Science

Look: Ancient lyre from Kazakhstan could rewrite medieval history

The Sutton Hoo lyre has a cousin.

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Andreas Praefcke via Wikimedia Commons

The Anglo-Saxon lyre is one of the most iconic musical instruments of medieval Europe.

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Many replicas today are based on an artifact found at Sutton Hoo, a massive Anglo-Saxon burial site in England.

The grounds hold graves dating to the 6th century, filled with riches. It shed light on the lives of people in what was called the Dark Ages.

Andreas Praefcke via Wikimedia Commons

But an analysis published on December 15 in the journal Antiquity reveals the kind of lyre found at Sutton Hoo may have been more global than we thought.

In 2018, researchers re-analyzed wooden objects unearthed from a medieval settlement in southwest Kazakhstan in 1973.

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Gjermund Kolltveit/Antiquity

They identified the remains of a musical instrument that appears to be 1,600 years old — predating the Sutton Hoo lyre by a few hundred years.

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Its matching soundbox, crossbar, and arms stood out to independent researcher Gjermund Kolltveit, who, in the Antiquity paper, points out their striking similarities.

“I was stunned by the instrument’s resemblance to lyres from Western Europe, known from the same period.”

Gjermund Kolltveit, study author

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The illustration on the left depicts the medieval instrument from Kazakhstan, while a recreation of the Sutton Hoo lyre is on the right.

Gjermund Kolltveit/Antiquity

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Around the time both lyres were created, travelers would have been exchanging goods along what was called the Silk Road.

Dzhetyasar, the region in Kazakhstan where the lyre was found, was one of the stops on the Road.

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But this is the first time a lyre so similar to the one at Sutton Hoo — and lyres found in other regions in Europe — has been discovered in Asia.

Gjermund Kolltveit/Antiquity/Google Maps

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Kolltveit writes that it’s unclear how musical influences were exchanged between western and eastern cultures.

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Were instruments like the lyre first created by one culture and adopted by another — or were they the byproduct of a mutual exchange?

Only time will tell.

But the new research shows how little we understand about an instrument that’s often regarded as a distinctly European invention.

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