Guestblog: The Lyre of Trossingen – pt. 3

Luit van der Tuuk is a Dutch author and independent researcher, specialized in the early middle ages. He is also the curator of Museum Dorestad in Wijk bij Duurstede.

In the early middle ages, musical instruments had a special meaning, with their own social function, symbolism and terminology.This was particularly true for the lyre, the most important stringed instrument for the Germanians. It was the instrument of choice for accompanying songs.

In many cultures, stringed instruments are associated with aristocratic music. We see this image also in the carea, where the elite had a musical tradition, involving lyre playing. So it is not a coincidence that the poet Beowulf named no other instruments than the lyre in his descriptions of joy in the hall.


Amber bridge found in the port area of Dorestad. The completely flat bottom shows it is an unfinished piece. Possibly the crack in the lower half of the bridge made the craftsman decide not to complete this one.

The king buried in the Sutton Hoo ship must also have been a singer, or at least a patron of the vocal arts. The lyre was a royal instrument, the item of king Hrothgar in Beowulf ànd of the biblical king David. The image of the instrument’s high status is reinforced by early medieval depictions of David playing a lyre.

Due to the context of other luxury grave goods, lyres in sixth and seventh century graves can almost always be associated with the aristocratic elite, particularly armoured warriors. Sometimes the lyre was placed on the deceased, giving the suggestion the person played the instrument himself. In other graves the lyre was not placed against the body. A position that raises the suspicion that these were high status people – often indicated as kings – didn’t play the instrument themselves, but left this to musicians in their service. In these graves the lyre seems to have been more of a status symbol amongst the large amount of goods.

The use to give grave goods declined in the eighth century. From this moment onward we only know loose finds of (mostly) bridges, found in a domestic context, especially associated with centers of trade and crafts. Finds like these are unknown from the earliest period, when there were few trade settlements like that.

Amber bridges were especially found in centers where this material was worked, aside from a few grave finds from te eight and ninth century. Like the burial site of Broa on the Swedish island of Gotland. Semi-finished examples, known from Dorestad and Haitabu (Hedeby), support the idea that lyres, or parts thereof, were made in the trade centers. Apparently we must place the context of these settlements in the production of these instruments, because lyres were not a part of the inhabitants daily life.

A Dutch version of this blog was posted at on June 16, 2018. English translation by JAVACA – © Luit van der Tuuk – 2018

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Printing at the castle

A week ago I was giving a demonstration with the Minion Press at Wijchen Castle. The local television made a small item about it.

The Minion Press is lent to the museum for the exhibition “Strengels en Letters” about book fabrication in medieval Gelre.


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The Ace of Spades

If you like to gamble, I tell you I’m your man,
You win some, lose some, it’s all the same to me,
The pleasure is to play, makes no difference what you say,
I don’t share your greed, the only card I need is
The Ace Of Spades…


Sometimes I just need to set the workshop amp on high volume and put on this song. It can be quite cathartic. Especially while cleaning he office…

A while ago Luke asked me whether I could put a different inlay in his Buechenberg theorbo. While it is based on the 1614 V&A model, we also take in some features of instruments by Sellas, like the 18 course E.547 in the Musical Instrument Museum in Paris. Because this is the only example of a theorbo with an extended bass range (Luke’s will have 19! courses).

A feature quite typical on instruments by the Sellas family are inlays of hearts, often upside down on a spike… an ACE OF SPADES…

ace of spades 2 (2)  Like this example in the E.545 theorbo  ace of spades

So I made some hearts in bone, and inlayed them in the soundboard.

Guess what music was on in the shop while doing this job…

and this lovely piece….

I wonder what this would sound like on a theorbo…



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Guestblog: The Lyre of Trossingen – pt. 2

Luit van der Tuuk is a Dutch author and independent researcher, specialized in the early middle ages. He is also the curator of Museum Dorestad in Wijk bij Duurstede.

In 1857 Matthias Hohner started the manufacture of harmonicas in Trossingen. Soon they would be sold all over the world. In the last decade of the last century, the production was moved to an industrial site south of the town. The buildings on the old location were torn down to make space for new development. During these proceedings in the winter of 2001/2002, an almost intact lyre was found in a Merovingian grave. Would old Matthias have imagined this when he chose this location?


Reconstruction of the lyre’s engravings.

