lyre of ur


Sumerian Silver Lyre, from Ur, southern Iraq, c. 2600-2400 BC

This lyre was found in the ‘Great Death-Pit’, one of the graves in the Royal Cemetery at Ur. The burial in the Great Death-Pit was accompanied by seventy-four bodies - six men and sixty-eight women -laid down in rows on the floor of the pit. Three lyres were piled one on top of another. They were all made from wood which had decayed by the time they were excavated, but two of them, of which this is one, were entirely covered in sheet silver attached by small silver nails. The plaques down the front of the sounding box are made of shell. The silver cow’s head decorating the front has inlaid eyes of shell and lapis lazuli. The edges of the sound box have a narrow border of shell and lapis lazuli inlay.

When found, the lyre lay in the soil. The metal was very brittle and the uprights were squashed flat. First it was photographed, and then covered in wax and waxed cloth to hold it together for lifting. The silver on the top and back edge of the sounding box had been destroyed. Some of the silver preserved the impression of matting on which it must have originally lain. Eleven silver tubes acted as the tuning pegs.

Such instruments were probably important parts of rituals at court and temple. There are representations of lyre players and their instruments on cylinder seals, and on the Standard of Ur being played alongside a possible singer.

The end of the age of Taurus

So, I have been pondering for a while now on the findings at the Ness of Brodgar in Orkney. Link here if you aren’t aware of the archaeological dig ongoing at this significant Neolithic site. It seems that the earliest date so far found for structures has been 3300BCE, and the complex was in use for a millennium until around 2200BCE. 

Excavations of the latest dated structure, which has been described as a “neolithic cathedral” revealed the remains of around 400 cattle (aurochs - large prehistoric cattle, a bit like buffalo), more specifically the tibia bones of these animals, all seemingly slaughtered / consumed in a single event. This single event is thought to have been a part of the ritual “decommissioning” of the site as cultural shifts into the bronze age took place, which fits the chronology of changes in burial practices. 

But why 400 aurochs? Why the mass-slaughter of cattle, when surely this signified a deliberate wastage of a valuable resource for the community? 

What I have been pondering for a few years now is the use of imagery, particularly in the Middle East on significant objects. Bulls / cattle are a common motif, as are lions and rams. 

This lyre, found at Ur, is around 4500 years old. 

Copper Bulls’ Head excavated in Barbar Temple Bahrain- ancient Dilmun (ca. 3000-2000 BCE).

There are plenty of later Bull-related artefacts, and I haven’t looked closely enough at this, but many ancient cultures, such as the Babylonians and the Minoans held the bull in high regard, often elevating them to idol-status. 

Minoan bull and below, reconstructed horns at Knossos, Crete. 

Bull artefacts are prolific during (and after) the age of Taurus. Wikipedia has this to say about the various interpretations of the Age of Taurus:

Neil Mann interpretation: began c. 4300 BC and ended c. 2150 BC
Patrick Burlingame interpretation: began c. 4006 BC and ended c. 2006 BC
Shephard Simpson interpretation: began c. 4525 BC and ended c. 1875 BC

and of the occupation of the Ness of Brodgar:

The earliest structures were built between 3,300 and 3,200 BCE, and the site had been closed down and partly dismantled by 2,200 BCE. 

So in my mind it is not altogether unreasonable to ponder that the slaughter of aurochs on a massive scale as part of a ritual decommissioning at Ness of Brodgar could have been significant as marking the end of the Age of Taurus, and ushering in Aries (remember the biblical story of the golden calf idol told in Exodus, replaced by the symbol of the “lamb of God”?). Alongside the discovery of metal working in Britain at the time, and climate worsening, this would have been a huge cultural shift. Astrological patterns made in the stars by ancient people are a world-wide phenomenon, and trade across the ocean from Britain to Europe to the Middle East was happening at that time. A shared symbology is likely. 

Just thoughts … I’d be interested to know what @thesilicontribesman thinks? 


Ancient Worlds - BBC Two 

Episode 1 “Come Together”

Some of the great discoveries made by Leonard Woolley in the course of excavating the Royal Graves at Ur, Mesopotamia. 

-Untouched- Tomb of Puabi’s (crushed skull of a soldier with a copper helmet, the Queen’s Lyre), a head-dress, The Standard of Ur, The gold helmet of a warrior king (Gold helmet of the King of Kish - Meskalamdug)



Building a replica of the silver lyre of Ur.


Ancient Worlds - BBC Two

Episode 1 “Come Together”

Lyres from the Royal Tombs of Ur: the Queen’s Lyre

The archaeologist Leonard Woolley discovered pieces of several lyres (or Harps) in the graves in the Royal Cemetery at Ur, ancient Mesopotamia. Those lyres, from about 2600-2400 BC, are considered to be the world’s oldest surviving stringed instruments.

The lyres remains were restored and distributed between the museums that took part in the digs.

Pictures n 1, 2, 3: One of two lyres found in the grave of Queen Pu-abi, the Queen’s Lyre. Along with the lyre, which stood against the pit wall, were the bodies of several women with fine jewellery, presumed to be sacrificial victims, and numerous stone and metal vessels. One woman lay right against the lyre and, according to Woolley, she was its player. The front panels of the instrument are made of lapis lazuli, shell and red limestone. The gold mask of the bull decorating the front of the sounding box had to be restored. While the horns are modern, the beard, hair and eyes are original and made of lapis lazuli. The shape of the lyre is meant to resemble a bull’s body.

Picture n 4: Woolley holding one lyre discovered in one of the tombs.

British Museum, London, UK