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Scientific result | Mass spectrometry | Particle accelerator

Perfect harmony between carbon-14 dating and antique music

Fifteen musical instruments from ancient Egypt were dated by measuring their carbon-14 levels in the Carbon-14 Measurement Laboratory associated with the LSCE (Saclay). They will be exhibited at the Louvre-Lens museums until January 15, 2018, among four hundred objects that bring back to life more than three thousand years of music from the great ancient civilizations (Egypt, the Orient, Rome, Greece).

Published on 13 November 2017

Harps, wooden clackers (castanets), and drums made from leather and skins that are conserved in the Louvre museum have now been dated by measuring their carbon-14 content, using accelerator mass spectrometry at the Carbon-14 Measurement Laboratory (CEA, CNRS, IRSN, IRD, Ministère de la Culture et de la communication). All of the steps required for dating - from sampling to chemical preparation of samples to measuring carbon isotopes - were handled by the laboratory.


The date of these instruments was evaluated for the most part to be between the New Kingdom and the Third Intermediate Period (between 1600 and 660 BC). Some of the parts that were added or restored in the 19th century have also been identified, including harp strings, for example.

As part of an interdisciplinary approach aimed at understanding ancient musical instruments in all their complexity, these analyses shed a unique light on the manufacturing periods of objects with a very valuable cultural heritage.

By adopting music as a common theme, the Louvre-Lens exhibit "Musiques ! Échos de l'Antiquité" offers a singular look at the great ancient civilizations, while combining history, archaeology, cultural heritage conservation and scientific research.

This study was conducted in collaboration with the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo, the Egyptian antiquities department of the Louvre, and the CNRS (Laboratoire Histoire et sources des mondes antiques, Lyon).

An article in the exhibit catalog presents a sneak preview of some of the results, before their publication as a full article in a scientific journal.

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