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The Origin of the Long-Necked Lute

Author(s): Harvey Turnbull

Source: The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 25 (Jul., 1972), pp. 58-66
Published by: Galpin Society
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question of the origin of the long-necked lute (henceforth

simply 'lute') has recently been considered in some detail by
Wilhelm Stauder' and FriedrichEllermeier2and has been referred to
by Joan Rimmer, who suggests that 'it is likely that the origins of the
lute lie, not with the civilised people of Mesopotamia, but with barbarian mountain peoples to the northeast of them'.3 Stauder'stheory
also involves 'mountainpeople', but in his account the term has specific
ethnic reference and includes the Hittites, Hurrians and Kassites.4
These, however, are not regarded as the originatorsof the lute; they
were responsible merely for its introduction to Mesopotamia, and in
this process the Hurrians played the leading role.5 Stauder proposes
the Caucasusas the original home of the lute6 and, becauseof what he
terms the 'Indo-Germaniccharacter'of the Mountain People-Hittite
is an Indo-Europeanlanguage, and, although Hurrianand Kassiteare
not, the Hurrianleadersbore Indo-Europeannames while some of the
Kassitegods had Aryan namnes7-Stauderthinksthe lute may have been
used first by the Indo-Europeansthemselves long before its arrival in
Stauder'sview has been criticized by Ellermeierand also by Subhi
Anwar Rashid.9 Both Ellermeierand Rashid have listed many more
representationsof lutenists'0than those consideredby Stauderand they
are able to demonstratethat the lute is attested in Mesopotamia prior
to the appearanceof the Mountain People there." Rashid is content
to establishthis, but Ellermeieralso argues that the West Semites were
responsible for the appearanceof the lute. (These Semites came to
power in Mesopotamiain the early centuriesof the second millennium
B.c.; they are consideredin greaterdetailbelow, p. 63.) Although Ellernmier assertsthat it cannot be conclusively proved whether the origin
of the lute lies with the East Semites of Akkad or the inhabitantsof
Elam, he regards its diffusion fiom Mari to Larsa in West Semitic
times (i.e. the early centuries of the second millennium B.c.) and the
characterof the instrument itself as decisive factors in favour of the
West Semites. Ellermeierrefers to the lute as 'an open-air instrument'
and in this respect likens it to the West Semitic lyre. He furthercom58










* Lora.

#Gaza THE

paresthe two instrumentsfrom the point of view of technique;they
wereheld underthe armandwereplayedwith a plectrum.Following
Stauder,he statesthatthe useof the plectrumon thelyre wasnativeto
theregionof thenomads;theMountainPeoples'lyre,small,rectangular
and held with the stringsin a verticalplane, was played with the
fingers.The lutewasplayedwith a plectrum,12
the instrumentwith the Semiticnomads,the inventorsof the horizontal lyre. The link with the world of the shepherd,seenin two reliefs
fromNippur,'3is alsoimportantin theWestSemitictheoryof origin.14
Both Stauderand Ellermeicer
state that the lute first appearedin
Mesopotamiain the secondmillenniumB.c. Neitherconsidersthe two
small figureson two seals from the third millenniumnow in the
BritishMuseum,Nos. 28806and 89096(Pls.VI, V). Thesehave been
acceptedby RimmerI5and Rashid'6as representinglutenists,but
RichardG. Campbellis not of the sameopinion;he has statedthat
the two small figuresare not playing the lute, without, however,
offeringany alternativesuggestionsas to what the objectsthey are
of the sealsfrom an organological
holdingmight be." An assessment

