Stringing archaeology is the scientific study of extant strings or string fragments.
For the old Gaelic harps, there are few known string fragments, and few of these have been properly studied. It is possible that closer study of the old harps may uncover more hidden fragments of wire in the future.
There are some pieces of wire found by archaeologists, but if they are not associated with a harp they can’t be assumed to be music wire.
The Balinderry harp fittings had a fragment of a string on one of the tuning pins. Bob Evans found a tiny fragment of 0.7mm diameter red brass wire stuck to the 10th tuning pin (from the bass). It was analysed and found to be a “simple alloy of copper and zinc with probably no more than 10% zinc”. This corresponds closely to “red brass” as used on the basses of historical harpsichords. No information is available on the microstructure or hardness of this wire3.
The Kildare harp has strings on it. They may be 19th or 20th century cosmetic replacements. I don't know of any study or analysis of these strings.
Rose Mooney’s harp has two different types of strings on it; it has full length strings on a number of the lower positions, though these may well be 20th century cosmetic additions. It also has some short lengths of wire on the highest tuning pins which may be the remains of strings from its use in the 18th century. These wires have not to my knowledge been sampled or analised.
The Downhill harp of 1702 has strings on it. They may be 19th or 20th century cosmetic replacements. I don't know of any study or analysis of these strings.
The Malahide 1 harp has some remains of wire wrapped around toggles inside the soundbox.
The V&A harp has old strings on it. The lengths and gauges were measured by Robert Bruce Armstrong and published in 19045. Only two gauges of wire are used, thin steel in the treble and thick brass in the bass. This means that there is a big step in the tension profile where they meet with no attempt to make the tension increase gradually from treble to bass.
John Bell’s harp, formerly at the National Museum of Scotland but now lost, had some strings on. Robert Bruce Armstrong measured the strings and published the data in 19046. Four gauges of wire are used, two sizes of thin steel in the treble and two sizes of thick brass in the bass. This means that there is a big step in the tension profile where they meet with no attempt to make the tension increase gradually from treble to bass.
Robert Bruce Armstrong owned one of the Harp Society instruments made by Egan in Dublin in the early 19th century; he described its stringing and setup in his book in 19047. This harp is strung basically with only 2 gauges of wire; a thin steel above middle c' and a thick brass below. No attempt is made to graduate the tension across the range of the instrument so at middle c' there is a huge step in the tension. Note names are scratched onto the soundboard but they do not go down below g hence we can’t tell if this instrument was tuned with na comhluighe or not.
Separate spools of brass wire have occasionally been discovered by archaeologists, and have been claimed as evidence of early harp stringing. Those which have been analysed usually prove to be red or yellow brass. However it is virtually impossible to be certain that a spool of wire found in the ground was originally intended for stringing a Gaelic harp.
The way in which the wire was coiled may give clues as to its intended use. A piece of brass wire found at Fast Castle, Berwickshire was 71cm long and 0.4mm gauge, containing 19% zinc, and was carefully wound into a loose loop, as if to deliberately avoid kinks or bends8. These features are consistent with it being music wire, but also with many other uses.
A coil of brass wire (17% zinc) recovered from St. Aldates, Oxford, was found near to part-made tuning pins at a site recorded historically as an instrument-makers workshop9, but the wire could equally well have been for psalteries as harps as both types of pin were discovered there.
A fragment of bronze wire (containing tin instead of zinc) was discovered at Castle Sween, Argyll10. A single tuning pin was found on the same excavation but this is not evidence that the wire was intended for stringing a harp, since the two finds were not in the same archaeological layer.
1. Karen Loomis et al, “The Lamont and Queen Mary harps”, Galpin Society Journal LXV, 2012, p.123. Results of the analysis are presented in Karen Loomis, The organology of the Queen Mary and Lamont harps. PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2015 ^
2. Karen Loomis, The Queen Mary and Lamont harps: a study of structural breaks and repairs, MMus thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2010, p.77-90. also, Karen Loomis et al, “The Lamont and Queen Mary harps”, Galpin Society Journal LXV, 2012, p.117-118. Results of the analysis are presented in Karen Loomis, The organology of the Queen Mary and Lamont harps. PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2015 ^
4.Nicholas Carolan, “Two Irish Harps in County Dublin”, Ceol vol VII December 1984 ^
5. Robert Bruce Armstrong, The Irish and Highland Harps 1904, p. 102-5 ^
6. Robert Bruce Armstrong, The Irish and Highland Harps 1904, p. 107-9, ‘Harp in the National Museum, Edinburgh’ ^
7. Robert Bruce Armstrong, The Irish and Highland Harps 1904, p. 105-7 & frontispiece ^
8. Graeme Lawson, in K, Mitchell, K.R. Murdoch and J.R. Ward, Fast Castle: Excavations 1971-86. Edinburgh 2001, p. 115-116. ^
9. Brian Durham, “Archaeological Investigations in St. Aldates, Oxford”, Oxoniensia XLII, 1977, p. 165 and p.194-5. ^
10. Ewart and Triscott, “Castle Sween, Knapdale, Argyll and Bute”, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 126, 1996, p. 535-6 ^