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Conical Spear Butt of Navan: Archaelogist’s 3D Printed Replica Shows Artifact Was Actually a Horn Mouthpiece

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download3D printing is transforming a long list of industrial sectors, and far more–but you’d still be amazed where it manages to ‘horn’ in. As the technology is lauded for all the benefits it has to offer in manufacturing, with companies from all over the world climbing on board, and as the medical world is making numerous breakthroughs due to 3D printed devices and implants, and looks forward to the potential of bioprinting, serious strides are being made in the world of archaeology too.

While innovating to save lives, make improvements in jet and auto construction and more, is a top priority, we certainly aren’t letting history go if we can help it. And 3D printing has begun to play a role in that, showing itself as a helpful tool repeatedly in the world not only of archaeology, but multiple functions for archiving also.

An Australian archaeologist has now been able to put 3D printing to use to rock the world of ancient history, offering up one of those surprises that comes along every now and then to show us that all things are not always as they seem. This can be even more jarring when experts have been under one impression for quite some time, as was the case with the Conical Spear Butt of Navan–an Irish artifact found in the 1900s and thought obviously to be a weapon and tool.


Artifact on left; modern mouthpieces on right (Credit: Australian National University)

Here’s where the true importance of 3D printing comes to light. With the availability of digital design and 3D printing, Canberra archaeologist Billy Ó Foghlú wasn’t restricted to the two dimensional world for trying out and demonstrating his theory that the spear butt, crafted between 100BC and 200AD, was actually part of a musical instrument instead. He was able to play around with a variety of ideas and take it upon himself to have a replica of the artifact 3D printed for experimentation and testing purposes–not quite so possible with an actual artifact we are working hard to preserve.

Not only did they recreate the so-called spear butt, Ó Foghlú and a 3D printing service provider in Sydney came up with the idea to cast the mouthpiece in bronze, giving it even more of an authentic appeal–and even allowing him to play a tune as he turned it into the mouthpiece it was meant to be.

“I had made this big replica of a horn, over two metres long, and I had mimicked the thickness of the metal … and basically just stuck it in and tried to play,” Ó Foghlú said. “Suddenly the instrument just came to life.”

The discovery is highly significant, not only in terms of correcting us regarding the misclassified artifact’s use, but also in demonstrating that historians must be erroneous in claims that this time period was simply devoid of music.

“Basically you come across lots of artefacts to which people don’t know the exact function of them,” said Ó Foghlú.

“A lot of them were found during farming during the 1800s where you don’t have any archaeologists at the time, so they don’t record things quite accurately and their functions are lost.”

With his 3D printed replica, Ó Foghlú is able to show us all, that indeed, it would seem humans were making music in the Bronze Age too. The artifact is not actually an instrument in itself but is a mouthpiece that would have been used to enhance the sound of a horn.

“These horns were not just hunting horns or noisemakers. They were very carefully constructed and repaired, they were played for hours. Music clearly had a very significant role in the culture,” he said.

6740426-3x2-940x627While it must be exciting to have turned archaeology on its ear for a bit, making some pretty big news, Ó Foghlú sees that it would have been easily misclassified with the assumption that music simply wasn’t a part of life then, as well as that it was found isolated from the horn.

“None of these [horns] were excavated … in such a way that you could find these things,” he said.

Although the resourceful archaeologist obviously has little to work with in terms of an actual picture of such items, with 3D printing he was able to get pretty close, due to the casting of the mouthpiece.  This is about much more than re-classifying an artifact. It proves that music was actually a part of life in the Bronze Age–at least for the particular region from whence the mouthpiece and horn sprang.

How do you see this discovery, aided by 3D printing technology, opening up a new conversation regarding the Bronze Age–and perhaps other items which have been misclassified as well? Have you 3D printed any replicas of historical items that interest you? Discuss in the 3D Printed Conical Spear Butt of Navan Replica forum over at


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