Ancient Lyre of Sutton Hoo Is Oddly Like One Centuries Older in Kazakhstan 4,000 Km Away

First mistaken for ship boards, then a harp, the lyre in the Sutton Hoo ship burial hints that the instrument may have developed in Asia

Andrew Califf
Andrew Califf
Anglo-Saxon burial mounds at Sutton Hoo
Anglo-Saxon burial mounds at Sutton HooCredit: Alex Healing
Andrew Califf
Andrew Califf

The Sutton Hoo ship of Netflix fame buried near Suffolk, ten kilometers from the British Channel, probably didn’t sail over Silk Road sand dunes to get there. Yet a lyre recently identified on board is oddly similar to a much older one found 4,000 kilometers away, in the Dzhetyasar territory of Kazakhstan.

The Sutton Hoo mortuary ship and the excavation which began in 1938 starred in the Netflix movie “The Dig” released earlier this year. The movie may accurately depict how the site shed light on the Anglo-Saxons in the so-called Dark Ages, star Ralph Fiennes, and have a rating of 88 percent on the reviews website Rotten Tomatoes. But it doesn’t mention the Silk Road, which it turns out may have played an unexpected part of the Sutton Hoo story.

One of the iconic finds at Sutton Hoo is an Anglo-Saxon lyre from the 7th century C.E., which turns out to have a virtually identical relative separated by over 4,000 kilometers and 300 years, according to a reanalysis, recently published by the independent researcher Gjermund Kolltveit in the Journal of Antiquity, of a 4th century C.E. stringed instrument found in Kazakhstan.

Fragments of the Sutton Hoo instrument - which is not a harp or hearpe, but a lyreCredit: Andreas Praefcke

The Kazakh lyre was excavated in 1973, during the Soviet era, and was simply assumed to be a traditional local instrument, until music archaeologist and ethnomusicologist Gjermund Kolltveit attended a conference.

In 2019, while in Almaty for a conference on music archaeology, Kolltveit saw a picture of the stringed instrument that had been rediscovered by Azilkhan Tazhekeev, which grabbed his attention. “I recognized from the picture immediately, ‘wow, this is very, very similar to the lyres found in Germany and the UK,’” he said.

Instruments and music commonly drifted along the Silk Road, but usually, both the ideas and the instruments gradually evolved as they seeped into different cultures. Basically identical instruments this far apart are rare.

The Kazakh lyre was found in excavations of ancient settlements and necropolis of Dzhetyasar. Kolltveit isn’t even sure of the context in which it was found, but says he hopes it was in the necropolis because that would match the funerary context at Sutton Hoo. The majority of Anglo-Saxon lyres have been found in burials, he points out.

One difference between the Sutton Hoo lyre and the Kazakh one is the crossbar. The Sutton Hoo crossbar is flanked by two decorative fittings made of bronze and gold which some think are designed to look like birds. The Kazakh lyre has a more rudimentary crossbar, but unlike its cousin, it has four clearly zoomorphic images etched on its back. Kolltveit thought they were moose or elk, but he admits they are very hard to identify.

One of the biggest questions raised by this discovery is the direction the Anglo-Saxon lyre of Sutton Hoo was traveling. Did it even originate in Europe?

Left: Drawing of the best-preserved lyre from Dzhetyasar, shown with a replica of the Sutton Hoo lureCredit: Left, Gjermund Kolltveit; right, Andreas Praefcke

Sutton Hoo - Masterpieces of the British MuseumCredit: BBC, YouTube

Silk Road slow jams

It’s difficult to determine whether the lyres were heading east or west along the Silk Road, but the iconic trade route has many examples of instruments moving in both directions including lutes and harps.

Mixed signals from the artifacts aren’t making things easier. The lyre in Kazakhstan is significantly older than the majority of samples found in England and Germany, but according to Kolltveit, there were some recently found in Scotland potentially even from the 3rd or 2nd centuries B.C.E.

“With a lot of European finds and one single instrument in Kazakhstan, you could expect they travelled mainly from the west to the east, but what is interesting is a lot of ideas, items, objects, artifacts are coming from central Asia through centers and they have really developed civilizations,” said Kolltveit. “So far, it’s an open question.”

