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. Over 4,000 years after they were first made, these musical instruments—known as the Lyres of Ur—have been reconstructed for modern audiences to marvel at their melodious sounds as well as their eye-catching splendor.
The famous Lyres of Ur, which are somewhat similar to modern harps, are amongst 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, as well as to reconstruct them so they could be plucked and strummed once again.
Leonard Woolley holding the hardened plaster mold of the excavated Sumerian Queen's Lyre in 1922. (Public domain)
Uncovering the Magnificent Lyres of Ur
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.
Lyres are instruments with strings that used to be strummed, either with a pick or by hand, to make a peaceful sound. Musicians had to be calm and gentle to make them play heavenly music.
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The lyre 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 to 2450 BC). Researchers have concluded that the Lyres of Ur had as many as 11 strings.
The plaster cast of one of the wooden lyre in situ during excavations at Ur and after being removed from the earth. (Public domain)
Conserving the Lyres of Ur: The Case of the Great Golden Lyre
It was very difficult to conserve the Lyres of Ur. When it came to the so-called Great Lyre, the problem was focused on the bull's head. This was because it was made with many separate details that had decomposed over time. This particular 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 of Ur was discovered, it was completely disintegrated, so much so that only the soil impression allowed Woolley to decipher its animalistic appearance. His team recorded the size and shape of the lyre and recovered as many of the details of the instrument that they could.
The Great Golden Lyre of Ur, or Bull’s Lyre, on display in Baghdad. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Great Lyre was unearthed alongside the remains of 68 women. It is believed that they were the king’s servants, but it is impossible to definitively know how many of them were musicians, as in reality some of them could have been singers or dancers too.
Archaeologists believe that one of the women was holding the elaborate lyre in her hands when she died since the bones of her hand were placed where the strings would have been located. All of the unfortunate women discovered along with the Great Lyre of Ur 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 3,000 years, about when Cleopatra VII died in Alexandria.
The Queen's lyre reconstruction from the Royal Cemetery at Ur in modern-day Iraq. (British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
The Overwhelming Grace and Beauty of 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.
Nowadays, this stunning addition to the Lyres of Ur it is housed at the British Museum in London. 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, once 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 Queen’s Lyre, from Woolley’s records which include the discovery of the Lyres of Ur. (Public domain)
The Silver Lyre; A Masterpiece of Sumerian Silverwork
The Silver Lyre differs from the previously described Lyres of Ur due to the material used in its decoration. Unlike the other lyres found in the Royal Cemetery of Ur, which were constructed primarily from wood and adorned with gold leaf, the Silver Lyre features panels crafted from sheets of silver.
These silver panels are intricately embossed with various scenes and motifs, showcasing the skilled artistry of the Sumerian craftsmen. The level of detail and complexity in the silverwork sets the Silver Lyre apart, making it a unique and exceptional example of ancient Sumerian craftsmanship.
The Silver Lyre is 110 cm (42 in) tall and 97 cm (38 in) wide. 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.
The Silver Lyre was also discovered by Leonard Woolley in modern-day Iraq and it is currently also housed at the British Museum in London. It is one of two silver lyres which were unearthed during these excavations. The other was made in the shape of a boat and located at Penn Museum in Philadelphia.
Modern Musicians Take on the Sumerian Lyres of Ur
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 a community of researchers, he performs Mesopotamian poetry accompanied by the sound of the lyre.
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Efforts to recreate the music of the Lyres of Ur have captivated musicians and historians alike. Drawing inspiration from the ancient lyres' designs and surviving fragments, experts meticulously reconstructed these instruments. Using traditional materials and techniques, they strived to revive the long-lost melodies.
With a blend of historical knowledge and creative interpretation, musicians have attempted to recreate the haunting sounds that once resonated in the ancient city of Ur. These endeavors not only offer a glimpse into the musical heritage of the past but also celebrate the timeless power of music to transcend time and connect generations. Thanks to these efforts, 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 move and inspire music lovers around the world.
Top image: The cow’s head on the Silver Lyre. Source: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin / CC BY-SA 4.0)
McTauge, C. 1999. “Lyre of Urby” in McTague. Available at: https://www.mctague.org/carl/music/computer/pieces/lyre/
Rubin, A. J. 9 June 2019. “In Iraq Museum, There Are Things ‘That Are Nowhere Else in the World’” in The New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/09/world/middleeast/iraq-museum-baghdad.html
Starr, J. J. No date. “Lyres: The Royal Tombs of Ur” in Sumerian Shakespeare. Available at: http://sumerianshakespeare.com/117701/117901.html
Taylor, B. No date. “Golden Lyre of Ur” in Bill Taylor. Available at: http://www.billtaylor.eu/index.asp?pageid=69109