The Bents’ musical instruments in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

Interior of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (wikipedia).

The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford has over 50 artefacts acquired by Theodore and Mabel Bent on their 20 years of exploration, including 12 musical instruments (pipes [askomandoura] and flutes [floghera] in particular attracted them).

Some items from the Bent collection are regularly on display in the museum, including their musical instruments. In the early 1890s, the Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (Vol. 20, 1890-1891, 153 ff) included a paper by Henry Balfour on “The Old British ‘Pibcorn’ or ‘Hornpipe’ and its affinities”, which was part inspired by two ‘Greek’ instruments acquired at different times by the Pitt Rivers from the Bents, and “which seem to throw great light upon the true origin of the pibcorn” (see also A. Baines, Bagpipes, Oxford 1979, p.45).

Bent describes a musical episode on Tinos in 1884 (‘The Cyclades, or Life among the Insular Greeks’, 1885 –

One instrument is a curious double-pipe (1903.130.21) from a small cluster of villages on Tinos (Tenos) in the Cyclades. Theodore Bent bought this pipe (on the couple’s second visit to the island in early March 1884), which he calls monosampilos, in the area of ‘Dio Choria’ (Δύο Χωριά), misread by Balfour or his editor as ‘Dio Maria’). The visit was a short one – just a few days (their first tour being in the spring of 1883). In her diary, Mabel recalls that the villagers “were dancing on the roofs and we went up to see them and bought a musical instrument” (The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Vol. 1, Oxford, 2006, p. 47); Theodore also describes the event – page 262 of his classic monograph on the Cyclades.

The sambouna and double-pipe from the Bent collection of musical instruments in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (detail from a line-drawing in Henry Balfour’s paper on “The Old British ‘Pibcorn’ or ‘Hornpipe’ and its affinities”,  in ‘The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland’, Vol. 20 (1890-1891, 153 ff;

The second instrument that attracts Balfour’s interest is the famous bagpipe/sambouna (1903.130.23) that the Bents brought back from Karpathos (now in the Greek Dodecanese, then a Turkish possession) in 1885.

Both instruments appear in a rare line-drawing that accompanies Balfour’s paper.


The other instruments collected by the Bents and in the Pitt Rivers:

1903.130.7: Double flageolet, carved from single piece of wood. From Belgrade, Serbia (1887).

1891.4.1.1 and 1891.4.1 .2. End flute and case. From the Taurus Mountains (Turkey) (1890).

1888.37.5: End blown trumpet. From Karpathos, Dodecanese (1885). In his 1886 article,’ On a far-off island‘ for Blackwood’s Magazine (Vol. 139, Feb 1886, 240), Bent describes, perhaps, this very instrument, although his name for it is eccentric, perhaps dialect, a variant of the sourali (σουραύλι): “Amusements in Karpathos certainly are not numerous, and may be summed up as consisting of music and dancing in a variety of forms… sometimes… a man will come and play the lyre, — just one of those lyres which their ancestors played, a pretty little instrument about half a yard long, with silver beads which jangle attached to the bow. Besides this they have the syravlion, a sort of pan-pipe made of two reeds hollowed out, with blow-holes and straws up the middle, and placed side by side in a larger reed.”

1903.130.27: End blown trumpet of buffalo horn. From ‘Asia’ (date and findspot uncertain).

1903.130.18: End-flute made from a crane’s wing bone. The flute has been etched with various details, including the Anglicised word ‘syravlion’ (which the PR reads as ‘Syralion’, see above, perhaps dialect, a variant of the sourali (σουραύλι)). From Samos island (1886).

1903.130.16: End-flute of reed. Labelled by the PR as ‘pinavlion’ (dialect perhaps, today pinavli/πιναύλι). From Paros island, Cyclades (1883/4). Bent does not seem to have referred to this flute type in connection with Paros in his Cyclades (p. 379), but he does name again the ‘syravlion’ (see above): “Once, says a legend, a young man challenged the Lady of the Hundred Gates to a playing contest on the syravlion, and went accordingly to the church to play; but the Madonna took no notice of his challenge. Just as he was getting up to go he accidentally knocked over the candlestick, and broke his flute; in this way did the Madonna prove her superiority and humbled the man…”

1903.130.17: Flute made from eagle’s wing bone. From Samos island (1886)

1888.37.6: End flute. From Samos island (1886).

