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The Folkton Drums were found in East Yorkshire, England, and are on display in the British Museum.

Study sheds new light on mysterious Stone Age drums

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Archaeologists have used sophisticated techniques to study the enigmatic Folkton drums—three solid, decorated chalk cylinders dating back thousands of years that were found years ago in the grave of a child in England. Results showed that some of the decorations and motifs on the drums were erased and reworked, and they have discovered previously unknown decorations.

According to a paper published in the latest edition of the journal Antiquity, the drums, if that’s what they really are, probably date back at least 4,000 years. The British Museum, which has the drums in its collection, said the practice of burying people with grave goods began in the British Isles around 3000 BC. The child’s grave dates to between 2600 and 2000 BC.

The British Museum says the drums, the largest of which is 146 millimeters (5.75 inches) in diameter, were made of local chalk. The carvings are elaborate and their makers used a technique similar to the chip carving of woodworkers. The decorations are done in panels and include two stylized human faces. The designs are similar to later Neolithic Grooved Ware, the museum says, and the geometric patterns resemble Beaker pottery and early Bronze Age sheet goldwork.

Drum 1, left, with a drawing of its motifs; blank spaces showed areas of erasure, the researchers said. Also note where the triangular line at the top right has been erased.

Drum 1, left, with a drawing of its motifs; blank spaces showed areas of erasure, the researchers said. Also note where the triangular line at the top right has been erased. (Antiquity photo)

The researchers, led by Andrew Meirion Jones of the University of Southampton’s Department of Archaeology, wrote in the journal article:

The Folkton ‘Drums’ constitute three of the most remarkable decorated objects from Neolithic Britain. New analysis using Reflectance Transformation Imaging and photogrammetry has revealed evidence for previously unrecorded motifs, erasure and reworking. Hence these chalk drums were not decorated according to a single, pre-ordained scheme, but were successively carved and re-carved over time. Such practices may have been widespread in the making of artefacts in Neolithic Britain. The study of these drums also demonstrates the ability of these new techniques not only to record visible motifs, but to document erased and reworked motifs clearly.

While scholars call them drums, their purpose is not definitively known. They were unlike any other artifacts found in Britain until the recent discovery of an undecorated chalk “drum” in a pit in Lavant, Sussex, England.

The paper says a previous researcher speculated that the drums, which were found in a barrow on Folkton Wold in 1899, were hastily made. This new research calls that conclusion into question.

A British Museum drawing of the decorations on one of the drums

A British Museum drawing of the decorations on one of the drums ( Wikimedia Commons )

“Taken together,” the paper states, “the evidence revealed by RTI analysis and photogrammetry suggests considerable evidence for reworking. Previous interpretation of the Folkton Drums has emphasized the improvisatory character of making, viewing and handling the artefacts; the decoration on each drum changes as the viewer manipulates it. It has also been argued that the drums were rapidly manufactured and buried. The results of the RTI and photogrammetry add complexity to this picture.”

The paper says researchers typically employ stylistic analysis of artifacts. But focusing on style alone may obscure significant findings that may be gleaned by analysis of ancient people’s processes of working and reworking artifacts. Coupling the two types of analysis “yields valuable information concerning craftsmanship, identity and engagement with materials in prehistory.”

A stylized face on one of the drums; researchers do not know what the drums were used for.

A stylized face on one of the drums; researchers do not know what the drums were used for. (Photo by Johnbod / Wikimedia Commons )

The drums were placed behind the head and hips of the child in an oval grave that was situated within two concentric ditches. The monument had several other bodies.

Featured image: The Folkton Drums were found in East Yorkshire, England, and are on display in the British Museum. (Photo by Johnbod/ Wikimedia Commons )

By Mark Miller

 

Comments

Justbod's picture

Thank you for this article – the ‘drums’ are amongst my favourite artefacts. As well as being quite beautiful, they are also so enigmatic. Interesting new findings that, as ever, seem to raise new questions….

 

Sculptures, carvings & artwork inspired by a love of history & nature: www.justbod.co.uk

 

 

 

The article states the “drums” are solid – one would assume they could not be used for drumming, so maybe they performed some other purpose and calling them “drums”  is misleading

 
Mark Miller's picture

Hi Karin. The article states:

“While scholars call them drums, their purpose is not definitively known. They were unlike any other artifacts found in Britain until the recent discovery of an undecorated chalk ‘drum’ in a pit in Lavant, Sussex, England.”

Mark Miller

 

 

Yes not for drumming, they would not make good drums by use of hand, and they would not put together use of a stick for, music. They get recarved by the parents children, carving, generatiing their own message of next generation stature, they would reached in society by age, and ability.r
Perhaps they also thought chalk would keep the tomb preserved, as they may have believed chalk had special preservation qualities. It is difficult to think of exactly wat they were for. Most difficult.
Makes anyone wish to go Far back in time machine, even just for 1 day.

I looked at what they are calling solid chalk drums, and the statement that they had no idea what they actually were. While there is only one photograph of the "drum" they also indicate some are approximately 4 feet which is quite large to not have a significant use or purpose. To my eye, it looks as though the top section is actually a "once removable" lid, and you can actually see what looks like a joining seam. Have they used our modern technology to x-ray and examine the interior of these drums?(so as not to damage). If buried along with an individual 5,000 years ago, knowing human nature, it is highly unlikely they are simply solid and carved. My instinct says...check inside for something that person would have valued. Like a funeral urn...of ashes, or a treasure box of favourite things....or beloved pets, or even "the deceased"...children.
September 7, they just revealed the discovery of the massive "Super Henge" using ground penetration devices, a discovery that will require rewriting beliefs about ancient archaeology...yet again.
Surely they could xray the drums. The chalk may not have just been carved on the outside surface, but may also be a form of container. Do you know if they have x-rayed?

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