You’ve probably heard of Stonehenge, the circle of large stones in Wiltshire, South-west England. But who built it? Who visited it? What was its true purpose?
These are just some of the mysteries that the curators of the interesting temporary exhibition “The World of Stonehenge” in the British Museum in London have sought to answer about this portal to our prehistoric past.
I hope you get the chance to visit the exhibition while still on display, otherwise, you can enjoy a recap of the stories and some of my favourite items on display on this blog, as well as my space-themed website “The Space Tester”.
What is the Nebra Sky Disc?
The Nebra Sky Disk in Germany (Nebra Ark Overview)
Arche Nebra Himmelsscheibe Museum (Nebra Ark Walk-Through)
The Nebra Sky Disk at the British Museum (Exhibition Overview)
Mission Cosmic Kiss Meets Nebra Sky Disk Onboard ISS
Visiting Stonehenge from London
Who were the people of Stonehenge? Curators Jennifer Wexler and Neil Wilkin take you on a tour of their British Museum exhibition The world of Stonehenge, to introduce you to some incredible people that built and lived around the time of the monument.
ENTER THE WORLD OF STONEHENGE
THE WORLD OF STONEHENGE – WHAT TO EXPECT?
Stonehenge was built somewhere between 5000 and 3500 years ago as a special place where people came together. These days, the structure helps us to learn more about the history of this region, as well as understand more about the lives of the people who lived and visited here.
We know that Stonehenge was one of many important ceremonial monuments built across Britain, Ireland and continental Europe during prehistory. In the exhibition, you explore narratives of connectivity, exchange, mobility and migration, through stories and objects that show the fundamental changes in peoples’ relationships with the sky, nature and one another through the ages.
The exhibition is supported by bp and organised with the State Museum of Prehistory, Halle/Saale, Germany and includes 430 artefacts from across Europe, many never seen in the UK before, short video illustrations (with text on screen), atmospheric music, and lots of information based on recent archaeological and scientific work.
THE REASON FOR MY VISIT
One of the main reasons that made me decide to visit this exhibition was the display of the blue- and bronze Nebra Sky Disk, so far the oldest representation of our cosmos, made about 3600 years ago.
A few years ago, I visited the Nebra Sky Disk Museum in the small town of Wangen (in the Saxony-Anhalt region of Germany) and learned more about the story of this important archaeological find.
The actual disk wasn’t on display at the information centre, so you can imagine how excited I was to get this chance to finally see it up and close in London!
More about the disk later in this article, first back to the beginning. Literally.
WALK-THROUGH THE WORLD OF STONEHENGE EXHIBITION BRITISH MUSEUM
PART I – A CHANGING RELATIONSHIP
The exhibition is divided into themed sections, following a timeline from about 6000 to 2800 years ago that tells the story of Stonehenge and the people interacting with the sacred monument.
You start at the section called “Working with nature” (about 6000 years ago), where you can see how communities in Britain redefined their relationship with nature going from hunting and gathering to a farming lifestyle of migrant communities from the continent.
Among all the changes, monuments were raised to show ownership of land and claim special places, for the first time. Stone, wood and clay objects were both tools and symbols of this new relationship between people and nature.
The centre of the belief system that built Stonehenge was the sun and in one of the first stars (pun intended) of the show – a glorious standing stone from Italy – you can see it depicted in a scratching.
The iconography and symbols of sun worship come back in various items further in the exhibition.
PART II – CONNECTIONS THROUGH ART
In the next section, called “Sermons in stone” (around 5000 years ago), you can learn how communities across Britain and Ireland created long-distance connections through a new style of art.
Spirals, circles and geometric patterns were applied to tombs, house interiors, open-air rocks and objects. This new art style coincided with a flourishing of monument building at locations across Britain and Ireland.
The architecture and imagery drew together large numbers of people in works of collaboration and creativity.
VIDEO – Inspired by Stonehenge and its World
Stonehenge’s structure and mood have inspired the great artists of British Romanticism. Explore how and why Stonehenge and its world have stimulated artistic and literary responses, up to today.
PART III – THE STORY OF STONEHENGE
The story of Stonehenge also starts around this time. The monument’s builders marked out the sacred ground by digging a ditch and throwing up rubble to form the outer encircling bank of the henge. Inside, they raised a circle of huge spotted dolerite ‘bluestone’ boulders, moved 350 kilometres from the Preseli Hills in Wales.
This Stonehenge was a cemetery for the cremated remains of between 150 and 200 people. Chemical analysis suggests that several lived and died in west Wales before their remains were interred within the monument.
Apart from this site, the wider landscape was used for religious devotion by farming communities. Observations of the sun played a role even at this early stage. A monument known as a cursus was built with glistening white chalk sides stretching for three kilometres east to west, enshrining processions and the sun’s passage.
PART IV – ORKNEY
Around 5500 years ago, Orkney (Scotland) became a centre of cultural innovation. Its outstanding tomb and settlement architecture are among the most impressive in ancient Europe.
Communities in Orkney built henges and developed a new type of pottery called “Grooved Ware”, used in ceremonial feasts. Both ideas, and the religious ethos they represented, were adopted by groups throughout Britain and Ireland.
Some of the groundbreaking discoveries made across Orkney are shown at the exhibition for the first time!
