I've recently been exploring prehistoric pottery, putting what I've learned into practice by making four Bronze Age pots (left) using only Bronze Age techniques (coil-building) and tools (hands and animal bones). Once they're fired, my intention is to turn them into clay drums. What inspired me to do this was reading claims by archaeologists that there is no evidence for the existence of drums of any kind in British prehistory throughout the whole of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, a period of more than 3,000 years. This seems extremely unlikely and would make the ancient peoples of the British Isles unique among ancient or modern cultures, percussion being fundamental to music-making and music-making being fundamental to humanity.
The first step was to find the missing drums. Knowing that timber and hide frame drums would be unlikely to survive long in the British climate, and knowing that clay drums were made during the Neolithic era in Europe, I started looking at clay pots in museums in Britain. It didn't take long to find numerous exapmles that looked as though they would make fine drums. Some replicate the shapes of the Neolithic European clay drums, in common with which other British examples have pinched and pierced lugs (see below) that would be ideal for threading rawhide through to attach drum skins. Then there are the hundreds of collared urns that have survived more or less intact from the Bronze Age. Though often called cremation urns, many do not contain cremations, some being buried alongside cremated remains but not containing them, others with un-cremated remains, while some are not found with burials at all. Then there's the question of what the collar is for that gives them their name? It would certainly be a convenient way to anchor a strip of rawhide cord, through which further cord could be threaded to hold a drum skin in place. I've been unable to think of another reason for it being there and would welcome any suggestions.
Having selected four specific Bronze Age pots, two made close to my home in Wiltshire, the others from neighbouring Berkshire, I decided to create replicas to see how they might work as drums. Making them has been an education in itself, and one that has given me an even greater respect for our ancestors. The collared urn in particular took four days to build using the coil method used by our ancestors before the introduction of the potter's wheel. Building a big coil pot requires it to be left every now and then to partially dry before the next stage can be added without causing the lower part to buckle or collapse. The process of pinching down the coils and then working them to produce a smooth surface is painstaking and time-consuming. Decorating a pot of this size (over 12 inches tall and 10 across) also takes hours, even when the decoration consists of relatively simple geometric patterns.
The presence of decoration on the upper part of many collared urns has been put forward as an argument that they can't have been used as drums because attaching a skin would obscure the carefully applied decoration. I'm not convinced that this argument stands up. A skin cut carefully to size and secured with narrow rawhide strips would cover very little of the decoration, as this rather crudely photo-shopped image shows. The rawhide cords shown are much thicker than they need be, so in practice even less of the decoration would be covered.
Incidentally, one of the things I learned during my researches is that, in all cultures of which we have any knowledge, pots are always made by women, until the introduction of the potters' wheel, at which point men take over. Hmmm...
My theory is that many 'collared urns,' and some other pottery types, including some identified as 'food vessels,' were made and used as drums, perhaps presented to their owners as part of a rite of passage into adulthood. These would then be used throughout their lives, not just to produce music, but also to access altered states of consciousness, as is common in cultures all over the world. Having been used for travelling between worlds while their owners were alive, what better thing to be buried with them after death, accompanying them on that journey too? Simon Wyatt has a similar theory in regard to the Neolithic clay drums of Eastern Europe.
I'm not the first person to come up with the idea that some Bronze Age pots were used as drums. That collared urns may have been drums was suggested by Ian Longworth, a former Keeper of Prehistoric and Romano-British Antiquities at the British Museum. In his 'Collared Urns of the Bronze Age in Great Britain and Ireland' (Cambridge University Press, 1984, page 6), he says “The function of the collar elements remains debatable... The basic role of the Collared Vessel in a domestic context is likely to have been as a storage vessel. The need for a cover would therefore have arisen spontaneously. The ability to secure a cloth or skin cover firmly on the top of the vessel raises the possibility that some may have enjoyed a secondary use as drums.” The difference between us is that I'm suggesting a primary use as drums and a secondary use as grave goods.
My friend, Elaine Gregory, on whose land we dug the clay, and in whose pottery I made the pots, suggested that I could either make some more to sell or run workshops on how to make them. The problem with making them to sell is that they take such a long time to make, even more once you factor in the time to treat and fit the drum skins. The collared urn was worked on over 20 hours plus. Being big and thick-walled, it then required several days to dry before firing. Firing them on a fire in the open would take a further 10-12 hours, although several can be fired at once. Treating and fitting skins takes around two weeks, though most of that is waiting for things to happen 😉
Estimating that a complete 'collared urn' drum requires around 40 hours of work, even calculated at the national minimum wage of £6.70 an hour, adding on materials, one would have to cost £300 or so. That said, they'd hopefully last a lifetime and beyond - I intend to have my ashes interred in mine when the time comes 🙂 Even a beaker like the one on the left would have to sell for around £150 to be viable. Which leaves the problem of how and where would you market them to folks who would, a) be interested, and b) be able to afford the cost?
Workshops would be fairly costly too once time, materials, accommodation and food are all factored in. Again, I wonder if there's enough interest to make them viable? Also, from a practical point of view, workshops might have to be spread out, with one devoted to actually making and decorating the pots. Depending on the size and design, this could take from two to four days. Then there would need to be a break while they dried, followed by another workshop to fire them, hopefully fitting a pre-prepared skin on the same weekend once they'd cooled down. Hmm, that would require a fair level of commitment. Still, if I'm nuts enough to do it, maybe others might be interested too? And even if I only get a few clay drums out of the experience, it's still been a fascinating adventure!
Since writing the above, several people have suggested that drums need to have an open base in order to sound properly. This is not the case. Tabla drums, Moroccan clay drums, Native American water drums and others are all fully enclosed and sound great.
I've also been in touch with Andrew Appleby, a.k.a. the Harray Potter, who has been making Neolithic pots based on originals found in the Orkneys since 2007. He has made several into drums and tells me they play brilliantly. He has made a set for percussionist, Evelyn Glennie. He's also written a pre-historical novel, Skara, which features characters playing his drums in context, and which is being turned into an opera. In the book, he refers to the drums having rounds of pitch applied to the skins, as is the case with tabla drums. Interesting idea. I might try that... 🙂