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5,000-year-old musical scene found on pottery in Israel

5,000-year-old musical scene found on pottery in Israel may reflect sacred marriage ritual


Archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority working at Bet Ha-‘Emeq have discovered a shard from an early Bronze Age storage vessel depicting scenes from what seems to be a ‘sacred marriage’ ritual. The images are on a 5,000 year old seal which may be one of the world’s oldest depictions of musicians.

All the figures are female. One of them is playing a musical instrument similar to a harp which may be a lyre. The instrument, the name of which is Greek (λύρα, lýra), is known primarily from its use in classical Greece. It is similar to a harp but a lot smaller. It has seven strings and the earliest known image of one is that which appears in the sarcophagus of Hagia Triada, a Minoan settlement in Crete. The instrument was usually played with a plectrum and was also depicted in various mythological scenes. According to Greek myth it was originally invented by the god Hermes who stole a herd of sacred cattle when he was young. He made the lyre from the entrails of one of the cows using a tortoise shell as a soundbox.

The oldest instruments to be found in the world are thought to be two flutes, made from bird bone and mammoth ivory and come from a cave in southern Germany. They were carbon dated to between 42000 and 43000 years old. The oldest lyres still in existence date over 4500 years, such as the Mesopotamian Lyres of Ur.

Woman playing a lyra from the sarcophagus of Hagia Triada

Woman playing a lyra from the sarcophagus of Hagia Triada (Wikimedia Commons)

The archaeologists believe the scene may depict the musical interlude in a ritual known as ‘the sacred marriage’, popularly believed to include feasting, music and sex.
The ‘sacred marriage’ was a ritual that took place between a Mesopotamian king and a ‘goddess’, who was usually a priestess. Modern neo-pagans believe the ritual to date back to prehistory, on the basis of a vase found at Uruk dating from before the 4 th Millennium. The ritual is most commonly associated with the story of the goddess Inanna and her consort, Dumuzi and the idea was that the sexual union between the god and goddess brought on the harvest by keeping the land fertile. For this reason, it is believed, many ancient societies re-enacted the ritual, with a king playing the part of Dumuzi and a priestess (but sometimes also a high status prostitute) playing the part of Inanna. Neo-pagans also believe, perhaps not incorrectly, that the same ritual may have been performed in Celtic societies at the solstices and equinoxes, although how accurate this actually is remains hotly debated.

The Babylonian Marriage Market by Edwin Long

The Babylonian Marriage Market by Edwin Long (Wikimedia Commons)

The ritual was described by J. Stuckey in 2005:

From extant hymns, we can piece together what happened in the ritual. First, Inanna was bathed, perfumed, and adorned, while Dumuzi and his retinue processed towards her shrine. The famous Uruk vase may represent this procession. All the while, temple personnel sang love songs, many of which are extant. Resplendent Inanna greeted Dumuzi at the door, which, on the Uruk vase, is flanked by her signature standards (gateposts), and there he presented her with sumptuous gifts. Subsequently, the pair seated themselves on thrones, although sometimes the enthronement took place only after sexual consummation. The deities entered a chamber fragrant with spices and decorated with costly draperies. Lying down on a ceremonial bed constructed for the occasion, they united in sexual intercourse. Afterwards, pleased by and with her lover, Inanna decreed long life and sovereignty for him and fertility and prosperity for the land.

The fragment from Bet Ha-‘Emeq was actually discovered in the 1970’s and the images on it were probably made using a cylinder seal, an implement that was rolled along the wet clay creating a series of repeating designs.

An engraving of a band on a piece of pottery, made by a 5,000-year-old seal is thought to be the most ancient musical scene in the world.

An engraving of a band on a piece of pottery, made by a 5,000-year-old seal is thought to be the most ancient musical scene in the world. Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

Dr Yitzhak Paz, Dr Ianir Milevski and Nimrod Getzov, of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) believe that the images form the oldest known representation of a musical performance. They think that this is the first time in which it has definitely been possible to identify a figure playing an instrument on a seal impression dating from the third millennium BC.

“It seems that the rare seal impression, which appeared on a fragment of a large storage vessel, sheds light on the symbolic-ritualistic world of the early Bronze Age inhabitants in Israel” the archaeologists told The Daily Mail. “The importance of the scene lies in the possible symbolic context, it being part of a complex ritual known in Mesopotamia as the "sacred marriage. 'In this ceremony a symbolic union took place between the king and a goddess (actually represented by a priestess). The ceremony included several rites: music and dancing, a banquet, a meeting between the king and the goddess and an act of sexual congress between them.”

Many seal impressions from the early Bronze Age show the same rite, according to Professor Pierre de Miroschedji of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris.

There are many ancient sites around Bet Ha-‘Emeq, including an ancient Canaanite palace, a Neolithic site dating back to the Qaraoun culture, a submerged Neolithic village off the coast of Atlit, the remains of a fortified city called Hazor, the ancient city of Megiddo (which gave rise to the word ‘armageddon’) and the Biblical village of Capernaum which was said to be the home of St Peter. Bet Ha-‘Emeq itself was discovered in 1973 by R. Frankel. An excavation was carried out that revealed remains dating to the Late Chalcolithic period in the Early Bronze Age as well as the Persian period. Five burial caves were excavated to the west of the site in 1992.

Featured image: The impression shows  three female figures (illustrated), one of whom is seated and playing an ancient harp-like instrument called a lyre. Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority.
By Robin Whitlock

Robin Whitlock's picture

Robin Whitlock

Robin Whitlock is a British freelance journalist with numerous interests, particularly archaeology and the history of the ancient world, an interest that developed in childhood. He has numerous published magazine articles to his credit on a variety of subjects, including... Read More

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