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Left to right; Germanic lyre - the best-preserved lyre from Dzhetyasar  - A replica of the Sutton Hoo lyre. 	Source: Left to right: CC BY-SA 4.0 /  G. Kolltveit / A Praefcke / Antiquities Publications Ltd

Experts Surprised By Similarities Of Sutton Hoo Lyre and Eastern Specimen

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A recent re-examination of artifacts from Soviet era digs in the Dzhetyasar territory in southwest Kazakhstan has identified a fourth-century AD lyre that shows remarkable similarity with the one found in the famous Sutton Hoo early medieval ship burial in England. The study by Dr Gjermund Kolltveit, an independent scholar from Norway, will be published in the February 2022 issue of the journal Antiquity.

Sutton Hoo and the Anglo-Saxon Lyre

In the 1930s, archaeologists found a spectacular early medieval burial mound, later dated to the seventh-century AD, at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk in England. The mound contained a 27m-long ship that had a burial chamber full of untold treasures. Amongst them were the remains of a lyre. This was the first time the remnants of the musical instrument that was subsequently identified as the Anglo-Saxon lyre or Germanic lyre were found in the modern world. The British Museum website contains more information on the Sutton Hoo excavation and the rich artifacts it brought to light.

The fragments of a maple wood lyre from Sutton Hoo site. (© The Trustees of the British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The fragments of a maple wood lyre from Sutton Hoo site. (© The Trustees of the British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )

Although there are plenty of references to and illustrations of the lyre in medieval Anglo-Saxon literature and poetry, all knowledge of the instrument was forgotten until the dig at Sutton Hoo unearthed a specimen. Since then, many early instruments both predating and post-dating Sutton Hoo were found not just in England but all-over north-western Europe, including an almost intact example from Trossingen in Germany. Some of the finds indicate that this kind of lyre may have existed in the pre-Roman Iron Age, but most are from the Middle Ages.

The southern European or classical Mediterranean type differs so substantially in design from it that the Sutton Hoo specimen was initially misidentified as a small harp. With similar instruments being later found across north-western Europe, it was recognized as a lyre variant unique to the region.

Example of a classical Mediterranean style lyre on a Greek style statue. (Public Domain)

Example of a classical Mediterranean style lyre on a Greek style statue. ( Public Domain )

The Missing Eastern Link?

What is so exciting about the new research is that it extends the range of the Germanic lyre as far eastwards as Kazakhstan 4,000 km away from Sutton Hoo. Soviet-era excavations between the late 1930s and mid-1990s at Dzhetyasar found a number of wooden objects from a medieval settlement. Although, the Soviet archaeologists were unable to identify them, a 2018 study by Kazakh archaeologist Dr Azilkhan Tazhekeev found them to be musical instruments dating to the fourth century AD. He suggested they were an ancient form of the traditional Kazakh kossaz, a double-necked lute.

Now, Dr Kolltveit’s research points to the astonishing similarity that at least one of them has with the medieval north European lyre. “I was stunned by the instrument’s resemblance to lyres from Western Europe, known from the same period,” he says.

This type of lyre is long and shallow and has a broadly rectangular shape. It has a single-piece hollow soundbox that has two hollow arms connected across the top by a crossbar or ‘yoke’ and a curved base. There are small projecting knobs on the soundbox for fixing the strings. The lyre from Dzhetyasar has matching features and its fourth-century AD date also fits into the time range of the north European instruments. “[If] it had been discovered in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, or indeed anywhere else in the West, the Dzhetyasar lyre would not have seemed out of place,” writes Dr Kolltveit.

A reconstruction of a Germanic lyre (Round lyre). (CC BY-SA 4.0)

A reconstruction of a Germanic lyre (Round lyre). ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

What this new research may do is to help answer one of the many questions that archaeologists and music historians still have about the Anglo-Saxon lyre: Is it unique to the region or does it have a wider distribution?

With Dzhetyasar’s location as an important site on the Silk Route , that connected the Eastern and Western worlds, Dr Kolltveit’s research points to the possibility that this variant of the lyre may have travelled along this route to reach Byzantium, the Levant or even further east than Kazakhstan. Perhaps even, the instrument originated somewhere along this route.

 “I hope that we can cooperate with Kazakh archaeologists and bring together a team for a thorough study of this single instrument, which we still don’t fully understand from a technological point of view,” Dr Kolltveit says. He adds that further examination of artifacts found from Soviet-era digs may provide more information about the history of the instrument.

The Sutton Hoo lyre and subsequent north European discoveries of the Anglo-Saxon lyre have tended to focus on its northwards and westwards expansion. The new research gives it an eastern thrust, perhaps even indicating an eastern origin. At the very least it points to the need to understand fluid mutual exchanges of musical technology and influences between East and West from early times.

The report is available from Antiquity from tomorrow, DOI: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2021.164.

Top image: Left to right; Germanic lyre - the best-preserved lyre from Dzhetyasar  - A replica of the Sutton Hoo lyre.  Source: Left to right: CC BY-SA 4.0 /  G. Kolltveit / A Praefcke / Antiquities Publications Ltd

By Sahir Pandey

References

British Museum website. The Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo . Available at: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/death-and-memory/anglo-saxon-ship-burial-sutton-hoo.

Kolltveit, G. 2021. The Sutton Hoo lyre and the music of the Silk Road: A new find of the fourth century AD reveals the Germanic lyre’s missing eastern connections . Available at: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2021.164.

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