1903.131.18.2 and 1903.131.18.1: Lyra and bow. From Karpathos, Dodecanese (1885).

Bent’s map of the Cyclades from the first edition of his classic 1885 book (

Bent’s classic book The Cyclades, or Life Among the Insular Greeks, has several references to the lyre and sambouna, examples of which he donated to the Pitt Rivers. Of interest too are the many mentions of the flute he calls ‘syravlion’, a word unexplained and not found elsewhere perhaps a local variant of the romantic sourali (σουραύλι) or syrinx (Σύριγξ). Bent writes from Naxos: “We came to a halt at a dirty house, where we had to sit for hours… They constantly plied us with coffee, raki, and sweets as we waited… they played persistently for our benefit on the syravlion, or panpipe, and the drum. When shepherds play the panpipe on the hillside it is romantic enough: the instrument is a simple one, just two reeds hollowed out and placed side by side…” (p. 347). There are also recollections of the instrument from the Bents’ time on the islands of Ios (p. 162) and Santorini (p. 134).

How do these instruments sound?

Museum of Popular Music, Athens (wikipedia).

The Museum of Greek Folk Musical Instruments in Athens curates over 1000 items, and many of the displays feature recordings of the instruments playing.

Click for an article on the great sambouna player of Anafi.

Click for eagle bone flute (YouTube).

Click for Karpathos lyra and sambouna (YouTube). Karpathos is where Bent’s instruments in the Pitt Rivers come from (and were presumably made).

Click for the pinavli flute (YouTube).

Other musical instruments collected by the Bents

The major repository for artefacts brought back to England by the Bents between c. 1880 and 1900 is the British Museum, London. The collection is huge, but includes only a small number of musical instruments, not often on display; we list them below for reference. Some of the artefacts entered the Museum in 1926, just a few years before Mabel Bent’s death, indicating her fondness for them; perhaps the rooms of her London home would occasionally echo with sad notes from far away…

From Ethiopia (1893) (click (YouTube) for some of these instruments playing):

Flute (left) and trumpet (right) (

(1) Two trumpets (Af1926,0410.63 & Af1893,0715.27). The inventory number for the former indicates that this object remained in Mabel Bent’s personal collection until 1926 – when she was putting her affairs in order in her final years; she died in 1929. We may assume that the object was of sentimental value, giving her happy memories of the couple’s (perilous) journey to Ethiopia in 1893. We should note however that the findspot was not mentioned by Mabel and Bent only refers to one trumpet in his monograph of this trip: “As Digsa was one of the last Abyssinian villages of importance which we should visit, we took care here to annex an Abyssinian umbrella and a malakat [elsewhere malaket] or trumpet…” (J.T. Bent, The Sacred City of the Ethiopians, London, 1893, p. 212).

Ethiopian lyre (

(2) Lyre (Af1893,0715.25). In his Sacred City of the Ethiopians (1896 edn, p. 25), Bent writes in Asmara: “Here for the first time we saw the Abyssinian lyre or harp, a specimen of which I coveted for six long weeks afterwards, until I was able to acquire one at Aksum…”.

Ethiopian ‘fiddle’ (

(3) Fiddle (Af1893,0715.24). In Bent’s Sacred City of the Ethiopians (1896 edn, p. 26), he writes “… another favourite Abyssinian instrument [is] called the chera masanko. This I also got. It is a sort of violin with a square sounding board, tightly made of skin, and played with a little bow. The asmari or wandering minstrels, also play it, and it is heard at every feast, whether religious or secular.”

4) Flute (Af1893,0715.26), made of cane and leather. In Bent’s Sacred City of the Ethiopians (1896 edn, pp. 28-9), we read: “As the trumpet has only one note, so has the Abyssinian flute, the imbilta. To make an Abyssinian band suitable to escort a great man or perform at a religious festival, you require four trumpets and three flutes, each player sounding a note in turn. The imbilta is nearly a yard long, and is as great a mark of personal distinction as the umbrella.” We may assume that Bent acquired one in Aksum, however, he says they are nearly 90 cm in length and the BM item is 58 cm.

