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British archaeologists found a 5,000-year-old drum and three children locked in a neolithic embrace

The British Museum is calling the chalk drum, pictured here alongside a chalk ball and bone pin, “the most important piece of prehistoric art to be found in Britain in the last 100 years.” (Courtesy of The Trustees of the British Museum)

LONDON — It is not bronze, nor iron, nor gold. It is a most curious relic, a round earthen sculpture carved from soft stone and etched with mysterious symbols, lost to us, from the Stonehenge times.

The British Museum on Friday announced the discovery of a 5,000-year-old chalk sculpture that the institution is calling “the most important piece of prehistoric art to be found in Britain in the last 100 years.”

The archaeologists say the artifact hums with deep meaning, if only we could decipher it.

And when you know more about where it came from? The gravesite, the three children entombed, with their bones entwined like vines?

Shudders.

“Amazing, right?” said Duncan Garrow, professor of prehistory at the University of Reading, who has studied the object.

“What is it?” he asked. “What does it mean?”

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The chalk sculpture, sometimes referred to as a drum — though it is really just one solid carved piece of stone — was found many miles north of Stonehenge, on what today is a country estate near the village of Burton Agnes in East Yorkshire, as part of a routine excavation in 2015, required by the government before the owners could erect a structure on a plowed field.

Its exact location is being kept secret, for now, as was its discovery, until now.

Mark Allen, founder of Allen Archaeology, who discovered the grave and the drum, told The Washington Post that, based on geological imaging, his team had suspected they were standing atop a circular burial mound, or barrow, dug into the chalk.

They thought it would be old, certainly. What they found astounded them, Allen said.

Within the burial site were the remains of three children, aged 3 to 12. The youngest two faced one another, nose to nose, their hands appearing to clasp. The eldest child was placed with his or her arms around them.

“They were cuddling,” Allen said.

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

Allen said it appeared that the three died at the same time, though more analysis is forthcoming.

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If the scientists are lucky, they will recover usable DNA to learn if the three were related, and maybe more.

Allen wondered, could it have been an epidemic? A terrible accident? A drowning?

“It almost feels something dramatic happened, for the community to come together to bury the three in this way,” he said.

There is no obvious sign of trauma.

One could ask, were the deaths sacrificial?

“Three children, dying all together, would raise your eyebrows,” Garrow said. “But we don’t know.” He was quick to say there is no evidence of foul play.

Using radiocarbon tracings, the archaeologists have dated the grave to the approximate time of the construction of Stonehenge, between 3005 and 2890 B.C.

There is evidence that the burial site was visible — and maintained — for 1,000 years.

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This discovery comes more than a century after three other chalk sculptures — almost identical — were found 15 miles away in another gravesite, this one with a single child.

Dubbed the “Folkton drums,” unearthed in 1889, they are “some of the most famous and enigmatic ancient objects ever unearthed in Britain,” say the researchers.

British Museum curator Neil Wilkin said, “We’ve been waiting for over 100 years for another one of these amazing objects to come up, and for it to come up with children — again — is astonishing.”

The newly discovered drum will be on public display for the first time as part of the British Museum’s “The World of Stonehenge” exhibition, which opens Thursday.

The researchers are intrigued. What is the significance of threes? Three children, one drum at one site. Three drums, one child at another.

The Burton Agnes sculpture was placed next to the oldest child’s head. As a funerary offering? A talisman? Wilkin and the experts don’t know.

Wilkin said the drum’s carvings — spirals and triangles and a kind of hourglass symbol that archaeologists call a “butterfly” motif — are reminiscent of objects found at contemporaneous neolithic sites: at Ness of Brodgar in Scotland’s Orkney Islands and at the Newgrange passage tomb in Ireland.

These repeating patterns and styles suggest that the neolithic communities were in communication, maybe sharing their belief in an afterlife, religion, rituals and an understanding of their place in the world.

The neolithic in Britain were early farmers, tending livestock as well as hunting and gathering. They created ceremonial circles, many of them, the most famous being Stonehenge. They knew their stars, astronomy and basic geometry. And they had boats — watercraft that connected them to the European continent and Ireland.

Archaeologists have long wondered why neolithic artists did not draw animals or humans on sculptures like the burial drums. The material finds at Stonehenge gravesites are limited — bone pins, mace heads, carved flints.

“I can draw a stick figure. Why didn’t they? Was there a prohibition against it? A reason they didn’t?” asked Wilkin, who added that if the people of the time were sophisticated enough to design and build Stonehenge, they could have drawn a bear or wolf or a person.

Neolithic graves in Britain with human bones are quite rare. The ancients here would usually be cremated or likely left in their version of a “sky burial,” for the carrion crows to pick clean, the bones collected later, or not.

But three children, together, in such a pose — unprecedented.

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The scientists wonder why the chalk drum includes three hastily added holes on top, not as well crafted as the carvings, perhaps marking the presence of the three bodies in the grave.

Was this a hurry-up job?

Allen said he only had his imagination to go on: “Maybe there was a horrible accident, that shocked the community, that was dangerous for the community, and they’re rushing to get the children into the grave.”

Both to protect the dead — and themselves.

Alongside the chalk drum in the grave was long bone pin, which might have held a shroud in place, and a clay ball, that a child might play with.

“The ball is the beautiful thing, and it gives me goose bumps to look at it, because I have a toddler at home, and I can imagine him playing with, or holding, something like that ball,” Wilkin said. “It just has the scale and size that seems very childlike, if that makes sense. Yes, I find these things very moving objects.”

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