Just An Old-Fashioned (4,300-Year-Old) Love Song

Song may be hymn to goddess, or actual person.

In relatively recent times, Paul McCartney sang, "You'd think that people would have had enough of silly love songs." If so, it took us a while.

A team of Czech archeologists announced this week that it found what might be the oldest known written love song — one that dates back some 4,300 years — in a tomb in Egypt.

"This tomb dates back to the era of Sixth Dynasty, approximately 2,300 B.C., towards the end of the Old Kingdom, [which was] the first peak period in the development of the pharaonic Egypt and the peak era of pyramid-building," Professor Miroslav Verner, told BBC News Online. Verner is the head of the Czech Institute of Egyptology at Prague's Charles University, which runs the excavation.

The site at Abu Sir contains 14 pyramids and is located just off the river Nile, near Cairo. Only four of the pyramids are still standing. The team has been excavating the tombs at Abu Sir for over 10 years and has found many mummies as well as tools and other artifacts.

The song — written in hieroglyphs surrounded by images of musicians — is believed to be an ode to a woman, according to Bratislav Vachala, the lead researcher at the site. It was found in the tomb of a judge/priest known only as Inti and is still being translated. It has been suggested that the song may be a hymn to a goddess or perhaps an actual person.

"We have some papyrus and other written documents of love songs from about 1500-1000 B.C., which is the time of King Tut, but we haven't had much of a sense of love songs from the Old Kingdom before," said Steve Harvey, assistant director of the Institute of Egyptian Art & Archeology at the University of Memphis.

While music is known to have been important in the lives of the ancient Egyptians, there is no record of notation, so scholars don't know what their music actually sounded like.

"We don't have much musical notation until 2000 B.C.," said Laura Prichard, assistant head of the Berkeley Music Library at the University of California, Berkeley. "One factor is that most of the music was owned by the courts and commissioned by the king and passed on from one master to the next. Also, music wasn't considered a commodity and wasn't sold. ... The musicians [of ancient Egypt] were more like jazz combos. They knew the tunes and didn't have lead sheets in front of them. The texts [of lyrics] are usually all that have survived."

Scholars do, however, have some idea of what their instruments sounded like. When the tomb of King Tutankhamun was uncovered in the 1920s, archeologists found several intact musical instruments. A trumpet was brought back to England and the first trumpeter of the London Symphony Orchestra was invited to BBC studios to record its sound. Unfortunately, after he blew a few notes, according to Harvey, the instrument shattered.

There are also several recordings by modern musicians who use replicas of ancient instruments and attempt to reconstruct what the music of ancient Greece, Sumaria and Egypt may have sounded like, including the Oregon-based group Ensemble De Organographia's albums and others on the Pandourian Records label.

"There is a strong continuity in Egyptian music from the past and probably many of those themes are still in use to day," Harvey said. "I always have the eerie sense [of revisiting the past] when I hear music in Egyptian cities because the instruments are identical — the lute, the oboe and many of the drums."