Goblet drums through history                                     Back


Goblet drums of Mesopotamia

By:Shaahin Mohajeri

Links and Refferences

  Goblet drum        Mesopotamia        Sumerians        Sumerian music        Music of Mesopotamia 

Sumerian Questions and Answers        Middle Eastern Drum History       Percussion Instruments of Ancient Egypt




Mesopotamia refers to the region now occupied by modern Iraq, eastern Syria, southeastern Turkey, and Southwest Iran. The toponym comes from the Greek words μέσος "between" and ποταμός "river", referring to the basins of the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers and the area in between. Comparably, the Persian term is  بين النهرين"between two rivers". The geographical area watered by these two rivers is often referred to as the "Cradle of Civilization", since it was here that the first literate societies developed in the late 4th millennium BC.

Mesopotamia housed some of the world's most ancient states with highly developed social complexity. The region was as one of the famous four riverine civilizations where writing was first invented, along with the Nile valley in Egypt, the Indus Valley in the Indian Subcontinent and Yellow River valley in China.

Ancient Mesopotamia includes the period from the late 4th millennium BC until the rise of the Achaemenids in the 6th century BC. This long period may be divided as follows:

Late Neolithic

·                           Hassuna, Samarra and Halaf "cultures"


·                           Ubaid period (ca 5900 BC - 4000 BC)

·                           Uruk period (ca 4000 BC - 3100 BC)

Early Bronze Age

·                           Jemdet Nasr Period (ca 3100 BC - 2900 BC)

·                           Early Dynastic city states (ca 2900-2350 BC)

·                           Akkadian Empire (ca 2350 BC - 2193 BC).

·                           Third dynasty of Ur ("Sumerian Renaissance" or "Neo-Sumerian Period") (ca 2119 BC - 2204 BC)

Middle Bronze Age

·                           Early Assyrian kingdom 20th to 18th c.

·                           First Babylonian Dynasty 18th to 17th c.

Late Bronze Age

·                           Kassite dynasty, Middle Assyrian period 16th to 12th c.

Iron Age

·                           Syro-Hittite or Neo-Hittite regional states 11th-7th c. BC

·                           Neo-Assyrian Empire 10th to 7th c.

·                           Neo-Babylonian Empire 7th to 6th c.

·                           Achaemenid Persian Empire 6th-4th c. BC



   Music of Mesopotamia           


Excavations at the Royal Tombs of Ur clearly indicate that there was music in Ancient Mesopotamia at least as far back as 2500 BC as is evidenced by this portion of a sounding box from that period showing  harp and drum players ( http://joseph_berrigan.tripod.com/id11.html) . Also , cuneiform sources reveal an orderly organized system of diatonic scales, depending on the tuning of stringed instruments in alternating fifths and fourths. Whether this reflects all types of music we do not know.  Besides "chords" (dyads, dichords) of fourths and fifths, thirds (and sixths) played also a considerable role. Of Mesopotamian rhythm, nothing is known.

Instruments of Ancient Mesopotamia include harps, lyres, lutes, reed pipes and drums. Many of these are shared with neighbouring cultures. Contemporary East African lyres and West African lutes preserve many features of Mesopotamian instruments. (van der Merwe 1989, p.10) .A Babylonian plaque from about 1100 B.C., now in the British Museum, depicts a large, ovoid drum on a very short stem, reaching from the ground to the player's waist- perhaps some 90 centimeters (3 feet) or so high- and struck by a man with his bare hands: this is called " Lilis " , the prototype of the goblet drum. Our next glimpse of one is some eight centuries later.



