A must-see exhibition: The world of Stonehenge at the BM
By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels Arts Correspondent
Stonehenge © English Heritage.
Towering above the grassy Wiltshire countryside, Stonehenge is perhaps the world's most awe-inspiring ancient stone circle. This seemingly timeless site with its majestic trilithons – trios of enormous stones, two vertical and a third set across the top like doorways - are not only visible from far across Salisbury Plain but also seem to beckon us into its mysteries.
Throughout its history this iconic British monument has spurred the imagination and given rise to myths and legends. That sense of awe, the power of this place, persists today. Over a million people visit the monument each year, with numbers peaking in 2019 with 1.6 million visitors.
“The mystery of Stonehenge is a source of enduring fascination for every generation who visit or catch a glimpse of its distinctive silhouette,” says Dr Neil Wilkin, curator of the British Museum’s British and European Bronze Age collections, as well as the outstanding exhibition The world of Stonehenge.
Stonehenge © English Heritage.
That striking silhouette is there, simplified, in one of the first objects you see in the exhibition. It is a souvenir, an ancient one, a little pottery cup resembling Stonehenge found near Ayton Moor in North Yorkshire. Dating from around 1800-1500 BC, it most probably was an incense burner or a holder for burning embers that cast light like a starburst through its ‘trilithon’ openings. It is similar to a cup buried with a powerful woman near Stonehenge.
Objects like these, made hundreds of years after Stonehenge took the form familiar to us today, encapsulate the far reaching importance and enduring fascination of the monument, says Wilkin.
They underline the fact that Stonehenge was already ancient to the people of its time. Before the first stones were raised the surrounding area was already an established and impressive place. For instance, there had been a circular earthwork surrounding a space cleared with antler tools around 3000 BCE, and at nearby Larkhill a communal monumental enclosure that had enshrined solstice alignments from as early as 3750-3650 BCE. This may have inspired the community to bring huge bluestone boulders from west Wales – requiring an epic journey of 140 miles - for the ‘first’ Stonehenge.
The Stonehenge we think of today was built 4,500 years ago, at around the same time as the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. But between about 5,000 and 3,500 years ago the whole Stonehenge area witnessed immense activity and underwent myriad transformations. It was one of the most remarkable eras on the islands of Britain and Ireland, witnessing huge social and technological revolutions and fundamental changes in people’s relationships with the sky, the land and one another.
With over 430 objects on view from across Europe, the UK’s first ever major exhibition on the story of Stonehenge aims to set the site within the context of these changes and tell the complex human story behind the stones.
Gold flange twisted spiral torc. 1400-1100 BCE. Dover, UK. © The Trustees of the British Museum.
The exhibition opens with aplomb. A gold gorget from 800-700 BC from County Clare tells of gold having sun and status associations from earliest times; a standing stone from the Italian Alps, 2,500 BCE, showing the sun over gatherings of people and the farming seasons tells of working the land and of the importance of the sun; and and two remarkable headdresses, one from Star Carr, North Yorkshire, about 9,000 BCE, made from a red deer skull and antlers, and one from Bad Durrenberg, Germany, around 6,500 BCE, made of roe deer antlers, wild boar tusks, and teeth from bison and auroch, speak of unknown and unknowable mysteries. The latter was from the burial of a young woman, a shaman possibly, and a baby; both were covered in red ochre. Recent DNA analysis of the woman’s skull suggests a neurological condition that may have induced trance-like states and visual disturbances that marked her out as special.
A stupendous array of stone axes from the North Italian Alps and elsewhere drew me on; I lingered for ages enjoying them but was lured on by the sight of ‘Seahenge’ further on. Dubbed ‘Seahenge’ due its similarity to Stonehenge, this astonishing 4,000-year-old Bronze Age timber circle was discovered in 1998 after millennia hidden in the sands of a Norfolk beach (Holme-next-the-Sea). It is the first time it has ever been loaned. Not in its entirety, of course, but some of the monument’s most important elements are here, including timber posts and the hugely important ‘doorway’ where worshippers would enter the circle.
