Burton Agnes chalk drum, chalk ball and bone pin. 3005–2890 BC (courtesy the British Museum)

The British Museum’s got the beat, with last week’s exciting announcement of a revelatory discovery on a country estate near the village of Burton Agnes in East Yorkshire. The 5,000-year-old chalk sculpture is also described as a drum, unearthed during excavation by Allen Archaeology of a routine planning process in 2015. The object was interred in an ancient grave that held the bodies of three children and holds incredible significance not only as an archeological treasure, but for the British Museum in particular.

This is due to its likeness to a set of objects that have been in the collection of the British Museum since 1889, when they were first excavated in North Yorkshire. These three barrel-shaped cylinders are also made of solid chalk, and are called the Folkton drums, based on their shape. Similar to this new discovery, the drums were found within the gravesite of a child. A press release from the museum characterizes the Folkton drums as “some of the most famous and enigmatic ancient objects ever unearthed in Britain,” and heralds this new discovery as “the most important piece of prehistoric art to be found in Britain in the last 100 years.”

Archaeologists excavating the Burton Agnes chalk drum (courtesy Allen Archaeology)
Burton Agnes chalk drum, top. 3005–2890BC (courtesy the British Museum)

Certainly, the new artifact has been researched extensively, and conserved with an eye to its importance in better understanding an ancient funerary rite, as well as other aspects of the associated culture. The carved decorative elements of the sculpture mirror British and Irish artistic style that flourished precisely in accordance with the construction of Stonehenge, and makes its public debut this week as part of the British Museum’s new exhibition, The World of Stonehenge.

However, the British Museum is not the only one banging a drum, as the Stonehenge exhibition faces criticism for its connection to the museum’s muchprotested involvement with the oil and gas giant British Petroleum (BP). Fresh ire was raised this week, over another revelatory discovery: The influence of BP on the museum’s Chairman’s Advisory Group (CAG). According to reporting by Channel 4 News UK, this group is comprised of roughly 30 business leaders who meet to advise the British Museum on some of its most hot-button issues, including the repatriation of stolen artifacts.

The news is based on a Freedom of Information (FOI) request filed by Culture Unstained, a research and campaigning organization that seeks to combat fossil fuel interests from permeating the social fabric through connections to cultural institutions. Documents shared with Channel 4 indicate an unusual degree of involvement between CAG members and museum directives, including a “confidential briefing document” circulated in 2020, calling to “brainstorm new ideas” on “how the British Museum should engage with the new government.”

Culture Unstained is calling for more transparency around this group, and how their connections to corporate entities, including BP, affect policy within — and clearly even beyond — museum operations.  

“It appears that [CAG’s] remit is much wider than just giving advice about funding,” said Jess Worth, co-director of Culture Unstained, to Channel 4 News. “It’s not normal practice and it’s not good practice. All of these discussions, if they’re happening, need to be out in the open.”

In a statement to Hyperallergic, the British Museum said that its director and trustees “think carefully about the nature and quality of sponsorship before accepting.”

“The British Museum receives funding from bp, a long-standing corporate partner, to support the Museum’s mission, providing public benefit for a global audience through their support for galleries, education facilities, curatorial posts and research projects,” the statement continued. “Without external support much programming and other major projects would not happen. The British Museum is grateful to all those who support its work in times of reduced funding.”

Members of the climate activist group BP or not BP? protesting inside the British Museum in London (courtesy Anna Branthwaite)

“We’re proud of our partnership with the Museum which has now run for over 30 years and our current agreement runs until the end of this year,” a spokesperson for BP told Channel 4 News in a statement. “We respect people’s views and understand that some do not welcome our involvement,” the spokesperson added. “We believe that the rapid solutions needed to the critical climate issues facing the world will be reached most quickly through dialogue and engagement, with companies, governments and individuals working together.”

This is only the latest information adding fuel to the movement for institutions to drop oil, gas, and coal sponsorships. A letter signed by 300 academics, including archeologists and heritage professionals, was circulated and delivered to the British Museum this week, demanding that they end their relationship with BP. But leaked documents indicate the museum’s intention to do just the opposite, and BP is a major sponsor of the Stonehenge exhibition. It is sad to see such an important cultural discovery eclipsed by controversy over corporate interests, but the field of archeology and the British public are increasingly opposed to marching to the beat of corporate conspiracy.

Editor’s Note 2/22/22, 8:50am EST: This article has been updated to include a comment from the British Museum.

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...