In my voyage back in time, to explore & attempt to recreate some of the lost music of the ancient world, the most crucial element to base these musical reconstructions & recreations upon, is concrete facts, firmly grounded in the archaeological records we have, regarding the music of antiquity. In this section of the website, I will therefore present ongoing research since 2006 into these matters, in the form of an ever-growing online book, with each of the many subpages in this section, forming an individual chapter.
To aid personal research into this fascinating topic, I have also summed up a brief outline of the basics of my exploration into the history of the lyre, into a freely downloadable PDF booklet, "A Brief History of the Lyre" - this booklet can be downloaded here.
As well as traditional photographic illustrations, this "virtual book" is also amply illustrated with a fascinating selection of videos throughout the many twisting paths of musical exploration on which I have embarked.
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The chapters which form this "virtual book", range from an exploration of the ancient history of the lyre & harp, the survival of the actual musical instruments of antiquity throughout the African continent today, my attempts at deriving ancient lyre playing techniques based on archaeological evidence, ancient musical string technology, the Northern European branch of the lyre family through to the Welsh Crwyth - sadly, the only precious remnant of the lyres of antiquity still played in Northern Europe today.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE LYRE AND THE HARP
The fundamental difference between a lyre and a harp, is that in a harp, the strings enter directly into the hollow body of the instrument, whereas on a lyre, the strings pass over a bridge, which transmits the vibrations of the strings to the body of the instrument – just as on a modern guitar.
Here is a clip from a fascinating documentary, "The History of the Harp", presented by Catrin Finch, featuring the sounds of amazing ancient lyres which still can be heard today...
The Lyre seems to have been an evolution from the much more ancient harp, and what I think drove this evolution, was the desire by specifically nomadic cultures in the ancient Middle East, to create a harp-like instrument which unlike the larger harp, was portable.
The harp is an incredibly ancient instruments, and the very first illustrations of the harp can be found from c.3300 BCE – 3000 BCE, in rock etchings found in Megiddo, in the northwestern Valley of Jezreel in ancient Israel:
Further details about of this ancient etching of the first known depiction of the fully evolved triangular harp, complete with harmonic curve, can be seen in of Joachim Braun's highly informative book, available from Amazon:
"Music in Ancient Israel/Palestine - Archaeological, written & Comparative Sources" (Wm. B. Erdmans Publishing Company, 2002)
These rock etchings date from an incredibly ancient era, before the Bronze Age, and before the First Dynasty of ancient Egypt. This remote era in archaeology, is known as the "Chalcolithic" period (4000 - 3200 BCE) - the "Copper Age". The triangular harp depicted in the Megiddo etchings is so fully evolved, that the history of the harp must predate even this ancient illustration by at least a few thousand years! The ultimate ancient evolution of the harp, may have been the result of a long, progressive series of developments in refining the plucked sound made by the basic strung bow and arrow of the Stone Age.
Incredibly, this Mesolithic ancestor of both the harp & lyre, the basic musical bow, is still very much alive & well today in Africa - a continuous musical tradition, dating back at least 60,000 years or more...
For more details on the incredibly archaic ancient harps & lyres still being played throughout the African continent, please read on to the chapter devoted to this fascinating musical exploration.
THE EARLIEST EVOLUTION OF THE LYRE FROM THE HARP
According to Prof. Richard Dumbrill, in his book, "The Archaeomusicology of the Ancient Near East" , the lyre and harp both likely evolved from the Mesolithic Music Bow:
The very first lyres were harp-sized, and were discovered at Ur. Incredibly, they predate the building of the Pyramids in Egypt - they date back to c.2600 BCE. These lyres became known as the Golden Bull Lyre of Ur and the Silver Lyre of Ur:
Here is another incredible video, featuring an actual performance on a replica of the 4600 year old Golden Lyre of Ur, in duet with replica double silver pipes which were also found with the lyre - fascinating evidence of the use of harmony, over a hundred years before the Pyramids were built...
For all details of Prof. Dumbrill's incredible research, including the deciphering of the 3400 year old Hurrian Hymn (text H6), please see his book, available from Amazon:
"The Archeomusicology of the Ancient Near East"
Another splendid modern replica of the Silver Lyre of Ur, has recently been made by Peter Pringle:
This lyre uses a flatter bridge than on Dumbrill's replica, resulting in an amazing sound, similar to a cross between a Sitar & an Ethiopian Begena. An audio clip of this magnificent replica lyre can be heard in the link below:
Peter goes on to compare & contrast his replica Silver Lyre of Ur, with that created by Dr. Richard Dumbrill:
"my silver lyre does have a "djovari" bridge, similar to the bridges on the large Ethiopian "begena" lyres, and on the lutes of India (sitar, tamboura, surbahar, Saraswati vina, gottuvadyam, etc. etc.)
The silver lyre of Professor Richard Dumbrill (which you can see on YouTube) does not have a flat, bench-shaped, "djovari" bridge. Instead, he has chosen to give it an A-shaped bridge similar to the lyres of Europe and the Mediterranean. The result is that his instrument sounds like a Celtic harp.
All the archaeological evidence we have (in the form of artwork of one sort or another) clearly indicates that the bridges on the large lyres were bench-shaped. If you have a bench-shaped bridge, like it or not, YOUR STRING WILL BUZZ because it will lightly hit the flat surface of the bridge as it vibrates. This tone can be enhanced with delicate adjustments and the decay time of the sound can be extended by several seconds, making it ideal for a drone.