“If Stonehenge is one of the world’s most remarkable surviving ancient stone circles, then Seahenge is the equivalent in timber,” said Dr Jennifer Wexler, project curator of the exhibition. It is still relatively unknown, however. “We know about some aspects of the monument, including that it was constructed in the spring and summer of 2,049 BCE, from mighty oaks. But there’s much that still eludes us, including exactly what it was used for. Perhaps the central upturned trunk was used in funerary rituals to support a dead body. Perhaps entering the circular shrine brought worshippers closer to the otherworld.”
Seahenge timber posts on display in the Lynn Museum. On long term loan to Norfolk Museums Service from the Le Strange Estate.
Objects like these offer important clues about the rituals and shared beliefs that inspired ancient communities to build the amazing monuments found across Britain, Ireland and mainland Europe. Apart from pure visual spectacle, which these things manifestly provide, they help us build up a sense of the complex worldview of Neolithic people.
Soon the exhibition moves from the world of stone to a world where metal became the dominant way of expressing ideas and beliefs. Smaller and more portable, they also could be possessed by individuals rather than having a communal purpose. In this section are some magnificent examples of metal working skills, including gold jewellery - and fancy gold hats!
Above, left: The Schifferstadt gold hat, c. 1600 BCE, which was found with three bronze axes Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer. Above right: Nebra Sky Disc, Germany, about 1600 BCE. Photo courtesy of the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt, Juraj Lipták.
Shown for the very first time in Britain, two rare cone-shaped gold hats - the Schifferstadt gold hat from Germany and the Avanton gold cone from France - are decorated with elaborate solar motifs that reflect the religious importance of the sun during this era. Perhaps they imbued the wearer with divine or otherworldly status when worn during ceremonies or rituals. Carefully buried alone or accompanied by axes, rather than interred with the deceased, it seems they were held in trust for the community.
The Nebra Sky Disc – the world's oldest surviving map of the stars – is an absolute highlight of this show. On loan from the State Museum of Prehistory, Halle/Saale, Germany, seeing this object alone is worth the price of admission.
Made using gold from Cornwall and bronze from central Europe, the disc which was buried around 1600 BC was reworked several times in its history, suggesting its cosmological significance was not static. The seven stars of the Pleiades are clear to see, but a number of stars were removed at some point to accommodate the two gold strips at the edges that mark the positions of the rising and setting sun over the course of a year, as in Stonehenge’s alignment.
Dagger from the Bush Barrow grave goods (with replica handle), 1950–1600 BCE. Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. Photographs taken by David Bukach. © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes
Beside mesmerising international loans, more local treasures include items buried with the Amesbury Archer - the richest array of items ever found in a Bronze Age burial site in the UK – and the whole burial hoard of gold and bronze, axe heads and daggers, from the Bush Barrow site. The Bush Barrow chieftain’s grave had commanding views of Stonehenge, and apparently shows close parallels with the richest graves found in northern France, eastern Germany and even Ancient Greece. With these the exhibition illustrates the long-distance connections that were an integral elements of the world of Stonehenge.
This is a very special exhibition. Nearly two-thirds of the objects on display are loans, coming from 35 lenders across the UK, the Republic of Ireland, France, Italy, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland and of these, the majority have never been seen in the UK before. So however much you may think you already know Stonehenge from visits to the actual site and its museum (which, of course, are a must-see) this exceptional exhibition, so comprehensive in its scope and so thoroughly engaging, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that shouldn't be missed.
The World of Stonehenge
The British Museum
Showing until: 17 July 2022
Open Saturday – Thursday 10.00–17.00, Friday 10.00–20.30. Last entry 90 mins before closing.
For details or tickets see: www.britishmuseum.org/stonehenge
To coincide with the exhibition, a beautifully illustrated catalogue, The world of Stonehenge, written by Duncan Garrow and Neil Wilkin, is published by the British Museum Press.
The paperback copy is, £25, ISBN 9780714123486 and hardback, £40, ISBN 9780714123493
Stonehenge today is cared for by English Heritage on behalf of the nation.