Puabi’s Lyres: Feminine Musicianship

Puabi’s Lyres: Feminine Musicianship


Among the significant discoveries made by C. Leonard Woolley’s team during the 1922 excavation of the Royal Cemetery at Ur (now known as southern Iraq), commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the British Museum, were a number of musical instruments. In all, there were nine lyres and two harps, a silver double flute, sistra, and cymbals. The lyre stands out among these instruments for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the discovery of the “lyres found in this cemetery are the only known examples of actual stringed musical instruments preserved from a mid-third millennium BC urban context.”1 Previously to the excavation, only sculptures, imprints on cylinders, and paintings of the instrument had been studied to historicize the musical aspect of ancient Sumerian society. Secondly, there were a great number of lyres in the cemetery compared to other instruments. This difference suggests an emphasized importance of the lyre in the funeral rituals and ceremonies that took place there. Thirdly, the whereabouts of these lyres also connect the instrument to ritual related specifically to royalty.

One such tomb where a multitude of lyres were found was the burial chambers of Queen Puabi. Queen Puabi is said to have lived during the reign of the First Dynasty of Ur. Puabi’s name and her title are inscribed on a cylinder found in her tomb written in Akkadian. The cylinder specifically displays the words Pu-abi meaning “word of the father” and eresh meaning “Queen.” Unlike most other cylinders, which often related the woman it represented to her partner, there is no mention of a king attached to her name. The Penn Museum suggests that this might indicate that she was a “queen in her own right.”2 However, the position of her tomb is adjacent to the tomb known as The King’s Grave, which could suggest a relationship between the two royals. At the time of the excavation, her tomb remained untouched and well preserved, and this allowed archaeologists to gain an untampered-with snapshot of some unique components of funeral ritual related to the royalty of Ur. Queen Puabi’s body was discovered in a sealed tomb where she “laid on a bier, accompanied by a single attendant and the many vessels and other goods considered necessary for her.”3 An adjacent burial pit connected to her tomb was discovered and is now known as The Death Pit. It is within this pit where the highest concentration of instruments found in the cemetery.

In the pit, four lyres were found. The other five lyres are documented to have been discovered scattered throughout various other royal tomb sites. It is recorded that among the instruments, royal attendants had been buried in this tomb site. These people would have taken care of Puabi in her life, and had participated in funeral ritual ceremonies in honor of their queen. In this tomb site, there were seventy-six bodies of these attendants; sixty-eight could be identified as female and eight were identified male. Found in the farther part of the pit, lyres had been placed upon or held within the grasp of a select few of the female bodies. These women could be identified “on the basis of the types of jewelry on [their] bodies beneath [the] lyre. They had the most elaborate headdresses of all the women discovered in the grave, and they may have been musicians and singers who took part in a celebration of the death ritual.”4 Found with these female lyre players were another four rows of women also adorned in similar jewelry and trinkets. These women were said to have possibly sung to the music of the lyres as they died, yet this is more difficult to prove as there is no tangible evidence (i.e. no instrument) that can  suggest the act of singing. The adornment of these women however does suggest a connection between the female lyre players and these female singers. As all the lyres found within the cemetery were positioned in spaces of royalty; the instrument must have been associated with a ritual or ceremony celebrating the deceased royalty. Given the connection of the lyres to the female attendants found in Puabi’s grave, it is suggested that the role of musicians in these rituals were fulfilled by only females. The discovery of the lyres found in the grasp of female hands provides a glimpse into music’s role within ancient royal ritual and suggests a profound femininity in premodern musicianship unseen prior to the excavation at Ur.

Visual Analysis: The Lyres as Ritual Objects

According to art historian Joan Rimmer’s student of ancient Sumerian instruments, “A lyre, in organological classification, is an instrument with open strings which are fixed at the upper end over a yoke held by two arms, and then pass over and parallel to a resonator to which they are finally attached.”5 In Ur, the arms and yoke of the lyre were often constructed out of wood. This frame would often be cased with gold or silver and decorated with semiprecious stones such as lapis lazuli. These elements specifically “appear in profusion in the ancient Near East. In addition to enhancing the owner’s status, the materials themselves appear to have been charged with religious significance.”6 The exact build of lyres from the Early Dynastic II period has been the subject of extensive research and conservation efforts. In regards to the lyres found in the cemetery, the wood along with the soundbox of these lyres had withered away only leaving impressions of how they were structured on the cemetery grounds. This has caused great debate on the sound these instruments were able to create. The material of the sound box remains a mystery to this day. Detailed records, taken during the excavation, of how the wooden structure had imprinted on the ground made reconstructing the frame of the lyres more accurate to their original state and less ambiguous than the makeup of the sound box.

