The Prittlewell Lyre

In 2003, archaeologists of the Museum of London Archaeology uncovered the remains of an Anglo-Saxon grave chamber near Southend, Essex. It soon became apparent this was not a normal burial. The person had been laid to rest with a plethora of riches. Weapons, gold rimmed drinking horns, pottery and metal vessels, furniture, chests and… A LYRE!

The block of soil

The lyre in situ

Or perhaps we should say; “the remains of a lyre”. Or perhaps we should say; “the remains of a lyre” While metal pieces were found rather intact, the soil hadn’t been kind to pieces of organic material. The wood of the lyre disintegrated for the most part and all that was left was a lyre shaped patch of dark soil. In the relatively recent past lyres finds like these had been handled rather crudely, destroying a lot of valuable information. But at this dig, the archaeologists took a different approach. They block lifted the patch of soil, along with the surrounding earth, to investigate further at the lab.

The block was scanned and the first data was published in the 2008 article “The investigative conservation of a poorly preserved Anglo-Saxon lyre from Prittlewell”. While very interesting in regard of the methods used, the article didn’t give a lot of information about the lyre itself. But the few shards of information available were enough to make some sort of interpretation of the lyre.

In 2005 the legendary BBC programme “Time Team” made a special about “The Prittlewell Prince’ and nicknamed him “the King of Bling”. For this episode they asked Zachary Taylor to make an interpretation of the lyre in the block. While a worthy cause, he did take a fair amount of artistic liberties, using the Taplow lyre mounts and Oakley bridge.

The English Tutankhamun

After this episode it remained silent for a very long time. A small paper was published, but nothing more. Until the 9th of may. When news outlets celebrated the “English equivalent to Tutankhamun”. Perhaps a bit of a stretch (most of Tut’s grave goods were intact) but we get the idea…

After the news of the new publication, I immediately contacted fellow luthier Michael J. King.  One of the world’s leading authorities on the early medieval lyre and a pioneer in making historically sound reconstructions. One can say he is a key figure in the current revival of the instrument. Earlier we worked together on his reconstruction drawings of the lyres.
We decided both to order the book and set out to make a replica based on the new complete information in the report.

This still proved to be quite a challenge, the surviving pieces proved to be fragile and sometimes deformed fragments. It’s a small miracle how much information the researchers could read from this block of lyre shaped soil. They even found out the instrument had been broken and riveted together by means of small silver patches.

After about a week of hard work and many messages back and forth, we had a new set of plans ready. Now to make the thing… Michael graciously granted me the honour to make the first example. Over the next two weeks I worked literally round the clock to finish the lyre (and a couple of other lyres) in time for the Whitsun Viking Festival in Eindhoven.

One of the charms of making an instrument for the first time is that you have to make everything yourself, up to the copper alloy mounds and leather tailpiece with iron ring.

Since the experiments for the book about the Trossingen lyre, I’ve been making my own lyre strings from sheep intestines. Unpolished and from whole, unsplit gut strands.

A small example of the sound can be heard in this clip. But this was filmed with my telephone. If you want to hear the full tonal richness of the instrument (or play it yourself) please come to one of the living history events.

This first reconstruction will stay in my own small collection. It has become very dear to me. You will see it around at Dutch living history events, or borrowed by friends for concerts. I do however take orders for other Prittlewell lyres.

This entry was posted in Books, History, Living history, lyre, Music, Projects, Re-enactment, Research, Uncategorized, Woodworking and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Prittlewell Lyre

  1. Jeff says:

    This is great! I love people taking the effort to recreate ancient instruments!


  2. Mattj says:

    Brilliant work. I’m surprised that stopping the strings with your fingers allows the strings as much sustain as they have. I’ve always expected the lure to have less sustain and richness but this sounds great.


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