- Museum number
Copper alloy statuette; hollow-cast; figurine of a seated woman playing a lyre which is supported firmly between her legs; she is seated on a low four-legged stool, possibly with lightly splayed legs; wearing a long dress or gown with long sleeves terminating in cuffs or a single bracelet on each wrist, and a second garment draped over the left shoulder and falling in folds down to her waist; long hair, parted down the centre and gathered into a bun at the back; missing the tip of the lyre.
- Production date
Diameter: 3.70 centimetres (max)
Height: 6.20 centimetres
Weight: 86.70 grammes
Width: 2.50 centimetres
- Curator's comments
Our knowledge of music and musical instruments in pre-Islamic Yemen is sketchy and thus comes primarily from depictions and from later Arabic sources, as there are no references in ancient inscriptions and no actual examples have survived. However, it seems that music and musicians were introduced into Yemen from Mesopotamia during the formation of the South Arabian kingdoms of Saba', Ma'in, Qataban, Awsan and Hadramawt, and both lyres and lutes were particularly popular.
This statuette shows a seated woman playing a round-based lyre with parallel strings. The lyre was a very important musical instrument in Arabia, particularly in Yemen. A lyre has open strings which stretch across the resonator at the base to the yoke; this is held by two arms at the top. The earliest examples of these instruments are those with sound-boxes in the form of bulls which were excavated at Ur and date to c. 2500 BC; these instruments were also frequently depicted in Mesopotamian art, including the famous Standard of Ur' (Rimmer 1969a, 1314). Round-based lyres were introduced into Mesopotamia from Iran early in the second millennium bc and were the characteristic stringed instruments of the early Mediterranean civilisations (Rimmer 1969a, 43). In addition to this bronze statuette, and a depiction of a woman sitting on a high straight-backed chair playing a lyre (Simpson St J 2002a, cat. 142), there are two Sabaean calcite-alabaster stelae depicting women seated on straight-backed chairs and foot stools playing the lyre in the collection at the National Museum of Sanaa'.
The South Arabian term for the word lyre' is not known, but it was probably the same Semitic word knr which was used for the lyre throughout the ancient Near East. The Greek word Kithara is a loan-word from the Semitic knr. The instrument is still popular among the inhabitants of the Red Sea littoral and is called simsimiyya or tanbura.
Lutes were also popular in southern Arabia, hence al-Hamdani's claim that a looted tomb was found to contain two huge statues, each representing a songstress. . . . In the lap of one of them was a lute, and in her left hand she held a flute' (Faris 1938a, 87). Lutes (Arabic al-ud) are stringed instruments with a pear-shaped body, a neck with a fretted finger board and a head with tuning pegs. A Sabaean funerary stela in the Musée du Louvre depicts a musical scene in two registers, the uppermost of which shows a standing woman carrying a lute in her left hand; the resonator is pear-shaped and has two circular holes in the centre to amplify the sound. The setting appears to be a funerary banquet for a deceased man, Igl son of Sa'dlat' who is depicted in the lower register on the back of a camel (Calvet and Robin 1997a, 108, no 18.). A second stela, found at Haram in the Jawf and dating to the first or second century ad, represents a woman holding a lute and sitting on a straight-backed chair flanked by servants (Sanaa', Military Museum). This lute resembles a skin-bellied type known as a mizhar which continued to be used into the Umayyad period. According to Islamic tradition, several later musical instruments were of Yemeni origin, of which a second variety of lute called a mi'zaf was another. Reed pipes (mizmar), flutes (qussaba), psalteries (mi'zafa), tambourines (duff) and large kettle drums (kus) were also used. The musical instruments were employed during feasts, funerary banquets and religious ceremonies.
By Mohammed Maraqten.
Another bronze figurine of a woman playing a lyre has been excavated from the temple of Nakrah at Baraqish, now at the National Museum in Sana'a', which was excavated from context which apparently dates to the first century AD (Antonini 2007: pp. 38, 135).
Bowers catalogue entry
Statuette of a seated woman playing a lyre
Early 1st millennium AD
Height 6.2 cm, width 2.5 cm, diameter 3.7 (max.) cm; 86.7 g weight
ANE 1930-6-13,16 = 122020
Presented by Mrs H.C. Gowan
This tiny statuette was hollow-cast and shows a woman seated on a stool with four legs, possibly slightly splayed. She is wearing a long dress or gown with long sleeves and cuffs or bracelets on each wrist, plus a second garment worn over the left shoulder with its folds falling down to her waist. Her hair is indicated as being parted along the centre and tied in a bun at the back. She is holding a lyre clenched firmly between her legs and possibly supported on her stool.
Our knowledge of music and musical instruments in pre-Islamic Yemen is very fragmentary and is derived primarily from depictions and from later Arabic sources, as there are no references in ancient inscriptions and no actual examples of musical instruments appear to have survived. However, lyres and lutes were particularly popular, although there is also evidence for the use of drums. Some of these instruments are depicted on funerary stelae, but this miniature depiction is interesting as it appears to depict a lyre with a rounded resonator. This form of instrument is known from ancient Greece as a phorminx but was introduced there from the Near East as it is depicted in the art of Mesopotamia as early as the 2nd millennium BC. Earlier still, and most famously exemplified by mid-3rd millennium BC examples excavated at the site of Ur (the Biblical Ur of the Chaldees), Mesopotamian lyres were made with rectangular sound-boxes which were sometimes heavily adormed with coloured inlays and a bull’s head at the front. From the same period harps also began to be used: these are musicologically distinct from lyres as the strings are at an angle to, rather than being parallel with, the sound-box.
This miniature statuette is also a rare illustration of early Arabian furniture: although neither wooden nor metal furniture survive, there are a number of representations on funerary stelae which suggest the occasional use of folding chairs, folding tables, straight-backed thrones and foot stools. However, even portable furniture such as this was probably a luxury confined to the upper and middle classes and was only used in formal surroundings, whereas cushioned mattresses arranged around the room probably were, as they still are, the preferred Middle Eastern form of seating.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
2017-2018 17 Jan-2 Jul, Basel, Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig, 'Arabia Felix: Treasures from Ancient South Arabia'
2004-2005 17 Oct-13 Mar, California, Bowers Museum, 'Queen of Sheba: Legend and Reality'
2002 5 Jun-13 Oct, BM, 'Queen of Sheba: Treasures from ancient Yemen'
1997-2005 Aug-16 Dec, BM, G51/PSA/3
1976-1997 BM, West Stairs: South Arabian Landing [SAL], wall-case 2 [WC2]
- Complete but missing the tip of the lyre.
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Collection presented in 1929 (Book of Presents, item 1492); reported to Trustees 11 June 1930; no correspondence found in ANE for 1930.
- Middle East
- BM/Big number
- Registration number