When a major London exhibition gets repeated five-star reviews and is described as ‘magnificent,’ ‘astonishing’ and ‘unmissable,’ you know it’s one you have to see. The World of Stonehenge opened at the British Museum on 17 February 2022. I’ve seen some reviewers describe it as one of those exhibitions you will remember for the rest of your life. With such high praise, I had to visit.
Built 4,500 years ago, Stonehenge is probably the world’s most well-known ancient stone circle. It’s a popular visitor attraction in Wiltshire managed by English Heritage.
The British Museum has written an introduction to Stonehenge to give us more background information before visiting the exhibition. It explains that the term ‘henge’ was first used by a British Museum curator in the 1930s but also points out that Stonehenge doesn’t match the description. It’s certainly too late to change the name now, though!
While Stonehenge is as old as the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, it was adapted and altered over its first 1,500 years. It was built from ‘bluestones’ transported from the Preseli Mountains in Wales. (You can see the Preseli Mountains from the top of the tower of ‘Holly House’ – the transformation of a church building to a family home we’re documenting on Anglotopia as A Church in Wales.) The Museum has also written about how Stonehenge was built, and it wasn’t with men pulling ropes to raise the stones to standing.
We think the monument has been a ceremonial shrine, a cremation cemetery, an astronomical calculator, and a solar calendar. In the 1960s, the hippy movement felt the site had mystical powers, and it is still appreciated by New Age counterculture and environmental activism. But less is known about Stonehenge than the similarly-aged Egyptian landmarks, so we are still learning about it today. The exhibition focuses on recent discoveries and the context of life in Britain, Ireland, and northwestern Europe before, during, and after Stonehenge’s construction.
Archaeologist and writer Jacquetta Hawkes famously observed in 1967, “Every age has the Stonehenge it deserves — or desires,” and these words are reproduced on a wall inside the exhibition.
About The Exhibition
We can rarely get close to the actual prehistoric monument, but this exhibition has brought together hundreds of objects from across Europe. Don’t worry, no part of the Stonehenge stones has been moved to London.
The exhibition charts the period between 4000 BC and 1000 BC to set the iconic monument in its historical context charting huge social and technological revolutions rather than speculating on the myths and folklore.
This is the UK’s first-ever major exhibition on the story of Stonehenge. It’s not about the building of this monolithic site but more about the people and cultures that built and worshipped at the monument. Stonehenge was created at a time when Western Europe was transitioning into a continent of farmers and moving away from the hunter-gatherer way of life. To get to know those people, there are exhibits from excavations of burial sites around Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire as well as mainland Europe plus the Scottish Orkney Islands and Ireland. The geography was different then as Britain was connected to the continent until 8,000 years ago. It was possible to walk across parts of the North Sea from Britain to continental Europe, “enabling the passage of men, beliefs, wild animals, stone, artifacts, and skills.”
This exhibition has been described as “fiercely emotional.” It strives to create that emotional connection to the past with scenes such as the remains of a party at which early farmers and hunter-gatherers ate venison and beef together. And we can relate to the lifestyle of our antecedents in Orkney, who lived in “cozy domesticity” in houses with stone shelf units. The exhibition looks at the fundamental changes in peoples’ relationships with the sky, the land, and one another.
The exhibition has been blessed by the Archdruid of Stonehenge in a prayer ceremony.
The 430 or so objects in the exhibition offer an impressively vivid picture of life from about 10,000 years ago to the close of the Bronze Age in about 1,200 BC.
The objects range from gold and amber celebrations of the sun to a miraculously preserved elm leaf that fell from a tree 6,000 years ago.
There’s the innocence of a child’s ball, wooden dolls, and a 5,000-year-old chalk drum sculpture that is considered “the most important piece of prehistoric art to be found in Britain in the last 100 years.”
Then from the world before the time of Stonehenge, there is an outfit made from animal bones that would have been worn by a German female shaman-esque figure. Plus, you can see the oldest known statue to have been made in Britain, which you could miss as it’s very small.
After the introduction space, the exhibition is roughly chronological. It’s a testament to the curators that they have made rooms of old objects still look exciting with clever displays and captivating information about the people.
