Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"Britain's Scattered Heritage": The Folkton Drums


"Scattered Heritage": The Folkton Drums (Late Neolithic period, 2600-2000 BC). These three mysterious objects were found in 2008 by excavations in advance of the construction of a mobile phone transmission mast on Folkton Wold near Filey in East Yorkshire, England. The excavations carried out by an archaeological contracting firm from Edinburgh discovered a badly damaged round barrow with two concentric ditches and containing several graves. the site had been damaged by earlier 'barrow digging', including by antiquary Canon William Greenwell, who luckily had failed to find all the graves. The cylinders 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. The objects range in size from 146mm in diameter through 124 mm diameter down to the smallest at 104mm in diameter. They are unique in the archaeological record – nothing similar is known anywhere in the British Isles from any time in the prehistoric period. They might in some way have been a symbol of the special social position of the family to which the deceased person belonged.

The elaborately carved cylinders are made from local chalk and have chipped and incised decoration organized in panels on their curved sides of the cylinders and also the slightly domed upper surfaces which resemble lids. The objects all have concentric circle decoration on the tops. The designs of two of the drums seem to represent stylised faces. The bases of the drums were carefully shaped and smoothed but appear to have been undecorated. The significance of the designs is unknown, though the geometric patterns closely resemble the decorative schemes of prehistoric pottery, particularly the Later Neolithic Grooved Ware style and Later Neolithic/Early Bronze Age Beaker pottery. Similar motifs are also known in megalithic art of the period.

In accordance with the pre-excavation agreement, the finds from the investigations were initially retained by the landowner, consortium J. G. Crassfeld. Negotiations managed to obtain the voluntary deposition of the majority of the excavation archive in the local museum, but on the advice of a Mayfair antiquities dealer the landowner placed the drums up for auction. Bidding was brisk, partly due to prior newspaper coverage of the objects which focussed on sensationalist elements such as their alleged supernatural significance. They were bought by the newly-created Tokyo 'World Museum of Indigenous and Primitive Art' (MIPO). The issue of an export licence was deferred, but there was not sufficient interest in them in the UK to obtain the asking price, and when the deferral period expired, the objects were exported to Japan. They will form one of the centrepieces of one of the new galleries on European Primitivism in the MIPO. The Vienna Kunsthistorische Museum is understood to be negotiating a long-term loan for its own prehistoric Europe galleries. Meanwhile Yorkshire Museums service supported by many local MPs has been pressing for changes to British legislation on the ownership of antiquities to prevent such a thing happening again.

I.H. Longworth, 'The Folkton Drums unpicked' in Grooved Ware in Britain and Ireland, 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 of Stonehenge (London, HMSO, 1985)

I.A. Kinnes and I.H. Longworth, Catalogue of the excavated prehistoric and Romano-British material in the Greenwell Collection (London, The British Museum Press, 1985)

Andrew Middleton, Jeremy R. Young & Janet Ambers The Folkton Drums: chalk or cheese? Antiquity Vol 78 No 299 March 2004

Chris Collyer, ‘Folkton Barrow, Bronze Age Round Barrow’,

Vignette: The Chalk Drums (Antiquity)
Cf. British Museum website on the Folkton Drums.


  1. If you are using an article published in 1999 discussing the folkton drums how can they have been found during excavations in 2008? surely they had already been found by this point

  2. Well, there are earlier references too, but then there'd have been no phone masts before 1985. I guess that's the problem of alternative realities....