By David Francis, Interpretation Officer
Of all the objects I’ve worked with in my eight years as an interpretation officer at the British Museum, the Sudanese lyre is perhaps the most intriguing. Made in northern Sudan, probably in the late19th century, it would have been played by a male musician at weddings and harvest festivals as part of a small band. It may also have been used in zār ceremonies – healing rituals involving spirit possession that are still practised in Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia today.
Just as fascinating as the actual instrument are the coins, beads, shells and, as yet, unidentified objects that are attached to the lyre. In a sense, the Sudanese lyre is both a single object and an assemblage of many objects each with their own story to tell. In this blog I talk with some of the curators at the British Museum and the Royal Armouries in Leeds to identify what these objects are, and speculate on why they may have been attached to the lyre.
Chris Spring, Curator, African Collection, British Museum
DF: Chris why do we think the lyre player attached these objects to this instrument?
CS: They may have been given to the musician as gifts, or payment for his services. Many of the objects attached to the lyre are currency. Obviously we have the Turkish and British coins, but bead work in Africa was also used as a means of exchange. Millefiori beads – meaning ‘thousand flowers’ in Italian – were first mass produced in Venice and then the rest of Europe for this purpose. Cowrie shells were also cultivated on vast rafts in the Maldives and came to Sudan to be used as currency through Indian Ocean trade.
DF: The objects come from a wide range of places then, what’s the significance of this?
CS: For centuries Sudan has been a hub for the movement of people, goods and ideas. Port Sudan, in particular, is an important link in the Indian Ocean trade network, as well as being located on the pilgrim route to Mecca. For much of the 19th century, Sudan was also under imperial rule. From 1821 to 1885, Sudan was controlled by Ottoman Egypt and then with the building of the Suez Canal in 1869, Britain had an increasing interest in the region. The objects attached to the lyre reflect this history of trade and imperial ambition.
Vesta Curtis, Curator of Middle Eastern coins, British Museum
DF: The vast majority of coins attached to the lyre are from the Turkish Ottoman Empire. I’ve counted over one hundred hanging from the frame. Can you tell me what’s written on them?
VC: The coins are indeed Ottoman and were minted in in Egypt and Constantinople or, as it’s known now, Istanbul. They each have the names of the Sultans minted on them in the form of their tughra – a kind of imperial monogram. The inscription also contains the date indicating the start of their respective reigns. So we have the coins of Sultan Abdul Aziz with the date 1861 (AH 1277) and the coins of Sultan Abdul Hamid II with the date 1876 (AH 1293).
DF: Sudan was under Turkish-Egyptian rule at the time, yes?
VC: It was. It had been under the control of the Ottoman Empire since 1821. However, these were the last two Ottoman rulers of Sudan. In 1885 the capital of Sudan, Khartoum, fell to the forces of Muhammad Ahmed, the self-proclaimed Mahdi or ‘guided one’. This effectively ended Turkish-Egyptian rule in Sudan.
DF: The so-called Mahdi minted coins I believe, are there any attached to the lyre?
VC: We’ve found no coins attached to the lyre dating from his reign, or from the Anglo-Egyptian period which followed.
Tom Hockenhull, Curator of modern money, British Museum
DF: There are a couple of British coins attached to the lyre, can you tell me about them?
TH: The first one is a British halfpenny, dating to 1861. On one side you can see the image of Queen Victoria (r. 1837‒1901) with her distinctive ‘bun’ hairstyle. This was the new portrait of the queen, which had only been introduced onto coinage in the previous year. The second coin is more unusual. On one side is the British East India Company crest as well as an inscription reading ‘Island of Sumatra’, and the date 1804.
DF: Okay, so it’s a lot earlier than all the other coins attached to the lyre?
TH: The date is likely to be false. Although the coin has got a British East India Company crest, it is unlikely to have actually been issued by the British East India Company.
DF: So it’s a forgery?