 ( From "The music of the sumerian and their immediate successors , the babylonians and assyrians" by Francis william galpian , persian translation)


Thureau-Dangin (1921) published in his Rituels accadiens the text- in Akkadian cuneiform and a French translation- of a kalu (temple priest) rite involving the ritual immolation of a bull for the sake of its hide, needed to form the membrane of the temple drum lilis (lilies, in Sumerian). The admittedly late text is taken from an inscription at Erech (Uruk, the modern Warka) of about 300 B.C., but undoubtedly represents an earlier and well-established usage. Both bull and drum are figured, and the latter has the shape of a goblet, more specifically, it is that of a hemispheric bowl set on a short stem terminating in a low, flat base. The bull is apparently a primigenius. Now, the function of the kalu was to appease the gods by his singing, and the principal instrument with which he accompanied his song was the lilissu, a metal drum with bull-hide membrane. Bulls were sacred in the ancient world, from Mesopotamia west to France at least (beneath Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris lies a sanctuary of the horned god, Cernunnos), and east to pre-Aryan India (where, as already mentioned the Bos prinugenius is sometimes represented with an altar, whereas the indigenous Bos indicus never is); hence the use of a bull skin for the head of a temple, that is, sacred, drum. Only a bull resembling the celestial bull might be ritually slaughtered for this purpose; he must be black and free of blemishes.

Both the immolation ritual involving incantations of magical efficiency and the preparation of the hide itself are dealt with in detail: the membrane was stretched over varnished sikkatu, pegs of box, cedar, or other woods inserted in the bowl. Fifteen days after application of the drumhead, sacrifices were made to the now divine lilis, and seven small figurines called "hands," representing the children of Enmesharra, the supreme kalu (but seven was a sacred, ergo a symbolic, number in Mesopotamia), were placed in the interior of the shell (in another version it is stated that twelve bronze figurines of divinities were placed inside it). Their rattling must have added considerably to the noise of the beaten drum. Of its size we are not informed. Here, then, is a metal basin set on a stand, a sacred instrument by virtue of its bull-skin membrane and its dedication to temple service. Sumerian texts indicate that the lilis also participated in processions.


Lilissu , Miniaturized Lilis


Large drums of antiquity such as Lilis (and the Mesopotamian frame drum) were subsequently reduced in size, "miniaturized" to the extent that when they reappeared they were portable and the proportion of shell to stem had been modified- a form that lends itself admirably to being gripped firmly between the player's upper arm and thorax, with head facing forward. Such a drum can also be stood upright, or even held upside down with head facing the ground, in which case it is tapped from below.(A theban painter from thebes ( Egyptian Eighteenth Dynasty (New Kingdom)), shows this drum  in ceremonies. Also we can see a mud sculpture from of an egyptian man (Eighteenth Dynasty (New Kingdom)), playing lilissu found in Deir el-Bahri ).

This small version became known to the Arabs and was disseminated by them. Extinct in Western Europe, it is today a drum of the Islamic world par excellence. The modern darabuka of North Africa and the Near East, known by a number of variant names from Morocco to Iran and north as far as Bulgaria, is made of metal or of pottery. Further east, a primitive form in Malaya has a snakeskin head laced with split cane to a wooden body, and still farther it is found in Indonesia, made of wood; on Celebes one form remains a temple instrument, set on the ground when played.


Goblet drums in Europe


Lynda Aiano (graduated in 2005 with a MA degree in Experimental Archaeology from the Department of Archaeology, University of Exeter ) In her article , Resonators and Receptacles: a summary of an acoustic enquiry into Late Neolithic pottery goblet drums from Europe , has studied acoustical properties of pottery gobletshaped drums from the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age  in Central Europe. The research explores the commonly held view that pottery drums developed from domestic storage pots and postulates an origin for them from the pedestal bowls of Northern Europe. The practical replication investigates the acoustic awareness of the drum makers, reflected in the diverse shapes and features of the 400 or so drums discovered to date. In this article she has mentioned that The Neolithic drums have so far been found over an area which extends from Southern Denmark through Germany (where they are most common), to the Czech Republic and Poland. Between 300-400 have been identified so far, but many more may lie unidentified amongst pottery sherds from excavations .They all share the characteristic of a roughly goblet-shaped hollow body made of clay, although they vary considerably in their body profile and overall height (ranging from 14 cm to 46 cm high). Many, although not all of the drums, have either lugs or brackets around the upper edge where a drum head could be attached. we also can see The evidences for a similar shaped drum in the mound graves of  the Altay region of Russia at around 500 BC.Some picture of old goblet drums are shown below :

