Golden Lyre 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. The famous Lyres of Ur, which are somewhat similar to modern harps, are the oldest stringed instruments unearthed to date.

In 1929 archaeologists from the British and Pennsylvania Museums, led by Sir Leonard Woolley, discovered an amazing find in old graves in the city of Ur during excavations between Baghdad and Basra in Iraq.  It appeared that these were royal graves from 2600 BCE and that what was uncovered was the poignant scene of mass suicide.  Many bodies lay, as if asleep, dressed in similar costumes, with identical jewellery. 

The excavation, dominated by a massive ziggurat dedicated to the Sumerian moon god Nanna, attracted attention from the popular press because it was believed to be the birthplace of the biblical patriarch Abraham and because its elaborate ceremonial burials sparked fantasies of mass ritualistic sacrifice.

In a corner of the graves lay a pile of much deteriorated musical instruments, including three lyres and a harp.  These instruments, or what remained of them, were restored and distributed between the museums that took part in the digs.  Although musicians and musical instruments were depicted in Mesopotamian art in various forms over 3,000 years, very few instruments have survived. The most famous are the four Lyres of Ur:

  1. Golden Lyre of Ur (Iraq Museum)
  2. Queen’s Lyre (British Museum)
  3. Bull Headed Lyre (Penn Museum)
  4. Silver Lyre (British Museum)

The Golden Lyre, found in the Great Death Pit at the Royal Cemetery of Ur (in southern Iraq), got its name because the whole head of the bull is made of gold. The eyes are made of inlaid mother-of-pearl and lapis lazuli.

The Golden Lyre from the Royal Cemetery at Ur, Early Dynastic period III, 2600-2370 BCE, Iraq Museum, Baghdad

The Mesopotamian sun god Utu/Shamash was often taken to assume the form of a bull, particularly in his role at sunrise, and is the figure most frequently described in some cuneiform texts as having a lapis lazuli beard. For these reasons, the Penn Museum has asserted that the bullhead of the lyre is a representation of Utu/Shamash. In addition to his role as the sun god, Utu/Shamash was the judge of the dead. In the lyre, he can be seen as presiding over the events represented in the panel affixed below his head.

The head was made of a single piece of gold plating over a wooden core with gold-plated ears and horns attached with small pegs. The beard is made of carved lapis lazuli tesserae on a silver backing. The tips of the bull’s horns are also lapis lazuli, making this the only animal-shaped lyre at Ur to have horns tipped in a separate material. The eyes of the bull are shell and lapis lazuli strung with copper wire.

The Golden Lyre is one of the oldest stringed instruments ever discovered. The lyre was invented by the Sumerians around 3200 BCE. Its design was developed from the harp by replacing the single bow shape with two upright arms joined by a crossbar, and the strings, instead of joining the sound box directly, were made to run over a bridge attached to the box. They were played in an upright position with the strings plucked with both hands.

Because of how they were discovered it is believed that the lyres were used in burial ceremonies in accompaniment to songs. Each lyre has 11 strings to play on that would produce a buzzing noise that is repeated throughout the song. The musician playing the instrument would repeat the pattern displayed on the lyre.

Research has shown that the bull played a key role in the religious imagination of the Sumerians: it could serve as the deity’s divine animal or the god himself could take on the form of a bull. The analysis of the bull-headed lyre pointed to the importance of masculine imagery in elevating the strength of civilizations and cultures.

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