A 5,000-year-old seal impression has been identified by Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) researchers as the oldest known image of a musical instrument being played to have ever been found in Israel. Archaeologists Dr. Yitzhak Paz, Dr. Ianir Milevski and Nimrod Getzov of the IAA are set to present their findings at a symposium Thursday at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
The image, which dates to the Early Bronze Age, was found in the 1970s at the Beit HaEmek antiquities site during an archaeological survey conducted in the Western Galilee by Dr. Rafi Frankel. It was created by rolling a cylinder across the surface of the clay before it was fired, leaving a repeating pattern. The clay fragment on which the impression appears was part of a large storage vessel, called a pithos, according to the researchers. This particular pattern depicts three female figures, two standing and one seated. The seated figure appears to be playing an ancient lyre.
“We identified it as a lyre by searching through artworks and observing the remains of actual lyres found in Mesopotamia,” Paz told Haaretz.
Paz, Milevski and Getzov believe the image portrays part of a common ritual of the time, known as the “sacred marriage”. This practice involved the ceremonial union of the king and the priestess, as a stand-in for the goddess, representing the merger of secular and religious worlds. Recently, Prof. Pierre de Miroschedji of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique suggested many of the seal impressions from the Early Bronze Age portray the sacred marriage rite, though this is the only one identified from the Beit HaEmek site. Other cylinder seal impressions found contained typical geometric forms.
The sacred marriage ritual had several parts, including a banquet, accompanied by music and dancing; a meeting between the king and the priestess; and the consummation of the “marriage”. These stages have been widely depicted in the iconography of the time across the region, but this is the first example of an instrument being portrayed.
“This is the first time it is definitely possible to identify a figure playing an instrument on a seal impression from the third millennium BCE. This is when most of the ‘cultic’ impressions from Israel depict dancing figures or the feasting scene in which the female and male figures are shown facing each other, in the rite just before their sexual encounter,” the IAA wrote in a statement.
The symposium, entitled “Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll”, will be conducted mainly in Hebrew, with two lectures to be delivered in English. It is open to the public and free of charge.