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Bask in the Beauty and Melody of the Ancient Mesopotamian Lyres of Ur

Bask in the Beauty and Melody of the Ancient Mesopotamian Lyres of Ur

It is unknown which culture was the first to create music, but a set of beautiful Sumerian instruments from the city of Ur provide us with some insight into the world of ancient music. They are known as the Lyres of Ur and these musical instruments have been reconstructed for modern audiences to marvel at their melodious sounds as well as eye-catching appearances.

The famous Lyres of Ur, which are somewhat similar to modern harps, are the oldest stringed instruments unearthed to date. They were found in 1929 by a team of archaeologists led by Leonard Woolley. Although he is known as the discoverer of numerous fantastic treasures from this ancient city and the Royal Cemetery of Ur, the lyres revolutionized our knowledge about ancient music. Patient excavations allowed Woolley to explore the history of these musical instruments and also to reconstruct them so they can be plucked and strummed once again.

The Queen's lyre from the Royal Cemetery at Ur, southern Mesopotamia, Iraq. The British Museum, London.

The Queen's lyre from the Royal Cemetery at Ur, southern Mesopotamia, Iraq. The British Museum, London. ( CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )

Uncovering the Magnificent Instruments

When Woolley started to dig at the ancient site of Ur he had no idea how many priceless treasures it held. The riddle of the royal tombs, where dozens of servants had been buried with their rulers, is one of the creepiest ancient stories about funerary culture.

Leonard Woolley holding the hardened plaster mold of the Sumerian Queen's Lyre, 1922.

Leonard Woolley holding the hardened plaster mold of the Sumerian Queen's Lyre, 1922. ( Public Domain )

Lyres are instruments with strings that used to be strummed with a pick, or by hand, to make a peaceful sound. You would need to be calm and gentle with this instrument to make it play heavenly music. It was very popular in the court of Sumerian kings and many of them wanted to take this pleasant-sounding music to the afterlife. Therefore, many lyres were discovered in the Royal Cemetery of Ur. They are dated back to the Early Dynastic III Period (2550 – 2450 BC). Researchers suppose that they had 11 strings.

The Great Golden Lyre

It was very difficult to conserve the lyres. For the Great Lyre, the problem was focused on the bull's head. It was made with many separate details that had decomposed over time. This lyre is 33 cm (13 in) tall and 11 cm (4.5 in) wide. Its shape looks much like the body of a bull. When the Great Lyre was discovered, it was completely disintegrated - only the soil impression allowed Woolley to decipher its animalistic appearance. His team recorded the size and shape of the lyre and recovered all of the details of the instrument that they could.

Bull's head from the Queen's lyre grave.

Bull's head from the Queen's lyre grave. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Great Lyre was unearthed with the remains of 68 women. It is believed that they were the king’s servants, but it is impossible to find out how many of them were musicians. Some of them could have been singers or dancers too.

It is believed that one of the women was holding the elaborate lyre in her hands when she died. The bones of her hand were placed where the strings would have been located. All of the unfortunate women were probably poisoned. The giant burial ceremony took place about 4,750 years ago. Their forgotten remains were under the soil of Ur for almost 3000 years, about when Cleopatra VII died in Alexandria.

The Queen’s Lyre

Another of the fascinating lyres is the one unearthed in the extravagant grave of Queen Pu-abi, whose treasures are one of the most famous collections related to the city of Ur. This beautifully decorated lyre is known as The Queen's Lyre.

The Queen's Lyre from Woolley's published record of the discovery.

The Queen's Lyre from Woolley's published record of the discovery. ( No Known Copyright /The Commons)

Nowadays, it is a part of the British Museum’s collection. This lyre can be overwhelming due to its grace and beauty. It is 110 cm (44 in) tall and very similar to the previously described Great Lyre. However, the sophisticated appearance of this lyre makes it unique. The decoration of the bull is all gold, and its hair, beard, and eyes were made of very expensive lapis lazuli (imported from the territory of modern Afghanistan). The horns of the animal were recreated, but other parts are mostly original. The general shape of the lyre is also similar to a bull’s strong body. It seemed to be almost holding the person who played it.

The Silver Lyre

The Silver Lyre differs from the previously described lyres which are full of gold. It is 110 cm (42 in) tall and 97 cm (38 in) wide. Actually, there were two silver lyres found at the site, but one is especially well-described by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The blue details made of lapis lazuli look like the other lyres, but this one doesn't have any beard on the cattle’s face. In fact, the animal looks more like a thoughtful cow than a sturdy bull.

Cow's head on the Silver Lyre.

Cow's head on the Silver Lyre. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Modern Musicians take on Sumerian Instruments

The Golden Lyre of Ur was destroyed by looters who attacked the museum where it was held in Baghdad in 2003. After the destruction of one of the finest ancient collections on Earth, many sensitive souls decided to help to save the heritage of ancient Mesopotamia. Among them was the musician Bill Taylor. Taylor became so inspired by the story of the Lyres of Ur that he decided to make them sing once again. He is one of a few musicians who are trying to resurrect the ancient music of Ur. With the support of some researchers, he performs Mesopotamian poetry accompanied by the sound of the lyre.

The tradition of playing on lyres has survived until today. They have evolved somewhat, but the sensual style of playing on this instrument continues to draw in both musicians and music lovers.

Top image: Detail of the "Peace" panel of the Standard of Ur showing lyrist, excavated from the same site as the Lyres of Ur. Source: Public Domain

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

Gold Lyre of Ur, available at:
http://www.lyre-of-ur.com/

Lyres: The Royal Tombs of Ur, available at:
http://sumerianshakespeare.com/117701/117901.html

Lyre, available at:
www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=368339&partId=1

Lyre of Urby CarlMcTauge, available at:
https://www.mctague.org/carl/music/computer/pieces/lyre/

Lyre, available at:
www.penn.museum/sites/iraq/?page_id=58

Golden Lyre of Ur by Bill Taylor, available at:
http://www.billtaylor.eu/index.asp?pageid=69109

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