Reanalysis of a wooden object found during Soviet-era digs at Dzhetyasar has identified it as a 4th-century lyre of a type known from across medieval north-west Europe, but never before found this far east.
Excavations at a medieval settlement in the Dzhetyasar territory, south-west Kazakhstan, took place in the early 1970s as part of a larger archaeological and ethnographical project carried out from the late 1930s to the mid-1990s. The remains of the lyre were found among a collection of wooden objects discovered in 1973, although Soviet researchers did not recognise them as such at the time. Re-examination by Kazakh archaeologist Dr Azilkhan Tazhekeev in 2018 identified the pieces of wood as belonging to two stringed musical instruments – more precisely, a hitherto unattested form of a Kazakh double-necked lute. Now, though, the latest research by Norwegian music archaeologist Gjermund Kolltveit has revealed that one of these instruments closely resembles a type of early medieval lyre found across western Europe.
This type of lyre differs in style from Classical-era Mediterranean lyres, with a long, shallow, roughly rectangular shape, a single-piece hollow soundbox, and two hollow arms connected by a crossbar. The instrument from Dzhetyasar closely matches the 7th-century lyre discovered in the 1930s at Sutton Hoo and other examples found at sites across Europe, including an almost complete example from a warrior grave in Trossingen, Germany. It is possible that this type of lyre may pre-date the Romans, but most examples are from the early medieval period. The instrument from Dzhetyasar fits within this timeframe and closely matches the design of the northern European lyre. However, no other examples have ever been found outside western Europe.
The discovery in Kazakhstan, 4,000km away, suggests that this type of lyre could have originated even further east and travelled into western Europe, or vice versa, as Dzhetyasar was an important site on the Silk Road. It is hoped that further research in collaboration with Kazakh archaeologists will make it possible to understand the instrument better from a technological point of view, and to find out more about its history and the interconnected musical traditions of the medieval period.
The latest research has been published in Antiquity (https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2021.164).