Post by Charlotte McAnulty, Undergraduate Advisory Council Outreach Coordinator
On January 12, Dr. James Millward, a professor from Georgetown University, gave the lecture, “Silk Road Journeys of the Eurasian Lute.” He started off the lecture by talking about the Silk Road itself, using a map to help visualize what it looked like. The map showed not only the trade routes, but some of the items most common in certain cities along it (ceramics, tea, and sugar from Guangzhou, China, for instance). During the time that the Silk Road was active, there were not only physical exchanges, but cultural ones as well. Chordophones, however, did not originate during the time of the Silk Road. In fact, the first signs of chordophones can be found as early as 15,000 years ago in cave paintings. Not a lot is known about the existence of chordophones during this time, unfortunately, since there was nothing physical for us to find. Fortunately, this changed as time passed.
Much later, humans starting making physical objects with chordophones on them. These objects were mostly made of terra-cotta, and were very common during early human civilizations. For example, there is a terra-cotta relief dated back to the second millennium BCE containing a woman playing a type of harp. There is also a terra-cotta figure containing a bull lyre (a lyre shaped like a bull) dating to around 2600 BCE. There are many different types of chordophones, the early ones sometimes being hard to recognize as such, and it is not even until around 3100 BCE that there is the first appearance of an actual lute. Up until that point, various bows were found, but it took a while before lutes actually took form. Dated to around 2900 BCE, a stone carving of a long-necked lute was found in Iraq, and later, dated to around 2400 BCE, another carving was found. The later carving contained multiple deities, attendants, as well as a seated lute player, but soon after this one, lutes seemed to disappear. Interestingly, chordophones appear very often for a long period of time, and then, as previously stated, seem to disappear. They do reappear again hundreds of years later, but many of the examples shown during Dr. Millward’s lecture were from the 2000s BCE, as this was when a majority of figures were found.
As time passed, writing systems were eventually developed, and the earliest textual reference to a chordophone was dated to 2094-2047 BCE. Eventually, lutes and other chordophones started coming back, but this time lutes became much more common. A 1500 BCE terra-cotta figurine was found containing a “dwarf” lute player, and an 870 BCE example was found in Nimrud, containing lute players and other figures wearing lion skins. Around 1500 BCE, lutes traveled to Egypt, where they were often found in tomb paintings. The lute of the Egyptian singer of Harmose is often found in these paintings, and in lute carvings throughout time, monkeys can often be found as well.
From Egypt, the lute moved to India, where it can be found in many Buddhist sculptures. An example of one such sculpture is from the first to second centuries CE, and can be found in Gandhara, India at a stupa (an Indian temple for the Buddha). Other examples involve lutes appearing on Kushan gold coins, in addition to a sculpture of the Indian Goddess Durga, who is pictured playing a lute while on a lion. Lutes also appear in a famous painting in a cave at Ajanta, and with a sculpture of the God Vishnu, although soon after they come through India, lutes seem to disappear for another couple hundred years.
The lute did not only travel to India, though. Around the same time that it got there, it also moved to Greece. Many terra-cotta and gold figures of lute players were found there dating from the first century BCE to the third century CE. These lutes were quite different from the others, as they were often shown at downward angles, as opposed to the usual upward angle. Many of them also had small crescent markings on them, and they only appeared on short lutes. Later, these crescent markings were discovered to be associated with Nana, the Grecian Mother Goddess, and can be found subtly on many Greek sculptures.
The lute made a long journey throughout history, traveling from the Middle East, to Egypt, India, Greece, and eventually China and Japan. If it were not for the Silk Road, it could not have become involved in nearly as many cultures as it did, and it would not have developed as much as an instrument, either. Chordophones changed significantly throughout time due to the many different cultures throughout Eurasia, and although very few early examples of the actual instruments themselves exist, there are still many carvings, figures, paintings, and texts that hold its history.