Paintings, ornate vases, reliefs, and other pieces of ancient fine art depict musicians playing a myriad of instruments. However, it’s rare the instruments they are modeled after survive to this day— and stringed instruments, in particular, are quite fragile. This made the excavation of the Lyres of Ur
in 1922 a magnificent feat.
Three lyres and one harp were discovered at the Royal Cemetery at Ur, dating back to the Early Dynastic III Period of Mesopotamia (between 2550-2450 BC). Due to how the lyres were discovered, it is believed that the instruments were used during burial ceremonies. Though the wood was decayed, the instruments are covered in nonperishable materials such as gold and silver. As a result, archaeologists were able to cast them in a liquid plaster and recover them. Now, the Lyres of Ur are recognized as the world’s oldest surviving string instruments.
The lyres were distributed among those involved in the expedition and the country from which they were found. The Golden Lyre of Ur, or the Bull’s Lyre, which was the finest, was given to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. The Queen’s Lyre and Silver Lyre are both at the British Museum. The last instrument, the Bull Headed Lyre, is held at the Penn Museum.
To better understand how this instrument may have worked, the Oriental Institute in Chicago set out to create a replica of the Golden Lyre. After years of meticulous work from musicians and artists alike, museum guests can bask in what the instrument would have looked like in its prime— and they can even hear it too.
The Lyre Ensemble podcast
, an endeavor created by the Oriental Institute, chronicles the recreation of this ancient instrument and how it may sound in traditional Mesopotamian music. Though the exact sound can never be recreated without the exact same materials used thousands of years ago, an approximation can be achieved, allowing us an exciting view of the past we otherwise wouldn’t have.
Image Credits: © The Trustees of the British Museum Released under: “CC BY-NC-SA 4.0” license.
Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn. “The Musical Instruments from Ur and Ancient Mesopotamian Music.” Expedition Magazine 40, no. 2 (July, 1998): -. Accessed August 24, 2023.
Written by: Cassandra Ledger
Published by: Brian Banyamin