Brass Jaw Harp dug at Native American Site in Michigan


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This is a brass mouth harp, known as a “Jew’s Harp,” dug by Robert Bennett at an Ottowa Native American site along Lake Michigan in Michigan, known as L’Arbre Croche – or “Crooked Tree,” which was the Ottowa capitol village in the 17th and 18th centuries.

These were musical instruments popular with Indians, as well as with colonial and European soldiers during the 18th century.  This one is in perfect shape – just missing the little vibrating thingy in the middle, which are almost always gone on excavated examples.

Also shown here is a photo of Jew’s Harps excavated at Michilimackinac, which is very close to where this one was dug.  In fact, the brass example at far left looks to be identical, and very well could have come in the same supply from either the traders, or as official “presents” from one of the colonial forts.

This particular harp is identical to some which have apparently been found at an Anglo Saxon site in England.  Thus they named that style, the Anglo Saxon form.  However, being that several such as this one have been found at 18th century sites in Michigan, such as this one, there is now some doubt about whether they were dropped later.  I think this would also suggest that this was a British trade item, rather than French. See The Search for the Origin of the Jew’s Harp, by Michael Wright, Oxford, England.

From the Mackinac State Historic Parks website:

Some of the more interesting artifacts excavated semi-regularly by archaeologists at Michilimackinac are jaw harps. These small musical instruments, also known as a mouth harp or Jew’s harp (although they have no particular relation to Jewish people or Judaism), were common trade items at Michilimackinac in the 18th century.

Jaw harps are thought to have originated in Asia several thousand years ago. A simple instrument, they consist of a brass or iron frame, similar in shape to a tuning fork, with a steel spring between the tines. By placing the frame against their front teeth and flicking the spring, players can create a distinctive twanging sound. Different notes can be played by altering the shape of the player’s mouth. By the early 17th century, European traders regularly included them in cargoes of trade goods shipped to North America for use in the fur trade and other transactions with Native Americans. Native people, who took jaw harps in trade for furs, apparently did not use them as traditional musical instruments, instead viewing them as noisemaking toys. Being small, cheap, and easy to play, the instruments were popular with French and British colonists. They also appear to have been popular with soldiers for the same reasons, and could be used to easily accompany songs or other amusements in a barracks or camp. Although a jaw harp’s twang sounds stereotypically uncultured to modern ears, they were sometimes included in more formal musical compositions. The Austrian composer Johann Albrechtsberger, today remembered mostly for being one of Beethoven’s teachers, wrote several pieces for small orchestra and jaw harp in the late 1760s.

Over the past 59 summers, 172 jaw harps and jaw harp fragments have been excavated at Michilimackinac. Once the fragile center spring broke off, the frame was useless and was discarded. In the 18th century, European jaw harps came in a variety of shapes, from round-headed to triangular-headed. Round-headed brass jaw harps are the most common type found at Michilimackinac, but we find all combinations of material and shape. At the trader’s house we are currently excavating, we have found eight jaw harps, including three that are so small they could only have been used by a child. Children’s toys are rare archaeologically, so these have been exciting finds.