Student Makes Ancient Whistling Bottles Perform
A bird head is a fitting decoration for the spout of this ancient ceramic vessel from Peru's Chimu culture. The vessel was designed to whistle like a bird, and it still works, as student researcher Danielle Parga proved recently. The whistle mechanism is inside the spout with the bird head. As air is forced past the whistle, a convincing bird-like sound emerges.
While research on the sounds produced Peruvian whistling vessels has been conducted by archaeologists and musicians since the mid 20th century, the Peabody’s collection of Peruvian whistling vessels had never been tested. Professor Tom Cummins, Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian and Colonial Art, requested Parga research and record sounds made by Peruvian whistling vessels in the Peabody Museum collections. He wanted to demonstrate the sounds for students in his courses, such as The Imperial Arts of the Inca and the Aztec and Pathways through the Andes.
After carefully weighing conservation issues and research interests with Museum best practices regarding artifact preservation, Museum staff worked with Professor Cummins and Parga. The team chose specific vessels based on their stability and the likelihood of each vessel’s “sounding” potential.
Andean whistling vessels belong to a tradition beginning in 1000 B.C. and they are still made today. There are two varieties of whistling vessels: one variety has a stirrup spout while the other variety is a two-chambered vessel. Two chambered vessels, like those tested by Parga, can be tested either by blowing into the spout just as one would with an ordinary whistle, or alternatively, by simply tipping the vessel when it's partially filled with water. That's right; no blowing is required.
While other museums and researchers have recorded sounds from Peruvian whistle vessels, Parga noted that she was skeptical of the vessel’s ability to a sound: "These bottles are 1000 years old."
Working with museum staff, Parga tested two vessels using the water method. The bird vessel was filled with water to a level just above the passage which connects the two chambers. Then, digital recorder in hand, the vessel was tipped so water inside the chamber topped by the bird whistle (shown on the left side of the top photo) drained to the other chamber. This part of the process resulted in silence and some water sloshing. Then, as they tipped the vessel back the opposite way, refilling the first chamber with water, the water forced the air past the whistle, producing sustained bird calls.
"Actually hearing the bottle—it was magical," remembers Parga."We were so surprised. We turned off the recorder and we couldn't believe how wonderful it was."
Find out more about the music of Peruvian whistling vessels in Dale Olsen’s 2002 Music of El Dorado: The Ethnomusicology of Ancient South American Cultures available through University Press of Florida. Audio examples of whistling vessels from UCLA collections that accompany the book can be found here. (tracks 30–33).