Reconstructie van de ingesneden decoratie op het bovenblad van de lier.
Thanks to the impenetrable layer of clay in the local ground, organic remains like wood, textiles and leather, were well conserved. Because of the bad winter weather, they raised the wooden burial chamber in which the lyre was found, as one big block of soil, to be examined at the archaeological departement. Dendrochronological research after the boards of the chamber indicated that the deceased was buried around the year 580.

The grave contents belonged unmistakeably to an important man who lived about 40 years. He was buried in expensive clothes, made of fabrics imported from the Mediterranean area. He probably was a warrior who was buried with his armour and lyre. The instrument was found at his left arm, a position we also know from early middle age iconography of lyre players.

Since 2007 are exhibited in the Archäologischen Landesmuseum Baden-Württemberg in Konstanz, after eight years of study, conservation and restoration. In the center of the exposition is the lyre, made of a single piece of maple, 81 centimetres in length. The glued on soundboard is also furnished in this wood. Wear and tear shows the instrument was played, and not just given to the deceased as a status symbol.

Peculiar is the placement of the eight sound holes, drilled on both sides of the bridge in the middle of the soundboard. The six tuning pegs, protruding from the yoke indicate the instrument had six strings.

On both sides of the instrument, a large part is decorated with engravings. The main motive of the soundboard shows two groups of six warriors, standing opposite to each other, a lance with banners, standing straight up between them, is held by the two front men. Both arms and the back of the instrument are decorated with ten fields of interwoven snake like animals and animal heads in Germanic style. The incisions are filled with charcoal powder, to contrast the – once – light colored maple.

The scene with twelve warriors fits neatly into the social context of the warrior elite in the early middle ages. But more on that in a later blog.

A Dutch version of this blog was posted at on May 16, 2018. English translation by JAVACA – © Luit van der Tuuk – 2018

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Tattooing a lyre and chisel

When you think about the Trossingen Lyre, often the first thing that comes to mind are the rich engravings on the instrument. “Are you going to cut those too?” was the first thing people asked me when told about the lyre project. After confirming I would, the general reactions were in the “You ARE crazy”-region. Being used to that assessment, I took to work on two lyres…


The figures on the lyre consist of a multitude of images and scenes. There are twelve warriors with shields, weapons and sassy shoes, a giant spear, and an abundance of snakes, crawling around in strange, but intricate knot patterns.

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Rather than just making a ‘print’ of the original artwork, I thought it would be more appropriate to re-construct the scene. To make a ‘perfect’ rendering of the engravings in CAD; with straight, sharp lines. To grasp the underlying idea, the intention if you will, of the original maker. Without the imperfections of the human hand. This gave the basic design to work from, while cutting by hand gives it the natural feel the original has.

Tattooing wood

The technique used to decorate the lyre is known as ‘kolrosing’. An old method that’s still practiced in Scandinavia today. Sometimes people compare it to tattooing. You cut lines in the wood. Afterwards the slits are filled up with a dark powder (traditionally charcoal, but you can also use cinnamon or coffee grounds) and fixed in place with linseed oil or wax.


I started out with scalpels and Xacto knives, but soon they began to hurt my fingers. This custom knife was made out of an HSS drill bit and an old paintbrush.


Tattooing a chisel

But for actual tattoos you need another craftsman/artist. It’s an art form that has always appealed to me. For years I have thought to get one myself, but never found an artist whose work spoke to me.

DamyUntil two years ago I met Damy van der Waal a.k.a. “Mr Staalbad”. He is an all-round artist: woodworker, re-enactor, graphic artist, who also casts bronzes and… specializes in traditional hand poke tattoos!

Besides his own studio, he also works live at living history events. After seeing the tattoos he did on a couple of friends I was convinced.

The technique of handpoking (also known as stick-and-poke) is different from the modern tattoo method. Instead of using oe of those buzzing machines, the tattoo is entirely done by hand. While a machine rips up the skin with a high frequency needle, the process is much more gentle. Resulting in less noise, less trauma and quick healing.

You can see the process in action in this video (enjoy the Dutch language).


The handle for the needle he uses is based on a find from Denmark. The original has a single bronze tip, but that wouldn’t be advisable to use, so a modern sterilized needle is attached to the handle.

A copy was made by Roodbaert, a genius blacksmith and living history veteran. 

