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Review: The World of Stonehenge at the British Museum

Of course everybody has heard of Stonehenge; is there anyone you know who hasn't? Nearly as many people have visited it, but not nearly as many know much about this time in prehistory either in Britain or beyond. So, the challenge of this exhibition was to gather together some of the most significant archaeological finds from across Europe to tell the story of perhaps the most famous monument in world and how we might understand it, for people from across the globe with different ideas about everything to do with it. Simple really.

For such a potentially diverse audience the exhibition curators Dr Jennifer Wexler and Dr Neil Wilkin of the British Museum clearly had a lot to think about - what to put in, what to leave out and the challenge of sorting fact from fiction. They had the added challenge of drawing material together from across Europe which could show how there were common threads to the story of a shared past. And when you can call upon the best of what museums across Europe hold, there's the temptation of just showing the 'greatest hits' of the age. Temptation it must be said was resisted, and while there are 'treasures' there are also examples of what might be thought of as the 'everyday' tools people used.

The story of Stonehenge begins millennia before the appearance of the iconic image we are so used to today, and so the exhibition gives some space to the period archaeologists call the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age. The importance of spirituality or religion is often difficult to show with archaeological finds but with some intriguing examples from Yorkshire and Germany they manage represent what might be our best guess at what people believed. The antler headdress from Star Carr is one of 21 found so far. It is thought that these headdresses were used in ceremonies in which the life and spirit of the deer as well as the success of the hunt were celebrated. Examples of these have been found across northern Europe and point to a shared cultural practice, which may have lasted for thousands of years.

It is always difficult to present the cultural remains of societies that are so different to our own in so many ways, and the role of the spirit of things as well as animals is also teased out here. The axe-heads we may initially think of solely as tools and as such were 'traded' between and among groups are also thought to have held a spiritual value and meaning. From the quarrying in difficult to reach locations such as Great Langdale in the Lake District, through the long hours spent polishing the stone, people invested time, energy and perhaps spirit in preparing these objects. Did these objects hold the spirit of the earth? We'll perhaps never know. What cannot be denied is the uses these axe-heads were typically put to and this is amply demonstrated with this auroch skull from Burwell Fen in Cambridgeshire which still has part of an axe head embedded in it. Why was this animal killed is unknown, but we are left with the image.

Stonehenge is not the only henge presented here. As the image here shows, the relatively recently discovered 'Seahenge' also makes its presence felt and for those of us who didn't get to see it in-situ it is a chance to glimpse something of its past glory. It is, more prosaically, a timber circle, and as such not unknown to archaeologists as a number of stone monuments we see today were preceded by timber monuments. You may recall that Time Time recreated a timber monument back in 2005, with a little help from their friends!

Evident through the exhibition is the importance of changing technology and the impact this made on the people of the past. One effect of these changes was the rise of the individual, and as you walk through the exhibition it seems as if you leave an undifferentiated, unseen people and move through the emergence of particular people. They remain unknown in terms of their name, but it is individuals for whom some of the artefacts were created. This is most striking when you reach the age of metals and especially gold. Here is a gold cape discovered in Mold (Flintshire) which was clearly made with a single wearer in mind. These objects are testimony to that age when the magic of metallurgy became something more secular and worldly, something we recognize so easily today.

As the route through the exhibition meanders amongst artefacts from the Bronze Age there is a turn toward more violent aspects of life with evidence of battles and warfare. There are pieces of armour, skulls with holes in, and rather over-the-top swords which speak of the violence of the time. Seemingly a common feature of the closing centuries of the Bronze Age both in Britain and mainland Europe, it perhaps demonstrates the loss of our innocence, our vision of some peaceful idyllic prehistory as you turn the corner to a more recent past and leave this one behind.

There are obvious highlights in the exhibition and there are less obvious ones too. For many there are key artefacts such as the Nebra Sky Disc (no photos allowed), the earliest known representation of the cosmos beyond our own world, and the strange objects called 'hats' such as this one found in Schifferstadt (Germany) shown here. Remarkable for its making and its very survival from around 1600 BC, it is the kind of object which makes audiences say 'wow'! For all that, it remains enigmatic. Its purpose and meaning still unknown. For me, there are other, less ostentatious objects on show, which bring the power of archaeology to the fore.

There are three pieces which bring together the themes of the exhibition. From the changing material world there are the antler picks from Grimes Graves in Norfolk. In these we have something from perhaps the everyday. A tool used by flickering lamplight in the galleries of the mine to dig out chalk and flint, it is a reminder of the working conditions of people at the time. It is all the more remarkable for the adherence of chalky residue which collected while it was being used and that this captured the fingerprints of the user. The changing climate of the past and present is reflected in a single Elm leaf from Windy Harbour in Lancashire which was recovered during excavations of an early Neolithic settlement site and is 6,000 years old. Finally, the enigmatic wooden figures from Roos Carr in Yorkshire give us some of the earliest depictions of humans from Britain. They are made from Yew with quartzite eyes and were set into a model boat with a serpent's head. They are complete with detachable genitalia. It seems that there were two boats originally, but that does not detract from their startling character nor add to their as yet unknown meaning.

Jaqcuetta Hawkes famously wrote in 1967 that “every age gets the Stonehenge it deserves – and desires”, and this exhibition is true to that maxim. The World of Stonehenge brings together the disparate parts of an age of change across a continent. It isn't always clear, sharply defined in origin or meaning, and has fuzzy edges, but there is a concern to show commonality in an age of fracture. Hawkes was writing in the age of science and technology, whilst this exhibition is the product of several turns in archaeological thought in those intervening years. Today there is emphasis on the cultural, the social, and political and nowhere is this made clearer than in a reference to "Beaker-using immigrants". This represents another step on the journey from the 'Beaker folk' - coined by Abercrombie in 1902, through to 'Beaker people' still used by Parker Pearson & colleagues in 2019 in their study of mobility and diet. For even while this study was on-going the current cultural and political landscape had changed dramatically and this simple statement comes from that shift. Remember, museums are not neutral.


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