A lyre is a musical instrument that is stringed and has a role projecting from the body. There are two types of lyres: box and bowl. Like their names suggest the box lyres have a boxlike body and the bowl lyres have a round body with a curved back. The Lyres of Ur are box lyres. They were played in an upright position with the strings plucked with both hands. Each lyre has 11 strings to play on that would produce a buzzing noise that repeated throughout the song. The musician playing the instrument would repeat the pattern displayed on the lyre.
The Lyres of Ur or Harps of Ur are considered to be the world’s oldest surviving stringed instruments. In 1929, archaeologists led by Leonard Woolley discovered the instruments when excavating the Royal Cemetery of Ur between from 1922 and 1934. They discovered pieces of three lyres and one harp in Ur, located in what was Ancient Mesopotamia and is contemporary Iraq. They are over 4,500 years old, from ancient Mesopotamia during the Early Dynastic III Period (2550–2450 BCE). The decorations on the lyres are fine examples of the court art of Mesopotamia of the period. Because of how they were discovered it is believed that the lyres were used in burial ceremonies in accompaniment to songs.
Leonard Woolley, a British archaeologist, discovered the lyres amongst the bodies of ten women in the Royal cemetery at Ur. One body was even said to be laying against the lyre with her skeletal hand placed where the strings would have been. Upon this discovery, Woolley was quick to pour in a liquid plaster to recover the delicate form of the wooden frame. The wood of the lyres was decayed but since some were covered in nonperishable materials, like gold and silver, they were able to be recovered. Strictly speaking, three lyres and one harp were discovered, but all are often called lyres. The instrument remains were restored and distributed between the museums that took part in the digs.
The Golden Lyre of Ur or Bull’s Lyre is the finest lyre, and was given to the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad. Its reconstructed wooden body was damaged due to flooding during the second Iraqi War; a replica of it is being played as part of a touring orchestra. The Golden Lyre got its name because the whole head of the bull is made of gold. The eyes are made of inlaid mother-of-pearl and lapis lazuli. The beard is similar in appearance to the Great Lyre and the Queen’s Lyre. The body of the bull was originally wood but did not survive. Its discoverer, Woolley, believes that unlike the other lyres, the body of the Golden Lyre would have originally had legs.
The Queen’s Lyre is one of two that Woolley found in the grave of Queen Pu-abi. The Queen’s Lyre is 110 centimetres (44 in) in height and is similar in appearance to that of the Great Lyre. The mask of the bull is gold. The eyes, hair, and beard are all made of lapis lazuli and the horns are modern. The shape of the lyre is meant to resemble a bull’s body. A noticeable difference between the Great Lyre and the Queens Lyre is that the Great Lyre has a straight forehead where the Queen’s Lyre curves slightly around the brow bone. It is held in the British Museum.
The Great Lyre is 33 cm (13 in) in height and 11 cm (4.5 in) in width. The shape of the lyre is meant to resemble a bull’s body. Its head, face and horns are all wrapped in gold foil. The head is garnished with lapis lazuli hair, beard, and eyes. Below the beard is a front panel made of lapis lazuli, shell and red limestone originally set in bitumen. This frontal panel depicts a figure holding onto a bull’s horns above, and animals acting as humans below. The bull head itself, represents the sun god Shamash. Shamash is a divine judge who could descend into the underworld.
The Silver Lyre is 110 cm (42 in) in height and 97 cm (38 in) in width. It is one of two silver lyres discovered in The Great Pit. Both lyres were made of wood and then covered in sheets of silver that were attached with small silver nails. The eyes are made of lapis lazuli and the lyre was also trimmed with narrow borders of lapis lazuli. This is the only lyre that is not bearded. Because of this fresh face some believe it is actually a cow rather than a bull. A silver Boat-shaped Lyre and a lyre with the head of a bull made of gold sheet and a lapis lazuli beard are held by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.