But what to get? My favorite Nooitgedagt Chisel off course!!!


Say for yourself; what is better for a luthier than to have a chisel with him at all times?

Having this tattoo was a great experience, for me it’s also a mark in time. Closure of the hard times of burn-out, depression and recovery over the last years. I am very thankful to Damy for his patience, skills and enthusiasm while working on this project.

If you want to get a tattoo from Damy, contact him at Facebook.

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Iron Smelting in Africa

Another documentary about iron making. This time from West Africa.

You can see how similar the process is to the one shown in the documentary about early medieval iron production, I posted last week. A family of smiths shows how their ancestors made iron for centuries. The whole process, from digging up ore and clay to making charcoal and bellows.

It shows very good how valuable iron was before the industrial revolution made mass production possible. A sword must almost had the same value as a luxury car these days.  Iron tools were the most expensive possessions of a craftsman.

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Making Iron the hard historical way…

This little movie has fascinated me ever since finding it a couple of years ago.

It’s about recreating historical methods of iron production as used in the Netherlands from te iron age until the middle ages.

Last July I’ve had the privilege to work along with some members of this group, at an event of Archaeological Center “Huis van Hilde” in Castricum. In three days, we made and fired a cob oven, like in the movie, but alongside of three other teams.


Making cob by treading the loam and straw


Making the base of the oven


Drying (photo shamelessly stolen from the HVH twitter feed)


Hammers and bellows


Firing the oven (Photo HVH)


Showing materials and results (photo also HVH)

To keep in style, we worked in historical clothes. And believe it or not, at 35°C in the shade, and with ovens that reach a 1200+ degrees, thick woolen clothes are comfortable. Especially when you’ve got to open up that burning oven to release the bloom.

It is a fascinating process to work on. How you can use simple materials (clay, straw, sand, charcoal) to make something that produces iron. And although it seems crude, inefficient and unsophisticated (especially when compared to the modern iron factories), this is how most iron was produced up until the 19th century. Archaeologists estimate that Dutch iron production in the viking age must have been hundreds of tons, that was traded all over Europe.

For me as a woodworker, iron is a magical material; no grain, plastic and moldable, almost plastic like clay. It demands a completely different approach to work with.

I’ve learned a lot from working with this group. Being compiled of an archaeologist, metal restorers, blacksmiths, and people with lots of experience, amount of knowledge they have between them is gigantic. It’s very inspiring to work with them, all open to share their knowledge in a combination of love for the process and passion for the material.

If you want to see this process for yourself. The group is working at the Viking Festival in Eindhoven in June (Whitsun) and at the Iron Symposium in October (also in Eindhoven). More info to follow in due time.

This event was organized by Jaap Hoogendoorn of “Springlevend Verleden”, who does a lot of these (often international) productions and living history events. Always a blast to work with him. Check out his website (Dutch).

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Guestblog: The Lyre of Trossingen – pt. 1

Luit van der Tuuk is a Dutch author and independent researcher, specialized in the early middle ages. He is also the curator of Museum Dorestad in Wijk bij Duurstede.

In 2001 en 2002 twelve graves were discovered in an early medieval grave field in the South-German town of Trossingen. In the largest and also richest grave a burial chamber was found, with a bed, covered by a richly decorated lid. Beside the bed were pieces of furniture and other artifacts. The grave goods were unmistakable of an important man, buried in 580 with valuable clothes and armor. In his left arm was a plucked six-string instrument, a lyre.


The original lyre in the Archäologischen Landesmuseum Baden-Württemberg in Konstanz.

This lyre is subject of a project I’ve started together with luthier (maker of stringed instruments) Jan van Cappelle. We’re working on this project from different angles. A faithful replica of the instrument will be made, to be tried out by a couple of lyre players. Their experiences, together with the results of acoustic measurements, will be published in the book. This book will not only deal about the history, construction, practice and other musical aspects of the lyre, but also about the social and cultural context.

The lyre was the most important instrument of the Germanic aristocracy in the early middle ages. It was used to accompany the verses recited during gatherings of warlords and their following in the mead hall. The lyre was in the focal point of the heroic world that characterizes the period of great migrations. This makes the instrument one of the best symbols of its time, and makes it clear why it was chosen for this project.

