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1,700-Year-Old Musical Instrument Found, and It Still Works

The mouth harp was recently discovered in the Altai Mountains region of Russia and still makes music after well over a millennium.

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An ancient mouth harp discovered in Russia delighted archaeologists when they confirmed that it could still make a sound.

The instrument was one of five mouth harps discovered by archaeologists at two sites, Chultukov Log 9 and Cheremshanka, in the mountainous Altai Republic region of south-central Russia.

"I myself played on the harp from Cheremshanka," says Andrey Borodovsky, a professor at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He has been researching these instruments for more than 20 years, and says one of the Cheremshanka mouth harps is still capable of making music.

The instruments were likely made by craftsmen from the splintered ribs of cows or horses, and they are thought to date back 1,700 years to the period when the Huns and their descendants controlled much of central Asia. The tribes who populated the region at the time were nomadic, spreading across central Asia through modern-day Mongolia, Kazakhstan, northeast China, and southern Russia. The mouth harp that Borodovsky played is about 4.3 inches long and 3.3 inches wide.

The instruments made by the Altai craftsmen differ from other ancient instruments found in central Asia. Craftsmen in Mongolia and the Tuva region of Russia used different materials, like the horns of deer, to make mouth harps. A piece of a mouth harp made from deer horns was also found in southern Siberia about 40 years ago.

Related: Learn About Another Ancient Discovery

One of the great mysteries of ancient Peru is that the Inca did not have a system of writing, but communicated with a system of strings tied with knots. For the first time, centuries-old knotted textile accounting records known as quipus were found buried with well-preserved organic material.

While the mouth harps recently found in Russia were crafted and played well over a millennium ago, they seem quite modern compared to the world’s oldest known musical instruments—43,000-year-old flutes made from bird bone and mammoth ivory that were found in a cave in southern Germany.

After playing the mouth harp, Borodovsky says he thinks it sounds like a flageolet, a Renaissance-era instrument similar to a flute.