An analysis of Soviet-era excavations from the 1930’s to the mid-1990’s has revealed that a lyre discovered in in Dzhetyasar, Kazakhstan, matches a lyre from Sutton Hoo over 4,000 km away in England.
In 1973, Soviet archaeologists excavated a settlement associated with the Dzhetyasar culture in the Dzhetyasar territory of southwest Kazahkstan.
The researchers found a series of wooden objects which at the time they were unable to identify, but during a new study published in the journal Antiquity it has now been determined are musical instruments.
One of the instruments matches the type of lyre found at the famous Sutton Hoo early medieval ship burial from 7th century AD England, suggesting that lyres of this type may have originated further east and travelled to Western Europe via the Silk Road; or vice versa.
Talking of the Dzhetyasar lyre, Dr Gjermund Kolltveit, an independent scholar from Norway and author of the new research said: “The artefact was identified as a musical instrument and dated to the fourth century AD by the Kazakh archaeologist Dr Azilkhan Tazhekeev. 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 ground breaking 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 Soviet-era digs could help flesh out the history of this instrument. Find out more
Header Image – Left – The Dzhetyasar lyre – Right – The Sutton Hoo lyre – Image Credit : Antiquity