Painstaking: Austrian harp maker Norbert Maier is determined to recreate the ancient lyre the way it was made originally.
For many, both inside and outside the country, the 2003 invasion of Iraq by US-led forces brought to mind all kinds of concerns. But not for Austrian harp maker Norbert Maier – he had altogether different worries.
“When I saw news footage of the US invasion of Iraq in April 2003, I immediately thought about the historical instrument [the Golden Lyre of Ur],” says the Austrian instrument maker, who runs his own company, Elvenkings Harps.
Over ten years later he is still working on a project that he came up with that day: the reconstruction of the unique musical instrument. It was no simple matter though. The Golden Lyre of Ur, as it is known, was discovered by archaeologists led by Briton Leonard Woolley between 1922 and 1934, on a site of ancient royal burials between Basra and Baghdad, in what is now the Dhi Qar province. The burial sites belonged to the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, around 4,000 years old.
Musical instruments found among the royal dead and their deceased entourages included the lyre. After it was found, the remains of the lyre were stored in Baghdad’s national museum, as were many other artefacts from the find. Unfortunately in the chaos that followed the 2003 invasion, looters got into the museum and they destroyed many of these ancient items, including the harp.
As the BBC reports: “Gold and silver sheeting and precious stones were ripped off the lyre and its broken wooden frame was dumped in the car park”
It was at this stage that Maier decided he should start a project to reconstruct the Golden Lyre of Ur in the original materials and using the same kinds of craftsmanship as the ancient Sumerians might have used. It was decided that the different aspects of the lyre’s construction should be divided up between a number of expert artisans and craftspeople.
After a division in the group about exactly how the lyre should be made, one of the original group, British harp enthusiast Andy Lowings, actually left the project and started his own version of it – Lowings’ Golden Lyre was completed in 2009.
Maier notes that sometimes museums and universities will also make their own versions of such important artefacts – the Golden Lyre is thought to be one of the oldest known instruments in the world. But often it would be impossible to play these imitations too, Maier says. “The strings don’t have the right tension,” he explains.
And Maier insists that his group’s reconstruction of the Golden Lyre be as authentic as possible - which is also why it is taking a long time. He’s working on the project together with Filip Moroder-Doss, a wood carver and sculptor from Italy, Austrian goldsmith Peter Pfoetscher and Iraqi mosaic artist Mohammed al-Janabi who lives in Cyprus.
Maier researched the various materials the Golden Lyre was made out of and where they might have come from. The wood used was assumed to be cedar, and most probably Lebanon’s famous cedar. The ancient people of Mesopotamia were dependent on imports of all kinds and would have traded for the wood as well as for the other materials.
Back in Austria, Maier noticed that the wood he had managed to import seemed a little too wet for making the instrument. “Apparently the wood had to be logged at a very specific time, when there’s not so much sap in the tree” Maier explains. So the imported cedar then had to be specially dried in Bavaria, Germany, before the craftsmen could go any further.
The lyre’s gold leaf probably came from Iran or Egypt, its lapis from Afghanistan, carnelian from Iran and the mother of pearl would have been sourced locally. The stones use in the mosaic on the sides would have to be cut into 3,000 small pieces. And this, Maier explains, is the main reason the project is taking longer.
“The wood work was finished a while ago,” Maier says. “But the mosaic is requires a lot of time.” Additionally all of the craftsmen are donating their own time to the job as well as trying to source the materials – they’re still looking for one final sponsor to finish the golden bull’s head off.
The golden bull’s head that works as a sort of prow on the lyre is Pfoetscher’s job. The gold sheets that decorate the bull’s head were rolled out “like sheets of pastry,” Pfoetscher says. Thin sheets of gold, around 0.1mm thick were the results and these were attached to a wooden template.
Right now, the artisans are still unsure exactly when their version of the Golden Lyre of Ur, recreated in painstaking detail, will be finished.
But all those involved feel the project is a worthwhile one, their hopeful contribution to a peaceful future in Iraq. “As soon as it’s finished, and if conditions are right in Iraq, we will gift the Golden Lyre to the Iraqi people,” Maier says – the instrument would end up in another museum there, he thinks.
Right now though, the project is just quietly, slowly proceeding. Speaking to NIQASH on the phone from Austria, Maier says that, “I always watch the news reports from Iraq and sometimes it breaks my heart to see what still happens there.”