A Viking Guitar: Anglo Saxon Lyre

Over the last years I have been reviving some of my old passions and pursuing new interests that crossed my path. Like re-enactment and the Minion Press.

Another one is the Anglo Saxon Lyre… In the first year of lutherie school I have researched this instrument extensively, with the idea to make a reconstruction. But because it is impossible to put more than 24 hours in a day (I still try though) it was never finished.

King David composing the psalms on a lyre. Vespasian Psalter, 8th century

It’s a frame lyre, with five to seven strings, played in the early middle ages. They were used by early medieval bards and storytellers. Unfortunately there are very few left. Mostly fragments and parts, scattered over Europe, sometimes found at archaeological digs. The most famous example of this instrument was found at the ship burial in Sutton Hoo.  For a long time these were all we had to work with. But in 2003 an exceptionally well preserved lyre was found at Trossingen in Germany. And even closer to my home, at the early medieval trading city of Dorestad they found a couple of bridges,

One of the Dorestad bridges at the museum

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Dorestad Museum, for the first time in years. I asked the curator about the lyre bridge in their collection.  We spoke about its importance and heritage. And about the other two bridges found there, now in the National Museum of Antiquities (unfortunately placed there under a wrong description).

Photo’s: © Luit van der Tuuk

We also talked about making a reconstruction to illustrate how the instrument looked. But also for demonstration. Perhaps for the new museum opening in a few years.

Over the last weeks it started to itch again, and I found myself revisiting my initial research. New information has come to light, and some new reports about the found lyres surfaced. This weekend I couldn’t help myself and just had to make a prototype…

It’s a very simple instrument to make. But don’t mistake its simplicity for crudeness or lack of sophistication. A hollowed out monoxyle body, and a rather thick soundboard. I’ve based this model loosely on the dimensions of the Trossingen lyre, but also took inspiration from other models. This first version was made of waste wood, a piece of one of the church benches and a flatsawn soundboard from an old pallet. The fittings were made of bone. Bridge was based on the example in the museum. I just had to decorate the tailpiece with some runes. In school I learned myself how to read and write runes, it was very useful to make cheat sheets… The text reads DORESTAT FIT (made in Dorestad) a reference to the coins of mint master Madelinus, who worked in this city.

Playing the lyre

The instrument can be played in a number of ways. You can pluck the strings like a harp, but also strum them with a plectrum, while dampening some of the strings with your other hand to play chords. There is also a combination of these techniques, with a drone sound. Simple, but quite effective. It’s quite easy to take up. I made this little video yesterday…

These lyres will be a new addition to my assortment. A nice opportunity to make really early music. I take on orders for them. If you want one, please contact me.

The lyre in this video is on loan to Museum Dorestad for the National Dutch Museum Week, during which the original bridge has a central role. The reconstructed lyre will be used for demonstrations. So an extra reason to visit the museum…

This entry was posted in History, Movies, Music, Re-enactment, Research, Think different, Uncategorized, Woodworking, Workshop and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Viking Guitar: Anglo Saxon Lyre

  1. alexholdendotnet says:

    It’s lovely! I wonder how an electric version would sound. What’s with the pictures of it lying in a muddy ditch?


    • Initially I wanted to make up a story about finding it in my backyard, taking it out and not even have to retune after 1200 years…

      Some makers have done electrical versions. Mostly with piezo transducers, but I think it must also be possible with an element… It will give some sonic marvels. Probably calling the ghosts of Spinal Tap’s ‘Stonehenge’ back from the death…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. colskiguitar says:

    Fascinating stuff, really enjoying your blog 🙂


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