The Golden Lyre of Ur

The Golden Lyre of Ur

This article by Tristan Le Govic first appeared in and then in on the 7th of November, 2013. Both blogs gave their permission for its use here.
lyre of ur This is the incredible story of an exceptional World heritage lost in the shadow of a war. Destroyed during the looting of the National Museum of Iraq, the most beautiful of the Lyres of Ur would have been left in such a poor condition without the harp player and engineer Andy Lowings, whose passion for archaeology made him determined to reconstruct it identically. Exactly ten years ago, Iraq had just been invaded by the coalition led by the United States against Saddam Hussein’s regime. In the middle of the turmoil, Andy desperately sought the contacts which would provide him the documents and especially the necessary materials to rebuild an identical model. He gathered a team of expert volunteers ready to follow him in this extraordinary adventure and found the sponsors all over the planet.

Prelude of the Lyre of Ur

The story begins in 1929, in the ground under the antique city of Ur, between Baghdad and Basra today. A group of archaeologists led by Sir Leonard Woolley discovered some royal graves, including Queen Puabi’s grave, dated from about 4,500 years ago. Tens of bodies lay in a Great Pit, prepared for the otherworld, with jewels, gold, pearls, carnelian and silver. Along a wall, three lyres and a harp deteriorated by time stood still in silence. Sir Leonard Woolley described the scenery as if “the last player had her arm over her harp, certainly she played to the end”1. Following the discovery, the instruments were spread between different museums: the “Queen’s lyre” was sent to the British Museum of London, the “King’s lyre” to the Penn Museum of Philadelphia and the golden lyre or “bull’s lyre” was offered to the National Museum of Iraq.

The dispersion of the lyres would ensure the safety of part of this treasure. In April 2003, at the beginning of the war, the museum of Baghdad was looted. Seriously vandalized, the lyre was left behind in pieces in the car park of the museum. The gold and gems vanished but fortunately the golden bull’s head was kept safe in a bank vault. The story would have ended with the rests of an instrument as so many in museums but, for Andy Lowings, the last chord didn’t sound right. The lyre is older than 4,500 years old, it is therefore the oldest string instrument of human history – older than the Great Pyramids or Stonehenge; it is also regarded an ancestor of the modern harp.
  leonard woolley lyre ur

Sir Leonard Wooley holding one of the lyres discovered in Ur in 1929 (photo: Penn Museum of Philadelphia)

In Andy’s head, the project was not only to rebuild a simple imitation of the old lyre but to build an instrument with all the materials as authentic as possible: wood, gems and, of course, the gold which covered the instrument. Moreover, the lyre would have to be playable unlike the old model deteriorated by time.

The making

In November 2003, Andy got a phone call from Iraq: “We have your cedar wood Mr Andy… Come and get it!”. The call came after the official launch of the project online. In normal times, mailing 75 kg of Lebanon cedar wouldn’t be such a problem but, at this time, the country of Iraq was totally closed because of war. The only one hope to get it delivered was in the Royal Air Force then on the front lines. With composed audacity, Andy took his phone: an officer answered at the other end. The man had other issues at the moment to deal with rather than arranging shipping details. Once more, the story could have stopped there but then operation “plank” was launched within the RAF. A few weeks later, finally, the precious delivery arrived in England. History will forget the risks taken in order to ship this wood.

lyre ur

The decorations are pasted by hand with

                       Jonathan Letcher lyre ur
            Jonathan Letcher
The construction would have been almost possible if there weren’t at least five thousand small pieces still missing: pink limestone, gems and other decorating materials which were to cover the lyre. For Andy: “The idea of the international community pulling together to make one small, positive thing from the ongoing horror in Iraq is quite appealing to people”. Everybody got involved: Mother-of-pearl shells were collected from the shore of the Persian Gulf by a family from Dubai; a taxi driver was sent to the North desert of Iraq to pick up red rock; lapis lazuli (an ultramarine blue stone) was bought in Afghanistan – the closest local source; the conservator of the Baghdad Museum himself took part in the quest by sending two kilos of natural bitumen from the Hitt region2.

