Let’s go back in history…
To long forgotten times, when life was simple.
Times of dreams, of joy and laughter
with large gatherings of people.
When social distancing was something you only did with weird relatives.
The times of free hugs,
and music festivals where ‘Corona’ was only a funky Mexican beer brand…
Let’s go back to march 2020…
Because it was early march 2020 when Spike of the band Moro contacted me to tell they had some great news:
They were invited by the National Trust to play at the opening of “Swords of Kingdoms: the Staffordshire Hoard at Sutton Hoo” in May of this year.
Ilja and Spike of the band Moro
A concert at “holy ground” right next to the actual burial mount were the most famous and iconic Anglo-Saxon Lyres was found. (A wish of mine is to do a sort of pilgrimage some time, playing reconstructions of the lyres at the actual site where they were found; Prittlewell, Sutton Hoo, Trossingen, Oberflacht, Cologne, etc. But this is just a side-tracking thought so let’s go back to the subject at hand.)
Moro is a duo of Anglo Saxon musicians. A couple of years ago we met at the last living history event of the Dorestad Museum, when they bought one of my very first lyres.
We were both starting out in early medieval living history at that moment. It was the start of a friendship and many great (and crazy) projects together.
Artist impression of the Sutton Hoo lyre as recreated in the 1970’s by the Dolmetsch workshops.. Notice that it is entirely square.
Even though they already have a Sutton Hoo style lyre, made out of a kit, this occasion asked for something special. A more detailed, even closer reconstruction, with gilded mounts and little hand cut nails around the edges. Because they already own a couple of lyres from my workshop (Trossingen, Oberflacht 37, Cologne and one of my first models) they wanted to commission this one as well.
Their demands were quite clear: make one after the information given by Myrtle and Rupert Bruce-Mitford in their 1983 book “The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial – Vol. 3”.
The chapter on the lyre is very thoroughly and well sourced. One of the first serious studies into the subject of early medieval lyres. Their re-establishing of the instrument’s total length based on the scattered fragments and two bronze bowls is a real tour de force. The working drawings by Ian McIntire have been the basis for most contemporary reconstructions.
Those stubborn instrument makers…
Even though there already are a lot of Sutton Hoo lyre reconstructions out there, the model somehow never resonated with me. There was always something that didn’t add up in my mind. It’s hard to quantify, but something felt wrong in the proposed proportions. Add the fact that I am never without question copying an instrument plan or somebody else’s interpretation of an archaeological find (in this case the work of McIntire and the Dolmetsch Workshop). It’s just my own natural stubbornness and curiosity as a builder and general craftsman. A trait common (almost a prerequisite) to instrument builders, as well as people in living history and experimental archaeology.
Erroneous but cute: the first attempt at a re-construction
Another argument for a revision is that since book’s publication, a lot of new discoveries have been done and studies providing new insights have become available. And the lyre in the 1983 book already was a second interpretation, after the earlier misguided reconstruction of the lyre as a very cute little harp. This was made in the fourties, and inspired by depictions on some Irish stone crosses.
I took the articles and went over all the given data, in order to make a new working drawing. When looking at pictures of fragment 300, where the top of the arm on the bass side of the instrument I noticed something interesting. The angles between the rebates of the soundboard, sound box and underside of the escutcheon don’t make a straight angle with the side of the instrument. When measured they show an 88-89 degree angle.
This must be a distortion in the photo, right? Or the angle in which the picture was made, or the camera lens? But when looking at other photos of this fragment the same angle came up. Perhaps this was due to warping of the instrument in the ground? But wood doesn’t naturally warp in a parallel direction in the direction of the grain. And then the slots of the escutcheons would have warped as well, but they were still the same shape (the escutcheon still fits in its place). This led me to the hypothesis that the sides of the lyre had never been parallel in the first place. Perhaps it had a slight trapezium shape instead of being a rounded square in the earlier reconstruction.
My 2019 Prittlewell reconstruction
One of the lyre players in the Utrecht Psalter
While a bit weary a first, I also took a good look at other lyres and iconography of the age. Page 83R of the Utrecht psalter shows a woman playing an Anglo Saxon/Germanic Lyre quite close to the Sutton Hoo model. But it has a very clear trapezoid shape. The relatively recently discovered and reconstructed Prittlewell lyre shows a clear tapering in its form. Germanic models like the Trossingen, Oberflacht 81 and Cologne are all wider at the yoke than at the bottom. This seems to follow the direction the strings make over the instrument.
To hang it on a wall…
The new reconstruction design of the Sutton Hoo
With these findings I went to Spike and Ilja. At first Spike didn’t see the need, he just wanted a lyre like the one they already had. But with a separate yoke and the little nails around the perimeter of the soundboard.
We agreed to make a couple of designs drawings. One like the proposed model in the article, the other my new interpretation. We would both print them out and hang them on the wall of our living rooms and ‘chew’ on them for about a week. Then Spike and Ilja would pick the design they wanted.
One evening I send them the drawings. About 30 minutes later I got a message from Spike: “We have agreed on the one we want. Make that new trapezoid design, it looks very sexy…”
And then: disaster…
This all went down in the first weeks of March. We were all joyfully making plans and projects for the upcoming living history season. When COVID-19 threw its shadow over the world. At Tuesday I gave a lecture about the lyre for a large audience, At Thursday I went to Arnhem to get woods and tools for the lyre, and two days later everything got shut down. Events were postponed and later cancelled. A lot of changes and uncertainties set in.