Nearly two-thirds of the objects on display here are loans, and, of these, the majority have never been seen in the UK before. There have been 35 lenders involved from across the UK, the Republic of Ireland, France, Italy, Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland.
The exhibition opens by introducing a stone circle built in the same location that preceded Stonehenge. The stones were large bluestone pillars from the Preseli Hills, 150 miles away in Pembrokeshire, Wales. Archaeologists believe it was there 500 years before the stone circle we know and was used for burying cremated bodies. So far, the remains of 150 to 200 men, women, and children have been found there. The exhibition has a piece of bluestone most likely used in the building of that cemetery and some contents of the 5,000-year-old graves, including bone pins used for fastening shrouds.
Five centuries later, Stonehenge as we know it was built using some of those existing bluestones. The vertical pillars are called sarsens, and the horizontal stones are lintels or capping stones. The sarsen stones were pounded into shape by circular hammerstones, several examples of which were recently discovered and are on display.
Each sarsen stone needed at least 1,000 people to transport it over a distance of 15 miles. The process took generations, and many men died along the way.
This depiction of a human body is the earliest known to have been made by early farmers in Britain, in about 2500 BC.
Stonehenge was built at a time of drastic population decline and dispersal. Mike Parker Pearson, a professor at University College London, feels that Stonehenge was a “monument of remembrance” and an “expression of unity” that pulled people together in the pursuit of a common endeavor. Yet, he said, “People don’t want it to be that simple as an explanation.”
The early agriculturalists who built the henges were communal, sharing feasts at a camp called Durrington Walls near Stonehenge. This is where you can see the remains from a party when early farmers and the last hunter-gatherers ate together; the hunters cooking venison they caught, the farmers serving beef from their herd. The Durrington Walls settlement contained around 1,000 temporary houses at its peak.
This wall display of polished ax heads is strikingly beautiful, isn’t it?
As a reminder of the travel and trade across Europe thousands of years ago, some of the ax heads found in the UK originated in the North Italian Alps.
And the massive skull of a now extinct auroch (wild ox) has an ax head embedded into it with such force that it snapped off inside the skull.
This huge flint boulder was intended as raw material for stone tools. It was taken to Avebury in Wiltshire and is thought to have been mined in East Anglia, 125 miles away.
Public art is not a recent idea as swirls, circles, and geometric patterns were carved in rocks around 5,000 years ago. The imagery often reflected nature.
These stones from around 2500 BC have carvings of the earliest human sculptures in Europe. It’s not initially obvious, but the one on the left possibly has an archer, and the fragment on the right includes a rising or setting sun.
Around 5,500 years ago in Orkney, whole villages were built from stone, and color was added with red pigments on the walls and pottery. Stone knives were decorated with abstract patterns, too so we know that interior design and individualism isn’t something new either.
A Look of Awe
Isn’t this wonderful? There’s a fabulous sculpted mace-head on display that has the features of a face. It was discovered in a chamber within a huge tomb at Knowth in Ireland.
At the heart of the exhibition is Seahenge. Discovered in 1998 on the shore at Holme-next-to-the-Sea in Norfolk, the ancient monument comprises of 55 oak posts originally standing nearly 10 feet high, with the wood dating back to 2049 BC. Inside the circle was a central upturned oak tree trunk, and a narrow entranceway was aligned on the rising midsummer sun, which leads to the thought that this monument was used for ritual purposes.
The timber circle reemerged 4,000 years later due to shifting sands, and this is the first time ‘Seahenge’ has been on loan from the Norfolk Museums Service. Dr. Jennifer Wexler, project curator of The World of Stonehenge at the British Museum, said, “If Stonehenge is one of the world’s most remarkable surviving ancient stone circles, then Seahenge is the equivalent in timber.”
A 10-minute ‘soundscape’ composition has been added that includes insects in marshy pools and the fizz of seafoam. It’s a gentle background sound to the whole exhibition.
About 4,500 years ago, the technology of metalworking was introduced to Britain and Ireland from continental Europe. Unlike stone working, metal could be recycled repeatedly and rapidly to create new objects.
