Echos of an Empire


A membranophone is a musical instrument in which the sound is produced by vibrating a stretched membrane. Based on the preserved iconographical and written material, the depictions of musicians playing the membranophones either interact with the membrane by hitting it with a stick or by hand.

Four different instruments belong to the category of membranophones. Research indicates that the most frequently observed instrument was the double-skin barrel-drum, then the tambourine, the nakers and rarely the single-membrane bowl-shaped drum.

In a 16th-century copy of Hunting of Oppien by Bartolomeo Zanetti, there is a miniature which presents great detail as to how the depicted figures of musicians played the double-sided membrane drum. The first musician in the center is playing the musical instrument with the help of a stick and the other one, on his right, is illustrated hitting it with his hand.

In a 13th – 14th century copy of Job’s Book, from left to right, the musicians are playing, a rectangular psaltery, a bowed string instrument and a double-sided barrel-drum with two sticks.

The nakers (or kettle drums) are hemispherical membranophones made from baked clay or wood. A membrane is tightened around the rim which is then pulled to the back of the bowl. From the vast selection of illuminated manuscripts is evident that the nakers are usually played in pairs, with the musician holding two sticks in order to produce the sound.

A visual example of the instrument can be found in the 14th century manuscript, known as Alexander Romance. The scene illustrates a musician playing the nakers, on the right part of the miniature.

The tambourine is a shallow circular framed instrument that has a membrane tightened on one side of the frame. In the depictions preserved, the illustrated tambourines are held in one hand and played by hitting or tapping it with the other.

A wonderful example of this instrument is evident on the outer band of the Mildenhall Great Dish, dated in the 4th century, that depicts a maenad dancing and playing the tambourine, next to a Satyr, who is playing the double aulos.