TH: It’s not really a forgery as there was no original to forge. It was probably made by a company in Birmingham to meet a demand for trading tokens around Singapore. Stamford Raffles had established the city in 1819 as a trading outlet and merchants in the region would have needed a currency to use for trade. This token fulfilled that function.
DF: Could you hazard a guess at the date for this coin?
TH: I’d say at least 1830s, perhaps later.
The mystery object
Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms, Royal Armouries
DF: One of the objects – a small metal mechanism – is yet to be identified. There’s been a lot of speculation on social media that it could be the firing mechanism for a firearm. Is this a possibility?
JF: I can’t tell you what it is, but I can tell you what it isn’t! I can understand why people might think this was a firearm mechanism; there is a superficial resemblance to a percussion hammer, and maybe, if you squint, a trigger! However, neither are shaped or positioned on the mechanism like a real hammer or trigger, to actually enable the operator to use them for their intended purposes of cocking and firing the gun.
DF: What particular features mean that this object couldn’t be used as a firing mechanism?
JF: A real flintlock or percussion gun lock is far simpler than this. The short ribbed cylinder could theoretically be some sort of barrel, but is far too short to be functional. On the outside you have either a hollow pan for priming powder or a simple nipple to which you’d fit a cap, as on a cap gun.
This device has a round hollow feature that could conceivably function as a pan for priming powder, but no other features of a flintlock mechanism – and no nipple that you could fit a percussion cap to. Finally, the mechanism is totally the wrong shape for a gun lock.
DF: Could it perhaps be a toy or imitation gun?
JF: Cap guns had been invented as early as the 1870s and were usually made of cast metal rather than the forged iron typical of real firearms, so I did wonder if this might be a toy. Unfortunately, if anything, cap guns were even simpler than the real thing, and this object has lots of extra bells and whistles that again, would serve no function on a gun – real or otherwise.
The charms and the zār ceremony
Chris Spring, Curator, African Collection, British Museum
DF: As well reflecting the various networks of trade and empire in 19th-century Sudan, there’s also a possibility that the objects attached to the lyre might have been used in the zār ceremony itself?
CS: Yes, many of the objects attached to the lyre, such as the prayer beads and Islamic amulets, have a religious function. The coins, beads and shells may have also have been attached to the lyre as charms to attract particular spirits. Zār spirits are believed to be invisible – in Sudan they’re referred to as ‘the red wind’. But they also take on specific human forms that have a special significance in Sudanese history. You get zār spirits that are Turkish officials, Ethiopian Christian priests, British engineers and enslaved Africans from the south to name but a few. These objects might have been attached to the lyre to appeal to these spirits.
DF: Can you tell me a little bit more about the zār ceremony itself?
CS: The zār ceremony is a healing ceremony closely associated with Islamic mysticism. Although it’s currently illegal in Sudan, it still occurs throughout the region today. Within the zār belief system, it’s thought that certain people, particularly married women, can become possessed by spirits. These spirits cause the possessed mental and physical discomfort, which conventional medicine can’t cure. Zār ceremonies are held to appease and in some sense celebrate these spirits. During a specific type of zār ceremony known as a zār tambura, lyres like this one are played to calm restless spirits and also put the patient into a rhythmic trance.
DF: Is the spirit exorcised during the ceremony?
CS: No, once a patient has been possessed the spirit will remain with them for the rest of their life. The ceremony is instead a means of allowing the sufferer to learn to cope with the spirit that has possessed them. During the trance phase of the ceremony the spirit manifests itself, becoming embodied in the movement and dance of the patient. The female leader of the ceremonies, known as a shayka, tries to identify the spirit and find out what it wants. She might give the patient clothing, or incense, or even alcohol if it was a Christian spirit, in order to appease it. The objects attached to the lyre come from many regions and could potentially appeal to a wide variety of spirits. They therefore might play a part in this process of spirit appeasement.
The Asahi Shimbun Display Music, celebration and healing: the Sudanese lyre is on display in Room 3 at the British Museum until 16 August 2015.