Few objects in early Anglo-Saxon archaeology are more evocative, than the so-called “warrior-lyres” or “hearpes” which have gradually emerged from analysis of mostly quite poorly preserved remains from some of the most famous 6-7th century burials. For those exploring this historic period, they also possess a unique power – transmitting to us another sensory dimension to enrich our sense of the Anglo-Saxon world. With accurately built replica lyres, we are granted the unique opportunity experience the sound of the 6-7th century mead hall, echoing across the centuries, which accompanied the first recorded stories and poems in our language.
In autumn 2018, member Æd Thompson (having previously produced Dreamgifu – a reasonably faithful replica of the perfectly preserved 6th century Alemannic lyre from Trossingen) embarked on a project to produce two new lyres, of the (in some ways) more challenging Anglo-Saxon design.
- Taplow Princely Burial (Exc. 1882; Bruce-Mitford, 1983)
- Sutton Hoo Mound 1 (Exc. 1939; Bruce-Mitford, 1975 & 1983)
- Bergh Apton, Grave 22 (Exc. 1973; Green et al. 1978).
- Morning Thorpe. Grave 97. (Exc. 1975; Green et al. 1987).
- Snape Grave 32 (Exc. 1992; Filmer-Sankey et al. 2001).
- Prittlewell Princely Burial (Exc. 2003; Blackmore et al. 2019)
strings (in turn consistent with depictions such as folio 30v of the 8th century Vespasian Psalter) and a string-arch or yoke of a separate piece of wood, with grain perpendicular or curving, which was jointed into the pillars of the body by means of sophisticated half-hidden mortise and tenon joints, reinforced by various designs of (sometimes decorated) metal escutcheons riveting through the tenon.
This is the defining feature of early Anglo-Saxon lyres which distinguishes them from their continental counterparts. While continental examples (such as the lyres from Cologne, Trossingen or Oberflacht) with bodies cut from a single piece, have grain running vertically on the yoke, thus liable to vertical splitting under a combination of string pressure and “shake” from fluctuating humidity, the sophisticated carpentry of early Anglo-Saxon lyres ensures there is no vertical grain on the yoke, thereby reducing the likelihood of this kind of failure. This may have been an elaborate adaptation to improve the resilience of such lyres, in the context of the fluctuating humidity of Britain’s more maritime climate.
"Glōming" - A Lyre inspired by Prittlewell
“Glōming” – (A.S. for “moonlight”) began in late 2018, and was intended to be a conservative interpretation of the limited information then available concerning the Prittlewell Lyre. Reconstructing finds on which only partial information is available is always challenging, and the results always subject to re-evaluation when new discoveries come to light. In such cases, where details are not known, our guiding principle is parsimony; to stick within precedents established by other finds, and avoid extraneous or rare elements.
Glōming began with a rare piece of genuine, air dried English field maple (Acer campestre) – the native species of maple in England. This is the wood which was used for almost all known lyre examples, yet is rarely available today in pieces of sufficient breadth, as field maples rarely grow to sufficient size in modern times to yield such large planks. Maple is both easy to carve but also hard enough at the surface to sand and polish to a shine, feel crisp and durable, and also often features, in addition to its grain, “flame” figuring running perpendicular, like warm clouds running across the surface. While this was undesirable on Dreamgifu – the Trossingen replica, where the natural figure of the wood clashed slightly with the carefully carved surface decoration, the (presumed) plain surfaces of Anglo-Saxon lyres allow the figure of the wood itself to stand alone.
It has been speculated this detail could have been achieved by selecting a rare branch with the right curve, naturally, or by “training” a tree branch as it grew over decades, to adopt the desired curvature. However, this can also be achieved by cutting the arch from a plank which has itself been cut near a branch-union, where the grain of the bough joining the side of the trunk would be concentric, like a bullseye in the plank. By cutting the arch from around this “bullseye” the grain of the arch is curved. This was what was done for the yoke of Glōming – from a plank of field maple heartwood, resulting in a rich, darker shade contrasting with the paler lyre body. However, as earlier discussed, maple has “flame” running perpendicular to its grain, which in some areas of the tree can be even more vivid and manifest as “quilting”. Where the grain is curving, the flame or quilting will be perpendicular to this, therefore running radially, as can be seen on Glōming’s yoke. This sort of figuring is a natural side-effect of the selection of wood, would probably not be detectable in the archaeological remains, and we do not know to what extent our ancestors would have appreciated its aesthetic qualities. Nevertheless, the entirely natural, unusual look of this carefully planned arch is perhaps the most distinctive feature of this particular lyre.
Joining the string-arch/arm or yoke to the body (pillars) of the lyre was the most challenging part of the lyre build – an aspect which Æd had not attempted before.
The sound-board, of maple tonewood, was carefully shaped, and added with animal glue only, eschewing the copper alloy brads or nails of the Sutton Hoo and Cologne lyres respectively. The lyre was then carefully sanded smooth.
