Silver Flute from Ur
By Julianne Goodman
The oldest musical instrument ever found in Mesopotamia, a silver flute, now belongs to the collection of the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. This flute (“Flute 30-12-536”), constructed of a silver body and a gold mouthpiece, is dated between 2650-2550 BCE. The flute was discovered in one of Sir Leonard Woolley’s excavations of the Royal Cemetery at Ur in Iraq, which the Penn Museum sponsored in collaboration with the British Museum. Ancient Aegean and Mesopotamian civilizations flourished in Ur from 5500 to 400 BCE, due to this site’s strategic position on the Euphrates River that allowed easy access to the Persian Gulf and long-distance sea trade (“Iraq’s Ancient Past” 2009).
In the late 1920s, Sir Leonard Woolley excavated archeological area PG 1054, the domed tomb near the burial chamber of Queen Shub-ad. The female inhabitant of the tomb is unidentified, yet a cylinder seal in the offering box of the upper chamber included the name “King Mes-kalam-dug.” It is speculated that the occupant was the wife of the King. The internal dome and depth of royal tomb (6-40 meters below the surface) allowed for the site to be preserved and intact upon discovery. This tomb, which is renowned for its completeness, has enabled historians and archaeologists to understand Mesopotamian burial customs more fully (Woolley 1934).
Tomb PG 1054 had a traditional configuration with multiple chambers for offerings and sacrifices. The domed chamber that held the unidentified woman’s body also included four sacrificial bodies. The woman’s body was not enclosed in the traditional wooden coffin, but rather stretched on the floor of the tomb. She was wearing extensive gold jewelry; including a wreath of gold ring pendants supported on strings of lapis- lazuli and flattened carnelian, as well as date-shaped beads of gold. Near the body was an assortment of vessels, copper jugs, copper patens, and the flute. In the death pit, four additional bodies lined the border of the walls. Attendant A was adorned with a brim headdress of gold chains and surrounded by a bronze axe, dagger, and a whetstone Attendant A is believed to be the most important human sacrificed, as only daggers and clay pots surrounded the other attendants. The remaining offerings were in another chamber on the northeast end that arranged bronze items in the east corner, copper items in the center, and limestone bowls in the west corner (Woolley 1934).
The excavators originally labeled the flute as a drinking straw, but upon further inspection and cleaning, it was designated as a flute. Drinking straws of gold and silver were common burial items for the royalty. The drinking straw was invented by the Mesopotamians to avoid swallowing the solid byproducts from the fermentation of beer. Gold and silver drinking straws were common luxuries for the royalty, while the commoners tended to use reed straws. There was an urban legend that the usage and material of the straw would allow the consumer to become drunk faster (“Sumerian Beer and Drinking Straws” 2006). Additionally, the flute was found along other objects used for consumption of food and beverages, such as vessels, copper jugs, and copper patens (Woolley 1934). The rarity and destroyed state of the flute made it difficult to identify this item. Many archeologists originally questioned whether the finger holes were intended or simply damage as consequences from being buried underground for thousands of years. Based on the pattern of the finger holes and the short length of the object, however, scholars reached consensus that this was a musical instrument.
This flute is historically significant as the first musical instrument of Mesopotamia, yet the oldest ancient flute outdates it by more than 30,000 years. The oldest musical instrument is a bone flute from the Hohle Fels cave from 35,000 years ago near Ulm, Germany. This is only a short distance from the first known human carvings. In Mesopotamia, the earliest known musical instruments consist of two badly damaged flutes from 2500 BCE that were excavated near Ur. These flutes include the one discussed in this paper and one that is possessed by the British Museum. Musical instruments in Mesopotamia expanded to include harps, drums, reed pipes, and lyres (Merwe 1989, 10). Although this flute is not the oldest musical instrument in the world, it provides commentary on the advancement of Mesopotamian civilization, as the presence of music represents the progress of societal development.
This ancient flute anticipated the construction of the modern flute. The Mesopotamian flute is constructed on a 35-centimeter long and 0.6-centimeter wide silver body with seven finger holes and a gold curved mouthpiece. The modern flute is double the length with seven finger holes. A piccolo, 55-centimeter long and 1 centimeter wide, more similarly emulates the dimensions of the ancient flute (Conard & Malina & Muzel 2009). The curved mouthpiece is found in a modern alto flute to enable a greater range of lower notes and sounds. Alternatively, many young flutists will also use a curved mouthpiece for convenience to bring the center of gravity of the flute closer to their body. Furthermore, many professional flutists will use a flute with a silver body and gold mouthpiece, as it provides a “warmer, richer sound,” (Stevens n.d.). The seven finger holes, dimensions, curved mouthpiece, and metal composition of the ancient flute are evident in modern flutes.
Conard, Nicholas, Maria Malina, and Susanne Munzel. "New Flutes Document the Earliest Musical Tradition in Southwestern Germany." Nature: International Weekly Journal of Sciece 460 (2009): 737-40.
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Merwe, Peter. Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-century Popular Music. Oxford Oxfordshire: Clarendon Press, 1989. 10.
Stevens, Charles. "A Guide to the Lengths of Flutes." McGee Flutes. Accessed October 25, 2014.
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Woolley, C. Leonard. Ur Excavations: The Royal Cemetery Volume II. London: The British Museum, 1934. http://www.etana.org/sites/default/files/coretexts/20263.pdf Accessed March 13, 2015.