Ancient musical instruments: Bible archaeology

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Jephtah's daughter

Jephtah's daughter came to meet him with timbrels and dancing

Ancient Egyptian harpist with harp

King David
Skilled harpist

Hunting hawk,Bible story of Deborah

Deborah's war song Judges 5

The Music of Moses Hear how ancient music may have sounded: Michael Levy: 'King David's Lyre, Echoes of Ancient Israel'  


 


 


 

 

Ancient musical instruments

Bible Study Resource

Click to see instruments at end of this page

There are no images or carvings of musical instruments in Israel, so we have to rely on Egyptian, Assyrian and Aramean or Greek pictures and sculptures to get an idea of how they looked.

It's also difficult to be certain about the words used to describe instruments in the Bible. Some terms, for example Nębel (harp) and Kinnôr (lyre),  are used interchangeably in the earlier translations, although originally they described distinctions in size or in the number of strings. 

On the other hand, many statements or explanations offered by later writers are clearly unreliable. The Jewish historian Josephus, for example, solemnly states that there were 500,000 musicians in Palestine, clearly a wild exaggeration.  

Egyptian wall painting of musicians with percussion and wind instruments

Egyptian wall painting of musicians with percussion and wind instruments

ln general, the instruments mentioned in Hebrew writings can be classified into familar moderns groups: 

Percussion InstrumentsAncient statuette of a woman playing a timbrel. Woman with Timbrel, pottery, Cyprus 6th century BC, Haifa Museum.

  • Tôph - a frame drum)

  • Menne’îm -- a sistrum

  • Metziltăyim or tseltselîm -- cymbals

  • Castanets

  • Pă‘amonim  -- bells or jingles. See pictures of these below.

Wind Instruments

  • Hălîl ~ oboe

  • Shôfăr or keren yobél -- ram or goat’s horn

  • űgăb -- flute

  • Mashrôkętă -- double oboe

  • Keren -- horn or trumpet. 

  • Hătsotserah -- trumpet; the trumpets from Herod’s temple, shown on the Arch of Titus are longer even than those pictured in the inscriptions on Jewish coins of the 2nd century AD.  Other coins of the period show lyres, usually in pairs as in the instructions given to Moses in Numbers 10:2-10. They were played by priests during Temple worship.  See pictures of these below.  

The Arch of Titus, with horns looted from the Temple in Jerusalem

Hătsotserah -- trumpet; the trumpets from Herod’s temple, shown on the Arch of Titus 
are longer even than those pictured in the inscriptions on Jewish coins of the 2nd century AD

 

Stringed Instruments

  • Bronze female figurine playing the lute, heighth 15.5 cm. Beat Shean, 15-13th century BC, Haifa Museum. Instrument resembling bagpipesKinnôr -- lyre

  • Nébel - harp

  • ăsôr — zither

  • Pesantęrin -- psaltery (a stringed instrument triangular in shape, or dulcimer)

  • Kătrôs -- cithara

  • Sabkă -- harp shaped like a ladder on a boat. See pictures of these below.  

  •  Other coins of the period picture lyres. lt is interesting to note that they come in pairs as in the instructions given to Moses (Numbers 10:2-10). They were played by priests either in unison or antiphonally during Temple worship. 

These last two non-Semitic names appear only in the description of Nebuchadrezzar‘s court in Daniel. The same book also mentions the word 'sampôneyah'. This was thought to be an instrument rather like Irish/Scottish bagpipes (see right), but recently it has appeared that it was a more generic term, like the modern 'symphony' or 'ensemble'. 


Pictures of ancient instruments

Seven of the images below are from the Potsdam Public Museum at the recommended website http://www.potsdampublicmuseum.org/pages/68/10/ancient-musical-instruments. This website describes the painstaking recreation of ancient instruments by Charles N. and Harriett Lanphere of Potsdam, New York, in the late 19th century. They reconstructed instruments from the Bible, Egypt, Chaldea, Assyria and Palestine, using images from rock sculptures, tomb paintings, and coins.

Percussion Instruments

Tôph - a frame drum

Tôph - a frame drum. Potsdam Public Museum

menne’îm -- the sistrum, an Egyptian instrument made of a metal frame with transverse metal rods that tinkled or rattled when shaken

Menne’îm -- the sistrum, an Egyptian instrument made of a metal frame 
with transverse metal rods that tinkled or rattled when shaken. Potsdam Public Museum

Metziltăyim or tseltselîm -- cymbals, Roman mosaic

Metziltăyim or tseltselîm -- cymbals, Roman mosaic


 

Wind Instruments

Shôfăr or keren yobél -- a ram or goat’s horn 

űgăb -- the flute

űgăb -- the flute

Mashrôkętă -- double oboe

The mashrôkętă -- double oboe

Keren -- the horn or trumpet, metal, late Roman, from Spain and Italy

Keren -- the horn or trumpet, metal, late Roman, from Spain and Italy


 

Stringed Instruments

Copy of the small Hebrew harp on the Beni Hasan mural, Egypt, 1800BC

Copy of the small Hebrew harp on the Beni Hasan mural, Egypt, 1800BC. Potsdam Public Museum

Kinnôr -- lyre. This one is an  Egyptian horse-head Lyre, carried on the shoulder of the musician.

Kinnôr -- lyre. This one is an  Egyptian horse-headed Lyre. Potsdam Public Museum

Nébel - harp. This is thought to have been the main instrument accompanying Psalms in the Temple

Nébel - harp. This is thought to have been the main instrument accompanying Psalms in the Temple. Potsdam Public Museum

Simple Greek harp without soundbox

Simple Greek harp without soundbox

pesantęrin -- psaltery (a stringed instrument triangular in shape, or dulcimer)

Pesantęrin -- psaltery, a stringed instrument triangular in shape, or dulcimer. Potsdam Public Museum

lyre strings are struck with a wooden baton, rather than plucked with a plectrum

In this bas relief from the palace at Nineveh, circa 7000BC, 
lyre strings are struck with a wooden baton, rather than plucked with a plectrum
 

Kătrôs -- the cithara, as played by this Roman woman, 1st century AD

Kătrôs -- the cithara, as played by this Roman woman, 1st century AD

sabkă -- harp shaped like a ladder on a boat.

Sabkă -- a harp shaped like a ladder on a boat. Potsdam Public Museum

 


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Bible Study Resource for Archaeology: Musical instruments, percussion, wind, strings, illustrations

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