Ancient graves give up secrets on Halloween

Michael Rosen will give a poet’s take on prehistoric burial items, including the Folkton drums, at the British Museum

Three are chalk cylinders, buried with a six-year-old child. Four are shiny gold discs and one is an ancient bronze mirror. For thousands of years, they lay in the cold dark earth, their names forgotten, their meaning lost, waiting to be found.

Now, for the first time, they are being held up to the light, with three new poems by Michael Rosen that celebrate the spectacular prehistoric objects buried in Britain’s early graves.

The poems, which Rosen will read aloud on Halloween at the British Museum, were commissioned by the museum and the universities of Reading and Manchester as part of a project to understand the significance of ancient British burial objects and why their owners would have wanted them in their graves.

Researchers asked Rosen to write about three specially selected items: the Folkton drums, buried with a small child in North Yorkshire around 5,000 years ago; the Knowes of Trotty discs that were buried with a woman on Orkney in 2,000 BC; and the intricately decorated Portesham mirror, buried with an old woman in Dorset around AD 40-50.

The Folkton drums
The Folkton drums were found in a small child’s grave in what is now North Yorkshire. Photograph: British Museum.

Archaeologists speculate that the drums may have been part of a measuring device – and perhaps charted a child’s growth. The discs were probably worn on a special garment as ornaments. The mirror was probably made specially for its owner.

Experts said the graves of both women indicated that they played powerful roles in their communities, contradicting traditional stereotypes about prehistoric culture.

For Rosen, this is a chance to unlock the meaning that was attributed to these objects when their owners touched them for the last time. “There is no such thing as a human being who is not intertwined with the objects of their lives,” he says. “We express ourselves in the objects that we make, acquire, buy or inherit. It’s not possible to conceive of the idea of consciousness separate from the objects through which we express ourselves.”

He believes poetry can help to interpret the emotions contained and conveyed in ancient burial objects that have lost their symbolic power. “You can place an object in a museum and ask people to stare at it. But for many of us, like myself, we need some kind of mediation, some way of understanding the object that is more than we can get off the surface of it.”

The moment people begin to speculate about the purpose of an object, he says, they enter the realm of imagination and interpretation. “Poetry combines feelings with ideas in quite an intuitive sort of a way. It is one of the ways people’s curiosity can be aroused.”

Michael Rosen
Michael Rosen says poetry can help people connect with the objects and their makers. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Rosen hopes his poetry will enable people to understand the connections that existed between the objects and their makers. “I am fascinated by what these objects say about people and what people were saying about the objects.”

It is a conversation that he thinks was always meant to be had beyond the grave. “Someone has crafted these objects with all sorts of intentions and these aren’t closed. They are not the end of a conversation. People are using these objects for purposes beyond themselves.

“And by making them durable, they must have had some sense that these objects could last, and therefore that different people would find them and look at them, whether that was in the afterworld – or another place.” Neil Wilkin, curator of early Europe at the British Museum, believes the poems will be a useful resource for teachers, now that the government has added Britain’s ancient history to the national curriculum.

“Teachers have been given this task of teaching about prehistory,” he says. “That’s really quite unfair, because teachers don’t have a lot of background knowledge about this period.”

It is particularly challenging because there are so few texts from the period that people can engage with, he says. “We don’t have written text. We can’t rely on Roman historians telling us what people believed or who they were. It’s a time that’s quite shadowy and difficult. So, by asking a poet to use his power of language, we’re almost helping to fill that gulf.”

He hopes the poems will show the human, emotional side of the people living in prehistoric Britain, and engender a connection with other humans across time and space. “Burial allows individuals in the past to be known,” he says.

Portesham mirror burial
A reconstruction of the Portesham burial, showing the mirror as one of several objects. Photograph: Craig Williams

The Folkton drums – three carved chalk cylinders that were placed in a child’s grave, close to the body, in a seemingly protective way – made Rosen think about his son Eddie, who died of meningitis aged 18. “I remembered what we cremated with him: a football scarf and a bottle of his favourite beer.

“It was quite important for people in the family to put memories with him, into the coffin. I was able to make those analogies when I was thinking about that child.” He adds: “You can’t stop yourself having those emotions, looking at these objects.”

The drums, in particular, he found astonishing. “I’d never seen anything like them before. The idea of putting that with a child in a grave – it made me feel I was in another land, that this was beyond my ken.”


Donna Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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