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Harpistes

© 2007 RMN / Franck Raux

Near Eastern Antiquities
Mesopotamia

Author(s):
Demange Françoise

In Mesopotamia, stone and metal were rare and costly materials. Clay, however, was abundant and easily available for all to use. It served to make all sorts of utensils, as well as human and animal figurines. Toward the end of the third millennium BC, small reliefs of stamped clay began to appear, proof of the development of a fresh, lively artistic tradition. The plaque with a harpist is one of the most refined examples of this popular art form.

A popular art form

The invention of the single-valve or open mold towards the end of the third millennium BC meant that large numbers of small reliefs of stamped clay could be produced. These have been found in great quantities in archaeological sites throughout Mesopotamia. They were probably made in temple workshops that produced the small plaques very cheaply, much like today's devotional images. Visitors to the temple would buy them as offerings to leave in the shrine, or to take them home for their own household altar. They were also placed in sepulchers to accompany the deceased in the afterlife. These charmingly fresh, sometimes naive, plaques feature a range of subjects, including gods, worshippers making offerings, nude female forms, and embracing couples - probably used in fertility rites - as well as animals, acrobats, and, as in this case, musicians. They reflect a popular religion that was closer to the everyday lives of its believers than the official religions.

The importance of music

In Mesopotamia, music had a vital social and religious function. It was an important part of every official ceremony, religious or otherwise. It was played at banquets. It was a vital part of the sacred chants that accompanied the daily religious devotions and the recitation of hymns and lamentations. Every palace and temple had its own professional musicians.
Some cuneiform tablets giving precise details on musical techniques have been discovered, but only a tiny number of original musical instruments have survived. This means that figurative representations such as this plaque are particularly important as a source of information.

The harpist and his harp

The musician, wearing a long, draped garment, is playing a bow-shaped harp, holding the boat-shaped resonator (or sound box) under his left arm. In his right hand he holds a plectrum which he uses to pluck all the strings together, holding down the ones he does not want to sound with his left hand.
This harp may be the magur, as played by Shulgi, king of the third Ur dynasty, at the end of the third millennium BC. The word "magur" means "ship", and the resonator of the harp does indeed resemble a boat.
In the early years of the third millennium, many different types of harp were invented. Alongside the bow-shaped harps, which are based directly on musical bows - one of the earliest known instruments - there appeared the first angular harps, whose resonator is perpendicular to the strut the strings are attached to. These harps can be held either horizontally or vertically. This new type of harp spread to Assyria and Iran, and was still in use in a more elaborate form in seventeenth-century Turkey.
We know very little about what these harps would have sounded like. Their tone must have been deep and muffled, the notes much lower than modern harps.

Bibliography

Duchesne-Guillemin M., "La harpe en Asie occidentale ancienne", Revue d'Assyriologie 34,1937, pp.29-41.
Barrelet M-T., Figurines et reliefs en terre cuite de la Mésopotamie antique, Paris, 1968.
Spycket A., "La musique instrumentale mésopotamienne" Journal des Savants, Juill.-Sept. 1972, pp.153-209.
Spycket A., "La musique du Proche-Orient ancien", La Musique dans l'Antiquité, Les Dossiers de l'archéologie 142, Nov. 1989, pp.33-39.

Technical description

  • Harpistes

    Eshnunna

  • Terre cuite

    8.4 H ; 8.9 L ; 1.4 EP

  • Acquisition 1930 , 1930

    AO 12454, AO 12457, AO 12453

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Mesopotamia, 2nd and 1st millennia BC
    Room 3
    Vitrine 6 : La Mésopotamie, première moitié du IIe millénaire avant J.-C. ; Figurines et reliefs estampés en terre cuite

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