Interestingly, there is some speculation among scholars that there is a cultural and linguistic connection between the ancient Sumerians and the Tamils of southern India. If this is so, could there be parallels between the music of the Sumerians and Carnatic (southern Indian) music? Remember that "sacred cow" that the Indians revere and that is considered so holy that it cannot be killed? There she is on the silver lyre!"
THE FIRST APPEARANCE OF A TRANSITIONAL FORM OF LYRE
By about 2000 BCE, a transitional form of lyre seems to have evolved from these first harp-sized Temple Lyres from Ur - although still not yet portable, they certainly appear reduced in size. These early large, cumbersome lyres were still played vertically, like a harp. This early form of lyre can be seen in the Negev Rock Etchings (p.73-74, "Music in Ancient Israel/Palestine", by Joachim Braun):
In my exploration of the history of the lyre, we will see how these early, cumbersome lyres became the portable ancestor of the Biblical lyres played in the Temple of Jerusalem, the lyre played in the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt & later to become the Kithara-style lyres of ancient Greece & Rome...
THE CANAANITE ANCESTOR OF THE LYRE OF THE ANCIENT HEBREWS?
By the time of the Lyre of the Ancient Hebrews (c. 1900 BCE) the lyre had become portable, & unlike the harp, could be played horizontally - ideal for wandering groups of Semitic nomads to play whilst constantly on the move.
This could well be due to the nomadic origins of the Hebrews, as described in the Biblical text! Since the same Biblical text describes how Abraham was actually born in Ur, it could even have been Abraham himself, who actually had the idea of scaling down the “Harp-Lyres” he heard at Ur, to a played a convenient-sized, portable lyre, which could be played on the move?
The very first illustration of nomadic Semites playing such a lyre, is seen in the tomb of a prosperous ancient Egyptian baron named Knumhotpe - he had a forty-foot-long mural painted in his tomb at Beni Hassan, about halfway up the Nile to Nubia:
The mural clearly depicts:
"A group of Semitic traders, smiths, and musicians at a custom post set up on the Middle Nile by an Egyptian Baron, Knumhotpe about 1892. The leader is identified with the Hebrew name Abushei, the same as that of one of King David’s two generals. The lyre being carried by one of the family group was at that time unknown in Egypt. During a two-hundred-year period, referred to by archaeologists as the Second Intermediate Period, Semitic kings ruled Egypt. In that period Egypt was thrust from the Chalcolithic (Copper-Stone) Age into the Late Bronze Age. In addition to many technological and agronomic innovations, the Semites introduced the lute, harp, tambourine, chalil (a precursor of the oboe), new forms of music and dance"
(quoted from: http://www.hebrewhistory.info/factpapers/fp010-2_egypt.htm)
Below is an illustration of the complete mural:
"By commemorating the lucrative trade he had had with the nomaidc Semites in his final resting place, Knumhotpe sought to assure an eternal traffic of tradesmen paying tribute to him in the afterworld.
The painting evidently registers an actual event which Knumhotpe felt worthy of eternal repetition.. It depicts a group of thirty-seven Semites in full size in the act of paying customs duties to the nomarch's officials. A bold hieroglyphic text states that these Asiatics are supplying him with such important items as stibium, a mineral required for eye makeup acquired in Mesopotamia. Knumhotpe evidently feared that the place he would occupy in the hereafter might lack the mineral, as was the case in Egypt. The date given is the fourth year of Sinusert II's rule, or about 1892 B.C.E"
The most fascinating details, which are immediately evident in this magnificent ancient mural, is the striking similarity between the illustrations of the these ancient Semites, and the Biblical narrative of the patriarch Joseph - this group of nomadic Semites can clearly be seen, wearing their immediately distinctive "coats of many colours", so vividly mentioned in the timeless Biblical text!
The musicological significance of the appearance of this first type of portable lyre, as depicted in the Beni Hasan Mural, is discussed at length, by Joachim Braun:
"One of the nomads is holding a completely new instrument. Unlike the older, larger, rather cumbersome lyre, which was held vertically, this instrument was smaller (ca.50x30cm), portable, and almost symmetrical in form. It was held horizontally so that it could even be played comfortably while walking, as in the case in the representation here, whilst simultaneously allowing the musician to breath more easily whilst singing. This particular instrument, portrayed in the hands of distinctly Semitic nomads and yet to the southwest of Canaan proper, is richly attested and doubtless represents an early example of the horizontal lyre, a logical development for musicians who, as part of a nomadic group such as this one, were constantly in motion and thus needed a more portable instrument"
(p78-79, "Music in Ancient Israel/Palestine", by Joachim Braun)
A MAGNIFICENT MODERN REPLICA OF A CANAANITE LYRE
The "Lyre of Har Megiddo" is an instrument etched onto an ivory plaque that was discovered by archaeologist Gordon Loud in the excavations of a royal palace in the ancient city of Megiddo (aka Armageddon) in Israel, dating to the 2nd Millennium BCE, circa 1200 BCE (currently on display in the Rockerfeller Museum in Jerusalem):
This period, significantly, is not far off the time of the Biblical King David, and is probably about the closest idea we have, of what King David's Lyre actually looked like.
Recently, I was delighted to discover, that we can now also get an idea of what King David's lyre itself, may have also actually sounded like - thanks to a magnificent modern replica of the Megiddo lyre, built by Peter Pringle:
This lyre uses incredibly resonant strings, which Peter made himself, from pure silk - a natural material which produces musical strings almost identical in density and tone to the unpolished gut generally used in the actual time of King David.
For more fascinating details about this amazing reconstruction of the Megiddo Lyre, please see Peter Pringle's blog on the project here