The imagery used in the lyre represent significant parts of Early Mesopotamian funerary rituals. The bearded bull on the front represents the sun god Shamash, depicted in cuneiform texts as the golden bull with lapis lazuli beard. Shamash is the divine judge who shines light on all things. Only Shamash can descend into the underworld and emerge again at sunrise.
The front panel of the lyre tells the story of the funeral ritual itself. At the top, the nude hero grapples with two rampant human-headed bulls, representing royal control over nature. Beneath are three scenes that show the ritual with otherworldly actors. A hyena carries butchered meat on a table. Behind his is a lion, holding a jar and a pouring vessel identical to ones found in the graves. The third register depicts music-making: an equid plays a lyre while a bear supports it, nearby a small animal shakes a rattle. The lyre depicted is similar to the very lyre to which it was attached. On the bottom is the last stage of the ritual, where the deceased meets the scorpion man, the guardian of the entrance to the underworld. Showing this ritual in the symbolic language of animals acting as humans was borrowed from the Elamites in Iran. Taken as a whole, the lyre imagery shows the human cycle of the kings’ control over nature, the funerary ritual and entry into the underworld. All of this is presided over by the god of judgment and destiny, the sun god Shamash.
When Woolley and his men found the Great Lyre in PG789, the wood of its sound box had completely disintegrated, leaving only an impression in the soil. Woolley carefully recorded the size and shape of all the parts of the instrument. The bull’s head and front plaque were conserved at the British Museum and then mounted on a new sound box constructed here at the Penn Museum upon its arrival in Philadelphia in 1929. Mary Louise Baker, who produced watercolor reproductions to accompany Woolley’s publications, painted the decoration on the original sound box.
When Woolley came to Penn in 1955 to receive the Drexel Medal, he looked at the bull-headed lyre on display and remarked that the restored sound box did not appear as he remembered it. A review of his field notes showed that the sound box was indeed the incorrect size. In 1976 a new sound box was constructed that faithfully followed the dimensions specified in Woolley’s notes. Further conservation work on the bull’s head and plaque was done from 1977 to 1979.
Conservation gives us a better understanding of how objects were originally constructed. Many components of the bull’s head were made separately and then joined together. The head was formed of a wooden core covered by thin gold sheets. The eyes and beard were each made of three separate pieces. The components of the bull’s head were attached using nails, tacks, and bitumen, a tar-like substance that comes from crude oil. The detailed analysis undertaken during conservation provides insight into the techniques used to create the remarkable objects found at Ur.
Woolley had a series of electrotype reproductions made of all of the gold objects from the Royal Cemetery. The originals of the pieces seen here are in the Iraq Museum, Baghdad. The bull’s head belonged to an elaborately decorated lyre from PG1237. The helmet was discovered in an extremely lavish burial, PG755. Several objects in the tomb mention Meskalamdug. A cylinder seal of Meskalamdug, the king, was found in another royal tomb. There is disagreement over whether or not the burial in PG755 was the king of that name.