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Burton Agnes drum

Chalk drum billed as Britain’s most important prehistoric art discovery in a century.

A 5,000-year-old chalk ‘talisman’, unearthed on a country estate near the village of Burton Agnes in East Yorkshire, is shedding new light on British prehistory.

Announced today by the British Museum as ‘the most important piece of prehistoric art to be found in Britain in the last 100 years’, the so-called Burton Agnes drum was found during routine excavations by Allen Archaeology in 2015.

Elaborately decorated, the chalk sculpture was uncovered in the grave of three children. In an evocative scene, the two youngest children were found touching or holding hands, while the eldest child was holding the two younger infants. The chalk drum had been placed just above the head of the eldest child and had been punctured by three hastily-added holes, perhaps marking the presence of the three bodies in the grave. Despite the use of the term ‘drum’, this item is not thought to have had a musical function; rather it appears to have been a work of sculptural art, perhaps intended as a talisman to protect the children it accompanied.

The new discovery is almost identical to the enigmatic Folkton drums, found with the burial of a single child, back in 1889. Relatively little is known about the Folkton drums or their context but this new drum, discovered only around 15 miles from Folkton, is filling some of the gaps. For instance, the exact age of the Folkton drums was never known, with a consensus guess that they were made around 2500-2000 BC. However, a radiocarbon date from one of the Burton Agnes child’s bones puts the burial at between 3005 BC and 2890 BC. This means – drum roll please – that the Folkton drums are probably almost 500 years older than previously thought.

The decorations on all of the drums are of a style that flourished across Britain and Ireland. This indicates that communities were sharing artistic styles, and feasibly also ideas and cultural activity, over remarkable distances. Unlike the Folkton drums, however, the Burton Agnes drum was accompanied by a chalk ball and polished bone pin, which lay beneath the head of one of the children. Their symbolism is unclear, but the bone pin is similar to objects placed with burials inside Stonehenge at around the same time period.

Alice Beasley, who discovered the drum while working for Allen Archaeology, said that ‘Discovering the chalk drum was a thrilling and humbling experience. Seeing the love and effort put into burying the individuals over 5000 years ago was truly moving.’ The newly-found drum, together with the three Folkton drums, will go on display in the British Museum’s new Stonehenge exhibition, which opens on the 17th of Feb, 2022.

Want more archaeology? To enjoy in-depth features on archaeology, read Archaeology Worldwide magazine.

Image: Burton Agnes chalk drum, chalk ball and bone pin. 3005–2890BC.

Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum

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