What are Stone Age Bullroarers? What were they for? - A Guide for Keystage 2
Updated: Jun 20
What's a bullroarer and what does it look like?
A bullroarer is an ancient musical instrument. It is made up of a thin, flat piece of wood or bone attached at one end to a long piece of cord. The piece of wood or bone can be anywhere from 15cm to 60cm long. That could be the size of a regular mini ruler, you know like the ones you can fit in your pencil case at school, or it could be up to the length of two of those long rulers that your big sister uses because she’s in high school and for some reason, everything’s bigger in high school! The edges of the wood or bone would be filed down sharp and would sometimes have tiny, jagged teeth like a saw.
How do you make noise with a bullroarer?
The piece of wood is swung in circles on the end of the cord to make a noise. The pitch of the sound can be changed by spinning the bullroarer faster or slower, or by changing the length of the cord. Simple, but effective!
Here's a bloke with no shoes on giving us a demo of how to use a bullroarer and what it would sound like!
What kind of noise does a bullroarer make?
A bullroarer makes a low bass sound that can be described as whirring or roaring (no wonder it’s called a bullroarer!). Some people even describe it as sounding like a swarm of bees buzzing. The sound is very loud and can be heard from long distances away.
The bullroarer’s noise appears to pulse in pitch, getting higher and lower over and over again. This is because the bullroarer is spun in circles. The pitch of the noise rises and falls as the instrument repeatedly gets closer to further away from the ears of the person listening to it. Clever eh?
How is the sound made?
The bullroarer is part of a family of musical instruments called aerophones (hands up, who else read that as aeroplane?). With aerophone instruments, the sound is made by air vibrating. In the case of the bullroarer, this vibration is caused by the piece of wood or bone being swung through the air at speed. Woodwind, brass and reed instruments are also aerophones. You could also argue that the noise created by your dad’s bum is created by air vibrating, so perhaps his bum is an aerophone too?
How long ago was the bullroarer used?
Clever archaeologists have found bullroarers that come from back in the Old Stone Age or the “Palaeolithic”. Those are some very old bullroarers! Bullroarers have been found all over the globe, from Australia, Africa, Europe, Asia and more. Aboriginal people in Australia have been using bullroarers since the start of their spoken history. It is considered a sacred instrument and is still used by some Australian Aboriginal tribes today. A 5000-year-old bullroarer was found in Scandinavia made out of slate. Even the Ancient Greeks used them, calling them a
“rhombus”, meaning “something that spins” – pretty on the nose with their naming of things those Greeks!
What were bullroarers used for?
Historians think that bullroarers were used for a huge variety of reasons across the world. These may have included use in ceremonies and rituals such as for healing, to honour gods or to encourage rain. Some tribes might have used the bullroarer to ward off evil spirits. Bullroarers were likely used to communicate with other people over long distances. Other times they would have been used as toys for children (and probably for adults too, let’s face it they’re pretty cool!).
Above, you can spot our replica Bullroarer alongside the other Stone Age replica artefacts we feature as part of our A Handy Guide To Survive The Stone Age workshop for Primary School children. Our interactive school workshops use drama activities, roleplay and storytelling to bring history to life for your students. Invite us to your school by enquiring here!