The strings of these instruments are also said to have been made out of animal guts which would have stretched over a resonator and produced sound when vibrated. Differentiation in pitch is thought to have been heard through varying thicknesses of the strings since the body of the lyre does not suggest variation in the lengths a string could be positioned in. Debate over how many strings these lyres had has been subject of much research. Due to depictions of lyres found on cylinders in Puabi’s tomb, it is thought that at least within the Death Pit, the lyres each had eleven strings.

The four lyres found in the pit, while all demonstrating the standard number of strings and wooden frame, each were decorated uniquely. Intricate design and differentiation of each lyre point to an important aspect of Sumerian culture that has been written about in relation to the jewelry found decorating Puabi’s body: the importance of craftsmanship and the ritual of making objects for funeral ceremonies. In regards to the lyres, it seemed that each was meticulously crafted to suit each musician and create an ensemble of instruments that produced the same sound yet differed in decoration. Each of Puabi’s lyres has been studied to varying degrees, and archaeologists have named some of the most notable lyres found in relation to their appearance. While four lyres have been documented to be found in the death pit, only three have been named officially.


Photograph of an archeological site, showing two lyres, partially excavated
Lyre, Penn Museum, University of Pennsylvania


Silver lyre

Not much information has been kept on the silver lyre, as during Woolley’s excavation only the lapis-bearded lyre (found outside of Puabi’s burial site) and boat-shaped lyre were removed for further study and conservation. What is known about this particular lyre is that it was found very close to the boat-shaped lyre and the gold lyre. As well, on the upper left side of the lyre is a silver bull’s head mounted on a rectangular base. In ancient Sumerian religion, the bull “was a symbol associated with a god, and the connection of the unique and characteristic old Sumerian lyre with the bull and whatever he symbolised is evident both from early depictions and from the form and decoration of surviving examples.”7 This lyre featured silver as its primary casing and decorative material.

Boat-shaped lyre

The boat-shaped lyre has a distinct rounded shape that has raised questions on whether the instrument is actually a lyre or a harp. However, due to the build of the yoke and the same impression of where the sound box was located in comparison to other lyres, the boat-shaped lyre is in fact a type of lyre called “asymmetrical”: “The strings are placed toward one end of a slanted yoke running to a point of attachment not centered beneath them.”8 This is unlike symmetrical lyres that have yokes exactly parallel to their sound boxes. Like the silver lyre, a figure appearing to be a stag can be made out on the front panel of the lyre. However, unlike the bull’s heads featured on the other lyres, the Boat-shaped lyre features the entirety of the stag which is also made out of copper. This stag, similarly to the other lyres, is also mounted on a rectangular base.

Gold Lyre

Like the silver lyre, the gold lyre had a bull’s head mounted on one of its arms. Gold is seen to be used in ancient Sumerian culture to symbolize a variety of things. While the actual frame of this lyre is made from wood, the lyre’s design was “manufactured by hammering the gold sheet around [this] solid wooden core.”9 This hammering technique is time consuming and demonstrates that skill and attention to the process of making this object was important in its production. Art historian Kim Benzel’s research suggests that “the preference for hammering . . . unambiguously produced the shine and radiance that constituted a key category of aesthetic value in Mesopotamia, one that is closely associated with awe, power, and divine presence.”10 The choice to use gold emphasizes the value of “shine,” and the chosen technique of hammering is seen both on this lyre and also in the jewelry found on Queen Puabi’s her body. These elements align these objects with the same values of divine presence. Aligning elements of this instrument with the gold objects most directly related to the Queen (the jewelry) supports the idea that these lyres were made with the intent to be played in ceremony specifically devoted to royalty such as Puabi. Along with this, the repeated action of hammering demonstrates an attention to skill and craftsmanship that suggests these objects were made within a ritualistic process.

The variations in design and ornamentation also suggests that the purpose of these objects goes beyond the music the instrument can produce. Perhaps the purpose of these lyres were not only to provide music and be played by the female attendants during royal funeral ritual, but also as participatory visual objects of divine intention. The lyres should be considered with this same agency of ritualistic production.

Female Musicians in Funeral Ritual

Historian Joan Aruz’s research suggests that Meskalamdug, king of Ur, “started the practice of interment with many soldiers and an entire choir of women accompanying him and subsequently his widow Puabi to the other world.”11 In calling on the specific groupings of soldiers and then to a “choir of women” to participate in royal burial, the ritual the King wished for seems to call for a gendered roles. It has also been suggested that the women who participated in these death rituals went voluntarily. The decision to participate as a musician in ritual was seen as a “higher sphere of service” and perhaps could have been one of the only ways that women outside of the royal court could participate in the honorable funeral ritual of the royal.12

