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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Flutsch

Jean-Michel Court: Playing an 18,000 year old conch shell

Updated: Feb 26, 2021

In February, academics from the University of Toulouse published a paper about the re-examination of a palaeolithic era conch shell, first discovered in the Marsoulas cave in 1931. When it was first found, researchers assumed that it was a communal cup. The new paper explains that the conch shell is actually the world’s oldest musical instrument; a horn.

Reconstruction of the instrument being played.

© Carole Fritz et al. 2021 / drawing: Gilles Tosello

A multidisciplinary team of academics subjected the shell to a battery of tests using many different techniques including photogrammertry, x-ray fluorescence spectrometry and CT scanning.

The entrance to the Marsoulas caves, where the conch shell was found.© Carole Fritz CNRS/TRACES - UMR 5608

The results were astonishing – showing that in all likelihood, the conch shell came from the Atlantic ocean and was modified in a very specific and technical way in order to be played as a horn. Further, testing showed that the conch shell’s red pigment decorations match the paintings on the walls of the cave where it was found. Painting and music, both known to be activities done in the palaeolithic era, are profoundly social activities. This conch shell has linked painting with music in the palaeolithic era for the very first time!

Area near the entrance to the Marsoulas cave.

These discoveries were brought to life when Jean-Michel Court, musicologist and horn player, was approached to see if he could make music with the conch shell.

I was privileged to interview Jean-Michel via Zoom on 22 February. What follows is an account of that interview. I would like to thank Dr Rana Traboulsi for the generous donation of her translation services.

How did your involvement in the conch shell project come about?

My colleagues and I are musicologists and we work in an acoustic laboratory at the University of Toulouse. Carole Fritz, who led the study, got in touch with one of my colleagues, a flautist, to see if he could make music with the conch shell. But the architecture of the shell required quite a different technique. In fact, the conch shell can be considered an ancestor to the horn and to try to play it requires techniques similar to that needed to play a modern French horn. I am a horn player, so the challenge came to me.

Capture of the 3D image.

How did you approach trying to create sounds from the conch shell?

I went to Carole’s lab to examine the conch shell. The shell has had its tip cut off, with an object like a hammer, to make a small hole in which to blow. However, the opening of the hole is very jagged, which made it challenging to play. So, to avoid injuring my mouth, I had to cover the outer edges with cotton. I suspect that the original players used a tube positioned in the opening to play. Testing shows that the shell has two small holes inside which are in the right place to keep a small tube secure and lined up with the opening.

(A) Sagittal section of the three-dimensional (3D) model of the shell that makes it possible to visualize the hole drilled at the level of the sixth spire,probably to introduce a tube to facilitate the fitting of a mouthpiece. (B) Detail of the circular perforation drilled from the apex. The streaks on the edge are due to a skidding tool. (C) Top view of the 3D model showing the perforation. (D) Three-dimensional (3D) cross section at the level of the seventh spire. © C. Fritz.

We didn’t try to use a mouthpiece to play the shell as that would not have been authentic – nor did we try and use a tube in the way we suspect it might have been played – as we still don’t know exactly how that would have worked. So we tried to play the shell, as it was.

Were you able to produce a sound from the shell?

Yes, I was able to produce three notes, a semitone apart, which were loud – around 100 decibels at 1 metre. Although this is very loud, I think it could have been played in the cave because the cave itself is quite deep.

Recording of Jean-Michel playing the conch shell.

I found the shell quite difficult to play. If you compare the shell to a French horn, it is easier to imagine the challenge. If I were to unroll a French horn, the tube would be about 5 metres long. That length creates a counter pressure when you blow through it and that counter pressure helps a player create and control notes.

© C.Flutsch 2021

The conch shell is short - only around 30 cm long – even if you were to unroll the internal spirals, it wouldn’t add much extra length, maybe an extra 10cm – it’s essentially a short, tube that starts narrow and opens to a big diameter. If you can imagine that, you will easily imagine that air travels through it very easily.

Elimination of the outer lip by series of strokes and the opening of the apex by destruction of the first six spires.© C. Fritz.

This means that the shell has no air resistance or counter pressure with which to make and control notes. Without that counter pressure it’s extremely difficult to make any sounds at all. It’s not that it required big lung capacity or strong lungs, it was just difficult to precisely control the pitch of the notes.

3D image of the conch shell

Having a tube at the opening would have created some counter pressure to make the production of the sound much easier. I managed to create 3 notes with barely a half tone in difference. But, if I played it today, I might not be able to produce the same notes.

Are you going to play the shell in the cave where it was found?

Yes, we are going to try to do that. We want to take an exact replica to the cave to reproduce the experience of playing and hearing it in the cave. The first model has already been produced. However, it was made out of plastic. Compared to the shell walls, the walls of the plastic model are much thinner. Plus, the inside of the shell is irregular, it has little lumps – but the interior of the plastic replica is very smooth. Those differences mean that the model cannot be used to create the same sound. I will leave it to the scientists to find the right materials to create an accurate acoustic replica, but I believe that they are also trying to find the funding to make it – as it’s extremely expensive.

Cross section of Marsoulas cave. ©️C. Fritz

The conch shell is decorated with red paint in a dot motif, which is the similar to the paint with matching motifs used to decorate the cave walls. That suggests that the cave paintings and the shell may have been used together in some sort of ritual – though I’m only assuming that.

How do you feel about having played the shell?

My purpose in playing the shell was technical, to understand how an object, like a shell, can produce acoustics and how that was done more than 17,000 years ago. But, actually playing the shell, creating notes, was a special experience – recreating sounds similar to ones produced by humans many thousands of years ago. We had no trace of those sounds until now.

Entrance to the Marsoulas cave. © C.Fritz

Will you incorporate the sounds into your music?

I’m not planning to use the sounds in my music but in fact, shells are still used as musical instruments today. I know of a Brazilian musician, Dias Brazil, who uses a conch shell in his concerts. I don’t mind if techno artists mix the sound into their music – after all, it is publicity for prehistoric music!


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