The painted trumpets in the Kazanlak tomb: parallels with Tutankhamun’s trumpets, instrumental and performance hypotheses

A UNESCO World Heritage site, The Kazanlak tomb, dated the end of 4th c. BC (Венедиков, Герасимов 1973, 70-71, 73-75), features among its frescoes a pair of female musicians, who participate in the funeral ritual of the depicted ruler. (Photo 1) Each musician is playing a conical-bore shaped instrument while pointing downwards with their left hand, possibly giving each other performance indications. Based on the proportions, I estimate that the instruments are relatively long; at least an adult human’s arm’s length (~ 60 cm).

The fresco in the Kazanlak tomb does not hint at what the instruments might have been made of. If made of metals or alloys, they would correspond to the definition of trumpet. If made of wood, they could still be considered trumpets, as terms such as “shepherd’s trumpet” do describe some wooden instruments with no reeds where the player blows into the smaller of the two ends (Hirt 2014: 5).

Some may hypothesize that the instruments depicted in the Kazanlak tomb be part of the zurna family (Photo 2; for a definition and reference literature on the zurna family of instruments, see Poché, Christian, Razia Sultanova. Surnāy 2001). I, however, dismiss the possibility of them being zurnas because of the hand positions of the musicians. A zurna would have tone holes. Most importantly, a zurna would necessarily be held with both hands, something which the skillful artist would have represented on the fresco. However, the musicians hold their instruments with one hand each, implying a lightweight natural instrument – a trumpet.

Considering the wealth of the Thracian kings and the existence of precious metal burial sets (commonly known as “treasures”), I am inclined to pursue the most likely possibility, presuming the instruments to be trumpets made of precious metal or bronze. They could however be decorated and even gilded wooden trumpets, something impossible to tell from the Kazanlak tomb fresco. While the development of composed music in Western Europe eventually led to the development of valved trumpet, the natural wooden (or horn-carved) trumpet survives in folk music in various shapes and sizes that have changed little since ancient times in both Eastern and Western Europe (for a historical overview of folk trumpets and a step-by-step reconstruction process of wooden trumpets, and accompanying illustration material or original and reconstructed instruments, see Hirt, Aindrias. "The European Folk Music Scale: A New Theory." 2014)

The Kazanlak tomb instruments resemble the Egyptian trumpets discovered in Tutankhamun’s tomb on three key points: large size, conical bore shape, and funeral rite purpose. (Photos 3 and 4) The long time frame between the existences of the instruments does not present a problem: the instrument form is very conservative, surviving until the present day. The dating of the Kazanlak tomb follows Alexander the Great’s empire expansions, where Thracians did participate. Even if they did not have local trumpets of this exact type before, Thracian aristocrats may have easily seen, copied, purchased or even stolen such instruments.

The “Ghost music” seminal radio broadcast by the BBC in 2011 describes the Egyptian trumpets thusly: “Most trumpets of antiquity were short straight instruments of wood, bronze or silver, used for both military and ceremonial purposes. […] One of Tutankhamun's trumpets […] is of silver and 58,2 cm long; the other is of bronze and 50,5 cm long; their bores expand from 1,7 cm at the narrow end to 8,2 cm at the bell. They have no detachable mouthpieces; the lips were applied directly to the narrow end. […] Herodotus likened the sound of the ancient trumpet to the braying of an ass.” (Sarkissian, Harr, 2001). The so-called bronze trumpet may not be bronze at all, but copper. The metal itself has not been analyzed (Burgess 2011).

An even more detailed description is given by Jeremy Montagu in his 1978 article "One of Tut'ankhamūn's Trumpets": “The [presumed bronze] trumpet is made in two parts, the body being a slightly conical tube of rolled up from sheet between 0,2 and 0,25 mm in thickness. […] The other part is the bell. […] The bell is a straight cone and has no perceptible seam; […] likely […] the joint was made without the use of a flux and was burnished until the gold simply flowed together. The body tube is inserted into the top of the bell and the two are riveted together at four points and the joint covered very thin sleeve of pure gold […] The embouchure, that most controversial of all parts of these instruments, is simply a solid of metal, bearing no resemblance to any of the types illustrated by Hickmann […] The top of the body tube is covered by of gold, of no more than foil thickness. There is, in some portions of the circumference, gap between the everted top of the body tube and the embouchure ring, as though slightly moved down the tube […] If these traces are a part of the sheet round the top of the tube, embouchure ring held in position? […] It seems most probable that it is an exact fit to the top of the tube, possibly position, and that the slight conicity of the tube suffices to hold it in place. Certainly […] the ring is not on a sleeve […]” (Montagu 1978: 133-134).

