Thankfully these burials also provide archaeological clues regarding the measures the Anglo-Saxons took to protect their musical instruments, with tantalising traces of cases.
Partly based on these remains, here we present two alternative forms of lyre case which may have been used in the period, reconstructed by members Andrew and Æd Thompson.
There are further clues that fabric bags or even lined boxes are a possibility; the remains of the lyre from Snape G32 (Suffolk) had traces of zz 2/2 twill wool fabric preserved on them (Lawson, 2001). Ancillary strap fittings found in association with lyres might also belong to bags or cases, though could alternatively belong to a hand/wrist strap used to aid playing (Hillberg, 2015). We have already presented a convincing case that the unique silver fittings associated with the Taplow lyre remains in fact belonged to a unique hand-strap arrangement, most comparable to the metal 'dowels' which pierced the sides of the pillars of the Bergh Apton lyre (Lawson, 1978). However the purpose of the articulating metal strap fittings associated with the Prittelwell and Snape lyres are less clear, and they could conceivably have belonged to the case rather than the lyre itself.
The Soft Case / Bag
Unfortunately, as we only have traces of these bags, which have otherwise entirely rotted away, we can’t know exactly what they originally looked like, and any attempt to reconstruct them is always going to be somewhat conjectural. For sustainability reasons we chose to steer clear of beaver-skin, instead making use of two pieces of hair-on sheepskin with dense, spongy fleece.
The back piece was cut to match the shape of the lyre, with the front piece cut wider, so that when stitched it would naturally ‘dome’ over the strings, pegs and bridge. To ensure a precise, neat fit and somewhat ‘watertight’ seal, the case was constructed like an early medieval turnshoe – sewn all round, fur-side out, then turned inside out such that the seams were puckered on the inside.The front piece’s top edge was rolled down twice and stitched, providing a double thickness of fur over the lyre’s jewelled escutcheons, pegs and yoke which are particularly vulnerable. We then stitched an additional flap of offcut sheepskin, fur-outward this time, to seal over the top, held down with a rolled leather toggle (like those seen on later Anglo-Saxon or ‘Viking’ shoes from York) and a plaited loop passed through a saddle-stitched leather plate.
A shoulder strap was added - a wide piece of linen tabletweave with a simple lozenge pattern woven by Æd- and the excess of this band was sewn continuously up the middle-front of the bag for decoration, evoking the longitudinal patterned decoration (foundation-moulding) seen on sword-scabbards. The outside of the bag was treated with a beeswax-based polish to provide some water resistance.
Lighter and more convenient than a wooden chest-like case, the only significant vulnerability not addressed is the bridge, which stands proud in the very middle of the unsupported, thin and easily split soundboard; the fur offers little protection for this, so direct knocks to the front/middle of the bag must still be avoided. The state of the Prittlewell lyre suggests this was a problem in antiquity – one which can only be avoided using a rigid case. Nevertheless most of the admittedly very limited archaeological evidence points toward lyres being housed in bags broadly like this.
What would a more robust case - such as might be used if a lyre were taken on a long journey - especially onboard ship - have looked like?
The Hard Case / Box
Given the particular challenges of safely transporting these replica instruments in vans and cars packed with other equipment, to living history events across the country, our first instinct was to eschew the soft-case best evidenced by the limited archaeology and attempt a conjectural hard-case first, so this build was begun immediately following the completion of the replica lyre Gloming in 2018 (link).
Taking inspiration from the fabric remains present on the Snape lyre (Sankey & Pestell 2001), and the metal fittings of small boxes from various burials, the case was designed as a hinged clamshell which would tightly fit around the lyre to prevent jostling and lined with wool. We were keen that this case should not veer towards becoming a true 'chest' and add excessive bulk to transport so chose to use quite delicate construction reflecting both the lyre, and the remains of the small painted box from the Prittlewell Princely Burial (Blackmore et. al. 2019).
The box was formed from thin planks of seasoned British oak (Quercus sp.) with end-sections carved from larger pieces for stability. The entire structure; the top and bottom planks edge-to edge, side walls, and end sections, were fixed together with natural animal glue. All fittings were hand-fabricated from bronze. The hinges are based on tiny silver hinges (probably from a small jewellery box) from Sutton Hoo Mound 16 (No. 1991,0411.2826) , while the hasps are adapted from these, and other 7th century hinges from Desborough Northamptonshire, and the high-status female burial from Rollright Stones, Oxfordshire (Hamerow, 2020). The handle is based on one from a box excavated from the early Anglo-Saxon Dover-Buckland cemetery (Evison, 2014) though also resembles the handle from the gameboard found in the Prittlewell princely burial.
The wool lining was sewn with an additional pocket for the tuning-key, fitted and glued in place with more animal glue, while the surfaces of the box have been treated with linseed oil and beeswax.
The final result was a hard case robust enough to protect the lyre from hard impacts (as later discovered when it slid out of our van and hit tarmac). Although we cannot prove that cases of this design were used for lyres in the period, the visual impression of this case accurately reflects a conservative interpretation of the sorts of delicately built jewellery boxes evidenced in burials at cemeteries including Sutton Hoo and Mucking.
Hamerow, H., 2020. A Conversion-Period Burial in an Ancient Landscape: A High-Status Female Grave near the Rollright Stones, Oxfordshire/Warwickshire. In The Land of the English Kin (pp. 231-244). Brill.
Bruce-Mitford, R. 1983. The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial Volume III: Late Roman and Byzantine Silver, Hanging Bowls, Drinking Vessels, Cauldrons and other Containers, Textiles, the Lyre, Pottery Bottle and other Items. The Trustees of The British Museum. London.
Evison, V.I., 2014. Dover: Buckland Anglo-Saxon Cemetery. English Heritage Publishing.
Filmer-Sankey, W. & Pestell, T. 2001. Snape Anglo-Saxon cemetery: excavations and surveys 1824-1992. Environment and Transport, Suffolk County Council. Ipswich, Suffolk.
Green, B. & Rogerson, A. 1978. The Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Bergh Apton, Norfolk: catalogue. Gressenhall.
Hillberg, J., 2015. Early Lyres in Context-A Comparative Contextual Study on Early Lyres and the Identity of Their Owner/User. [Masters Thesis, Lund University]
Lawson, G. 1978. The Lyre from Grave 22. In: Green, B. & Rogerson, A. (eds) The Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Bergh Apton, Norfolk: catalogue. Gressenhall: pp 87-97
Lawson, G. 1987. Report on the Lyre Remains from Grav 97. In: Green, B. & Rogerson, A. & White, S. G. (eds) The Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Morning Thorpe, Norfolk. Vol. 1, Catalogue. Norfolk Archaeological Unit. Dereham. pp 166-171.
Lawson, G. 2001. The Lyre Remains from Grave 32. In: Filmer-Sankey, W. & Pestell, T. (eds) Snape Anglo-Saxon cemetery: excavations and surveys 1824-1992. Environment and Transport, Suffolk County Council. Ipswich, Suffolk. pp 215-223