Late Neolithic period, 2600-2000 BC
Found in East Yorkshire, England

Mysterious grave goods

These objects were found by Canon William Greenwell in 1889 when he opened a round barrow on Folkton Wold. They had been placed behind the head and hips of the body of a child in an oval grave close to the outer of two concentric ditches. Several other bodies shared the monument. The custom of burying individuals with 'special' grave goods had begun by about 3000 BC. This grave offering is exceptional (the drums are unique) and must indicate something about the status of the child.
The drums are made from local chalk and are elaborately carved, using a technique very like that of chip-carving used by woodworkers. No other objects like them survive, but perhaps equivalent items were made of wood and have not survived. We do not know how they were used.
The decoration is organized in panels; stylized human faces look out from two of the drums. The significance of the designs is unknown to us, though they are very similar to those found on pottery of the Later Neolithic Grooved Ware style. The geometric patterns recall Beaker pottery and Early Bronze Age sheet goldwork decorated in the same vein.



A certain air of mystery has surrounded these three rather enigmatic stone cylinders (Figure 1) since they were found in the late nineteenth century by William Greenwell, a Canon of Durham Cathedral (see Kinnes & Longworth 1985). They were discovered within a round barrow, associated with a child's burial but with no closely datable grave goods. The barrow was situated in the parish of Folkton, near Filey in northeast Yorkshire, and because of this and their distinctive shape, they have come to be known as the Folkton Drums. The largest of the three has a maximum diameter of 146 mm, the smallest 104 mm and the intermediate-sized drum 125 mm. These 'grave offerings' are exceptional and presumably indicate something about the status of the child in the burial. No similar objects are known, either in stone or in any other material, and their use is unclear.

Each of the drums bears a unique incised design, which covers the curved sides of the cylinders and also the slightly domed upper surfaces. The bases of the drums were carefully shaped and smoothed but appear to have been undecorated. Visual examination suggests that the designs were made by chipping and abrasion of the stone; the designs remain generally quite 'sharp'. The decoration (see Longworth 1999) is organised in panels and is essentially geometric but stylised human faces look out from two of the drums. All three have concentric circle decoration on the tops and in two cases pairs of eyes are suggested. Similar motifs are well known in Passage Grave art, but the strongest resemblances taking the drums as a whole are to the decoration found on Later Neolithic Grooved Ware pottery. There is a nod in the direction of the geometric decoration on Beaker pottery and on some Early Bronze Age gold work. It seems likely that their maker(s) drew upon a pool of motifs current at the time, c.2500-2000BC. 

At the time of their excavation, the drums were recorded as being 'made of chalk', material which is readily available locally. However, based upon a subsequent visual examination they were tentatively identified as Magnesian Limestone. Because of restrictions on sampling, it was not possible to confirm this identification but nevertheless the drums have been referred to widely as being made from Magnesian Limestone in Museum information panels and in publications (see for example Caygill 1985: 113). The use of Magnesian Limestone rather than chalk would imply a more distant source, for the nearest in situ outcrops of the Magnesian Limestone lie c.45 miles away, to the west, near Ripon and to the north-west in County Durham. It would also imply a higher level of carving skills, since Magnesian Limestone is substantially harder than even well-lithified chalks. This note presents observations made using modern techniques which require very little or no sample to be removed for analysis; the tests show clearly that the drums were made from chalk, typical of that to be found locally.

Figure : The Folkton Drums. The largest drum has a maximum diameter of 146 mm. British Museum Registration Nos.: 1893.12-28.15, 16 and 17 (in order from back of image).

Figure 2: Raman spectra of (a) material of drum 1893.12-28.16; (b) calcite; (c) Magnesian Limestone.

I.H. Longworth, 'The Folkton Drums unpicked' in Grooved Ware in Britain and Ir, Neolithic Studies Group Seminar Papers 3 (Oxford, Oxbow Books, 1999), pp. 83-88
D.V. Clarke, T.G. Cowie and A. Foxon, Symbols of power at the time o (London, HMSO, 1985)
I.A. Kinnes and I.H. Longworth, Catalogue of the excavated Pre (London, The British Museum Press, 1985)

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