The idea that playing music was one of the only ways women could be involved in royal funerals is further supported on plaques and reliefs that depict male-gendered banqueters and soldiers while the image of the musician is more often a female form. This idea that most musicans were female in these royal ceremonies can be seen represented on an object found in the Royal Cemetery at Ur, known as “Standard of Ur.” This object is a triangular box with two elongated rectangular sides. These sides are covered with figurative and geometric mosaics representing a procession of different people such as attendants, banqueters, people attending to oxen and asses, as well as a musician holding a lyre and another long haired figure beside it said to accompany the lyre with their “words or song.”13 While every figure in the mosaic wears tufted skirts, the figure holding the lyre wears slightly different hair coverage and also possesses a sash that differentiates the figure from the rest. The other figure said to be singing’s long hair also is unique to the rest of the figures. These figures were also drawn smaller in proportion to the others appearing to the left of them. The delicate features along with different dress suggest these figures were perhaps female and therefore provides that, in these processions, the role of musicians would be filled by women. This supports the finding of a lyre being “rested on the heads of three bodies”14 who were identified as women as well as beneath the other three lyres found in the pit.

Detail showing two female figures, one is a woman holding a lyre.
The British Museum, “Ur lyres” via Wikimedia Commons.

Along with this are the cylinders depicting ceremonies and music. These were objects found in Puabi’s tomb that featured exclusively women. One such cylinder features a banquet attended only by women, and among female figures raising cups and sitting at tables is a woman holding a lyre. Another cylinder, which was recorded to have been found in the pit, near the three lyres described above, displays on its lower register a scene of music and dance. The musicians upon this cylinder are identified as only women as well.

Photograph of a cylinder seal next to its impression: Female figures raise cups and sit at tables
Nic McPhee, “Cylinder seal of First Dynasty of Ur Queen Puabi, found in her tomb, dated circa 2600 BCE, with modern impression,” via Wikimedia Commons.

The role of the lyre is described as well within the refrain of a Sumerian composition about Inanna’s descent to the nether world. In the song, a singer chants asking Father Nanna to not put “thy daughter” to death in the nether world. It goes on to say “Let not thy good metal be covered with the dust of the nether world, Let not thy good lapis-lazuli be broken up into the stone of the stoneworker, Let not thy boxwood be cut up into the wood of the woodworker.”15 It has been thought that the chant references the material makeup of the lyre itself positioned with “thy daughter.” In this sense, the chant could either be assigning a female gender to the instrument or to the musician carrying the lyre herself.


Masculine Remembrance of the Lyre

The feminine characteristics of the lyre is one to be considered in relation to widely taught and documented notions of where the lyre came from. Female bodies, like the bodies found in the Royal Cemetery, played and held the tradition of lyre music in the premodern era. Yet, it seems that the origin of this stringed instrument was perpetuated by a more male-oriented performance of music. Interestingly, there is no evidence of notation or a means by which a written music could be easily spread amongst a people, so therefore oral traditions and repeated practice of these instruments acted not only as part of ceremony and funeral ritual, but also as a means of preserving Sumerian music itself. Unlike most documented accounts of music history, the findings at the cemetery of Ur suggest that it was specifically female musicians who maintained and spread Sumerian oral musical tradition.

Widely taught narratives of how the lyre originated and gained importance in the coming of polyphony and basic music theory discoveries are associated with male musicians. For example, Greek mythology has famously preserved the story of how the lyre was invented and mastered. Hermes, God of trade and Messenger to Gods, is remembered to have “made the instrument from a tortoise shell, gut, and reeds, principally to help him steal fifty prize cattle from Apollo’s sacred herd.”16 Apollo is response to this became the “player par excellence of the lyre.”17 Apollo is said to have passed down the skill of the lyre to Orpheus, known as one of the great mythical musicians of Greek Mythology; and the lyre has become a symbol of Orpheus himself. Pythagoras, known to develop the fundamentals of musical tuning and intervals, is said to have used a lyre to discover his theories. Pythagoras divided the lyre into sections and realized that specific proportions of the strings make pleasing sounds to the ear. Organizing and controlling the instrument led to the first constructions of polyphony in the West. The histories Pythagoras and Orpheus (albeit Orpheus’s narrative is mythology) define popular remembrance  and formal teaching of how the lyre was created and passed down. This therefore perpetuates a musical epistemology associated fundamentally with male musicians. This narrative positions men as the primary manipulators of the instrument and creators of harmonious music. These histories forget that this instrument’s origins were not exclusively masculine. If more narratives, such as the discovery of the lyres during the excavation of the Royal Cemetery at Ur and the lyres’ connection the female musicianship, could be widely studied and taught, then potentially a more female oriented musical history could be realized.