Jonathan Letcher, from Silver Spear harps, based his wood work on Maude Schauensee’s book Two Lyres from Ur, in conjunction with numerous details sent by the museum of Pennsylvania. Strings made of cow gut were offered by Bow Brand. The lucky star which followed the project from the beginning didn’t stop there: a South African gold company agreed to support the project in providing about one kilo of pure gold. This gold was shipped to England where Tonny Beentjes – from the West Dean College of Art – Rodger Rose, Daniel Huff, a group of students and Alun Evans – Prince Charles’s personal goldsmith – made all the precious decorations during nine months.

The project took five years; 30,000 cuts were executed using no less than six diamond discs. How the Sumerian people could achieve such a result using materials such as sand, copper, and carborundum (an abrasive material also known as Silicon carbide) is a mystery.

plaque lyre ur    

Reproduced identically, the instrument seems perfect, but for  Andy, perfection is a notion raised by the mechanical and industrial revolution of the modern world. It is not so obvious that some details of the original lyre were adjusted afterwards by the craftsmen in the past. Similar adjustments have been made during the construction of the new lyre, forgetting the world of perfection ruled by machines.
Made of cut shell, the decorations on the front panel shows demi-gods, cows, leopards and other animals, symbols of the Mesopotamian mythology still little known.  

An instrument for what music?

The fact that no string survived leads us to think that they were probably made of organic material – such as cow gut – rather than metal. Dr Anne Kilmer, from the University of Pennsylvania, found on a cuneiform tablet from Nippur that there were eight strings on those instruments. How were they tuned? The questions kept coming even when the lyre was finished. Despite the attempts of understanding cuneiform writings, the music played during the Sumerian time remains unknown. From unfounded assumptions to unrealistic ideas, the project was getting nowhere.

Since the past wasn’t helpful anymore, the present took over with no announcement: one day, Andy got a phone call from the nyatiti virtuoso Ayub Ogada. Ayub comes from the Luo people in Kenya where the instrumental tradition of the lyre is still alive. According to him, his people came from what is now called Iraq, building a link between the lyre he plays and the one from Ur. For Andy: “That this ancient instrument might somehow have a contemporary legacy today was something that had not been considered”. Leaving Sumer, following the Nile, the lyre would have been spread all over the neighbouring countries: Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda… Could the old Sumerian music have been passed on until now through contemporary African lyre players?

These lyres have only a few strings which explain why they are mainly used in accompaniment of songs. Among the typical features of the music played on these instruments, the rhythm is essential as well as the buzzing noise resulting from the contact between the strings and the bridge. For the harp player Bill Taylor: “The long gut strings of the lyre buzz in a satisfying growl, which evokes the sound of the European renaissance bray harp, and which also echoes the sound of the traditional Ethiopian buzzing lyre, the begena. This validates ancient descriptions of the lyre sounding like a “softly lowing bull”3.


In this video made by Mark Harmer, Bill Taylor plays on the new Lyre of Ur with Barnaby Brown who plays a replica set of the silver double pipes from Ur. Although it is not possible to determine the tuning of the strings from archaeological research, a reconstruction is still possible according to the position of the holes on the pipes found at the same site.

What is the Future of the Lyre of Ur?

andy lowings lyre ur

Andy Lowings playing the lyre at the Baghdad Festival
of Arab Culture in 2013

  Since its completion, five years ago now, the lyre has been presented all over the world, particularly in Iraq. Each time, the audience is touched by its musical essence and the deep respect generated by the grounded sound of humanity. The reflection on our origins is followed by the one on invention and creativity. It is not a museum object but a true instrument to be seen during exhibitions, TV programmes and, of course, during concerts. Pure instrumental compositions, accompaniment of ancient texts or choreographic dances have been specially created for and with this instrument; also, a CD has been recorded.

No pretension was made to recreate the thousands years old Sumerian music. This lyre is above all, an exceptional testimony of a humanity federated around a common project. The lyre took us on a strange journey of several millennia and several continents. It shows us that music is more than an entertaining process: it connects people, anywhere in the world, anytime in history.



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