Stylistically the seals belong to the period of Agade (c. 2340-2198

B.C.'8). Both featurethe god Ea; in 89096 (P1.V) a bird-man is ushered
into his presence,while 28806 (P1.VI) has been regardedby E. D. van
Buren as possibly representing 'a rare example of Ea, the Great
Magician, instructinghis minister how the rites should be performed,
information which he in turn passeson to Marduk, who here himself
performs the functions of a priest with the assistanceof a temple singer
to chant the incantation'.19Van Buren describesthe small figure (his
small size indicates human status) as leaning forward 'to thrum the
long-handled lute'; the same author refers to the figure in 89096
holding 'a slender object'.
Both seals have also been included in Rainer Michael Boehmer's
recent study of Akkadian glyptic, where they appear in the section
devoted to musicians.20 Boehmer assigns89096 to his period Akkadian
Ic (the time of Sargon, 2340-2284 B.c.) and 28806 to his Akkadian III
(Naramsin to Shudural, 2260-2159 B.C.). Of interest is his comment
that the Akkadian carversseldom depicted musicians.
The small seated21figure in 89096 (P1. V) immediately suggests a
lutenist; the left hand holds the neck while the right arm is withdrawn
to a position that brings the hand over the playing area of the strings.
The attitude of the figure in 28806 (P1.VI) is similar, but the player is
apparently left-handed. I know of no representationof a left-handed
lutenist elsewhere in Mesopotamian iconography and suggest that the
'left-handedness'on this occasion is the result of artistic licence. The
carver wished to show the figure facing Marduk; in order to achieve
this and show the entire instrumentwithin the space at his disposal,he
was obliged to reverse the normal position of the lute.
In 89096 there are two cords with tasselshanging from the end of
the stick. Although later representationsof lutes do not always show
the hanging cords and tassels,such an arrangementis very clearly seen
on a fine relief now in the Oriental Institute, Chicago.22In 28806 two
marksbetween the skirtsof the seatedpair on the left may be intended
as tassels.There is a faint line from the end of the stick which if completed would join one of the marks.If hanging tasselsare intended, the
carver has again distorted the representationby placing them at an
angle. However, only in this way could they be included, as a realistic
position with the tasselshanging straight down is renderedimpossible
by the nearnessof Marduk'sskirt.
Unfortunately the areasof both sealsin the vicinity of the resonator
lack the clear details evident elsewhere in the scenes. On 28806 part of
the right arm above the elbow is missing, and the stick becomes a thin
line before it meets the resonator.The two markson the stick on either

side of the right hand on 28806 are mistakes;similar marks appearon

Marduk's left forearm. The left arm on 28806 and the right arm on
89096 both end without any indication of a hand. On both seals the
resonator is imperfectly indicated, although in each case a raised area
can be distinguished, roundish on 89096 and oval on 28806; both
these shapes appear in the resonatorsof later representationsof lutes.
The apparent lack of concern in the carving of these sections of the
small figures may be due to their relative unimportancein each scene,
or the carver may have felt that sufficientindication of their role had
been given.
The evidence for accepting these small figures as playing the lute is
very strong. The diagnostic featuresof the lute that can be definitely
establishedare the neck and the hanging cordsandtassels;thesearemost
clear on 89096. Although the figure on 28806 is shown in a left-handed
posture, comparison with the figure on 89096 should resolve doubts
as to the artist'sintention. Finally, it is difficult to suggest any other
object that the figures could be holding; the only thing comparable
in Mesopotamianiconography is the lute.
After this appearanceof the lute the instrument is not met again
until after the Third Dynasty of Ur (2111-2003 B.c.). The majority of
the later representationsshow the performer in isolation, and only
rarely does the lutenist appearin a scene with other figures:
I. A relief from Larsa, now in the Louvre, showing an erotic
scene, the two participantsholdihg a lute and a small round drum.
(Barrelet,op. cit. No. 591, P1. LVI; uncertaindating, Barrelet 4-5?,
2025-I595 B.C.?)
2. A relief in the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, said to be from Mari
(Rashid: op. cit. p. 216), has two small bow-legged figures playing
three-stringedlutes in the presence of two walking/dancing?female
figures and with an audience of three apes. (Opificius, op. cit. No.
584, P1. 18; her Old Babylonian Period, Gungunum of Larsa to
Samsu-ditanaof Babylon, 1932-1594 B.C.)
3. A relief from Nippur, in the Philadelphia Museum, with a
crouching/dancing? shepherd playing the lute. (Van Buren, Clay
Figurines,No. 499, Fig. 137; Opificius, op. cit.No. 580, Old Babylonian Period; a history of the datings of this piece is given by Ellermcier, op. cit. pp. 84-85.)
4. A relief from Nippur, now in the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, with
a crouching/dancing? swineherd holding a lute in his right hand
and a short stick (plectrum?)in his left. (Opificius, op. cit. No. 579,
P1. 17; time of Rim-Sin or Hammurabi, I822-1750 B.c.)

