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Reconstruction of the British burial goods known as the Folkton drums in the grave. Source: Rose Ferraby

British Burial Goods Inspire Poet Laureate’s Imaginarium

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This Halloween, former Children's Laureate Michael Rosen is celebrating ancient British burial goods with poetry.

Michael Rosen is an English poet, children's novelist, and the author of 140 books, and this is why a team of researchers from The University of Manchester and The University of Reading presented him with three different ancient burial goods found around the British Isles. The three items are: Dorset’s Portesham mirror found buried with an older woman around 40-50 AD, Orkney’s Knowes of Trotty discs which were buried with another woman around 2000 BC, and North Yorkshire’s Folkton drums that were recovered from the grave of a small child who had died around 3000 BC.

According to a report on, The University of Manchester's Dr. Melanie Giles formally asked Mr. Rosen to be involved in the project, primarily because children love his poetry but also because he had written sensitively and movingly “about his own loss and bereavement.” And with these emotional qualities the poet was deemed the perfect choice to venture back in time and bring those three ancient people and their burial objects to life through poetry.

Michael Rosen’s Poems are a Triumph of the Imagination

The new poems are being hailed as “a triumph of imagination” and this means that so too are the sacred British burial goods.

Firstly, the Portesham Mirror is a finely decorated Iron Age Chesil mirror that was discovered by a metal detectorist at Portesham, Dorset in October 1994 and was subsequently acquired by Dorset County Museum after a successful appeal raised £65,000 ($72,229). This 1st century AD polished bronze mirror with an engraved back was found in the grave of a woman; and according to an entry on this significant example of Celtic art is “one the finest pieces to be found in archaeologically rich Dorset.”

The Portesham Mirror. (Wessex Archaeology/CC BY SA 2.0)

The Portesham Mirror. (Wessex Archaeology/CC BY SA 2.0)

The second artifact which served to inspire poet Michael Rosen was the Knowes of Trotty Discs, which the National Museums Scotland  (NMS) describe as “four Early Bronze Age gold foil discs” discovered in 1858 when Mr. Nicol Flett, proprietor of the farm at Huntiscarth in Orkney, dug into one of the ‘Knowes of Trotty’. A ‘Knowe’ is the Orkney word for a mound or hill and the discs were found at the center in a stone cist (box-grave). In 2005 Professor Jane Downes radiocarbon-dated the remains from the grave to around 2030‒1770 BC.

The gold discs measure a mere 0.025 mm, no thicker than aluminum foil, and the largest is 76 mm (2.99 inches) in diameter, with a central hole measuring only 10 mm (0.39 inches) in diameter. Archaeologists at NMS think that the discs had once been worn on “a very special garment”, perhaps a cape or gown. And because they are a bit too large to have been functional buttons it is generally agreed that they had been sewn onto a garment in a V-perforation “as shiny and extremely precious ornaments.”

The Knowes of Trotty Discs. (National Museums Scotland)

The Knowes of Trotty Discs. (National Museums Scotland)

The Folkton drums were centerpieces of a December 2018 article I wrote for Ancient Origins when archaeologists announced these 4000-year-old decorated stone cylinders were used by ancient builders for “measuring.” The Daily Mail reported on Professor Chamberlain wrapping string around each device and being “astonished” to find multiples of 0.322 meters “just over one foot, used to create the concentric circles at Stonehenge” and the measurement was “a Stone Age measurement standard.”

The Folkton drums. (The Trustees of the British Museum/ CC BY NC SA 4.0)

The Folkton drums. (The Trustees of the British Museum/ CC BY NC SA 4.0)

British Burial Goods Become a Poetic Time Machine

It was relatively easy for me to list a brief outline of the dates and conditions surrounding each of the three sets of artifacts, but this new project is much more complicated - it aims to generate a deeper understanding of the “significance” of the items. What is more, the researchers are also investigating “why” the keepers of the artifacts wanted them in their graves, which is infinitely more difficult than detailing “what” they are.

Michael Rosen will read his poems, attempting to encourage his listeners to imagine and dream-up answers why these items had been buried with their owners in ‘ Voices of the dead through poetry,’ taking place on Halloween, Thursday October 31, from 11.30–12.30 in the British Museum. According to an article in The Guardian, in Mr. Rosen’s own words, this is a chance for him to unlock “the meaning” associated with the objects when they're keepers “touched them for the last time.”

One Door Closes, Another Opens

Mr. Rosen firmly believes poetry is a tool by which one can “interpret the emotions contained and conveyed in ancient burial objects” that have all but lost their once great symbolic power. And he says this is more difficult to achieve than simply “looking” at artifacts and relics in museums; suggesting many of us, like himself, require “mediation” to understand the greater esoteric and exoteric meanings of ancient objects. And who could disagree with that?

Ultimately, this new project aims to provide a rich and emotionally charged resource for both teachers and their students to increase their understanding of prehistory, which is deemed a very important aspect of Britain’s National Curriculum. And thank goodness too, for Michael Rosen will read his poems in the wake of Anna Westerholm, the head of the Swedish National Agency for Education’s curriculum, announcing the “removal of pre-history” from the new curriculum for Swedish state primary schools.

Michael Rosen. (The University of Manchester)

Michael Rosen. (The University of Manchester)

There is no doubt that Michael Rosen would agree with a long list of shocked academics, including professor of History, Dick Harrison, who told Aftonbladet only last month that the idea of depriving students of a connection to their heritage is “bizarre and baffling”.

Top Image: Reconstruction of the British burial goods known as the Folkton drums in the grave. Source: Rose Ferraby

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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