The World of Stonehenge

An exhibition puts the Stone Age monument in context, John Westbrooke writes

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Britain’s most famous monument had never been the subject of a big exhibition before the current one at the British Museum. Standing by the A303 in Wiltshire rather than in Bloomsbury, Stonehenge often seems a thing of magic rather than science.

Indeed, it was believed in the Middle Ages that Merlin had magicked the stones over from Ireland. The truth is almost as surprising: the large sarsen stones came from north of Marlborough, some 30 miles away, and the smaller bluestones came from the Preseli Hills in west Wales, apparently transported 180 miles overland at much the same time as the Great Pyramid was built in Egypt. What had started as a circular ditch about 3000 BC became, 1000 years later, more or less the monument we know today.

Most such circles were made up of local material, but Stonehenge’s existence points to a widespread culture, reaching well beyond Britain’s shores. The range of exhibits is impressive: a woman’s gold cape from Wales, bronze horse-head snakes from Denmark, a small wooden hermaphrodite (Britain’s oldest statue), an aurochs skull, a carved standing stone from Italy, tiny flint blades attached by birch bark resin. Other objects come from Stonehenge’s own neighbourhood, including the Bush Barrow hoard from the tomb of a Bronze Age chief, and treasures from Salisbury Museum buried with the Amesbury Archer, a man from the Alps.

As well as tracing the evidence, the exhibition makes another point: 5000 years from then till now is a long time, and the monument has meant different things to different people over the ages.

We wouldn’t necessarily recognise primitive England. It had been part of Europe until the lowlands between Holland and Norfolk were inundated about 9000 years ago; people and animals would have walked over. There are pieces of wood here from Cumbria a millennium later, gnawed by beavers and scratched by bears, and a shaman outfit buried with a woman in Germany, with deer antlers for her head, and decoration of teeth and tusks.

But Stonehenge dates from an era where hunting and gathering were giving way to farming, a new way of life brought in from Europe. Farming means people stay in one place, get to know the land they live on and the sky they live under, form communities.

Although Stonehenge itself isn’t on show, Seahenge is. Fifty-five oak posts were arranged in a circle about 20 feet across, on a sea marsh in Norfolk; in the middle a large oak tree root was placed upside down, perhaps in an attempt to unite land and sky. We know quite a lot about this: it was created in 2049 BC (thank you, tree rings) and at least 51 axes, metal ones, were used in creating it. It had to be removed for preservation, and some of the timbers are on display here. What exactly it was for, though…

There’s less doubt about the wall covered in stone axe heads, from Britain, Ireland, France, Spain, Italy, Romania and Scandinavia and dating from 4500 BC to 1500 BC, three millennia of remaking the world – cutting down woodland to plant crops and raise animals, and to build monuments too. The highlight is one that’s kept its original wooden handle through 3000 years in a Scottish peat bog. (There’s a 6000-year-old elm leaf from Lancashire as well.)

As for the sky, one precious exhibit is the Nebra Sky Disc – a bronze disc (greenish, it would originally have been black) a foot wide and 3600 years old, representing the heavens: small gold dots for stars including a cluster of seven for the Pleiades, a large crescent for the moon and a big circle for either the full moon or the sun. It was found in Saxony, though some of the gold and the tin in the bronze was Cornish; and it may be the oldest representation of the cosmos. It definitely looks astronomical – it might have been for working out leap years – but does that also mean religious? We don’t know.

The sun was important too, and gold-working, which came to Britain about the time Stonehenge was built, proved a useful and dazzling way of emulating it. There’s a lunula, a sheet-gold neck collar 4000 years old, from County Wicklow; a Danish sun-disc from a woman’s belt, a little more recently; and a geometrically decorated sun pendant from Shropshire, 3000 years old.

Perhaps the most extraordinary exhibits are two tall gold hats – one from Germany, a foot high, with a broad brim; the other, 21 inches and brimless, like a gorgeous baguette. Ornately decorated with … well, “cosmological symbols”, though some have seen them as calendars and others as logarithmic tables, they were found buried alone or with axes rather than with bodies. They were doubtless that old archaeological standby, the “ritual object”.

But after all this, what was Stonehenge for? Burials have been found there that are even older than the henge itself, so it seems to have been some sort of sacred site. It’s arranged so that the rising sun on the longest day hits the central stones, so it may have been an astronomical calculator meant to celebrate the summer solstice. Or, of course, the winter one. Or it’s a vulva seen from the air. Or a hospital (some of the Bronze Age skeletons found nearby were deformed.) Or all of the above.

The exhibition ponders the changing meanings of Stonehenge. At first the monument reflects communal endeavour: in a sparsely populated land, a lot of people must have combined to put it up. But the wonderful gold objects indicate a later, less equal era in which individuals sought to be buried with precious objects displaying their wealth or power.

Religious beliefs and practices changed as international trade grew. Thanks in part to Cornwall’s tin, metal replaced stone. With trade came warfare across Europe, prompting the growth of forts and defended villages. Stonehenge seems to have lost its power, even been vandalised. Why visit a great stone monument for information about the stars when you could carry a sky disc with you?

Yet even now it means things to us. It’s a sturdy ruin, not a functioning ceremonial building,and really a 20th-century idea of what a ruin should look like (Victorian photos show it a lot more tumbledown). Standing stones have been propped up and set in concrete. Archaeologists continue fossicking around. Mini-versions have appeared in Hound of the Baskervilles and Spinal Tap. Neo-druids gather for solstices, though Stonehenge predates druids by millennia. Tourists flock to it though they can no longer wander among the stones. It’s been named a World Heritage Site, though that might be rescinded if plans for a traffic tunnel under it go ahead.

The most common word throughout the exhibition seems to be “perhaps”, followed by “could be”. Despite the digging, the theorising, and the exhibition, Stonehenge is still a marvellous mystery.

British Museum until 17 July 2022. Adults £20 (£22 on weekends); over 60 £10 after 12.00 on Mondays, advance booking via phone only on (0)20 7323 8181.

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