Museum of Ancient Inventions: Sumerian Bull Lyre

Sumerian Bull Lyre, Iraq, 3200 BCE

The lyre was invented by the Sumerians of ancient Iraq around 3200 BCE. Its design was developed from the harp by replacing the single bow shape with two upright arms joined by a crossbar, and the strings, instead of joining the sound box directly, were made to run over a bridge attached to the box.

The bull lyre is one of three excavated from the royal cemetery of Ur. Each lyre had a different animal head protruding from the front of the sound box to denote its pitch: the bull lyre was bass, the heifer lyre was tenor and the stag lyre was alto. All three were made of wood. The bull lyre stood roughly 1.2 meters high. The sound box was defined by a broad border of mosaic in shell, lapis lazuli and red paste, and this border continued onto the rectangular upright arms. The strings were tied to the crossbar and strung down over the bridge to connect at the base of the sound box. Researchers believe the notes constituted the same scale as Queen Shub-Ad’s harp and were achieved by the tension of the strings rather than the length.

Method of Construction

Constructed by: Stacey Rolland

The process of reconstructing the bull lyre proved a difficult and time-consuming job, and given the lack of detailed textual information, I relied heavily on pictures of the lyre housed in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Art. The reproduction is about 25 inches long, four inches wide, and stands 30 inches tall. It is made of oak shelf boards that have been cut into long strips and have had the finish removed. The pieces were then glued together and cut into shape with a bandsaw. The pegs and crossbar were made from dowels and the strings are fishing line. Since the original lyre had no tuning pegs and there is little information on how the lyre was tuned once the strings were sufficiently taut, I have developed a system where each string has its own bridge. By moving the bridge up or down the string along the sound box, the pitch becomes higher or lower in response to the change in the length of the string.

Sources, Resources and Links

Wooley, C. L. Ur Excavations: The Royal Cemetery. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1934.

View the Original, displayed as part of a slide list for a UCLA Art course.

Also, a number of related images are available at the website for the course History of Art 522: The Royal Cemetery of Ur, offered by the History of Art Department in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

Science Topics
Inventions & Scientists
Engineering Topics
Social Studies Topics
Ancient History
Music, Art, and Language Arts Topics
Musical Instruments
K-6, Middle School, High School
Kindergarten, 1st Grade, 2nd Grade, 3rd Grade, 4th Grade, 5th Grade, 6th Grade, 7th Grade, 8th Grade, 9th Grade, 10th Grade, 11th Grade, 12th Grade

What are you looking for?


Smith College

Website URL

Type of Resource


Assigned Categories