5. A relief from Uruk, in the VorderasiatischesMuseum, Berlin,

showing a lute and Mountain Peoples' lyre being played together.
(Die Musik in Geschichteund Gegenwart,vol. 8, col. 346, Fig. 2.23)
6. A Kassite seal, again with a lute and Mountain Peoples' lyre.
(L. Delaporte: Cataloguedes cylindresorientauxdu Musee du Louvre,
Paris, 1920, p. 72.)
These scenes present the lute in a very different context from that of
the Agade seals.They suggest a secularuse of the instrumentas opposed
to its use in the ritualof the Agade scenes.The fact that the lute appeared
in such scenes, especially when the Akkadian carversseldom depicted
musicians,implies that it had a higher status in the earlierperiod.
A comparison of playing positions also reveals an important distinction. The Agade lute is supported on the player's lap, whereas the
second millennium lutenists held the instrument across the chest. In
the former position the instrument is given greater stability by the
forearm resting on the side of the resonator (see 28806, P1.VI), while
in the second method of holding the instrument the left hand must
grip the neck to achieve a similar steadiness.Clamping the instrument
under the right arm (Ellermeier: 'die ... unter den Arm geklemmte
... Laute', op. cit. p. 89) is in fact rarelyseen and only in late representations: a Kassite kudurru,24perhaps the Kassite seal, 6 in the above
list, a sixteenth century B.c. figure from Southern Palestine,25and an
Assyrian relief in the British Museum, No. 124548. Such a position
would dampen vibrations, and the majority of the depictions show
the resonatorresting on the right forearm.This position does not fully
support the instrument, especially when the right hand moves to
sound the strings.When the left hand has to grip the neck, its freedom
of movement along the strings is restricted.From the point of view
of the style of music performed on the lute, one outcome of this
distinction is that the Agade lutenists could have played melodies of
greater range than those performed by the later lutenists.
Finally, it should be pointed out that the Agade lute does not
appear as an 'open-air instrument'.However, the distinction between
the use of the lute indoors and its use out of doors, as seems to be
the case in the later representations,is not important as far as the
instrumentitself is concerned. The lute that appearedat the beginning
of the second millennium was no differentfrom the earlierinstrument;
in both cases, with its small skin-covered resonator, the early lute
would not have been particularlysuitablefor performanceout of doors.
With its small voice it would have been used in the open air as a
personal instrument, its appearancein such a setting a tribute to its
portability ratherthan its volume.

The lute thus appearedin Mesopotamiabefore the advent of the West

Semites to whom Ellermeier attributes its origin. These, however,
were not the first Semites to come to power there: the Akkadians
themselves were Semites, speaking a dialect that has been termed East
Semitic.26 They had conqueredthe ruling statesof Sumer in the south,
and their language eventually superseded Sumerian as a spoken language. The First Semitic Dynasty was brought to an end by the
Gutians, a people from the highlands in the east. Their rule lasted
about a hundred years and was followed by the return of power to
Sumer with the establishmentof the Third Dynasty of Ur. It was
during Ur III that the West Semites began to arrive in Mesopotamia
in large numbers. Two main waves have been distinguished,separated
by about two hundred years. The first group helped bring about the
fall of Ur III, and one of them, Naplanum, founded the LarsaDynasty
in 2025 B.C.); some of them also became establishedacrossthe Tigris in
the territory east of Babylon. The second group of West Semites27
first came to power at Larsa under Abisare (90o5-I895 B.c.) and in
1894 B.c. Sumuabum founded the First Dynasty of Babylon. Their
power spread to almost all the cities of Sumer and Akkad, and they
replaced the earlierWest Semites in the region east of the Tigris.28
It is not possible to come to any definite conclusion about which
Semitic group was responsiblefor the second appearanceof the lute
in Mesopotamia: one cannot establish a strict line of demarcation
between them,29and the early terracottasthat featurethe lute-notably
from the area to the east of the Tigris and Larsa30-have not been
dated with precision. The evidence does suggest, however, that the
lute was part of the common culture of the nomads and that, as such,
its origins are to be sought in their region of origin. The early diffusion
pattern of the instrumentsupports this view.
The traditional home of these nomads is the steppes of the inner
edge of the Fertile Crescent and the semidesert plains of Syria;s1
Syria has also been proposed as the original home of the Akkadians.32
Nomadic movement was determined by the physical conditions of
the area; the mountains to the north and the wide stretchof desertto
the south precluded movement into Anatolia and Egypt, and initially
expansion was limited to Mesopotamia. At first the lute was restricted
to Mesopotamia.
The instrument next appearsin Egypt during the Hyksos period.33
By this time the power of the West Semiteshad extended to Palestine,34
and it is significant that the greater part of Hyksos personal names
were West Semitic.35The primitive Mesopotamian lute was further
developed in Egypt. Soundholes appeared for the first time, sym63

