A charity has reconstructed the oldest instrument in the world. Here's what it sounds like.

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

When it comes to string instruments, guitars are passé, mandolins are too hip, and banjos…no thanks. Listeners of discernment choose an ancient Mesopotamian lyre.


Fortunately, lyre-of-ur.com is here for those with taste.

While you can't purchase an ancient lyre on the site, you can hear the lyre at the home of the Lyre of Ur project, a charity created in 2003 to recreate a playable version of an "extremely early stringed instrument, perhaps the earliest in the world." The reconstructed "Golden Lyre of Ur" looks like this:

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

The story of the reconstructed instrument is pretty wild. The original Sumerian instrument "dates from 2,550 BC" and was "discovered by archaeologists in Iraq in 1929." Harp player Andy Lowings, who spearheaded the project, "decided to assemble a team of contributors and helpers, experts in their own fields, who might offer to co-operate to recreate this object collaboratively" because "[i]f a playable version were to be made, then it must be made as authentically as possible."

So they set about finding appropriate cedar wood, gemstones, and a whole bunch of gold. The entire story of its construction is on the site, but this snippet about finding "red rock" is worth reading on its own:

Mary Schmidt, a lady in Hamburg contacted an Iraqi tailor in Schleswig-Holstein. The tailor persuaded a friend in Iraq to ask a taxi driver to drive into the northern Iraqi desert and collect the best "red rock" he could find. The taxi driver found a red rock and, thanks to this unknown person in Mosul, it was eventually brought to England from Germany. It was perfect for the job.

The tailor said "You must have a proper suit to stand up beside the finished Lyre of Ur" and donated a fine suit: Such is the goodwill that this project creates.

The charity is quick to note that "authenticity and perfection were important but not the only objectives." since "playing' and the 'bringing to life of a story' of the time of Stonehenge and the first Pyramids, a time before all present world difficulties." were also part of the goal. That said they do have a note about how it sounds:

There is a growing list of the types of presentations that can be made. Some are unashamedly `popularist', however, if the Lyre is only played absolutely correctly, as it was 4,550 years ago, but no one wants to listen for more than five minutes, then the effectiveness and impact is totally lost.

It is impossible to hear with the same ears as people of 5,000 years ago who had a different mentality; so absolute authenticity is impossible.


Even without the "different mentality" of ancient Sumerians, you can hear the reconstructed lyre being played on the organization's site, which is itself is also kind of a marvel of design history. Here's part of the homepage:

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

You can also watch the lyre in action. Here it is being played alongside an English-language recitation of the Epic of Gilgamesh:

And here it is accompanied by some pipes:

Go ahead, it's ur turn to listen.

Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at ethan.chiel@fusion.net

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