Remains and parts of early medieval lyres were excavated over the whole Germanic area. We have chosen for the find of Trossingen, because at present day this instrument is the best preserved lyre they discovered. The instrument is almost complete, and moreover discovered rather recently, where they used the last and most innovative technology archaeologists have at their disposal. On top of that the lyre of Trossingen is covered in engraved decorations, as a cherry on the pie. The most important of them depicts twelve armed fighters, seemingly taking an oath on a banner. This fits seamlessly into the martial society that brought forth this lyre.

Preparations for the book and construction of the instrument are in full force. That’s why I will give periodical updates on multiple aspects of this project. So keep following my blogs…

A Dutch version of this blog was posted at on April 29, 2018. English translation by JAVACA – © Luit van der Tuuk – 2018

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A lyre delivered…

It’s always a special moment when instruments are delivered to the players. As a maker you can only do so much, it only becomes complete when it is played by someone who really knows what to do.


The plan for the Trossingen Lyre project was to make two replica instruments. One model was intended for the collection of Museum Dorestad, the other would remain with me and become a demo piece at historical events and expositions.

trossingen nagelsI made two versions of the lyre; one how it must have looked when it was brand new, the other how it was put in the grave around 580 A.D. . The latter involved replicating a couple of repairs with little iron nails and replacing two ash pegs by models of hazel. We also decided to take the reconstruction a step further and even make our own gut strings (more on that later).

Tspikehe process was followed by a couple of our friends, Spike and Ilja. Two fervent lyre players and active Merovingian musicians and storytellers. They bought one of my first lyres about two years ago. Ever since then we’ve been in contact. When Spike asked if he could buy the second Trossingen Lyre from me, I had to think for a moment. But I rather see an instruments in the hands of a good player who uses it, than hanging on a wall for decoration and occasional string plucking.

Today they came by to pick it up. A lot of people have asked for a soundsample of these lyres, so here are the first notes Spike played…

Knowing Spike and Ilja, more soundclips are sure to follow. I wish them a very good journey on a road filled with epic adventures and heroic songs!




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The Trossingen Lyre Project


Making photographs for the book

Last year author and museum curator Luit van der Tuuk, asked me to help on one of his  book projects. He was commissioned by his publisher to write a part in a series called “Tastbaar Verleden” (tangible past). Dealing about a single artefact its (hi)story.


Luit said that during his meeting with the publisher, he saw two pieces in his livingroom that would make a good subject; one was his model of the “Utrecht Ship”, the other a reconstruction of an early medieval lyre I made a year before. Would it be possible to find enough information to write a book about these instruments?

When we started our journey, it soon became apparent that there was never a complete and extensive study published about these instruments. All that we could find were snippets of information. Articles, excavation and conservation reports, dissertations about early medieval music, sometimes even a chapter in a book.
But nothing complete and conclusive. And a couple of major discoveries were done in the last two decades. Even when we were working on the subject, a yoke of a lyre was found in Ribe.
I went into the vaults of my digital library and found the first articles to get us on the road. We searched museum collections and libraries. Made inventories, time tables, drawings and mapped the finds of instruments and their parts. We tried to make distinctions between, or group together different styles and models of lyres. Often reflecting and (dis-)agreeing on the various aspects we found.

Luit also investigated the social and cultural context in which lyres were played. The societies of the Merovingians and Anglo-Saxons, their music and musical traditions.


One of the finished lyres on the bench

As a part of the project we decided to make a couple of lyres. Two close reconstructions of the most complete (and also earliest) example found: The so called Trossingen Lyre. We decided to try to make it as authentic as possible, use all the original wood species, reconstruct decorations and experiment with strings and setups.

Another handicap I adopted was to experiment with period tools and techniques, in order to find out what consequences they have for the form, function and building methods of the instrument. This meant making most of the tools myself.

During the process Luit has published a series of blogs on the Trossingen lyre. For those who speaks Dutch they are available on his blog Vikinglanghuis. And for who still haven’t learned the darned lingo, I will make an English translation and publish them here.

trossingen lyres

For now, here are some pictures of the results. I’ve made two versions; a reconstruction of the lyre how it must have looked when it was new, and one how it looked when it was left in the grave.

The release of the book is planned for June, 2019. It will be presented at the Viking Festival in Prehistorisch Dorp Eindhoven.

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