It always takes me a while to adjust to external changes. I can switch and anticipate in an instant, but that is on a rush of adrenaline, which later gives a backlash, draining my energy and heightening frustration. Having dealt with depression for years, I know that it is a passing thing. I found out that keeping a low profile and doing rough work like carving and chopping wood does the trick. Trying to force things only makes matters worse. But it threw a spanner in the gears of the Sutton Hoo project.
Making the lyre
The escutcheons made by Danegeld
Over the last three weeks I calmly set to work on the lyre. Carving the body, making the yoke and its very distinctive joints.
Spike and Ilja ordered a set of escutcheons by George Easton from Danegeld Historic Jewelery.
For the corpus I had found a lovely piece of figured maple. The top was made from a piece of 40-year old quarter sawn maple I got from a friend. The same wood was used for the back and sides of the Spyker guitar and the top of the Prittlewell lyre.
The yoke of the lyre is made separate from the rest of the corpus and attached with two v-shaped pegs in two equally shaped holes. It looks very simple, but even for an experienced luthier it proved to be quite a challenge to make them fit. All the more reason to say that these instruments were made by the top craftsmen of their time. People who knew what they were doing and used their materials as efficient and strong as possible.
The yoke on an ebonized oak version I am making in tandem with the maple reconstruction
The escutcheons are sunk into small slots in both arms. Their primary function is to hold the v-joint in place. Both have two staves and rivets that go trough the arms and yoke to secure them together. Also they are the heads of two birds. Some people suggest they are Huggin and Munnin, the ravens of Odin who fly around the world to bring news to their master. One telling the facts, the other making up a bold story. The same shape of bird heads are found on the lid of a leather bag found in the Sutton Hoo grave.
We don’t know if and where the Sutton lyre had sound holes (that area of the top hasn’t survived), but I have very good experiences with the tiny holes found on the Trossingen lyre.
Because they are so small, the body of the instrument starts to act like a reflex speaker. Resulting in a more “compact” tone, while a large sound hole gives free range to the harsh upper register, and the lower and middle register become very weak.
Larger sound holes may give the impression that the lyre has more volume in a short range, but its carying power declines when further away. Having no sound holes (as often on Sutton Hoo reconstructions) dampens the sound. I also gave the top a graduated thickness, like found on the Trossingen lyre.
The soundboard is glued down with hide glue, but also nailed around the edge with small copper alloy (bronze/brass?) nails. These are cut from a strip of stock. Where the article by Bruce-Mitford suggests to cut them off with a chisel from a plate of bronze or brass stock, I found out that using tin snips makes a much easier and cleaner cut. Tin snips are known from multiple roman early medieval finds.
Pegs were made out of willow (like the original), and I also made a willow bridge. In the grave no bridge was found, but we chose to use the Trossingen model, which is also made of willow.
We did an experiment with these parts, to make it more durable. The bridge and pegs were boiled in linseed oil. This was a suggestion of an archaeologist/musicologist who also studied the lyres in depth. But where earlier we had very good results in this process with the wood of weeping willow (Salix Sepulcralis), the white willow (Salix Alba) proved to be too become very brittle. That’s why in the first setup I put in unfried willow pegs, and will make another set of the weeping willow.
Despite the fact that almost every modern maker puts a tailpiece on their lyres, only two of them have been found: On he Cologne and Prittlewell lyres. And there is a very late iconographic example of Gunnar in the snake pit, where the lyre has a tailpiece. For the rest we have no evidence whatsoever about the use of tailpieces on lyres. For this reason I have stopped to put tailpieces on lyres we have no evidence for having one. Instead the strings are simply tied to the endpin. The extra length of the strings behind the bridge gives more resonance, harmonics, and even acts as a sort of reverb/echo.
Having the guts to tune
Since the Trossingen lyre project, I have started to make my own gut strings, unsplit and unpolished. Spike and Ilja use them on many of their recordings. But because it is a dirty business, I don’t make them on order. With the small batches I twist, they would become far too expensive. So I learned Spike and Ilja to make their own strings as well.
We agreed that I would deliver the lyre at our mutual home away from home: the Dorestad farm at Park Schothorst in Amersfoort. This weekend we initially had planned a celebration of the Summer Solstice here, but it still isn’t wise to gather in large groups, so that was cancelled. Work and maintenance however still goes on at the farm, so over the weeks we have come together with a very small group of volunteers. Keeping within the COVID measures of social distancing and hygiene, etc.
Ilja on the Cologne lyre and Spike on the Sutton Hoo
So here it is, the newly revised reconstruction of the Sutton lyre.
Sharing is caring
As you probably know I do like to share my projects and research with other builders.
So like the earlier Trossingen edition I also drew a set of plans for this newly reconstructed model, to share with other builders.
It is available through my plan store.
If you want both the Trossingen and Sutton Hoo plans,
click HERE to get a discount deal!
Paint it black
Beside the Maple reconstruction I also made a model in Oak. I blackened it with acids and made a sort of photonegative version of the lyre. The escutcheons are made in holly. Off course the materials and color are not like the original, but sometimes it is just fun to make something different. Form and setup are exactly like the other newly revised model. It is still looking for an owner…