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Work Trumpet with a swelling decorated with a human head

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Iran

Miniature trumpet decorated with a head of a man

© 2007 RMN / Franck Raux

Near Eastern Antiquities


Trumpets and drums were the only known musical instruments in the Oxus civilization, which developed during the 3rd millennium in Margiana and Bactria, in an area between present-day Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. The most beautiful trumpets have a swelling decorated with a human head.

The various forms of Oxus trumpets

There are three main types: the most basic trumpets form a sawn-off cone or have a flared rim; a slightly more complex form has an undecorated swelling or bulb in the middle; and a third type has a human or sometimes animal head on or instead of the swelling. They all have a cut-off conical mouthpiece.
Manufacturing these trumptets required great skill, especially when they were made of precious metal. X-ray examinations have shown that the gold or silver trumpets are made of a single piece. They have therefore been carefully beaten out of an ingot by means of a hammer and anvil. Even the most skilled goldsmiths of our time have not managed to achieve this without resorting to welding at least once. The technical prowess is even greater in the case of this trumpet because the head had to be shaped in a part that was very hard to reach.

A real portrait

The male head decorating the bulb of this trumpet is so strikingly realistic that it can be regarded as a portrait, probably one of the most beautiful adorning these trumpets. The figure has a small beard which thickens into tight curls framing the chin. A slight swelling to the right of the lips suggests a drooping moustache. The thick hair has been combed straight forward to a fringe on the forehead in what looks like a page-boy cut.

Instruments for making real sounds

The expression "musical instruments" is probably not quite accurate for these trumpets, because they seem to have been used more for the range of their sound than to make music. But it has now been shown that they did produce sounds and were not just miniature models of larger horns.
The great specialist in these instruments, the musicologist Bo Lawergren, has proven that the Oxus trumpets produced sounds and that the bulbs also had an acoustic function. The consistency of the corpus and the constant shape of the cut-off conical mouthpiece seem to support his theory. The frequencies of the sounds produced are similar to the call made by the hinds of some species of deer during the mating season. The trumpets could have been lures used by deerstalkers lying in wait for their quarry.


Lawergren Bo, "Oxus Trumpets, CA. 2200-1800 BCE : Material Overview, Usage, Societal Role, and Catalog", in Iranica Antiqua, vol. XXXVIII, 2003, pp. 41-118.

Technical description

  • Miniature trumpet decorated with a head of a man

  • Silver

  • Acquired in 1997 , 1997

    AO 31013

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Iran and Bactria
    Room 305
    Display case 3: Bactrian period (late 3rd–early 2nd millenium BC)

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