BUILDING A REPLICA OF
THE GREAT SILVER LYRE OF UR
In 1929, there were five lyres discovered in a royal burial pit in the ancient Sumerian city of Ur (in southern Mesopotamia) by the British archeologist, Sir Leonard Woolley. Unfortunately, these instruments were simply laid in the ground nearly 5000 years ago, and covered over with earth so they were completely crushed flat and any organic material used in their construction quickly rotted and turned to dust. Two of the lyres, however, had been made of wood covered with a layer of silver sheeting about the thickness of a tin can. The wood beneath the silver disintegrated but the silver itself did not, although after 5000 years it became heavily oxidized and turned black. The archeologists poured melted wax over what was left of the lyres and when the wax hardened they carefully lifted them out of the ground. Just to put things into perspective, these instruments were made nearly 2000 years before Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Giza.
The first photo at the top of this page shows the great "bovine" silver lyre as it is today in the British Museum. The photo directly above shows the same lyre (top center) as it was when it was unearthed in 1929. Beneath it, you can see the upside down outline of the body of a boat-shaped lyre, as well as the famous bull-headed, gold lyre.
I had wanted to have a replica of the silver lyre for years, so in the mid 1990's I wrote to the world famous and highly respected assyriologist, Dr. Anne Kilmer, and sought her advice. She kindly wrote back and sent me all sorts of valuable information that she had accumulated on the subject over her many years of study. It took me nearly 20 years to getting around to building the lyre, but here it is! I feel I should also acknowledge the contribution of the wonderful Professor Richard Dumbrill, whose writings and videos on Sumerian music in general (and the silver lyre in particular) were invaluable. What follows is a blow by blow description of how I went about building my silver lyre. It took about six weeks to complete, working in my spare time.
I began my silver lyre reconstruction with a basic outline of the instrument based on Leonard Woolley's original measurements. Since the instrument was smashed flat (as if it had been put through a wringer) no one is absolutely sure of its exact original proportions, and experts disagree on a number of details regarding its construction. My goal was not to create an exact replica, but to fashion a reasonable facsimile that I could play. There is a yardstick (36" or roughly 91.2 cm) in the photo to give some idea of the size of the lyre. I settled on an overall height of 106 cm (42 inches) with a width of 97 cm (38 inches).
The next step was to make a pattern for cutting the pieces for the soundbox. Because the lyre will eventually be covered with metal, it is not necessary to worry too much about what the wood and joins of the soundbox look like because they will not be seen. I chose to make the instrument from red oak because it is a strong hardwood that will take and hold the nails that will fasten the metal plates to the instrument. (It was with small silver nails that the original Sumerian instrument maker attached the silver sheeting to the lyre).
Once I had a pattern, I cut out six pieces of wood (eight pieces if you include the two wooden feet) and joined them with glue and 2 inch wood screws. It's important to remember that you are dealing with a three dimensional object. The soundbox is two and a half inches deep (about the depth of the soundbox of a classical guitar) so it's not like cutting cookie dough. The silver animal head will be attached at the right. Since the gold lyre obviously has a bull's head, it is likely that the silver lyre is a cow's head. In domestic and wild cattle both bulls and cows have horns.
Here is the finished frame for the soundbox. While it is not important that the frame be cosmetically perfect, it must be absolutely smooth without any bumps, irregularities or imperfections, in order to accommodate the metal plates. According to Leonard Woolley's original notes, there was no trace of a wood backing for the two faces of the silver soundboard, so the front and back of the resonator were two pure silver plates, and not made of wood overlaid with silver. This is a detail that has been overlooked by many luthiers who have attempted to reconstruct this instrument, but it is a factor that would have had a tremendous influence on the sound of the finished lyre. It would have been comparable to the difference between the sound of a classical guitar and the louder, far more resonant timbre of a steel dobro.
Here is the assembled frame. I hung a yardstick on the left side of the yoke to show the enormous size of the instrument. This is the basic structure over which silver will be laid. The final ornament will be a silver cow's head that will attach to the neck area at the right side of the instrument. The only wood I used is red oak (including the yoke). It is a very dense and very hard wood but it is extremely strong and can be sanded to a satin smooth finish. This is important because the silver overlay could show imperfections in the underlying structure.
Here is the lyre completely plated with metal (the resonator is .040 rolled steel) and the tuning pegs are six inch lengths of 1/2 inch aluminum rod. The strings you see in the above photo are just hardware store twine that I used to get an idea of exactly where to place the bridge (which is also a “dummy”). There is no decoration or trim of any kind on the instrument yet. That will be done in the last stage.
I would love to have made the instrument using pure silver but that would cost thousands of dollars, so the question was what I was going to use instead. Aluminum was definitely a choice, but I rejected that because silver has a very high specific gravity (10,490 kg/cu.m) and aluminum a very low one (2700 kg/cu.m), and consequently their acoustic properties are markedly different. (You can't make a decent bell out of aluminum because it won't ring). I settled on steel plate, which has a s.g. of about 7800 kg/cu. m. much closer to that of silver. It also has the rigidity of silver. There can be no sagging of the plate when tension is applied to the strings and the pressure of the bridge pushes down on the surface.
