An Ornate, 5,000-Year-Old Stone Drum Is the U.K.’s Most Significant Prehistoric Art Find in a Century

Now on view in London, the chalk sculpture was buried alongside three children between 3005 and 2890 B.C.E.

stone drum with carvings, bone pin and smooth clay ball
Archaeologists found a 5,000-year-old drum, a clay ball and a polished bone pin at a children's burial in the English village of Burton Agnes.  © The Trustees of the British Museum

A 5,000-year-old chalk sculpture discovered in East Yorkshire, England, is “the most important piece of prehistoric art” unearthed in Great Britain in the past century, says Neil Wilkin, a curator of Early Europe at the British Museum, in a statement. Dubbed the “Burton Agnes drum” after the village where it was found in 2015, the intricately decorated artifact was buried alongside three children, reports BBC News.

Kept under wraps until recently, the sculpture is now making its public debut in “The World of Stonehenge,” an exhibition on view at the British Museum through July. As Grace Newton writes for the Yorkshire Post, the drum is one of only four of its kind known to survive today. Rather than being used to play music, it was probably a funerary offering or protective talisman. Three “hastily added holes” in the stone cylinder may represent the trio laid to rest in the grave, according to the statement.

“The context [of the discovery] as a whole was absolutely incredible,” says Alice Beasley, a senior archaeologist at Allen Archaeology, which oversaw the 2015 dig, to Carol Off of CBC Radio’s “As It Happens.” “It was found … in the center of what we call a round barrow. And in that center was a square pit, in which we found three skeletons of quite young children. The eldest was about 12 and was holding on to the two smaller children, [aged] about 3 and 5.”

skeletal remains of children embracing each other
Next to the drum, scientists found the remains of three children embracing each other at the Burton Agnes site.  Allen Archaeology

Mark Allen, founder of Allen Archaeology, tells the Washington Post’s William Booth that the children, who appear to have died at the same time but exhibit no obvious signs of trauma, were essentially cuddling.

“It was quite a poignant thing to see,” he adds.

In addition to the drum, the team found a clay ball believed to be a child’s toy and a long bone pin that may have once kept a burial shroud in place, the Post reports.

Jennifer Wexler, a project curator at the British Museum, tells CNN’s Jeevan Ravindran that the sculpture closely resembles the three Folkton drums, which were found in a Neolithic child’s grave some 15 miles away from the Burton Agnes site in 1889.

“This drum is particularly intriguing, because it basically encompasses a sort of artistic language that we see throughout the British Isles at this time, and we're talking 5,000 years ago,” Wexler says.

Researchers had previously dated the Folkton drums to between 2500 and 2000 B.C.E. But carbon dating of bones found in the Burton Agnes grave indicates that the style of sculpture is even older, dating to between 3005 and 2890 B.C.E., during the first phase of Stonehenge’s construction.

top view of stone drum with three holes and x symbol across the surface
Researchers noted three holes carved onto the top of the drum, likely representing the three children buried with the artifact. © The Trustees of the British Museum

At the time of the drum’s creation, burials were rare and usually reserved for children—a fact that makes the stone sculpture, which is adorned with spirals, triangles and an hourglass-shaped “butterfly” motif seen at other Neolithic sites in Scotland and Ireland, even more unique, notes the Post.

“To my mind, the Burton Agnes drum is even more intricately carved [than the Folkton ones] and reflects connections between communities in Yorkshire, Stonehenge, Orkney and Ireland,” says Wilkin in the statement. “Analysis of its carvings will help to decipher the symbolism and beliefs of the era in which Stonehenge was constructed.”

The United Kingdom’s first major exhibition on Stonehenge, the British Museum show features 430 objects, many of which are on loan from institutions across Europe. According to a separate statement, highlights include the Nebra Sky Disc (an ancient map of the cosmos) and a 4,000-year-old timber circle known as Seahenge or “Stonehenge of the Sea.” Exposed by shifting sands on a Norfolk beach in 1998, Seahenge consists of 54 wooden posts encircling a tree stump.

The World of Stonehenge” is on view at the British Museum in London through July 17, 2022.