From Mashonaland (Zimbabwe) (1891):

The ‘sansa’ from Zimbabwe (J.T. Bent, The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland, 1892: 81-82; archive,org).

(1) A sansa/’Makalanga piano’ (Af1892A0714/Af1979,01.4538). Described by Bent as “… very interesting specimens of primitive musical art; they have thirty or more iron keys, arranged to scale, fixed on to a piece of wood about half a foot square, which is decorated with carving behind.

This instrument they generally put into a gourd, with pieces of bone round the edge to increase the sound, which is decidedly melodious and recalls a spinet.” (J.T. Bent, The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland, London, 1892, pp. 81-82).

[Also known as the mbira or ‘thumb-piano’, click (YouTube) to hear it play]

(2) A rattle (Af1892,0714.24). Such a rattle may be referred to in this extract from Bent’s Ruined Cities of Mashonaland (1892, p. 330): “Evidence of festivities was also present in the shape of drums and long chains of grass cases for beads, which they hang round their calves to rattle at the dances…”

(3) Musical bow (Af1892,0714.146). On page 20 of Bent’s Ruined Cities of Mashonaland (1892), such a bow is referenced: “A man stood near, playing on an instrument like a bow with one string, with a gourd attached to bring out the sound. He played it with a bit of wood, and the strains were plaintive, if not sweet…”

From the Middle East (1889-1897):

1) and 2) Two flutes (As1926,0410.56 and As1926,0410.55) from Bahrain (1889), when the Bents spent some time excavating at the so-called ‘Mounds of Ali’.

3) Flute (As1926,0410.61). Acquired on the Bents’ remarkable journey on horseback, south-north, through Persia in 1889 on their way home from Bahrain. “We saw a wedding at Savandi… The women in red, with gold ornaments and uncovered faces, looked highly picturesque, and each carried in her hand a red handkerchief, which she flourished as she went round to the music of the flute and drum.” (From J.T. Bent, ‘In the Mountains of Medea’, Littell’s Living Age, Vol. 189 (1891), p.51).

How does it sound? Click to hear the Persian ney (YouTube).

4) Flute (As1926,0410.48) from the Wadi Hadramaut (Yemen). Collected by the Bents on one of their trips into the Yemeni interior between 1894-1897. “The Bedouin are rather clever at impromptu verses, and when we were in Wadi Ser they made night hideous by dancing in our camp… Bedouin women also take part in these dances… it was very weird by the light of the moon and the camp-fire, but wearisome when we wanted to sleep, particularly as they kept it up till after we were all astir in the morning, yelling, bawling, singing, and screeching… The ground was shaken as if horses were galloping about. A Bedou was playing a flute made of two leg-bones of a crane bound together with iron.” (Mabel and Theodore Bent, Southern Arabia (1900), p.128-9)

How does it sound? Click to hear the mizmar, or Yemeni flute (YouTube).

From London to Oxford?

Flute players in the Wadi Koukout, Sudan (1896), heard by the Bents (‘Southern Arabia’, p.337).

It would make such sense for the Bents’ above-mentioned musical instruments, in store in the British Museum, to be loaned for display, on a long-term basis, to the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, Bent’s alma mater:  after all, he read history at Wadham College (in the early 1870s), just a few hundred metres from the Pitt Rivers today, and how pleasant to think of the great traveller’s legacy freely visible to all there, a great collection from only 20 years or so of exploration, and always with his tireless wife – in the Levant, Africa, and Arabia.

[All websites accessed 02/02/2024]


Spring 2024. Here is a recent article (Καθαρά Δευτέρα του 1884 στα Δυο Χωριά με Τσαμπούνες) by Theodoros  Chiou on the Bents’ visit to Cycladic Tinos in 1884, focusing on their fascination for traditional music and musical instruments. (The automatic English translation is of variable quality – αλλά δεν πειράζει !)