Ereira, Time Team cameo producer, explains how a
draco was made for the Drumlanrig programme
the Time Team Draco
The Draco was
a Roman military standard. Initially used by the
cavalry, its use eventually spread throughout the
army. It consisted of a dragon head made of a
copper alloy, held in the air on a pole, and with
a body/tail made of fabric, which would blow out
behind the head when carried on horseback. We
also know from written sources that the draco
made a noise. This noise is perhaps the most
intriguing feature of the draco. Despite the fact
that we know from the written sources that the
draco was a common standard, very few clues
survive about how they were constructed. The best
example was found at Neiderbieber in Germany, but
even there, all that survives is the copper
head of the draco.
I decided that Time
Team should try to find out more about how
the dracos were made, and how they might have
made a noise. Could we hear a sound that has not
been heard for 2000 years?
Making the draco has 3
1. The metalwork
2. The tail
3. The noise-making device
Each of these elements
has its own inherent problems, and degree of
interpretation required. Also, our draco had to
be made and demonstrated within 3 days.
The head of the draco was
made by Tim Blades. Read how Tim Blades made
the draco head.
Dr Wegner at the German
museum that holds the Niederbieber Draco tells me
that the original was made from a copper alloy,
not quite copper, and not quite modern bronze.
This means that to have a
draco made with the exact metallurgy of the
original would involve making our own metal,
which seemed a bit extreme.
This means that we could
choose between copper and bronze, and Tim decided
to go with copper, as it is easier to work in the
The original has had
different treatments on the top and underneath
the head. The underneath is tinned, and so we
tinned ours too.
The top of the original
was fire-gilded. This means it was covered with a
mixture of gold and mercury. We couldnt
repeat this process without a specialist
laboratory due to the mercury, so Tim
electroplated our draco to give it the gold
The head was made in 2
parts, which were riveted together. Like the
Niederbieber original, the eyes were left hollow.
No tail has survived, so
we had even less to go on.
Valerie Hancorn is a
kite-maker, and made the tail. The tail is very
complicated, as it needs to be light enough to
fly, but long enough to fulfil its function.
Valerie made it from red and gold silk, and
covered it in little tails, as
depicted in the Trajans Column carving. We
chose silk because it was a high-status item and
silk is light, and yet is dense enough to contain
the air passing through it.
The Trajans Column
carvings are the only Roman period pictorial
reference we have for the draco, and other than
these, we had to rely on written descriptions of
the tail or later images. Valerie sewed the tail
entirely by hand. A strip of chamois leather was
used to strengthen the silk around the opening of
the draco head, to prevent the metal cutting
through the fabric. The tail is attached to the
head by means of a drawstring, so it can be
removed as necessary.
After looking closely at
the Trajans Column carving, Valerie decided
that the end of the tail should also tie closed.
This meant that we could experiment with having
the end open or closed. The tail flies better
when the end is closed, but we wanted the option
of opening it in case this made a difference to
the sound when we were experimenting with putting
the whistles inside the head.
The tail was 9
This is the most
mysterious part of the draco. Of the replicas
made before, I dont know of any that have
made a noise, despite the fact that the sources
refer to a sound. This suggests that some part of
the draco has not survived, and we need to try to
work out what that was. Peter Taylor (a kite
expert) tried out various ideas. Read how Peter Taylor
managed to get the draco to make a noise.
The best surviving
example of a draco is in the Mainz museum in
Germany, (the Niederbieber draco). We worked
closely with the Mainz museum on this project,
and were sent numerous photographs and drawings
of the original. We could find absolutely no
surviving signs of any fittings for any noise
making devices. This is in spite of the draco
being in exceptional condition. The holes that
exist in the lower jaw and in the top of the head
are simply for the pole to fit through.
One of Peter's first
ideas was to try an Aeolian harp, but these need
to be quite large to work well, and so seem to
not fit anywhere on a draco standard. It just
wouldn't make enough sound, and one on the
outside would just be too fragile.
We even looked into the
possibility of this pole being hollow, and the
air rushing over the top of it blowing it like a
After talking to some
makers of woodwind instruments, we concluded that
a reed was not the answer. A reed is simply a
squeaker, and it is the shape of the instrument
that allows that sound to then resonate. The head
of the draco is not an appropriate chamber for
this to happen. As we have a surviving draco, we
know the shape of the metal head, and that it
cannot work in this way.
The best idea we had was
based on whistles. Peter knew about Chinese
kites, which have built-in whistles. These
whistles are an ancient technology, consisting of
a sort of spherical seedpod with a slit across
the front. Ancient Chinese archers used whistling
arrows based on the same technology, and we also
know that whistling arrows were later used in
Europe. These whistles are known as an ancient
technology, and as such are at least contemporary
with the draco. We also know that the
technology did, at some point, come to the west,
as the same kind of whiltes were used on
whistling arrows in East and West alike.
Also, it is thought that the draco itself may
have come from the East originally. It is
tought that it came to Western Europe brought by
the Sarmatians. and it seems that they might have
taken it from as far east as China. We considered
lots of noise-making possiblities... It seemed a
viable technology to be using in our draco
Peter attached some of
these whistles to a pole, and found that that
made a fantastic sound when swung around at
speed. A variety of whistle sizes were used, and
we found that the largest ones would work at a
lower speed, while the smaller ones would make a
very eerie sound. We decided to use a combination
of sizes to maximise the chance of getting some
sort of sound, and to get the best sound if the
wind speed is high enough.
We were not able to find
out until the last day whether or not these would
work when arranged inside the head, and we were
rather disappointed when we found that they made
no sound at all. This seemed to be due to the
teeth in the mouth of the draco causing air
turbulence that prevented the air travelling
smoothly over the whistles. Not only did this
cause the whistles to stop working, italso did
seem to prevent the tail flying. The only obvious
solution was to try them on the outside.
Perhaps given more time,
we might have found a different solution to this
problem, but the solution we did come up with
worked beautifully. Peter fixed the whistles in
groups onto wooden panels, which in turn were
fixed onto the pole on either side, below the
head of the draco. This looked remarkably similar
to other Roman standards, with the various
decorations arranged down the pole.
The draco was used by
Alan Larsen, who rode in Roman saddlery on an
appropriately small horse. We found that a good
sound could be heard even at the walk if he was
riding into the wind, and when he galloped into
the wind, the noise could be heard over the sound
of the horses hooves for a distance of at
least 200 metres.
The noise was definitely
eerie, and could feasibly be described as
noise-maker worked brilliantly! It could be
heard about 200 metres away, and was definitely
'eerie!' The different tones of all the
whisles worknig together gave a very weird sound
indeed. Of course, it was even louder when
riding into the wind. The noise was
surprisingly loud , but "Murphy" the
horse was fine -we had previously tested him with
We used a pole 9
long (longer than usually shown in contemporary
art), so that it was the same length as the tail,
which would otherwise have dragged on the ground.
We suspect that artistic representations simply
needed to fit the draco into a smaller space.
Alan found that he did not have the strength to
hold the pole without support when the wind was
dragging it, and found that the best way to carry
it was to wedge the base of the pole against the
front of the saddle, next to his thigh. On
subsequent occasions it was placed in a small
leather cup strapped to the front of our Peter
Connolly saddles. This also meant that when the
horse was at rest, the pole carried at an angle
in a resting position and the tail was hanging
down, the tail was still clear of the
here for the website of the
original 2005 Time Team episode.
Making the Time Team Draco is
Copyright © 2005, Channel 4. All rights
reserved. Used with permission.