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The advent of bells

Bells have chimed for the benefit of communities the world over since the dawn of civilization as we know it. The cradle of bell making in these early years was Neolithic China, some 5,000 years ago. With advancing skills in metallurgy, flat sheets of metal could be hammered into cup shapes and riveted at the seams. A bead, rock, or other metal bit could be suspended within to form the clapper

Soon, a stable casting process was developed and molten metals could be poured into purposeful shapes. As foundries began to hone and perfect their craft, bells became works of art and could be tuned for instrumentation. Bells could be made larger and resonate farther. Knowledge of bell making spread, appearing in cultures from India to Mesopotamia and instilling awe in those who experienced their sound.

Bianzhong Bells of Marquis Yi of Zeng

Image: The Bianzhong of Marquis Yi of Zeng, an ancient musical instrument comprising 64 bronze bells, was cast in 433 BCE. The bells are hung across perpendicular wooden racks and a team of at least five musicians was likely required to play the full set. The bianzhong is on permanent display at the Hubei Provincial Museum in China.

Expanding uses for bells

A bell can take many forms and not all of them hang in towers. In fact, the earliest extant bell artifacts antiquity has handed down suggest bells were an essential part of daily life. The ancient Greeks used bells as warning systems between sentries on guard and garrison outposts. The book of Exodus tells us the robe of the high priest was adorned in bells. In Roman lands, bells were hung around the necks of livestock to more easily locate strays. In the ancient East, bells were important aspects of religious and imperial ceremonies.

Vedic priest rings a bell during Hindu yagna fire ritual

Image: A young Vedic priest rings a bell as part of the Hindu yagna fire ritual. 

As bells were adopted by religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism, and even those of ancient Egypt, they began to be imbued with meaning beyond the practical or musical. Bells became spiritual. In the few hundred years after the fall of the Roman Empire, when Christianity could be openly practiced, bells filtered through Italy and France and into Great Britain, calling the faithful to worship. Our contemporary word for bell comes to us from the Old English belle, a Proto-Germanic cognate.

Bells were hoisted into towers to sound alarms and communicate with communities across great distances. A bell could toll at a moment’s notice, alerting the village to a fire or invasion, a wedding or celebration. Some viewed bells with superstition; it is recorded that when Thomas Becket was murdered in the year 1170 CE at Canterbury Cathedral, the bells tolled themselves in mourning.

Bell tower of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Lavertezzo, Switzerland

Image: The bell tower of the parish church of Santa Maria degli Angeli rises above the Alpine village of Lavertezzo, Switzerland.

Bells were staples of the American farm, mounted on boats and trains, topped schoolhouses and town halls, and called firemen to infernos. Handheld bells, cowbells, sleigh bells, and even door bells are woven into the very fabric of human civilization.

Section image: Four cast bells hang from an olive tree outside the entrance of a Greek Orthodox monastery on the island of Zakynthos, Greece.

Bells as art

The art of bell ringing also expanded into new and exciting forms. Rings of peal bells were lifted into towers and rung mathematically. Multi-bell carillons and chimes wafted hymns and anthems over the rooftops. Teams of handbell ringers created luscious harmonies with their bronze instruments. Bells appeared and continue to be used in orchestras, pipe organs, and clocks.

The Victorians emphasized the style of a bell and wrought intricate designs from sterling silver, gold, crystal, and porcelain. These were part of daily life inside the home. Both handheld bells (a piece of the lady’s dressing table set) and wired service bells could summon attendants, announce dinner, or communicate across the household. These are now sought-after collectibles

Section image: Members of the Virginia Bronze handbell ensemble perform during the 2023 National Bell Festival at St. John's Church, Lafayette Square, in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 1, 2023.