong masculine connotations of harmonicas (Daly 2016:289) and their association with transient and unpropertied workers connected them to the narrative imagery of adventure, journeys and—in Australia—romanticised and often isolated ‘bush’ life. They are still strongly associated with folk music traditions, although less gendered than they once were.

Ten hole harmonica reed from the Eyre’s Creek NMP Camp, western Queensland (EYR-046110)

The Jew’s harp is a slightly different form of mouth instrument. Also called a trump, a mouth harp and a juice harp, it is actually a very old object, and is sometimes known as a lamellophone because of the thin, flexible plates or ‘tongues’ that it uses to produce sound. To play it, the harp is held between the teeth, and the tongue is struck with a finger to produce a note. The player can create melody by altering the shape of their mouth cavity. Examples in Australia date to at least the 1820s. To hear what it sounds like, try this version of Waltzing Matilda.

Now imagine either of these instruments (or both in the case of Lower Laura) as part of the soundscape of an NMP camp. Take the ambient sounds of the Australian bush, overlay them with the regular tones of the blacksmith’s hammer and anvil[1], the voices of passersby on the road, including the swearing of teamsters and the sounds of pack animals, as well as the other sounds of daily life. Perhaps there are chickens roaming the camp[2], children playing or fighting[3]horses neighing or snuffling in the paddock, buildings being constructed or repaired. Then insert the strains of possibly Irish[4] folk music played on the harmonica, or something more atonal but no less regular on the Jew’s harp.  

Sonifacts are very difficult to measure or grasp, being by nature both fleeting and intangible. They are largely lost to the present unless the objects — their ‘host artefacts’ (Benjamin 2013:24) — used to create them are preserved. The soundscape of an NMP camp is most clearly represented by two fragmentary kinds of musical host artefacts, but the many other, more traditional objects that also constitute the archaeology of a camp provide insights into a much wider range of sounds. We leave you to imagine them.


Agnew, V. 2001 A Scot’s Orpheus in the South Seas: Music on Cook’s second voyage. Journal for Maritime Research 3(1):1–27.

Benjamin, J. 2013 Sound as Artifact. Unpublished MSc in Industrial Archaeology thesis, Michigan Technological University, Michigan.

Blake, E.C. and I. Cross 2015 The acoustic and auditory contexts of human behaviour. Current Anthropology 56(1):81–103.

Daly, D. 2016 Archaeology of the Dam-Keeper’s House. Unpublished MA thesis, San Francisco State University, San Francisco.

Johnson, B. 1997 Australia’s national instrument? Perfect Beat 3(2):96–101.

[1] In those areas where horses needed to be shod. We surmise that Lower Laura was one of them given the quantity of horseshoes excavated from one trench, along with numerous other metal items.

[2]  We excavated many eggcups from the Lower Laura camp, as well as a ceramic laying egg.

[3] Children’s toys were also a prominent part of the material excavated at Lower Laura.

[4] At least 18% of officers in the NMP were Irish.

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