Bone whistle found near Lake Geneva

Photo 1 front view
Photo 1 Front view


This bone whistle was found in the ruins of a fortified watchtower in the Bas Chablais, on the southern shore of Lake Geneva. The site was occupied from at least Roman times until 1591 when it was dismantled by Geneva forces. Since then, it has been pillaged for building materials for many years, and there is no clear evidence with which to date the whistle. I have created a thread here on the Chiff and Fipple forum to share information on this whistle in order to help the owner to find out more about it.  I have also edited this blogpost to take into account information that has come to hand since I first posted it.

General description

When found, the whistle was buried in compacted earth (FR glaise = clay, loam), at a deep level close to the round watchtower which we may surmise is probably one of the oldest parts of the fortification. This would be consistent with the whistle being medieval in origin. When I first saw it, it had been washed in hot water, and there were some grit particles still blocking the bore, hence my mistaken impression that it had been buried in grit rather than earth.

Bone whistle photo 2
Photo 2 Window

Once the grit had been cleaned out, it was found to have a bore fully open at both ends (See Photo 3 Upper or mouth end).

Bone whistle photo 3
Photo 3 Upper end

The top of the barrel has been slightly flattened by being scraped with a knife or other cutting instrument (see photo 4).

Photo 4 Flattened barrel top and angled toneholes.

Approximate dimensions:

Length  140mm

Diameter at toneholes 12mm

Window length 7 mm, width 6mm

Tonehole diameter 3mm.


I have not been able to make a musical sound from it by blowing as if it were an ordinary fipple flute (i.e. like a tin whistle or flageolet). I tried to insert at the mouth end a plug made from kneaded bread, leaving a windway similar to that of a Clark’s tin whistle and blowing through this into the bore, but this also failed to yield a musical sound. Blocking off the upper end of the bore completely and blowing down into the windway from above/outside also failed.

However, by overblowing, I have established that it does appear to be in pretty good tune in a pentatonic scale of Do Re Mi Sol Do, with Do pitched approximately at g# (1660Hz).


It appears to be a genuine musical instrument, made by someone who knew what he was doing, rather than an amateurish imitation.

I base this judgement not just on the fact that it is evidently in tune, but also that the toneholes seem to have been carefully bored. They are cut into the top of the barrel at an angle of approximately 45° so that they are undercut at the edge nearest the window and bevelled at the edge furthest away from it (see photo 4).

Moreover, near the bottom of the barrel there is a further hole which does not appear to have any influence on the musical characteristics of the whistle, but which looks like a hole through which a thong or cord could be threaded so the owner could carry it worn around his neck (photo 5).

Photo 5 Back view with hole probably for carrying cord.

I received this contribution from Yuri on the Chiff and Fipple thread:

This is a type that is very typical of the Middle Ages. There are literally hundreds of them across most of Europe, from Britain to Poland, and probably Russia. There was a book published in German with a couple of hundred examples, from all over Northern Europe except Britain, as that was dealt with in any number of articles in specialist journals.
In any case, this is definitely a fipple flute, not a side flute. The number of fingerholes is quite common, they range from 2 (rare) 3 (by far the most common, leading a lot of people to speculate whether they were tabor pipes), 4 (quite common) 5 (rather rare) and 6 or even 7, very rare. They were nearly all made from sheep or goat tibia, a very few from deer tibia. The age is a bit unclear, but at least as early as the 4th c they are already present, with the bulk being from 12-13-14th c., and then declining, though there is at least one definitely known example from Sweden that is practically identical, that can be very securely dated to the early 19th c.
Oh, there are bird bone whistles, too. These are quite different in appearance, though. They tend to be much narrower, and far more uniform in diameter.

The most complete online description I have found thanks to Yuri’s contribution is in the German version of Wikipedia. It uses the term Knochenflöte rather than Knochenpfeife.

Here’s a link for those who don’t have an umlaut on their keyboard:

The article says that the medieval versions of such flutes are most commonly made of sheep’s tibiae. The mouth end was blocked with a beeswax plug, and a windway was cut in this. It also contains the following, which is all the more interesting because the whistle I’m asking about was found is just a few dozen kilometres from the Swiss border (the largest French town nearby is Evian).

Die zumindest in der Schweiz vergleichsweise zahlreichen Funde auf Burgen könnten als Hinweis auf eine dort besonders gepflegte derartige Tradition dienen; entweder durch den Burgadel oder durch Sennen, die das burgeigene Vieh hüteten. Hirten bevorzugten einfache Melodien, wie unter anderem der Satz „Pastorale“ (italienisch: Hirtenlied) im Weihnachtskonzert von Arcangelo Corelli zeigt. Auch fahrende Musikanten kommen als Spieler auf Knochenflöten in Betracht. Auf mehrlochigen Instrumenten konnte ein geschickter Spielmann mit Gabelgriffen, Halbdeckungen der Löcher und Überblastechnik durchaus Melodien zum Besten geben. Insgesamt aber hat die Bohrung der Löcher kein System, dementsprechend tönen sie auch: Nur selten ergibt sich eine Tonleiter, meistens in sich unstimmig.

“Finds in castles, which are relatively common in Switzerland at least, suggest a particularly developed tradition, either among the castle nobility or among herdsmen who tended the castle livestock. Herdsmen preferred simple melodies, as indicated by the “Pastorale’ (herdsman’s song) in Arcangelo Corelli’s Christmas concerto. There may also have been travelling musicians who used bone flutes. With multi-hole instruments, a skilled player using cross-fingering, half-holing and overblowing could do justice to a melody. Generally speaking, however, there is no system to the boring of the holes, and the pitch of the notes reflects this: there is rarely a scale, and where there is one, it is generally not internally in tune.”

In the light of the discussion on Chiff and Fipple, I refrained from making any further attempts to get a musical sound out of it.  On re-examining it in the light of the information since gathered, I concluded that the angle of the aperture at the mouth end is such that the airstream with my original plug was probably angled in such a way that it did not strike the blade cleanly enough.  It would probably be best to insert a solid plug reaching tothe nearer edge of the window and to bore a hole in it from a lower point to focus the airstream on the blade

What’s the story?

Those of a certain age will recognise the Joycean nod towards JFK’s “Ireland’s green and misty island”.

Moved back to Ireland after twenty-two years living in Belgium as an expat, promising everybody – especially myself – that I wouldn’t be a “returned Yank”.  But it’s hard sometimes.

So let’s pretend that the “green” refers to the fact that I never lost my youthful naïveté and the “musty” to the fact that I am now well past my sell-by date.

Interests include society and the economy, with particular reference to Ireland and Europe; education; history (particularly that of Ireland and of the two World Wars we’ve had so far); language(s); and music of various kinds.

Strong views on hyphenation, but quite relaxed about the Oxford semicolon (if it doesn’t exist, we should invent it).

Took to Twitter with considerable reservations a year or two ago, intending to use it as a way of discussing serious topics: now ranting away with the best of them.  This is my first venture into the blogodrome, but I assume that my behaviour here will deteriorate much the same way. I’ll probably use this blog mainly as an adjunct to Twitter, but who knows?