In autumn 2017, member Æd Thompson was commissioned by fellow Thegns member Julia to produce a warrior lyre (hearpe) for our mutual friend, Thegns team member and historical musician Connor Sanders.
This was Æd's first attempt at luthiery, and, we hope, captures the artistry of the the find on which it is based, and will serve to highlight the importance of music and performance in Migration-Age warrior culture, and the way in which our skilled ancestors applied wonderful craftmanship not just to their now much celebrated metalwork, but also to more rarely preserved organic items.
The inspiration for this project was the magnificent lyre from Grave 58, Trossingen, Baden-Wuttenberg, South-West Germany, uncovered as part of emergency excavations in winter 2001/2. During these excavations 12 graves of this late Migration-Age presumed "Alemannic" cemetery were uncovered, of which Grave 58 was the most spectacular; a princely chamber-grave with organic grave-goods remarkably well preserved due to the waterlogging and uniquely heavy clay subsoil.
Grave 58 contained a man aged around 40 years old who, thanks to dendro-dating of the chamber timbers, we know was buried in the late summer of the year 580 CE. Strontium isotope analysis revealed he was local to the Trossingen area. He was 1.78m tall and his skeleton showed little signs of physical labour. He lay in a frame bed constructed from beautifully turned beech posts, furnished with red and yellow woollen blankets, and was surrounded by many other sophisticated grave goods, including candle-holders, a turned round table, an elaborate throne, wooden canteen, various bowls, a 3.6m long spear, a bow, a shield of alder, a riding crop and remains of a saddle. A comb lay by his head, a sword (with silver inlaid hilt) lay at his right arm, and at his left was the most perfectly preserved warrior lyre so far discovered. The overall picture is of a high status princely burial that must inevitably be compared to the likes of Sutton Hoo, Prittlewell and Taplow, though with fewer examples of jewellery, and, instead, a great array of wonderful organic items. Trossingen 58 creates the tantalising possibility that other contemporaneous princely graves may have been as, of not more lavishly furnished with beautifully made organic items (in addition to their preserved metallic finds) which have simply not survived.
Prior to the discovery of the Trossingen lyre, it is fair to say that our understanding of Germanic warrior lyres was largely based on ill-preserved fragmentary remains from various contexts, preserved but isolated components, manuscript depictions, conservatism and sensible conjecture.
Being so wonderfully preserved, Trossingen provides the first evidence for previously unknown features including sound-holes, and elaborate surface decoration beyond anything we could have dared imagine prior to its discovery. Its entire surface was covered with decoration, including friezes of animal interlace, and processions of warriors carrying shields and spears.
Given difficulty sourcing a large enough piece of Acer campestre wood for the body, we instead used a piece of English lime, having excellent properties for carving and lacking the characteristic "flame" seen on sycamore maple which could obscure the decoration. For the soundboard we sourced a minimally flamed sycamore tonewood (Acer pseudoplatanus - again an appropriate substitute for the original's field maple) though it wasn't quite long enough to allow the sound board to extend all the way up the pillars on the original. We therefore terminated the sound board a few inches lower on the pillars, in a fashion consistent with the design of the remarkably similar contemporaneous lyre from Oberflacht.
The body of the lyre was cut, the sound-box carved using chisels, scraped out, and then, importantly, the profile of the body was gradually tapered down to be considerably thinner at the at the string arch than at the base, following closely the dimensions of the original. The sound-board was carefully shaped and sanded, and positioned using ash (Fraxinus excelsior) positioning-pegs as on the original, and finally installed using hot animal-glue. After a week of drying the outside of the lyre was shaped and sanded.
The original lyre showed various signs of repair in antiquity, including non-original iron pins used to re-fix the sound board to the body. We chose not to include these so as to give an impression of the lyre when it was first made. Similarly the original lyre had an unusual mixture of ash and hazel pegs, of different design, and it is suggested that some of these were replacements. We chose to incorporate a matching set of ash pegs, corresponding to the spoon-shaped design of the original's ash set, whittled by hand and knife.
The bridge was hand-carved, as the original, out of a piece of willow (Salix spp.).
The technique involves finely sanding the surface of the lyre, then incising the design into the surface using a scalpel, in the form of many shallow vertical cuts, removing no material in the process. Charcoal is brushed into these cuts, and the surface is then sealed with an oil or wax and sanded over.
As this is the only example of such a warrior lyre where the surface of the body was preserved, it opens up the possibility that other lyres were similarly decorated with this technique, although we will never know for certain. The evocative processions of shield-carrying warriors, all with unique faces, reaching for a huge spear, may be a reference to some story or myth in the owner's oral tradition, and may have served as a visual aid for storytelling in the mead-halls of the 6th century. The decoration on the reverse of the lyre, however - particularly the hugely complex knot work of snakes, must surely be simply an aesthetic indulgence.