Musicians used a distinct type of lyre in early medieval Northern Europe, with one of the stringed instruments even being included in the famous seventh-century Sutton Hoo ship burial. Now, research has identified another one of these lyres – over 4,000 kilometres away in Kazakhstan.
This discovery is the result of a re-analysis of Soviet-era excavations that ran from the late 1930s to the mid-1990s. In 1973, these excavations found a series of wooden objects from a medieval settlement in the Dzhetyasar territory, southwest Kazahkstan. Although Soviet researchers were unable to identify these objects, recent work recognised them as musical instruments. Now, research published in the journal Antiquity narrows this down further, showing at least one appears to match the type of lyre seen at Sutton Hoo.
“The artefact was identified as a musical instrument and dated to the fourth century AD by the Kazakh archaeologist Dr Azilkhan Tazhekeev,” said Dr Gjermund Kolltveit, an independent scholar from Norway and author of the new research, “I was stunned by the instrument’s resemblance to lyres from Western Europe, known from the same period.”
This type of lyre is long and shallow with a single-piece soundbox that has parallel sides and a curved bottom. These differ from the lyres seen in the classical Meditteranean; in fact, when the lyre from Sutton Hoo was found in the 1930s it was initially identified not as a lyre, but a small harp. Since then more lyres like it have been found, such as an almost intact example from Trossingen, Germany, confirming there was a unique style of lyre in the region. Other finds suggest this type of lyre may predate the Romans, although most examples are from the early medieval period like the instrument from Sutton Hoo.
“Until now, lyres of this type—famously known from the Sutton Hoo ship burial and the warrior grave in Trossingen, Southern Germany—are not known outside Western Europe at all,” said Dr Kolltveit, “as such, the identification of strikingly similar instrument 4,000 km away is groundbreaking news.”
The lyre from Dzhetyasar has a matching soundbox, arms, and crossbar to its western cousins. Dating to around the 4th century AD, it also fits within the time frame of the northern European lyre. “[If] it had been discovered in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, or indeed anywhere else in the West, the Dzhetyasar lyre would not have seemed out of place,” Dr Kolltveit wrote in the paper.
Despite being found thousands of kilometres away from its kin, this find could help tackle the many questions that remain about this type of lyre: is it a unique Northern European development, or is it part of a wider musical tradition? Dzhetyasar is an important site on the Silk Road, the trade route connecting east and west, raising the possibility that the lyre travelled along this route and could have reached Byzantium, the Levant, or even further east than Kazahkstan. Perhaps the origins of this instrument also lie somewhere upon the Silk Road.
“I hope that we can cooperate with Kazakh archaeologists and bring together a team for a thorough study of this single instrument, which we still don’t fully understand from a technological point of view,” said Dr Kolltveit, also noting further investigations into Sovietera digs could help flesh out the history of this instrument. The Sutton Hoo lyre may have a much deeper, more global history than anyone expected, hinting at a more interconnected musical world in the medieval period.
The article, “The Sutton Hoo lyre and the music of the Silk Road: a new find of the fourth century AD reveals the Germanic lyre’s missing eastern connections,” by Gjermund Kolltveit, appears in Antiquity. Click here to access it.
Top Image: Left) The best-preserved lyre from Dzhetyasar (credit: G. Kolltveit); right) A replica of the Sutton Hoo lyre (credit: A. Praefcke, Public Domain)