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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

I came across this site after reading, in The Times, about the research that Mike Parker Pearson (University College London) and Andrew Chamberlain (Manchester University) had undertaken and published in the British Journal for the History of Mathematics. They have postulated that the drums are measuring devices. This comment is purely to bring the paper to your attention, if you weren't already aware.

I think these are cool drums. This definatly shows the origins of a funeral wich even though we may have a lack of evidence, we know that early humans performed funeral services. I believe that the chalk was an easy to sculpt material. It must have been really abundant in the area.

Troy Mobley

Mark Miller's picture

Hi Darren. I edited it to reflect the true size. Sorry for the confusion.

Mark Miller

 

 

 

Hi. You need to rescale your stated dimensions. Other sources quote these objects as having the largest measurement at 146 MILLImetres, which is 14.6 CENTImetres. You interpretation has multiplied that by 10. I did wonder while I was reading this article, just how they fitted the things into the grave with the child if they were as big as your measurements claim. ;-)

I note the placings of two of the objects, although the size of each in relation to its placing is not given. Also, it would be interesting to find out what was the placing of the third object, along with its dimensions, because I think these objects might have something to do with recording the child's education:

Stone behind the head could maybe mean that whatever is recorded on that object is what he has already learned;
Stone behind the hips maybe to do with what he was learning at the time of his death?

Where, in relation to the body, was the third object? Is there any information available on that? If it was at his feet, could that be representing the way he was being guided, with lessons to be learned?

Grave goods were for use in the afterlife, so could the stones be a record for some ethereal guardian who would take the boy's spirit into care? A bit like a would-be apprentice taking samples to show his potential Master? These ancient peoples were big on stone calendarising, so these could well be a stone-age diary and calendar arrangement. (Depending on the placement of that third stone, as I said.)

As the archaeologist was a 19th century amateur, I suppose it's too much to hope that he bothered to draw the positioning of the grave contents?

Mark Miller's picture

Hi Nola. These are good questions. I just took their word for it when they said they are solid chalk. I assume they have a way to know if they are solid. I did not interview the researchers for this article.

Thanks for writing.

Mark Miller

 

 

 

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