Gold was turned into jewelry and cult objects, imbuing the wearers with the power of the sun and worn to express a close, personal connection to the heavens.
As well as jewelry, there are two golden hats on display dating back to 1000 BC or earlier. Are they hats? Were there used in a ritual ceremony? We don’t know, but they are beautiful.
I particularly liked this gold cup too.
Metalworking increased the desire for portable items such as the Nebra Sky Disc – an astronomical instrument that worked in gold and bronze, that took over from great monuments like Stonehenge.
The ‘poster boy’ for the whole exhibition, the Nebra Sky Disc is 3,600 years old and is the world’s oldest surviving map of the stars. The 12-inch bronze disc has inlaid gold symbols thought to represent the sun, moon, stars, the winter and summer solstices, and the constellation of the Pleiades, set against a blue bronze sky. There is also a boat on the Sky Disc – the boat of the sun. This is a reminder that Stonehenge was built when the pyramids were being raised in Egypt. Next to the Great Pyramid at Giza survives the Solar Boat of Khufu, a full-sized ship for him to sail through the sky with the sun god.
It was discovered buried in the ground in 1999 near Nebra in Germany. The UK is only the fourth country the disc has traveled to, and its display in London is the first time it’s been loaned internationally for 15 years.
Alongside the international loans, there are some of the most important objects unearthed in the Stonehenge landscape, many of them now in the collections of neighboring museums. On loan from Wiltshire Museum is the whole hoard of objects that accompanied a burial known as the Bush Barrow site. This burial hoard has never been lent in its entirety before.
They include the ‘gold lozenge’, which is the finest example of Bronze Age gold craftsmanship ever found in Britain, which was buried across the chest of the Bush Barrow chieftain. It would have been seen glistening from a distance at ceremonies. This grave, with commanding views of Stonehenge, shows close parallels with the richest graves from northern France, eastern Germany, and even Ancient Greece.
Amesbury Archer Grave
From Salisbury Museum are the treasures buried with the Amesbury Archer. His grave contained the richest array of items ever found in a Bronze Age burial site in the UK. On display are 39 of these items, including copper knives, gold ornaments, and flint tools. The gold discovered is thought to be among the earliest found in Britain.
The Amesbury Archer was buried close to Stonehenge, but he came from the area of modern-day Switzerland or Germany. His early dates mean that he could have participated in the construction of the iconic phase of the stone circle.
After Britain was disconnected from the continent and became an island, boats grew in importance. These objects are from two ship cargoes. Copper and tin were transported in their raw state as bun-shaped ingots. The bronze tools, weapons, and fittings include types common to northern France and southern England, as well as others entirely new to Britain.
Human forms and boats features in sculptures too.
With travel came conflict, and you can see a skull that has clearly suffered a ‘blunt force trauma.’
Swords and spearheads were often deliberately destroyed following a battle. These may be the weapons of defeated warriors or the arms of victors.
This impressive bronze armor could easily be mistaken for something medieval, but this is actually from 770–750 BC. The added decoration again reminds us that the way we dress and present ourselves has always been important.
By 3,800 years ago, stone circles in Britain and Ireland no longer attracted large gatherings.
The exhibition ends with four William Blake (1757–1827) artworks of Stonehenge.
And, as always, you exit through the gift shop. The catalog is £35 and very comprehensive.
I visited on a weekday morning, and it was busy. This is most definitely a popular and you will spend time in the shuffling train of visitors trying to see all of the objects as this is a huge exhibition.
It highlights that the people who created Stonehenge were not primitive barbarians but were ingenious. Through the objects on display we can learn about their beliefs, rituals, and the complex worldview of Neolithic people. But it doesn’t (because it can’t) solve the mysteries of Stonehenge but does try to put it into its historical context.
This is a proper blockbuster exhibition, and I think the other reviewers are right in saying this is one we will be talking about for years to come.
Exhibition Title: The World of Stonehenge
Location: Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG
Dates: 17 February 2022– 17 July 2022
Opening Times: Saturday – Thursday 10 “00–17:00, Friday 10:00–20:30
Last entry 90 mins before closing.
Official Website: britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/world-stonehenge