A surviving goblet drum from Bronze in the Czech Republic, dated at around 2800 BC (From Lynda Aiano's article)


Drum made of clay , Walternienburg-Bernburg period (Funnel Beaker culture) 

Germany , Upper NeolithicChronology: 7.000 - 3.500 bc



Another Goblet drum made of clay , Walternienburg-Bernburg period (From Lynda Aiano's article)

  (Above picture is from : journal.exarc.net/files/EuroREA3-sample-web.pdf) 


Lynda , according to some common apparent spesifications , proposed  pedestal bowls as origine of  goblet drums in europe .

 A prehistoric pedestal bowl , dating to the Chalcolithic period


A pedestal bowl of bronze age


Her findings suggest that the variety of drum shapes in the archaeological record reflects early drummakers’ attempts to improve the quality of sound that could be produced by drumheads stretched across pottery shells. The results suggest that some vessels with enclosed bases could have been used as drums but that the quality of sound that they produced would have been indifferent. However, perhaps the sound produced was of sufficient quality to stimulate further exploration, both of the vessel shape and the method of fixing the drumhead. The innovation of the hollow-shelled drum meant that it became possible to produce different sounds between the centre and the rim, the central note having power and resonance, while the rim produced higher-pitched, sharper sounds.

She has brings up questions about how and where hollow drums emerged and what happened to them when they cease to appear in the archaeological record from the Early Bronze age onwards. The similarity between the drums studied in this article and the darrabuka still so prominent over a large area of North Africa and the Middle East, suggests a survival of the type rather than an independent origin. The evidence for similar shaped drum of  the Altay region of Russia raises many more questions.

History of Tombak


History of Tombak, like other musical instruments and mainly memberanophones of iran is tied up with musical culture of mesopotamia.A strong assumption is that tombak as a goblet drum has its root in mesopotamian culture which not only had cultural transaction with Persia but had affected its musical manifestations. For example we know that the first evidences of framedrums appear in ancient Mesopotamian from the third millennium B.C Click .

Francis William Galpin in his book "The music of the sumerian and their immediate successors , the babylonians and Assyrians " has written about music and musical instrument as two parameters of cultural transaction. We can trace foot prints of other cultures in usage and improvement of musical instruments by , for example , Sumerians. Using historacl and ethnological datas and considering Sumerians as emigrants to Mesopotamia from the Indus plain or west of centeral asia (As we can see in galpin's book) and similarity of musical instruments used by people of these regions with mesopotamia, Leads us to these two supositions :

1-drums of middle east have their root in Mesopotamia , or

2-they have been brought there by sumerians

Here , you see some of the sources about existance of tombak during Persian historical dynasties mentioned in :

     "Hezar Sal vazn rytm dar mosighi Iran (One thousand years of rhythm in Iranian music)" by Reza torshizi
In this book which is Published by hozeh honary (ISBN: 964-471-018-5), the writer has written about old history of tombak , quoted from 2 refrences:

- The yatkar-I-zariran : The "Yatkar-i-Zariran," is the only book about persian heroic myths remained from Parthia .In this book , we can see " tumbak" very clearly.

- Ali sami , a persian researcher in his article about music of old iran and achaemenian dynasty published by " honar-o-mardom" magazine in 1970 , has talked about a drum like tombak played by people during Elamite dynasties. he also has mentioned that in Sassanid Empire we can trace an instrument named as "Doumbak" ( which is called  also as Doumbalak). his reference is " Khosrow, son of Kavadh and his slave" a sassanid book written in pahlavi language.

So we see that the old history of tombak may be tied up with musical cultures of mesopotamia as Elamite dynasties  were contemporaneous with mesopotamian civilizations. Or may be it was borrowed by mesopotamia from persia and elimates !!