Although stray bridges have been found in other contexts and from other centuries, excavated early Anglo-Saxon lyres have not yielded any traces of bridges, suggesting they were typically made of wood. We added a bridge of the same maple-wood as the rest of the lyre, in the over all shape of the preserved bridge from the Trossingen lyre. We also added pyramidal-tipped, tapering tuning pegs, hand carved from the most durable possible wood – native English box wood.
Following the stringing of this lyre, the tone was immediately remarkable, and only continued to improve; a quality arguably attributable, in particular, to the rare field maple used for its body, with wonderful transmission and acoustic purity. The overall result of the project was enormously satisfying, and although due to the publication of the Prittlewell report it could no longer be presented as a Prittlewell lyre reconstruction, it remains a wonderful instrument and conservatively representative of early Anglo-Saxon lyres in general.
"Throstle" - The Taplow Lyre
Incompetently excavated in 1882, the early 7th century burial mound at Taplow, Buckinghamshire, remained the greatest Anglo-Saxon burial known until the opening of Sutton Hoo Mound 1 in 1939, but the chaotic nature of the original excavation meant many of the items of “treasure” unceremoniously ripped from context remained little understood, and it was well into the following century before the two wonderful gilded bird fittings and associated wooden fragments were identified as part of a lyre.
Analysis of those pieces by Rupert Bruce Mitford, partly in light of work studying the Sutton Hoo lyre, revealed unique features – angled joints, and ox-horn plates recessed into both sides of the yoke / string-arm, fixed in place with silver pins. Bruce Mitford further identified a matching pair of articulating silver, or silver-plated fittings which were likely from a hand-strap, fixed in some way into the body of the lyre. We were determined to explore these elements by producing the first ever full reproduction of this uniquely elaborate lyre.
The section of the body plank which had been cut out, to form the pillars, was used to make the yoke / string arm, with horizontal grain. Shaping this piece was a much greater challenge than the previous lyre, as the shape had to flow with the curves of the (slightly asymmetrical) gilded bird fittings (replicas of which had been produced for this build, by our associate historic jeweller dangeld.co.uk), accommodate horn facings, and join to the pillars with uniquely difficult, diagonally disposed half-hidden mortise and tenon joints. Although finer details of these joints (to what extent the tenons tapered, or had rounded tips) is not known, given the sophistication implied by the fittings and augmented yoke, it was decided that the tenons should be tapering and round-tipped like those of the Sutton Hoo lyre.
Once jointed (but not fixed) work began on the extra details of the yoke; its outline was fine-tuned to flow well with the bird fittings, and the holes for the rivets continuous with the backs of these fittings were drilled, so they could be test-fitted into place. With their ultimate positions now exactly known and marked, the positions of peg holes were chosen, and the recesses for the ox-horn veneer were carved into the front.
The horn was then carefully shaped to fit, and all pieces were test-fitted together, before the peg-holes were made, and silver rivets installed.
Replicas of the unusual strap-fittings were fabricated from silver, but their installation presented a problem. It was clear that, in order to be fixed by riveting (as implied by the rivets present) it would be necessary for them to be fixed into a hollow part, but, vulnerable to knocks, such fixings would risk ripping out the wall of lyre. To be protected from knocks, it was decided the fittings should be mounted into the inner aspect of the pillars, and, further, they were mounted high into the corner of the hollow, beside the solid section of the pillars, for extra stability. These were spanned by a leather wrist-strap, based on leather remains found inside the original silver fittings, with some simple geometric tooling, and the addition of a little silver buckle.
This replica of the Taplow lyre was finished, like Glōming, with conservatively chosen, essential but non-extant components; a maple-wood bridge, pyramidal-tipped box-wood pegs, and, for the time being, a tailpiece of bone, which may yet be exchanged for a Prittlewell tailpiece in the future.
When strung, Throstle quickly adopted a wonderfully rich, though slightly brighter tone than Glōming. The wrist-strap, tightly spanning the hinged silver fittings, is extremely stable and allows for more technical playing. However, its position is arguably slightly too high to be fixed to the wrist. It is possible that the strap fittings may have been mounted lower on the pillars, particularly if the hollow sections ended lower (such as on the Morning Thorpe or Prittlewell lyres), which would allow the strap to be used on the wrist while still having room for the fingers to reach the back of the strings. However, with the configuration of this build, the same, or even greater utility can be achieved by buckling the strap onto the hand. In doing so, the fingertips are placed closer to the backs of the strings, and the thumb can be hooked underneath one of the fittings for extra stability.
Although this lyre eschews some more optional elements (soundboard strip fittings, and pins or brads) for reasons of conservatism with respect to the known remains, the Taplow lyre’s uniquely decorated string-arch and sophisticated strap fitting arrangement suggest it may have been most complex of all known Anglo-Saxon lyres, outshining even the one from Sutton Hoo Mound 1.
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