The drums at the meeting of the ways

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There are still wild barren places in this little set of islands, made less hospitable by England and its weather.

And the chalk wolds which form an arc from the Humber estuary to the North Sea at Scarborough qualify as a wilderness of sorts.

In prehisoric days they were forested and finding the way was a difficult and dangerous business. Well-trod paths have been there since ancient times, way-finders, tracks which were ribbons representing life and community of a kind.

At the foot of the Yorkshire Wilds, on the edge of the Vale of Pickering, crouches an ancient meeting of these paths.

It is a village now. It was a village in the time of the Domesday Book. But civilisation tracks back much further than that for Folkton. One has only to look at the top of the hill.

There, several of the ancient paths met. And it is marked by a tumulus. A standing stone.

The stone is now generally thought to be one of a network which guided ancient man through the old forests. But it was what was found beneath which has made Folkton’s meeting of the ways famous.

For the tumulus is near a barrow, and in 1889, a Canon of some note – William Greenwell, author of British Barrows – opened up the mound to see what could be inside.

A sad, phenomenal, intricate discovery awaited the archaeologist. For he found the body of a child.

The little one lay in an oval grave, close to one of two concentric ditches. And behind the head and the hips were the most extraordinary objects.

These days they call them drums. The Folkton Drums. They sit in a glass case at the British Museum,  made from the chalk of the Wolds, full of micro-fossils. But their carving is clean and clear, featuring geometric lines and stylised faces staring out from them. They are like upturned bowls, hollow in the middle, downturned to show the visages.

And no one knows what they were for, there with the body of a child at the meeting of the ancient ways.

Nothing like them survives. They are a little ike the ancient grooved ware in style, but surpassing any examples in sophistication and beauty.

I wonder, wonder, what they were for, and why a child slept alone with them at the meeting of the ways for millennia.

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44 thoughts on “The drums at the meeting of the ways

  1. Intriguing! Could the child have been sacrificed Kate? Most primitive cultures offered sacrifices – often human and animal – at the crossing of paths. In India these customs persist to this day, with blood sacrifices being substituted with more benign offerings.

    1. Sadly, infant mortality has always been a sad fact of life, though in recent times we have been able to lessen its incidence through medical progress. I don’t think though we have to suggest child sacrifice here, Madhu, and I’m sure that, even if the remains are more than four thousand years old, specialists would have been able to suggest sacrifice as a possibility if such a thing was suspected.

      I rather think, as do the experts, that this was an individual with some status to be buried in a round barrow with such exquisite items, and probably one who died young from natural causes rather than from a deliberately violent end. If I knew more about the other burials in the barrow I might be able to put it into context, but I don’t so I’m speaking through my hat!

      Child sacrifice is of course an emotive and awful subject. Many infant burials in Roman contexts, near walls and suchlike, were once interpreted as possibly being apotropaic sacrifices (rather like witch bottles and cats found as skeletons up chimneys). The discovery of an infant graveyard on one Roman site has recently been interpreted as the consequence of the presence of a nearby brothel, and therefore evidence of late miscarriages or perinatal deaths. Perhaps we look for sinister causes where more prosaic reasons are at hand.

      That’s not to say, of course, that such awful practices existed and, as you suggest, continue to this day. As recently as 1812 the body of a suspected murderer was buried at a crossroads in East London with a stake through his corpse (http://wp.me/p2oNj1-1b); so your scenario at Folkton, Madhu, may well suggest a persistent ritual, in the British Isles as elsewhere. And, as evidenced in grisly contemporary news items about innocent children maltreated for being ‘possessed by devils’, depressingly still with us.

  2. These discoveries always fascinate me. As Madhu asks, was the child a sacrifice, or, I wonder, of royal standing? Did they contain artifacts for the afterlife, memories, totems? Whatever their uses, they are beautiful, aren’t they? I love the stories and histories that come out of your “little set of islands” Kate. Thank you.

    1. Oh, Andra, you remind me of a Radio 4 programme on the origins of noise. Professor David Hendy went to the Ring of Brodgar in the Orkney Islands. He discovered that if you stood in the dead centre of the stone circle the stones threw your sounds back at you from all around. Move away from the centre, and the effect was lost. It was the eeriest sound, and the closest I have ever heard those great old stones come to speaking. It’s probably not reachable from you but just in case: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p016bff9

  3. These are exquisitely beautiful, Kate. What a treasure indeed. The accompanying story of the child is really thought provoking. I can’t imagine why the drums would hold any significance at death, so I’m stumped. I wonder if other “finds” in the future will give any more clues. Fascinating!

  4. I wonder if there were other objects that were less permanent and all trace of them is now gone. Maybe the stones were cooking vessels or storage for water or food. I wonder if the child was a boy or a girl. It’s like a puzzle with most of the pieces missing. So sad to die young.

  5. Beautifully written post Kate. I’ve been to the British Museum so many times but have never come upon The Folkton Drums. I feel fortunate that you did and you shared it with us. I agree with Madhu’s comment that the child was most probably sacrificed.

    1. I’m with you here Rosie. How have I missed them in the BM? I’ve always been intrigued by them when illustrated in books, but somehow have never spotted them in recent or past visits.

  6. A very poetic, lovely post, Kate, and a pleasing reminder of what genuine mysteries abound in our shared culture. And great pics, too!

    Just one query: when you mentioned a tumulus it read as if this was the same as a standing stone. I’m sure that you meant something like ‘monolith’ because a tumulus, as you will of course know, is just a synonym for a round barrow.

    Elsewhere in England such bumps in the earth were called tumps (there’s a long barrow in the Cotswolds with the wonderful name of Hetty Pegler’s Tump), and in Wales a twmpath as well as being a tump is the name for a ceilidh or barn dance, presumably from the raised hump or platform from which the musicians kept the flow of tunes going.

    1. I remember writing about a tump elsewhere, Chis. What a fabulous word that is. And thanks: I think I wrote the post originally thinking there was a standing stone there but after extensive delving, managed to ascertain there wasn’t. Thus, my post contains some superfluous archaeological signs of assumptions past 🙂

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