Cymbals in late Roman antiquity


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I thought that some of you who dance with finger cymbals might like this academic article on cymbal playing as depicted in an amazing mosaic of a female musical ”band”, from Syria, end of 4th/beginning of 5th CE (A.D.).

Some things I found interesting: lateral cymbal tongs -never heard of such an instrument. If you want to hear what they sound like go to page 17 and click on video 4. Such a pretty sound. On page 12, fig. 5, all three figures in the mosaic are dancing -this is obvious from the swirling of the women’s tunics and the satyr is dancing with a cane!
I can now imagine dancing with those lateral cymbals, making a pretty shimmery sound as you dance.
Lots of interesting information in this article so if you have some time it’s a good read.


Active member
Well, haters gonna hate, and this is why I find a lot of belly dance scholarship tedious. This paper smells like wishtory written by a dancer, and it is confirmed by some of the citations. If you contrast her article with these papers

Bente Kiilerich


they don't have the same "When all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail" feeling of trying to make things conform to the experiences of contemporary belly dance. The Gavrili paper even concluded the women are not actually playing instruments in the Mariamin mosaic, but rather, it is a posed representation, which kneecaps a lot of Cottet's thesis.

1. I suppose it is possible that lateral tongs existed, but it is also possible that the mosaicists took the liberty of rearranging the tongs because they liked the look of it that way better. Isn't it possible that since the dowels (because the assumption here is the cymbals are mounted on round, sometimes beribboned sticks, not slats like the clapper style) had enough slack that they could be held open in a "V” or brought together in contact, they might have also been able to rotate in their holder to get this other configuration or to adjust the degree of contact to create different sound effects?

2. Did I miss it, or does Cottet discuss why two of her three examples (The Procession of Dionysus from Stara Zagora and The Toilet of Venus from Cuicul) show the cymbals overlapping and not osculating (circles just touching edges at a tangential point)? She spends so much time talking about the colors of tesserae rendering the cymbals as metal that she glides past the fact that Mariamin's tong-ist's right hand shows the cymbals barely touching and the left not touching at all, while Stara Zagora's and one of Cuicul's tong-ists' cymbals favor the presentation that the house-left's cymbal passes in front of the right, with the exception of the left-hand tongs of the house-left tong-ist in the Cuicul boat (where the house-right cymbal is in front). Does this indicate the cymbals were free to move randomly in front or behind each other or were they "preset" to favor one cymbal always being in front? Doesn't this matter to a reconstruction of the instrument? As far as I can tell, her Video 4 looks like her reconstruction had the cymbals changing front-back orientations, but I don't have software that would allow nice-resolution slow motion.

(Also, I left out the discussion of the Bacchic thiasos of the Sheikh Zouède mosaic because it looks to me like the tong-ist's left side has cymbals facing the same way, but the right side's are in opposition, clapper style. I don't know if the image just isn't clear enough to tell, I'm imagining it because of color variations in the tesserae, or it simply doesn't make any more sense than this mosaicist's bizarre take on human hands and feet does.)

3. Why assume the Mariamin woman on the far right is dancing? Of the group, she is playing one of the simpler instruments, so isn't it also possible she had another duty she was stepping forward to do, such as reciting some sort of verse, delivering an invocation or toast, or singing? The other two papers attempt to hash out what is going on with the stage, the perspective of room, and the placement of the figures, so I won't attempt to guess the significance of the "dancer"'s position, but Kiilerich hypothesizes the Mariamin mosaic was originally designed to be wall mounted, which supposedly explains some of the weird angularity. There's really not enough data to understand whether these were traveling performers, wealthy women posing as performers, very high-end courtesans, a family band, or an artistic rendering of a hypothetical scene, and comparing it to mosaics with mythical creatures has limited value to the real world, so whether the woman with the finger cymbals is younger, a dancer, modeled after the homeowner's daughter, or anything else is speculation.

4. I don't even know where to start with the finger cymbals and the stringing, except to say it seems odd to me to have so many different tying methods to attach the cymbals unless they used a playing technique where the single-loop cymbal was tightly stationary and the double-loop cymbal flopped freely. That could be, but then it seems to me this becomes more about shaking the wrist or vibrating the double-loop finger instead of the modern style of playing finger cymbals, where both fingers move toward each other in a pinching motion (with the symmetry of the pinch being more or less a dancer's preference...does the finger move more toward the thumb? the thumb move more toward the finger? both toward each other equally?). Also, why couldn't a castanet-style tying system be used on the double-stringed side if a bead was inserted under the hole to keep the cord in place? None of these depictions are showing the cord ends, so either they were omitted for artistic reasons or they must have been inside the cup. If the ends are inside the cup (which is consistent with Cottet's Figure 9), then why do you need the lark's head knot? Couldn't you just tie two short pieces of cord with a single overhand knot?

5. You know how there's always the argument about "How did Orientalist painters know what went on in the harem when they weren't allowed in the women-only parts of the home?"? Were these women performing for men, women, or a mixed crowd? And if no men were present, how did a male artist know what to represent? Clearly these mosaicists took some liberties with depth perception and reality.

I don't think anything precludes the possibility lateral tongs existed, but in the absence of other evidence (verbal description, archaeological remnants), I don't know that these mosaics conclusively prove they existed, either.
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Greek Bonfire

Well-known member
I have no sources that I can recall, but I have heard of this before with the Roman tongs, and they were used in a lot of other societies.