Sutton Hoo link to instrument found 4,000km away in Kazakhstan

Sutton Hoo lyre

[Left) The best-preserved lyre from Dzhetyasar (credit: G. Kolltveit); right) A replica of the Sutton Hoo lyre (credit: A. Praefcke, Public Domain] - Credit: G. Kolltveit/A. Praefcke

A type of lyre found at the famous Sutton Hoo medieval ship burial from 7th century AD Suffolk, has been found thousands of miles away in Kazakhstan.

This type of lyre is known from across medieval north-Western Europe and is distinct from classical era Mediterranean lyres, which suggests lyres of this type may have originated further east and travelled to Western Europe via the Silk Road or vice versa.

Replica of the king's helmet in the revamped exhibition Picture: PHIL MORLEY

Replica of the king's helmet in the revamped exhibition Picture: PHIL MORLEY - Credit: PHIL MORLEY

Musicians used a distinct type of lyre in early medieval Northern Europe, with one of the stringed instruments even being included in the famous Sutton Hoo burial found in Woodbridge.

This discovery is the result of a re-analysis of Soviet-era excavations that ran from the late 1930s to the mid-1990s.

In 1973, these excavations found a series of wooden objects from a medieval settlement in the Dzhetyasar territory, southwest Kazakhstan.

Although Soviet researchers were unable to identify these objects, recent work recognised them as musical instruments.

Now, research published in the journal Antiquity narrows this down further, showing at least one appears to match the type of lyre seen at Sutton Hoo.

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“The artefact was identified as a musical instrument and dated to the fourth century AD by the Kazakh archaeologist Dr Azilkhan Tazhekeev,” said Dr Gjermund Kolltveit, an independent scholar from Norway and author of the new research, “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 Mediterranean; 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.

“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 groundbreaking news.”

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?

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