CHAPTER 7: Controversies and Misunderstandings

16 of 17 - That there was a mediæval dulcimer

1 Antiquity

1.1. The Icon

fig. 248

A variety of reproductions occurs in the literature: this is from Panum , p.69.

Many authors have made references, often rather vaguely, to an Assyrian bas-relief in the British Museum, identified with disturbing inconsistency as being from 2350 BC (17), from the 9th century BC (18) or from the 6th or 7th centuries BC (19); most authors relate them to the reign of King Assurnasirpal, presumably following Kinsky, who gave his dates as 883-859 BC (20). Unlike Kinsky, however, they followed Engel calling the instruments depicted 'dulcimers', because of the sticks with which the strings are apparently being struck.

There are two points here:

- the first is that the strings are shown as vertical, and since there is no soundboard parallel to the strings, the term 'harp' is perhaps more appropriate, as Kinsky and Blades found;

- the second point is best made by Galpin:

"The fact is, the stone has been badly cracked, the fissure extending right through the farther end of the musical instrument; owing to the damage done, the stone flaked off on either side of the crack, and some thoughtless restorer has patched up the damaged portion with the evident desire to give continuity to the representation on the slab in its present position. The part which has rendered the explanation of the instrument so difficult and misleading is by a "later hand" - the hand of an English workman - and there is nothing in the original part of the sculpture which would suggest its being anything else but one of those Trigons or triangular Harps which so frequently occur in these Assyrian bas-reliefs. Being on a late slab, the instrument is shown with a fuller and deeper sound-board, but as its smaller predecessors, it is held vertically and played, like the ancient Lyre and modern Nubian Kissar, on both sides of the strings with a plectrum in one hand together with the fingers of the other hand." (21)

Although later writers have ignored Galpin, none has superseded him.


Tony Klein elicited a letter from Dominique Collon at the British Museum which states the position more clearly than ever:

Dear British Museum

I'm working on the history of dulcimer-like instruments and I wonder if you can verify that, as asserted in Encyclopaedia Britannica in the 1910 edition:

"the Pisantir of the times of Nebuchadnezzar, ....can be seen in bas reliefs from Kuyunjik (Mesopotamia) in the British Museum."

If you have a picture or verbal description of the relevant bas-relief, or any other relevant comments, could you notify me?

Yours sincerely & hopefully
Dr. Tony Klein

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Re: kuyunjik bas reliefs

Dear Dr Klein,

I am afraid that the Encyclopedia article probably referred to what is actually a horizontal harp. This was wrongly reconstructed in a broken section of one of the slabs decorating Room XXXIII in the Southwest Palace of Sennacherib at Kuyunjik (ancient Nineveh). The slabs were carved during the reign of Ashurbanipal, probably around 645 BC - so a generation before Nebuchadnezzar. For illustrations and discussion, see Subhi Anwar Rashid:

Mesopotamien (Musikgeschichte in Bildern, Band II: Musik des Altertums . Lieferung 2), Leipzig 1984, p. 136 (second instrument from the left) on slab BM ANE 124802(b);

T. C. Mitchell: "An Assyrian stringed instrument" in T. C. Mitchell (ed.), Music and Civilisation (The British Museum Yearbook 4), London 1980, pp. 33-42 with a reconstruction of the instrument on Pl. 25.

I'm sorry for the loss of a dulcimer!

Yours sincerely,

Dominique Collon

Dr Dominique Collon
Assistant Keeper
Department of the Ancient Near East
British Museum
London WC1B 3DG