The Kazakh artifact is one of the oldest lyres similar to the Anglo-Saxon type, and also pertinent to a putative eastern origin, the earliest known lyres were found smack in the middle of the Silk Road.

Unlike bone flutes which are both considerably simpler to make and may, under the right conditions, remain well preserved for tens of thousands of years, the oldest known lyres – the lyres of Ur – are over 4,000 years old from Mesopotamia.

1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo burial shipCredit: Harold John Phillips

These impressive pieces include the Golden, Bull-headed, Queen’s, and Silver lyres. Unfortunately, the grandiose Golden lyre was damaged during the Second Iraq War. It earned its name because of the decorative bull head made out of pure gold. The Queen’s lyre is in the British museum and the remaining pair call the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology home.

The earliest references to lyres and harps are from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia in reliefs, statues, and frescoes. Lyres and harps are also generally postulated to be some of the first stringed instruments developed, due to their resemblance to hunting bows.

Among the rich musical tradition of this region and the ensuing instruments that started trickling along the Silk Road, it is very rare to find instruments that don’t undergo design modifications. It was mainly musical influences that travelled instead of nearly-identical design styles.

Example of the magnificent pieces found in Sutton HooCredit: Paul Hudson

One exception to this rule is the oddly-named “Jew’s harp,” which likely originated in Asia. The strange little instrument, which has nothing to do with the Jewish populace is represented across many stops on the Silk Road including one of the oldest examples which is 1,700 years old and still works. Even the Jew’s harps have subtle differences across the Silk Road spectrum.

Mediterranean lyres also travelled the Silk Road. Depictions of them have been found at multiple points including northern India. They underwent evolution as did many things traveling in the tangled trade network. Kolltveit is interested in discovering how the Anglo-Saxon lyres interacted with Mediterranean lyres, if they travelled alongside each other.

King David vs Beowulf

These lyres might not be similar to the instrument King David plucked while serenading Bathsheba, or it might be: it’s hard to say since no one knows what it looked like. The images associated with his musical skill comes from later depictions.

In fact, the depiction of the lyre used for the Israeli half-shekel coin is likely wrong because the artifact bearing the lyre might be a fake.

Spearheads and angons found in Sutton Hoo Credit: Ethan Doyle White

The Anglo-Saxon lyre might not have biblical antecedents, but it might be the harp, or hearpe in Old English, mentioned in “Beowulf.” But there’s a catch.

When excavating Sutton Hoo, archaeologists realized that among the wood fragments were the remains of a musical instrument, which they assumed was a harp. Literary scholars were thrilled, thinking it a dead ringer for the instrument in the heroic legend.

But there had been, it turned out, mistakes in sorting the piles of rotten wood. Some pieces were initially identified as part of the Sutton Hoo boat were later recognized as being part of that mysterious instrument. And as its bits accrued, the archaeologists realized that what they had assumed was a harp was in fact a lyre.

Even though the instrument is considered to be a lyre, not a harp, at least some scholars still stick to their initial analysis - but they now argue that the oral history of “Beowulf” ultimately mislabeled the Anglo-Saxon lyre as a harp.

Reconstruction of the burial chamber in the Sutton Hoo ship Credit: Iestyn Hughes

The way wood fragments were misidentified in the Sutton Hoo excavations illustrate how difficult it is to reconstruct these pieces. It is like playing with old, fragile legos.

With a few more pieces, the Kazakh lyre could look very different. A less exciting solution is that the Dzhetyasar culture developed its lyre independent of the Anglo-Saxon style. Kolltveit thinks this highly unlikely and thinks that there must be some relationship.

“I think a lot of connections between the east and west and a lot of the knowledge has been obscured in the past because of political and language barriers,” he said.

Kolltveit hopes to analyze the lyre and other finds from Dzhetyasar with a team of experts. He also wants to go over the Soviet-era excavation archives. One of his biggest questions is determining if this lyre was produced with local resources. His gut says yes.

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