The discovery of an unusual 5,000-year-old work of art known as the Burton Agnes Drum has just been announced, as the object goes on display for the first time.
The elaborately carved, barrel-shaped chalk cylinder was unearthed in 2015 near the village of Burton Agnes in East Yorkshire, UK, in the grave of three Neolithic children. The children were buried in a moving embrace, with the two youngest touching hands, both held in the arms of the eldest, while the drum was placed just above the head of the eldest child and bears three hastily added holes that are thought to relate to the number of children in the burial.
The Burton Agnes Drum is only the fourth object of this kind ever found, and closely resembles the three previous examples, known as the Folkton Drums, which were discovered in 1889 in North Yorkshire, just 15 miles from Burton Agnes, in the burial of a single child. Despite their name, these objects did not have any kind of musical function – ‘drum’ is simply a reference to their shape. They are in fact sculptural works of art, believed perhaps to have acted as protective talismans for the children with whom they are buried.
The Folkton Drums were previously thought to have been created c.2,500-2,000 BC, but radiocarbon dating of a bone from the Burton Agnes burial suggests that all of these objects were created approximately 500 years earlier, c.3000 BC. This was a time when the first phase of construction was under way at Stonehenge, and many new ideas and artistic styles were spreading rapidly across Britain and Ireland. The Burton Agnes and Folkton drums are intricately decorated with motifs found on other prehistoric objects from this period, such as pottery and stone balls, as well as architectural surfaces in houses and tombs. Also found in the Burton Agnes grave were a chalk ball and a polished bone pin, both of which resemble contemporary artefacts from sites near Stonehenge, further reflecting the widespread sharing of cultural traditions, and perhaps beliefs, across the British Isles at this time.
Since its discovery in 2015, the Burton Agnes Drum has undergone extensive research and conservation work, but it has only now been revealed to the public by the British Museum and Allen Archaeology, who describe it as ‘the most important piece of prehistoric art to be found in Britain in the last 100 years’. The Drum is currently on display for the first time, alongside the three Folkton Drums, as part of the British Museum’s new exhibition The World of Stonehenge.
IMAGES: © The Trustees of the British Museum; Allen Archaeology.