University of Vermont

Center for Research on Vermont

UVM Student, Professor Recreate Ancient Instrument

kithara demonstration
John Franklin demonstrates the instrument at a public presentation, with Tanner Lake and John Butterfield (right to left).

In an age when "discovering" music usually refers to new tunes showing up in your Spotify app, a UVM student and professor have pushed that notion of discovery a bit deeper. While we know something of the music of ancient people from surviving texts and images that describe and depict it, we know less about what their music and instruments actually sounded like.

In the case of the kithara, an ancient stringed instrument in the lyre family, no intact artifacts remain. Having been created mostly from organic materials, like wood and animal hide, any examples from the period have long since decayed. With this in mind, Tanner Lake, a 2010 graduate, went to work with the help of John Franklin, professor of classics, to create blueprints for how to build a replica.

The project, part of Lake's summer work as a McNair Scholar in 2009, came to fruition this month, when Lake and Franklin presented the finished instrument and told its story, along with Washington state-based lute maker John Butterfield, at an event in Old Mill's John Dewey Lounge.

Lake's inspiration to undertake such a project struck while taking Franklin's course on legends of the Trojan War. Franklin, a scholar of Greek and Latin language and literature with a special interest in the history of ancient music technology, likes to play ancient music for his classes to highlight its importance within the culture.

"There was an oral period in which there was no writing, and all 'literature' was essentially music," Franklin explains. "It's something we lose sight of when we're reading these texts out of books. We forget the words were just one aspect out of a much more elaborate performance, and the music was a huge part of creating the effect of that performance."

Lake was captivated. A physics major at the time, he later changed his major to classics and sought out Franklin as adviser for his McNair project. With a focus on Greek music, the two narrowed the scope of the work to creating a kithara's blueprints.

But how to recreate an instrument long destroyed by time? While other modern replicas exist (about 20 in the world, Franklin estimates), Lake endeavored to create his own research-based version and turned to ancient sources to ascertain the instrument's dimensions. First, he focused his efforts on a narrowed timeframe -- the fifth century BCE. Using images of kitharas from 13 photos of ancient red-figure vases, he took measurements of the instruments' parts.

"But I couldn't use those measurements to make a real-sized instrument," Lake says, "so what I needed to do was to convert that in proportion to something that exists both in the photo and the real world." In each image, the forearm of the player was outstretched, providing a clear view of the arm from wrist to elbow. "And I thought," Lake says, "'Hey, I have a wrist and an elbow!'"

As the project progressed, Franklin suggested they pursue more than just blueprints. With funding from the McNair program and the Classics Department, luthier John Butterfield was commissioned to create a real-life version, which was delivered to Franklin in the fall of 2012. At the February presentation, Butterfield spoke about the challenges he faced when building the instrument, noting a desire to make the instrument lighter if he were to build it again.

What's the value of such a project?

"For me it was all about immersion," Lake says of the hands-on research. "There's only so far you can go in your mind from the texts themselves. Being able to not just hear the music but hear the instrument similar to the actual instrument it was played on was really a profound experience."

For Franklin, the value comes from the opportunity the instrument provides for "experimental archaeology," or learning something new about the ancients by employing the tools, techniques and processes available to them. Replicas allow scholars to explore playing techniques which are only indirectly described in ancient texts -- plucking, strumming, and dampening notes, for example.

"Now that you have the instrument," Franklin explains, "you can practice those things and see: how did they do it? What would it actually take? It's now a built tool that will contribute to further research just by the fact that we can do these archaeological experiments with it."

Now that the kithara is on hand in his office, Franklin will be able to use it as a teaching tool for future students to make the ancient music come alive, as it did for Lake.

"I think it's the physics half of me that likes objective things and not subjective things," says Lake, who plans to pursue graduate work in physics, with an aim to teach. "It felt like really solid research and really satisfying to be able to take measurements and data and turn it into something real."