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Drum found at Burton Agnes dig is one of most significant discoveries in the UK

A 5,000-year-old chalk sculpture of a ‘talisman’s drum’ found in a grave of three children during an archaeological dig in Burton Agnes has been hailed as one of the UK’s ‘most significant’ ancient discoveries.

The drum was discovered in 2015, along with the burial of the three children, on the Burton Agnes Estate, during a routine excavation as part of a planning process and has since gone on to be the subject of extensive research and conservation work.

It will now go on display as part of an exhibition at the British Museum, The World of Stonehenge, which started on Thursday 17th February.

“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.

Neil Wilkin, curator of The World of Stonehenge at the British Museum

The sculpture is decorated with elaborate motifs of a British and Irish style, that would have been around at the same time Stonehenge was built.

The children it was buried with were of different ages. They were buried in close contact in what archaeologists described as ‘a moving scene’.

The two youngest were touching hands in the grave, whilst the eldest child was holding the two younger ones, with the sculpture just above the eldest child’s head.

It included three holes, which excavators believe mark the presence of three bodies in the grave.

The ancient artefact is said to be similar to three ‘Folkton drums’ that were found in Folkton, near Scarborough, in 1889 and have been in the British Museum collection since.

Burton Agnes chalk drum. 3005–2890BC. Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum

It is only the fourth example of its kind known to have survived and, despite being called a ‘drum’, is not thought to be a musical instrument.

Instead, the ‘drum’ is believed to have been intended as a ‘talisman’ to protect the children.

The Burton Agnes ‘drum’ was found with a chalk ball and polished bone pin, which was underneath the head of one of the children.

The chalk ball had only previously been seen close to Stonehenge and is thought to be a fertility symbol or a toy owned by a child.

The bone pin is similar to objects placed with burials at Stonehenge.

“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, curator of The World of Stonehenge at the British Museum.

“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 discovery of the Burton Agnes grave is highly moving. The emotions the new drum expresses are powerful and timeless, they transcend the time of Stonehenge and reflect a moment of tragedy and despair that remains undimmed after 5,000 years.

“We are honoured that the British Museum will be the first place the public will be able to see this important object and that they will see it alongside 430 other ancient items telling the spectacular story of Stonehenge and the vibrant world in which it was built.”

The Burton Agnes drum will go on display in the Stonehenge exhibition, alongside all three Folkton drums, on loan from the Burton Agnes Estate. After the exhibition, it will undergo further assessment and analysis.

For more details, or for tickets to the exhibition, visit www.britishmuseum.org/stonehenge.

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