Here is the lyre with the lapis lazuli and shell inlaid border (both front and back). The strings in the photo are ordinary nylon cord, not the final musical strings. The silver cow's head (which will be placed on the front edge, right side, of the instrument) will be the final piece of ornamentation.
This is the lyre seen from the front edge with its three vignettes of animal scenes made of shell and red limestone tiles inlaid into bitumen. I did use limestone and shell but I substituted black grout for the bitumen that the Sumerian instrument maker used. There is also a shell and lapis lazuli flower rosette on the front end of the yoke.
The photo above is a detail of the yoke showing how the tuning pegs are lashed in an upright position with a channel that allows the string to pass over the yoke unimpeded. No one knows what the original instrument makers used to tie the pegs to the yoke. I used common sash cord of the sort used for venetian blinds. It is extremely strong and holds the pegs very tightly in place.
Here is the completed instrument. There are a couple of things I should point out about it. Firstly, this lyre is strung with silk. The ancient Sumerians would have used gut, but silk (which was unknown to the Sumerians) is just as strong and hard as gut, and produces a fine tone that is comparable in every way to the highest quality gut strings. I also know how to make silk strings of any gauge or color, which facilitates experimentation. Gut strings can be extremely expensive (fifty or sixty dollars a piece), they can break very easily, and finding them in the right length and thickness for a non-traditional instrument like a Sumerian lyre, can be difficult.
Another concession I have made to modernity is to string the lyre with the highest notes closest to the player, and the lowest notes farthest away. The original lyres were strung in the opposite way, with the lowest notes closest to the player, but reversing the order in no way changes the timbre of the instrument or the music it produces. It just makes the lyre easier to play for modern musicians who are used to the conventional order of the strings on harps.
The three materials the Sumerians used to decorate the silver lyre were lapis lazuli, shell, and pink limestone. In this photo you can see the lapis used for the ribbon border on both the front and back of the soundbox, and also for the eyes of the cow. The three vignettes on the front of the instrument are shell, as is the center channel of the ribbon border. Each of the three plaques is separated from the others by shell and pink limestone tiles.
The design and type of bridge used on a lyre is going to be a major factor in determining the tone of the instrument. There are no existing examples of bridges for ancient Sumerian lyres but what we do have are artists' depictions of these lyres in action.
One such illustration (above) is on the large, bull-headed, gold lyre of Ur. This instrument was discovered along side the silver lyre in the great death pit excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley in 1929, but I am sorry to say that it was smashed to pieces by thieves who broke into the National Museum of Iraq, in Baghdad, following the American attack in 2003. Like the silver lyre, the front of the gold lyre had an intricate decoration of carved and etched shell inlay, and one of its four panels shows a donkey playing a bull-headed lyre. While a certain amount of license has to be given to the artist, the instrument the donkey is playing clearly has a wide, flat, bench-shaped bridge, similar to the kind of thing we see on the modern Ethiopian “begena”. Another depiction of a similar lyre can be found on the Standard Of Ur (below) which shows a bridge of similar design.
The lyres of ancient Greece, Rome and northern Europe had bridges that were comparatively narrow, with an A-shaped profile, and notches for string placement. Why does this matter? Because if the bridges of Sumerian lyres were of the bench-shaped, flat variety, they were undoubtedly made that way so the strings would produce an extended growling buzz, similar to the sound produced by the Ethiopian "begena" and the Indian “tamboura”, sitar, surbahar, and other instruments of the “vina” family (which also have bench-shaped bridges). In India this sound is called “djovari”, which means “life-giving” in Hindi. It is rich in harmonics and overtones, and it is a timbre much sought after by the classical musicians of northern India.
Many years ago, I had the opportunity to watch Nodu Mullick (the late Ravi Shankar's sitar maker) work on the bridge of a surbahar, and with very delicate filing and testing, he brought the vibrating string to life. Judging from the Sumerian artists' images we have, and passages in the cuneiform texts that describe the great lyres as "lowing like bulls", I think we can safely assume that they did not sound at all like the more delicate and clear-voiced harps and lyres of the Mediterranean and northern European regions. The secret is in the bridge.
Another detail that is worth noting in the images above is that the tuning pegs for the strings were lashed to the yoke in a permanent, vertical, parallel arrangement. In order to tune a string, all you have to do is turn the peg, in position, to tighten or loosen the tension. The pegs were not forced backward and forward in an orbit around the yoke the way the pegs of certain African lyres (most notably the Ethiopian “begena”) are today. The advantage of the Sumerian system, which is basically the same system we use today on western stringed instruments, is that the peg does not interfere with the string in any way. According to Professor Richard Dumbrill, the pegs of the original silver lyre in the British Museum were provided with two holes, one for threading the string onto the peg, and the other for the insertion of some sort of key or tuning tool for tightening or loosening the string. While conventional wraps and kollops may have been adequate for lyres with wooden yokes, they do not work on instruments with yokes of polished metal because there is nothing to grip and the wraps slip. Below are a couple of detailed photographs (front and back) of the way the Sumerians attached the pegs to the silver lyre.