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This lyre was discovered by the archaeologist C. Leonard Woolley during excavations at ancient Ur (modern Tell al-Muqayyar), in southern Mesopotamia (south Iraq). Within a cemetery of the Early Dynastic III period (around 2600–2300 BC), that Woolley named ‘The Royal Cemetery’, were sixteen graves that he distinguished as ‘Royal Tombs’ because of their construction, abundance of grave goods and evidence of elaborate burial rituals and human sacrifice.

The lyre was discovered in the 'Great Death Pit' so named due to the large number of bodies found within it, but there was little evidence remaining of the Royal Tomb to which it belonged. On the access ramp, as if guarding the entrance, were six guards or soldiers with weapons. In the pit were 68 women wearing elaborate jewellery. Most of them lay close together, arranged in rows, but four of them were grouped around musical instruments.

The wood of the instruments had decayed, but Woolley poured plaster into the holes left by the vanished wood and so preserved their shapes and decoration.

The silver which covers this lyre and its bull’s head are original. It is almost certain that the soundboard was made only with sheet silver, but it is now supported on a wooden frame. The shell, lapis lazuli and red limestone inlay decoration is also ancient, while the strings and tuning pegs are modern (the original silver pegs are on display next to the lyre). The panel on the front depicts deer and a tree on a hill, lions attacking a goat and a lion attacking a gazelle.

Music was an important aspect of many celebratory and ritual occasions in ancient Mesopotamia. Musical instruments were discovered in several of the Royal Tombs next to the remains of women, probably musicians who would have been playing music at the funeral ceremonies, just before they died.

Details

  • Title: Silver lyre
  • Date Created: -2600/-2600
  • Physical Dimensions: Height: 97.50cm; Length: 69.00cm; Width: 5.50cm (body); Length: 103.00cm (bar); Length: 18.00cm (pin); Height: 15.50cm (shell decoration)
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Technique: inlaid
  • Subject: mammal; tree/bush; landscape
  • Registration number: 1929,1017.2
  • Place: Excavated/Findspot Royal Cemetery
  • Period/culture: Early Dynastic III
  • Material: silver; shell; limestone; lapis lazuli; wood
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: Excavated by Woolley, Charles Leonard. Division of Finds Department of Antiquities of Iraq

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