Our Instruments

The Gold Lyre

Image9The Gold Lyre of Ur dates from 2,500 BCE and belongs to the Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia, where the first writing systems were developed. It was discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley in 1929 at the site of the Royal Graves at Ur – modern Tell el-Muqayyar in southern Iraq. Andy Lowing’s conceived the idea of creating a playable replica of the instrument in 2003, shortly after which, by a strange stroke of irony, the Museum of Baghdad was vandalised and the archaeological treasures from Ur once again hit the headlines: the Gold Lyre was broken up, its gold stolen, and its arms found in the car park. With an enormous amount of voluntary support, the Gold Lyre of Ur project Team recreated the Gold Lyre as authentically as possible, using materials from the region including cedar wood, original adhesives and pink limestone from Iraq. Many highly skilled artists and craftspeople dedicated their time and knowledge, helping to reconstruct the breathtaking artwork covering the lyre, from its large, golden bull’s head, to its tiny, ornate shell, mother-of-pearl and lapis lazuli panels; the iconic instrument has now been played all over the world.

The Silver Lyre

silver lyreNow it is time for a second lyre to make its debut, a replica of the Silver Lyre, found in the same Royal Grave in Iraq. After the excavations in the Royal Graves at Ur, the finds were divided between three museums: the Baghdad Museum, the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and the British Museum. The remains of the Silver Lyre – so named because it was completely covered in silver – are on display in the British Museum. Because the lyre’s metal and mineral elements did not decay in the grave, it is possible to have a relatively detailed idea of what it originally looked like. On the sound box there is lapis lazuli and mother-of-pearl inlay, and on the front, below the silver bull’s head, there are mother-of-pearl plaques, showing pictures of mythical animals. The bull’s head itself is a very dynamic, cheeky-looking animal, with curvaceous horns. The instrument’s 11 silver tuning pegs would have been attached to 11 strings, which must have been of organic material and have decayed. On this replica, gut strings are used. The lyres were clearly significant instruments in Sumer, to be included in the elaborate Royal burial, together with masses of gold and silver jewellery, hair decorations, and make-up for the ladies who died with the Queen. The lyres and harp were discovered close to the entrance of the tomb: Sir Leonard Woolley describes finding the bones of the lyre player’s hands still resting on the instrument, as if she had played till the moment she died.

The Pharaonic Lyre

Andy with little lyreThe Lyre Ensemble’s replica Pharaonic lyre is a much smaller instrument, with 6 strings. It dates from around 1800 BCE, considerably later than the lyres of Ur. Andy Lowings originally commissioned the instrument as a portable traveling companion, to accompany him on his research trip to Africa and the Middle East, where he studied contemporary lyre-playing traditions that exponents claim are descended from ancient Mesopotamia.

The wooden structures of all three lyres were made by instrument maker Jonathan Letcher, after careful analysis of drawings and photographs of the originals.