Blasts from the Past (Extract)

24gavriel (photo credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)
(photo credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)
Extract of article in Issue 24, March 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem sounds off on ancient musical practices King David playing his harp - a common translation of the Hebrew word kinor - is one of the iconic images of the Bible. In modern Hebrew the kinor is a violin, but in antiquity a kinor was a lyre, a triangular or trapezoidal stringed instrument sometimes played with a pick. It's possible that David's instrument was constructed out of sheep gut and ram's horn, a far cry from our image of a Western harp. This is just one of the many intriguing facts that emerge from "Sounds of Ancient Music." The recently opened exhibit at the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem, scheduled to run through 2008, is an in-depth examination of the role of music in the ancient Near Eastern world. Based on a study of ancient visual and written sources, replicas of instruments and instruments that survived, the exhibit attempts to shed scholarly light on something seemingly lost in the mists of time - the musical culture of the peoples depicted in the Bible. Set in the lower level of the museum, the exhibit is composed of a series of well-lit displays containing close to 140 individual pieces. Many of the original items on display are quite small, providing a spaciousness that belies the huge amount of information provided. A curious visitor can easily spend several hours exploring the offerings, which feature additional items on loan from the Israel Museum, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Francaise in Jerusalem, the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, and the Egyptian Museum of Bonn University, Germany. The exhibit is filled with iconography, depicting instruments and musical activity from the ancient Mesopotamian, Canaanite, Philistine, Israelite, Egyptian, Greek and Roman worlds. The surviving instruments on display are mostly durable percussion instruments, while the reconstructed instruments - mostly various wooden lyres, the main stringed instrument of the period - were created by sculptor and craftsman Moshe Frumin, a former teacher at the University of Haifa who has worked on ancient musical instruments for more than 30 years. Frumin was also involved with the Haifa Museum's Music and Ethnology project, which attempted to reconstruct ancient instruments from archaeological sources. "He [Frumin] came to us with the idea, and we felt it would offer a new insight into biblical-era culture," says managing director Amanda Weiss. Rather than organizing the exhibit strictly around the cultures represented, Chief Curator Joan Goodnick Westenholz opted for a display that highlights the role of music in society, mixing and matching cultures to highlight their similarities and differences. "I am trying to go back in time to the Second Temple, but also to bring up questions that are still pertinent," Westenholz explains. The most obvious question raised by the exhibit is also the one that is impossible to answer: What was the music actually like in the ancient world, Jewish or otherwise? The melodies and rhythms remain unknown, despite the details about performance, instrumentation and other musical information available from the archaeological record. One major display sheds light on a melody from ancient Sumeria: a 3,000-year-old fragment of a cuneiform tablet from the coastal city of Ugarit (present-day Syria) has what is considered the earliest known example of musical notation. This small tablet has the lyrics of a religious hymn on the upper portion, while the lower section contains information relating to the actual musical notes to be played on a lyre-type instrument. Westenholz explains, "This tablet, which is actually joined together from two fragments from different expeditions, lists [a series of musical] intervals, followed by numbers." Westenholz elaborates that the written material about ancient music theory that has survived provides enough information to make conjectures about the melody on the tablet. "It's the same concept as you have in Greece - music as it relates to mathematics. You have nine strings that are named and intervals with numbers. The eighth and ninth strings are the same as the first and the second, so we know they are octaves." In an ingenious display of multimedia interactivity, a small, touch-sensitive screen displays an image of the tablet - the original is hung behind glass on the wall nearby. Running one's fingers over the appropriate area of the display reveals an English translation of the hymn. A further touch plays an audio file explaining some possible interpretations of the notation, as well as musical examples of the various options. The text itself is quite short, just a five-syllable phrase which, when paired with some of the melodic options, sounds vaguely like Native American chanting, such as one might find in a 1950s Western movie. The tablet and its interpretations are remarkable, because "the actual music is something quite mysterious," says assistant curator Moshe Piamenta, who has a background in both archeology and music theory. "The tablet is an exception. On the one hand, it has a very small amount of information, but from that you can conclude a lot. It didn't appear by itself, it had a previous tradition and then it had a subsequent influence. Some scholars make a correlation between this and the musical theory of Greece, so you can see a tradition that goes through the ages." The Ugarit cuneiform tablet dates from around 1000 BCE, but some pieces on display are significantly older, such as a pair of small 5,000 year-old cymbals from Anatolya (in modern Turkey) and a simple bone flute found at Megiddo (the biblical Armageddon in northern Israel), from 6,000 years ago. Also on display is a set of noise-making pendants, ca. 11,000 BCE, found wrapped around the waist of a female skeleton interred in a cave on Mount Carmel (near present-day Haifa). "The only instruments that remain are those made of metal, bone, ivory or clay," Westenholz explains. "This 'necklace' is made of red deer tooth, and a few larger beads were found in the same grave complex." It is possible that the beads made a castanet-like sound when the wearer would walk or dance. Frumin's excellent reconstructions enable viewers to see what some of the less robust instruments might have looked like. His extensive text research and practical, real world experience produce striking results, such as his reconstructed, biblical nevel - a kind of large lyre. From a coin minted during the Bar Kochba rebellion (132-135 CE) and a section in the Mishna that describes how a goat's intestine is used to construct the instrument, he created a nevel that is just one of nearly a dozen of creations that grace the exhibit. "All the instruments are acoustic, you can play them," he says. "I use materials native to the region and try to make it very accurate, but there are still many things we do not know, like how they tuned the strings exactly." He reveals that his research led him to consult with Beduin and Ethiopian immigrant musicians who still play similar instruments, and that he scales his creations slightly small to account for the smaller average size of a human being in the ancient world. The exhibit has a small section on court music, centered around a reproduction of a wall relief of a musicians ensemble found in Carchemish, in northern Syria, dating to 800-900 BCE. Since the relief was found in a niche or stage near the entrance to a royal palace, it is theorized that musicians played there during processions. The instruments shown are a drum, a lute, a double flute, cymbals and a shofar, which evidently was not played exclusively by Jews. Extract of article in Issue 24, March 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.