A Bull-Headed Lyre: Reconstructing the Sound and Style of Ancient Mesopotamia
A musician may have strummed its strings all the way back in the 3rd millennium BC. This means that the Bull’s Lyre, aka the Golden Lyre of Ur, is one of the oldest string instruments in the world. It also provides us with a glimpse of the way the ancient Mesopotamians viewed the world, thanks to the outstanding iconography present on the musical instrument.
The lyre was discovered alongside several other lyres (and a harp) during the excavation of the Royal Cemetery of Ur. Collectively these are known as the ‘Lyres of Ur’. The Bull’s Lyre, along with the other lyres from the site, are recognized for their age and style.
Discovering and Preserving the Lyres of Ur
Between 1922 and 1934, the ancient site of Ur was excavated by a team of archaeologists led by Sir Charles Leonard Woolley. In 1929, the team was excavating in the so-called ‘Royal Cemetery of Ur’, when they discovered the fragments of several string instruments, i.e. several lyres and a harp, one of which was the Bull’s Lyre. When these artifacts were unearthed by Woolley and his team, their wooden frames had already disintegrated a long time ago. Fortunately, sheets of precious metal were used to cover the instrument’s frame, thereby preserving their shape.
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Realizing the importance of this discovery, Woolley had plaster of Paris poured into the cavity left by the decayed wood, thus keeping the fragile metal sheets in place, and preserving the form of these ancient string instruments.
Woolley holding the hardened plaster mold of a lyre. (Public Domain)
After the lyres were restored, they were distributed between the museums that participated in the campaign, i.e. the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, the British Museum, and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The Bull’s Lyre, which was the finest of the lot, was given to the National museum of Ira in Baghdad.
The Iconography of a Bull-Headed Lyre
Researchers have dated the Bull’s Lyre to the Early Dynastic III period, which occurred during the 3rd millennium BC. This means that the instrument is over four millennia old and along with the others from the site, these are generally considered to be the oldest string instruments discovered to date.
Apart from this, the Bull’s Lyre is also significant for its ornamentation, which is rich in symbolism. The most striking aspect of this lyre’s ornamentation is undoubtedly the head of a bearded bull that decorates its front. The head and beard of the bull are made entirely out of solid of gold, which is the reason behind its other name, i.e. the ‘Golden Lyre of Ur’. The bull is said to be a depiction of Shamash, the sun god. The Mesopotamians believed that Shamash was the divine judge who shone his light on all things, and that he was the only being who could descend into the Underworld and emerge out of it at sunrise.
Detail of a cylinder seal from Sippar (2300 BC) depicting Shamash with rays rising from his shoulders and holding a saw-toothed knife with which he cuts his way through the mountains of the east at dawn. (Public Domain)
Apart from that, the panels on the lyres, which were made of cut shells, are decorated with symbols from ancient Mesopotamian mythology. The top panel, for instance, depicts a nude hero between two beasts (probably leopards), a common motif in the art of ancient Mesopotamia that symbolizes the mastery of man over the natural world. In the other panels, more animals, including lions and cows, are depicted, perhaps further reinforcing the notion of man’s mastery over the animal kingdom.
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Example of a ‘Master of animals’ motif in a panel of the soundboard of the harp found at Ur. (Public Domain)
A Playable Replica
A project was undertaken in 2003 to have the Bull’s Lyre reconstructed. It was in April of that year that this lyre was unfortunately vandalized by looters. A harpist by the name of Andy Lowings decided to have the ancient instrument reconstructed. Lowings’ goal was to make a reproduction that was as accurate as possible to the original instrument. Hence, materials, such as cedar wood, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, and pearl shells from the Gulf were used for this project.
By collaborating with various individuals around the world, the project was a success, and a playable replica of the Bull’s Ur was produced. The replica has since been used for various presentations and performances, which has introduced this ancient musical instrument to many.
Top Image: The reconstructed Bull’s Lyre. Source: Sixiemes/CC
By Wu Mingren
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Available at: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=368339&partId=1
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Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20100701185936/http://www.liv.ac.uk/news/press_releases/2005/07/lyre_of_ur.htm