Jim Rees, Arkansas Archeological Society president
Artifact of the Month - July 2020
The Breckenridge flute (32-2-348, U of A Museum Collections), found in the Breckenridge bluff shelter in 1932, is a two-chambered block and fipple external duct flute made of river cane. It is a prototype of the modern Native American Flute (NAF) and is the oldest known example of this type of flute. At 31.5 cm in length and 1.8 cm in diameter, it is almost intact missing only a portion of the slow-air-chamber (SAC) at its proximal end. Like all NAFs the Breckenridge flute has two chambers, the shorter blow-chamber (SAC) at the proximal end and the longer sound chamber at the distal end. The two chambers were separated by an internal barrier. In order for air to travel from the blow chamber to the sound chamber a channel was carved over the barrier on the outside of the flute. This channel connects to openings on either side of the barrier so that an air duct was created when the channel was covered with some sort of blocking mechanism. When the flute was played a stream of air formed inside the air duct and was directed at the edge of the opening on the sound chamber side of the barrier (fipple). As in all flutes it was the splitting of the air stream against that edge that caused the instrument to sound. The sound chamber has four stops or finger holes which could be opened or closed allowing the musician to change pitches and play melodies (Rees 2011:6–8; 2020:181–182). At the very end of the flute outside of the sound chamber proper is a smaller fifth hole which had nothing to do with its sound. Holes like this are sometimes found on modern NAFs and today are called wind holes or direction holes. These holes are said to represent the four winds or sacred cardinal directions (Spotted Eagle 1997:29; Conlon 2017:108). The surface of the sound chamber is decorated with engraved designs consisting of zigzag lines and ticked arches which have had dark pigment rubbed into them.
The flute was found in the Breckenridge bluff shelter (3CR2) by a crew of excavators under the direction of Professor Samuel Dellinger, who was director of the University of Arkansas Museum at the time. The site is located in the Ozark highlands of northwest Arkansas and has received considerable attention from professional archeologists over the years starting with Mark R. Harrington (1960) in the 1920s. More recently in 2013 excavations by the Arkansas Archeological Survey led to the discovery of a cultural deposit at the lowest levels of the site that yielded the oldest date so far recorded in the state at some 9,765 years before present (Hilliard et al. 2015:12; Hilliard 2016:12). However, it was Dellinger’s crew working in 1932 who found the flute at the one-foot level according to their field notes. In the in situ photograph the excavators made of the flute, it is possible to see the remarkable preservation of organic materials found in the dry zone of the shelter. Pictured along with the flute there is a decorated arrow shaft made of river cane, a maize cob, a cane basket splint, and several pieces of gourd and squash.