Two Lyres from Ur

    -- by Maude de Schauensee, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2002. 125 pages   

In the late 1920s, excavation at the Sumerian site of Ur revealed two ancient lyres, found in a royal cemetery of the mid-third millennium B.C. One had a soundbox in the shape of a boat with the figure of a stag attached, carved in wood and covered with sheets of silver. The other lyre, with a rectangular soundbox, had a magnificent bull’s head made of gold with a blue beard of lapis lazuli stones set in silver (see photo).

The ancient lyres were restored using the technology of the times and displayed at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. In the 1970s and 90s the lyres underwent new conservation and restoration using contemporary techniques such as X-rays and CAT-scans. This book details that process, and is enhanced with nearly sixty illustrations, photos, figures and maps. The new restoration process gave a much clearer picture of the number of strings and how they were strung on the lyres. It also showed that the Lapis-bearded Lyre was approximately one-third larger than the original restoration had indicated.

So far, the remains of only nine lyres (and two harps) from this period of the ancient Near East have been found, all at this site in Ur (220 miles south of Baghdad in modern-day Iraq). Therefore, the two described in this book are very important to our knowledge about musical instruments in biblical times.

These two lyres were quite large, more than a meter both in length and in height (some lyres were as tall as a person). When played, they probably would have rested on the ground. One person would have held the lyre steady while another played the deep-sounding strings. This practice is shown in a picture on a large plaque made of shell attached to the front of the Lapis-bearded Lyre.

In this book the reader will learn about techniques of field excavation and museum conservation of musical instruments through impressive details of the lyres’ restoration. The organic material of the instruments, such as wood and fiber strings, had of course decayed long before, leaving only metal overlays or other non-perishable parts at the archaeological site. However, the excavation team was able to make casts by carefully pouring plaster into voids left in the soil by the lost organic instrument parts, and take precise measurements that guided the restoration teams. When the smashed pieces of the bull’s head were removed from the ground, the excavator poured molten wax over the pieces to keep them in place.

It is amazing to see a field photograph of the badly smashed and cracked bull’s head right after excavation, broken into pieces to look like unrecognizable trash, and to learn the process by which it was restored to wholeness and beauty of dazzling gold and blue. You’ve never seen “before and after” pictures like these.

The bulk of the text and appendices concerns the details of the restoration of the instruments, and one is left with great appreciation for the “miracle work” of the museum staff. The book also has a couple of pages on Ur to give historical context, and three pages on Sumerian music with its seven scales and the probable sound of the two lyres. For further information including musical terms, song texts, music theory, song genres (nearly 100!) and more, see this book’s bibliography and the “Mesopotamia” article in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2001 edition, vol. 16, pp. 480-87).

    --reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.1, No.4 of

Published by
Artists in Christian Testimony