Monument Proposal: Our History of Musicianship

This monument is meant to disrupt the institutional space of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. More specifically, this monument, called Our History of Musicianship will be an animated projection displayed on the side of the David Geffen Hall facing out to the street. The projection will appear starting at 5:00 p.m. and will be turned off at 11:00 p.m. every night to maximize the points where the most people will be around the hall and able to engage with the monument. Given the nature of projection, the monument will not be able to be seen very well in the daytime. When turned on, the projection will consist of an ensemble of female-identifying people playing lyres, and this image will take up the entire space of the side wall. The figures will be simple black outlines of female bodies and instruments, and these musicians will be moving as if they are playing their lyres in harmony. For community engagement, a discussion of if these figures should represent real female classical artists from the past, and if so, who these musicians should represent will be held and voted on as the monument is indevelopment. Projection artists will adapt to the choices of the community accordingly.

In addition, speakers will be placed at the bottom of the wall playing lyre ensemble pieces in accompaniment to the projection. This music will begin as the projection appears to be heard by concert-goers walking into the hall for evening performances and as they exit as well. To include the community’s voice in the monument, on select nights, the recordings played will be of current female classical musicians based in New York City. These recordings will accompany the visuals projected on the building. The multimedia monumnet creates a dialogue between the visual that represents an ancient instrument played by women from our past with the current female voices active in perpetuating the classical canon now. Local classical artists will send submissions of their recordings to the monument’s producers with a statement of how they’ve seen themselves contribute to the ever-growing tradition of the classical genre. On these select nights, there will be gatherings to introduce the artist and celebrate her musicianship by the monument. Not only does this allow for engagement with up-and-coming artists and widen these artists’ audiences, but also inspire young female musicians who go to see the projection.

Our History of Musicianship is be important for community engagement purposes but also to disrupt current hierarchies and representation issues observed at The David Geffen Hall. Engaging with the David Geffen Hall is also important as it has such an acclaimed affiliation to classical music tradition, and if one can disrupt that space then perhaps fundamental change can start to be seen in classical halls around the city. This monument provides as a starting point in critical discussion about such things as the name of the hall. David Geffen is a man who donated one-hundred million dollars to renovations efforts of the hall. The name remembers a white man with much success in the entertainment industry. Spelled out on top of the entranceway to the hall, the space can objectively be gendered as male. Inside the hall, this notion of diverse representation is not much better. While the musicians within the philharmonic have a roughly even ratio of men and women, the music programmed for these concerts is written by majority male composers from past centuries. As well, the administration offices of the philharmonic, which organize, regulate and control what these musicians are predominantly playing are male.

Emphasizing the forgotten representation of women in the works played by the New York Philharmonic, one must remember that women have had a lot of influence in the crafting and perpetuating of classical music, yet these histories are often not discussed. Specific elements of the monument work to shine a light on this specific issue. For example, the lyre, popularly remembered for its affiliation with male Greek Gods and musicians such as Apollo or Orpheus, has a forgotten history of female affiliation. This includes the female musicians discovered in the Royal Cemetery of Ur grasping beautifully decorated lyres, as well as depictions of clay dancers from Minoan Palaikastro that include a female playing the lyre. The choice to have these female figures of antiquity play this instrument on the projection is an attempt to ‘re-remember’ the feminine history of this instrument so important to the origins of classical music.

This also attempts to “re-remember” that the importance of the musician as the body that keeps musical traditions alive. While the hall was funded by David Geffen and the administrative office’s work to keep the orchestra programming running, the musician must not be forgotten within dynamic of this institution, especially the diversity of these bodies. Projecting images that represent the bodies of musicians, more specifically female bodies, on the façade of the hall works against notions of institutionalization and hierarchies that participate in the administration and naming of the hall itself, and celebrates the diverse makers of the music that bring people to the hall each night.

  1. Joan Rimmer, Ancient Musical Instruments of Western Asia (London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1969), 12
  2. Queen Puabi’s Headdress,” from the Royal Cemetery at Ur, Penn Museum.
  3. Maude de Schauensee, Two Lyres from Ur (University of Pennsylvania Museum, 2002), 13.
  4. Joan Aruz, Art of the First Cities: the Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus (Yale University Press, 2003), 105.
  5. Rimmer, Ancient Musical Instruments of Western Asia, 13.
  6. Aruz, Art of the First Cities, 79.
  7. Rimmer, Ancient Musical Instruments of Western Asia, 13.
  8. Maude de. Schauensee, Two Lyres from Ur, 13.
  9. Virginia Greene, “Conservation of a Lyre from Ur: A Treatment Review,” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, vol. 42, no. 2 (2003), 262.
  10. Kim Benzel, “What Does Puabi Want (Today): The Status of Puabi as Image,” in Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics, (Princeton University Press, 2015), 24.
  11. Aruz, Art of the First Cities, 94
  12. Aruz, Art of the First Cities, 96.
  13. Aruz, Art of the First Cities, 97.
  14. Aruz, Art of the First Cities, 105.
  15. Rimmer, Ancient Musical Instruments of Western Asia, 17.
  16. Mark Cartwright, “Lyre,” Ancient History Encyclopedia.
  17. Cartwright, “Lyre.”
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