metricallyplacedin the tableon eitherside of the neck. (Soundholes

did not appearon lutesin Mesopotamiauntil Parthiantimes.36)This
featureis also seen on the Hittite lute depictedat AlajaHiiyiik in
The sculpturestherearetypicalof the style of the Empire
in the thirteenthcenturyB.c.,38 when Anatoliaand Egypt were in
peacefulcontact.39In spite of the developmentsof the AlajaHiiyiik
lute, the persistenceof the small-bodiedprototypeis witnessedby the
The formersite,although
underHittitedomination,hadexperiencedWest Semiticrule,42while
the latter,the capitalof the smallstateof Sam'al,was in the handsof
the Aramaeans,again nomadsfrom Syria, from the tenth century
B.C.43 The lutes depictedat these sites of the Taurusfoothills and
the lutenists,
NorthernSyriarecallthe Akkadianseals;at Carchemish,
lutenistsupportsthe instrumentin his lap, the only instanceof this
postureapartfrom the seals.
The connectionbetweenthe lutenistsof the Akkadiansealsandthe
luteniston the Zinjirlireliefis particularlystriking.The importance
of the connectionis that the influencemusthave been from Syriato
Akkad,for in Mesopotamiain the secondmillenniumthis style of
performancehad given way to the West Semiticstyle. The presence
in Mesopotamiain the Mesalimperiod (c. 26th centuryB.c.) of a
smallportableharp,whichhasbeenregardedby Stauderasan importation of Semiticnomads,44
bearswitnessto theirmusicalactivitiesin
the firsthalfof the thirdmillennium.It is not impossiblethatthe lute
was broughtat a similarlyearlydate but had to wait until the First
SemiticEmpirebeforeit was consideredworthy of depiction.If this
was so, thenthe lute can be regardedashavinga mucholdertradition

I amindebted
to MissJ. M. Munn-Rankin
in thehistorical
for guidance
contentof the paper,andto Dr. L. E. R. Pickenfor his observations
on a
numberof organological
Friihgeschichteder Laute', Festschrift
ffir Helmuth
2 F. Ellermeier,'Beitragezur Friihgeschichte
SaiteninstruFestschriftfiir Kurt Galling, ed.
und Altes Testament,
mente', Archdiologie
Asiain theBritish
3 J. Rimmer,Ancient
of Western
London,1969,p. 23.



seal, BritishMuseum,89096; (b)detailof same

(a) Mesopotamian
(Courtesyof the Trusteesof the BritishMuseum)



seal,BritishMuseum,28806; (b)detailof same

(a) Mesopotamian
(Courtesyof the Trusteesof the BritishMuseum)

4 Stauder,op.cit.p. 22.
5 Stauder,op.cit.p. 25.
6 Stauder,op.cit.p. 23.
7 It is doubtfulwhetherthenamesof the KassitegodswereIndo-European;
L Die SprachederKassiten,New Haven,
see KemalBalkan,Kassitenstudien
1954,e.g. Buriyash,p. 1o4, Maratash,
p. III, Shuriyashi,
p. 122.
8 Stauder,op.cit.p. 24.
9 S. A. Rashid,'DasAuftretenderLauteunddie BergvilkerVorderasiens',
fir Anthropologie,
Io Ellermeier,op. cit.pp. 86-88. The mainsourcesusedby Ellermeierare:
E. D. van Buren, Clay Figurines
andAssyria,New Haven and
of Babylonia
Barrelet,Figurineset Reliefsen terrecuitede la Misopotamie
Paris,1968.To thesecanbe added:CharlotteZiegler,Die Terrakotten
von Warka,Berlin,1962.Rashid'spaperalsoincludesa numberof terracottas
not in Ellermeier's
II Ellermeier,op.cit.p. 88; Rashid,op.cit.p. 218.
12 MarcelleDuchesne-Guillemin
hasarguedthatthe plectrumwas not used
on the lute until the middleof the secondmillennium('LaharpeI plectre
iranienne:son origineet sa diffusion',
Studies28, 1969,
Journalof NearEastern
was unableto discerna plectrumon the relief
p. III). Duchesne-Guillemin
of a lutenistnow in the OrientalInstitute,Chicago(seebelow,note 22). The
positionof the handon thisreliefsuggeststhe useof a plectrum,a view taken
herNo. 772(op.cit.p. 391,Pl. LXXV),a broken
by Barreletwhenconsidering
relieffrom Eshnunnawhich appearsto be from the samemould. The only
depictionof a lutenistclearlywithout a plectrumis on a relieffrom Susa,
where the thumbappearsto be usedto strikethe strings(G. Contenau,La
en Assyrieet en Babylonie,
Paris,1938,Fig. 34). The positionof the
handhereis very differentfromthaton the Chicagorelief.
13 See 3 and4 in the list on p. 61.
14 Ellermeier's
exposition:op.cit.p. 89.
15 Rimmer,op.cit.p. 23 andAppendixI, p. 45.
16 Rashid,op.cit.p. 212.
17 Campbell,Zur Typologie
1968,p. 13,
note I.
18 The datesgiven mustnot be regardedas absolute.They aretakenfrom
the relativechronologyadoptedin TheNearEast:TheEarlyCivilizations,
19 VanBuren,TheFlowingVaseandtheGodwithStreams,
Berlin,1933,p. 58.
20 Boehmer,Die Entwicklung
1965,p. I19.
21 Boehmer,op.cit.p. 88, note 13,not kneeling,as is shownby the clothing
endingbelow the knee.
22 Assignedto the Old Babylonianperiodby Dr. Hans Nissenin 1969.
The piecewas purchasedprivatelyin 1930and was saidto have come from
Ischali.Thisinformationwas kindlysuppliedby David P. Silvermann
of the