Despite everything we don’t know about them, the make-up of the Egyptian trumpets provides key musical evidence: the metals (or bronze) indicate that the lack of detachable mouthpieces among the Egyptian excavation finds may simple mean that those were made of degradable materials, such as wood, and attached as needed by the performers themselves. Silver would fast oxidize, and bronze and copper would be easily deformed by having a person simply put them in their mouth and exercise any kind of workable, controlled, and sustained pressure.

As ancient trumpets were natural instruments, the performer would only have had a few pitches from the overtone series at their disposal, available by means of overblowing the pipe. The mouth pressure that would be necessary to correctly approach any note other than the lowest one further suggests that detachable mouthpieces with or without reeds, made of degradable materials were used (most of contemporary mouthpieces are detachable and though commercial reeds from organic and synthetic materials are widely available and accessible today, many reed instrument performers across the world prefer to make their own reeds from various materials ranging from cane to bamboo, thus ensuring that the timbre and sound quality correspond to their musical requirements and physical convenience).

As we can see, ancient Egyptian trumpets provide a very probable parallel with the trumpets depicted in the Kazanlak tomb. Montagu goes a step further in his description and speculates about possible instrumental limitations. I disagree with him with respect to his performance-related hypothesis that “as one would expect with a ceremonial instrument capable of producing only one or two notes, appearance was more important than acoustical perfection” (Montagu 1978: 133). He, just as many non-musicians, presumes that detachable mouthpieces did not exist whereas they might have, and refers to limited attempts by other researchers to simply blow into the instrument, attempts that obtained only three notes in total among which only the middle one was reliable and the upper one too difficult (Ibid).

In support of my argument, in the 2011 BBC 4 “Ghost music” programme, we hear more than three clear, stable notes (Burgess 2011). It is noted to specify that for this experiment, as mentioned in the programme, the performer did obtain reliable notes by using a detachable mouthpiece. It is also difficult to believe that rich aristocrats, including pharaohs, would spend a lot of wealth ordering an expensive and exquisite musical instrument that would not be able to play at least as well as any other existing instrument made by a local shepherd from a found piece of wood. It is much more likely that the instruments exemplified state-of-the-art craftsmanship both in appearance and acoustical properties.

Based on the comparison with such a multi-faceted parallel, we can hypothesize what the Thracian trumpets might have sounded like by listening to the recorded sound of the original Egyptian trumpets on BBC online (Ibid). While the instruments may not have reached down to an overtone series fundamental, listening to the minor third on the BBC recording, I deduce that the Thracian trumpets would likely have played may be five or even six lower notes of the overtone series, excluding the fundamental. In my example below I use the BBC recording of Tut'ankhamūn's trumpets as a reference of what might have been musically available for natural trumpets of this size. Musicians deduce the overtone series based on the given notes, as certain intervals occur only at certain places in the series. Tut'ankhamūn's bronze (copper?) trumpet has a fundamental note around F (an octave and a half below middle c1), whereas the silver trumpet seems to have a fundamental note around h (a semitone below c1). We can see that depending on the material, with which the instruments are made, the actual pitch would vary widely.

Figure one: possible overtones available to ancient natural trumpet players




We can see from the fresco that the Thracian burial rite included instrumental music at least in some cases and contexts. Primary sources on the topic are preciously few and though instruments are shown on various vessels, few written indications about the role of music remain. In her book Thracian secret societies, Valeria Fol exhausts the primary sources on the topic – mostly concerning vocal chanting and intoning (for detailed information on the philosophical and the ritual place of music in Thracian culture, as well as about the epode, see the chapter “Music, Remembrance, Recollection and Sacred Buildings” in Valeria Fol’s book Thracian secret societies, pp. 133-142, and cited literature) and reminds that “Music was the principal language of the rites through which cultural memory preserved the notions about the world, about deities, humans, society, about Man–society–Nature relations, and even about the healing practices of the Thracians.” (Fol, V. 2020: 137).

