Elaborately carved Burton Agnes chalk drum goes on display

The sculpture had been placed in a Neolithic grave containing the remains of three children.

A 5,000-year-old chalk cylinder decorated with elaborate geometric patterns, which was hailed as ‘one of the most significant ancient objects ever found in the British Isles’ following its discovery at Burton Agnes in East Yorkshire, has gone on public display for the first time at the British Museum. The sculpture, known as the ‘Burton Agnes drum’ (below), was unearthed by Allen Archaeology during a routine planning excavation in 2015; it had been placed in a Neolithic grave containing the remains of three children. The two younger children had been carefully positioned holding or touching hands, and both were being held by the eldest of the three. The drum was found above the head of this last individual, and the grave also contained a chalk ball and a polished bone pin (pictured).

IMAGE: © The Trustees of the British Museum.

This burial context, and the striking motifs that cover every inch of the drum, are reminiscent of the Folkton drums – three chalk cylinders that were found in a Neolithic child’s grave just 15 miles away in North Yorkshire in 1889 – with illuminating implications, as relatively little is known about the Folkton finds. It was speculated that they may have been made c.2500-2000 BC, but a radiocarbon date from human remains in the Burton Agnes grave places this burial in 3005-2890 BC, around the time of the construction of Stonehenge, suggesting that the Folkton drums might be much earlier than suspected.

All four drums are decorated with geometric designs that are found across late Neolithic Britain and Ireland, appearing on diverse materials including pottery, stone balls, and the walls of tombs and houses, hinting at wide-ranging cultural connections. As for their function, it is thought that such objects were works of sculptural art, possibly intended as talismans to protect the children they were buried with. The Burton Agnes example is marked with three apparently hastily added holes, which might have represented the presence of three children in the grave.

The artefact is now on display alongside the Folkton drums as part of the British Museum’s new exhibition, The world of Stonehenge (see CA 384), which features hundreds of Mesolithic, Neolithic, and Bronze Age artefacts from seven countries, brought together to place Stonehenge in its wider context.

‘This is a truly remarkable discovery, and is the most important piece of prehistoric art to be found in Britain in the last 100 years,’ said Neil Wilkin, the exhibition’s curator. ‘The Folkton drums have long remained a mystery to experts for well over a century, but this new example finally begins to give us some answers. To my mind, the Burton Agnes drum is even more intricately carved and reflects connections between communities in Yorkshire, Stonehenge, Orkney, and Ireland. Analysis of its carvings will help to decipher the symbolism and beliefs of the era in which Stonehenge was constructed.’

The world of Stonehenge (www.britishmuseum.org/stonehenge) runs until 17 July 2022.