MuseumOffice,The OrientalInstitute,Chicago.For a reproductionof the

relief,seeEdwardChiera,TheyWroteonClay,Cambridge,1939,oppos.p. I113.
Becauseof the angleat whichthe luteis heldon thisrelief,Rashidwoulddate
it to theKassite
Period(c.I6oo-IIooB.C.). Hehassuggested
(op.cit.p. 215) that
positionof the
instrument;he assignsthe horizontalpositionto the Isin-Larsa
time of Hammurabi,the slantingupwardspositionto the Kassiteperiodand
the slantingdownwardspositionto Seleucidtimes.It is doubtfulif the terracottascan be orderedso simply;a lutenistfrom Mari,with the instrument
pointingupwards,has been datedto the Old BabylonianPeriod(Opificius,
op.cit.No. 585,Pl. 19),whilethe luteon the Kassiteseal(6 in list on p. 62) is
held at a lowerangle.
23 Hans Hickmannhas describedthis relief as a 'Sumeriandepiction',
M.G.G.8, col. 349.However,
Period(612-539B.c.), op.cit.p. 173.
Zieglerhasdatedit to theNeo-Babylonian
delaDl1gationenPerse,vol. VII,19o5,Pls.XXVIIandXXVIII.
24 Mimoires
25 W. FlindersPetrie:AncientGaza III, London,1933,Fig. 39, P1.XVI.
An incorrectreferenceto thispieceis givenby Hickmann,loc.cit.
26 I. J. Gelb, 'The EarlyHistoryof the West SemiticPeoples',Journalof
Studies,vol. 15, 1961,p. 27.
27 Thereis as yet no generalagreementamongscholarson the namingof
the two groupsof West Semites.The varioustermsthathavebeenproposed
of the linguisticdata.For a
by differentscholarsreflecttheir classification
discussionof the situationsee Gelb,op.cit.
Paris,1957,p. 243.
29 Kupper,op.cit.p. 242.
30 Barrelet,op. cit. The tentativedatingof severalterracottas-No. 242
(P1.XXIII)from Tello; Nos. 572 (P1.LIV) and 591 (P1.LVI)from Larsa;
Nos. 772 and 773 (P1.LXXXV) from Eshnunna(?)-includes the Isin-Larsa
periodin the periodthey areassignedto.
32 Ibid.,p. 60.
31 TheNearEast,p. 183.
33 Hans Hickmann, Aegypten, Musikgeschichte in Bildern, Band II,
LieferungI, Leipzig, n.d., p. 163.
34 Kupper,op.cit.p. 239.
35 The Near East, p. 399.

36 Wilhelminavan Ingen,Figurines
fromSeleuciaon the Tigris,Ann Arbor
andLondon,1939,Nos. 546-567.
New York,1940,Pl. IV, F.
37 CurtSachs,TheHistoryqfMusicalInstruments,
38 E. Akurgal,TheArtof theHittites,1962,p. xi8.
39 O. R. Gurney,TheHittites,Harmondsworth,
1966,p. 36.
40 C. L. Woolley, Carchemish
II, London,1921,P1.B 17 b andP1.B 30 b.
41 Sach,op.cit.P1.IV, G.
42 Kupper,op.cit.p. 230,note i.
43 Kupper,op.cit.p. 130.

44 Stauder,'Die Musik der Sumerer,Babylonier und Assyrer',Orientalische

Musik, Handbuch der Orientalistik,Ergainzungsband
IV, Leiden, 1970, p. 175.