The simultaneous presence of vocalists and natural trumpet players in a Thracian rite and/or Thracian funeral feast strengthens my hypothesis that the Thracian mode was likely based on just-intonation intervals (Fol A., Grahl 2009, 130). “In spite of the specific evidence by Plato, Strabo and Aeschylus on Thracian music, the Thracian tonality has been attested only once in the conventional form thrakisti (in the Thracian way/manner) in Theocritus.” (Fol, V. 2020, 137). My hypothesis is in line with my 2009 conclusion that “with their temples, heroons and tombs, the Thracians represent not only their knowledge of celestial movements, but also leave indications to their music theory system. As a non-literary culture, the Thracians could not describe in writing their musical tradition, but I suspect thеy have left sufficient indications in their architectural monuments for us to reconstruct at least parts of it […]” (Fol A., Grahl 2009: 128).

I would go as far as to speculate that the tuning of the trumpets would be adjusted by means of detachable mouthpieces among other ways, to the particular tomb’s resonating fundamental pitch to be able to collaborate with (a) liturgically invested singer(s)/priest(esse)s, and/or to announce by means of overtone series calls the signature musical resonant pitches to crowds. The uninitiated persons outside the ritual space would thus hear an echo, a reflection, a glimpse, of what the initiated would hear inside the restricted ritual space. Though no acoustics research has been conducted with instruments yet, experiments with a male voice (for more about the experiments with male voice, see chapter “The Journey to the World Beyond, Architecture and Music” in Valeria Fol’s book Thracian secret societies, pp. 149-174, and cited literature) “[…] found that a characteristic acoustics had been sought and found through the architecture of the sacral constructions Golyama Arsenalka, Grifoni, in the heroon of Seuthes III in the Golyama Kosmatka tumulus, in the Kazanlak tomb (original) and in the Mezek tomb.” (Fol, V. 2020: 163). “It is important to emphasize that there is no musically facilitating acoustics in the chamber of the copy of the Kazanlak Tomb, although all dimensions are repeated. This suggests that the stucco on which the frescoes are painted plays an important role in the reverberations (continuous reflection of sound waves) in the space (Fol A., Fol V. 2018: 86). Would certain instrumental music have been played where nothing was sung? Future research with instruments needs to be conducted and to cover a wide array of indoor and outdoor Thracian sites.

The fresco proves that wind instruments, specifically trumpets, were employed during the Thracian burial and mysterial ritualism and supplements the available data regarding usage of music during rites (Fol, V. 2020: 133, 135,137,139,141). The participation of women indicates that women have their place in the funeral rites of the Thracians. The depiction of female performers also underlines the specificity of a Thracian performance practice that allows the employing of female musicians in official functions in general. This is rare, but not unheard of in the Ancient world. For example, in Delos the auletrides recruited annually for ritual purposes were women. (Sarkissian, Tarr 2001)

The fresco in the Kazanlak tomb depicting two female trumpeters in a Thracian ritual function, provide a wealth of research avenues for future interdisciplinary research between historians, archeologists, archaeoacousticians and performers. The insider knowledge of initiated few can sometimes be approached by remembering very simple realities: wood rots. Metal oxidizes. And thousands of years ago unrelated people from across the world blew into a pipe and were seduced into exploring the natural beauty of sound.

Alexandra Fol


Burgess, M. 2011: Ghost Music. – 19 April 2011.

Fol, A., T. Grahl 2009: Thracian Architecture – a Syncretistic Presentation and Tangible Realization of of Musica Universalis? – Проблеми и изследвания на тракийската културa 4, 127-134.

Fol A., V. Fol 2018: Music in the sacred spaces of the Thracians. – В: Сборник в чест на 85 години от рождението на Професор Александър Фол, д.н. София, 77-95.

Hirt, A. 2014: The European Folk Music Scale: A New Theory. –

Montagu, J. 1978: One of Tut'ankhamūn's Trumpets. – The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 64, 133-34.

Poché, C., R. Sultanova 2001: Surnāy. – Grove Music OnlineOxford Music Online 

Sarkissian, M., E. H. Tarr 2001: Trumpet. – Grove Music Online Oxford Music Online

Венедиков, Ив., Т. Герасимов 1973: Тракийското изкуство. София.

Фол, В./Fol, V. 2020: Тайни общества на траките / Thracian Secret Societies. София / Sofia.