PART V – SEAHENGE
Have you ever heard of “Seahenge”? This wood monument was erected by the shore in Norfolk in 2049 BC, around 500 years after the main construction of Stonehenge.
The wooden circle consisting of 55 oak posts and an upturned tree trunk in the centre was covered in sand and peat until it re-emerged on a beach in Norfolk in 1998.
At the exhibition, you can get up and close with some of the posts and see an almost holographic display of the tree trunk. You can also hear recordings made on the north Norfork coast, composed by sound artist Rob St. John in collaboration with artist and archaeologist Rose Ferraby.
This is the first time Seahenge has ever gone on loan (from the Lynn Museum in King’s Lynn, Norfolk).
PART VI – STONEHENGE & LIFESTYLE
As you might know, Stonehenge and other monuments in the British landscape are exactly aligned to the sunrise on the winter solstice. Many people would (and still do) gather there at the dawn of the shortest day to propitiate the sun to renew their crops.
About 4600 years ago, the communities who worshipped at Stonehenge settled at Durrington Walls, a huge monument encompassing two timber circles and many houses. From here, pilgrims embarked on a choreographed route, by boat along the River Avon and then by foot, to arrive at Stonehenge. The timber circles at Durrington Walls and nearby Woodhenge were alined on the summer and winter solstices.
The contrast between these monuments and Stonehenge may reflect contrasting symbolic domains – perishable wood for the living and permanent stone for the ancestors.
VIDEO – Ancient DNA in the time of Stonehenge
What can ancient DNA tell us about how people lived in the time of Stonehenge? From diet to migration, the study of ancient DNA is providing new information about the lives of those in the Stonehenge landscape and beyond.
PART VII – PRECIOUS METALS
We’re at about 4500 years ago now, in the section called “Making metal”.
You can probably imagine how the transformation of stone into a molten metal that could be cast into new forms was a dramatic, and even magical, event for people at this time in history.
Besides magic, it also enabled critical innovations in carpentry, joinery and boat building, since metal could be recycled and reshaped into items such as copper and bronze axes.
Stonehenge took its well-known form around this time. More than 80 massive sarsen stones, each requiring at least 1000 people to transport, were brought 25 kilometres from their source. This effort required unprecedented communal labour, patience and planning. It took generations to complete.
The building of the processional routeway, the Avenue, about 4400 years ago confirmed Stonehenge’s sacred status.
Stonehenge continued to be a place where the sun’s course was observed and celebrated for hundreds of years. However, few monuments with solar significance were built in the centuries that followed. over time, symbolism, and even solstice positions were inscribed on portable metal objects.
PART IIX – GOLD LIKE THE SUN
As we move to the section “Under One Sky”, the importance (and beauty) of our Earth’s precious metals becomes even more obvious. Gold ornaments had the ability to reflect and perhaps even harness the power of the sun, ensuring wellbeing across the seasons, or so people thought back then.
The introduction of metal to Britain and Ireland around 4300 years ago enabled cosmological beliefs represented by Stonehenge and other monuments into a range of portable objects, some of them on display in this section of the exhibition.
The impact of this was great as before there were only fixed monuments to observe and worship the sun at set times of the year – and now you could have your own personal connection to the heavens above by holding or even wearing its representation in person.
PART IX – THE NEBRA SKY DISK
And there it finally is: the Nebra Sky Disk in all her glory. On this stunning map of the night sky, you can see the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) twinkle between the sun and a crescent moon – and how beautiful it is!
You can read more about the Sky Disk on our blog “The Space Tester”. For example, find out here what the Nebra Sky Disc is exactly and why it is so important, visit the Nebra Sky Disk Museum in Germany with me (+ a more in-depth report of the Arche Nebra Himmelsscheibe Museum here), find more information and photos of the Nebra Sky Disk at the British Museum or read how ESA’s Mission Cosmic Kiss met the Nebra Sky Disk Onboard the ISS.
I can highly recommend reading up about the history of the Sky Disc because the story about how the discovery was made is quite thrilling!
PART X – A SUN CULT
The appearance of new objects and symbols about 3500 years ago reveals that a more complex model of the cosmos was developing.
Across Scandinavia, the sun, horse and ship were the subjects of religious imagery. In central Europe, two water birds connected by a boat-shaped body below a sun became an important motif.
Gold discs became symbols of a sun cult, marking out a believer or pilgrim returning from sites like Stonehenge.
PART XI – BURIAL MOUNDS
In the section “Raising the dead”, I learn that from about 4500 years ago, burying people with valued objects on sacred land became the dominant way of expressing cultural and spiritual meaning across Britain and Europe. At Stonehenge, hundreds of burial mounds were raised for the illustrious dead.
The objects that mourners selected for the grave prepared souls for life beyond this world. They were markers of personal identity, ethnicity and success, but they also expressed hopes, desires, failed ambitions and long-distance pilgrimages.
New scientific studies enable us to trace the stories, genetic relationships and movements of people through time, as they became established lineages. Rows of burial mounds were physical manifestations of family trees.
PART X – SUCCESS AND POWER
Remarkable and exotic objects were placed in the graves of well-connected leaders from southern England, northern France and Germany between about 4000 and 3600 years ago. The journeys made by these people and their ambassadors were marked by the exchange of gifts in the shadow of monuments like Stonehenge.
What was the basis of success and power during this era? The grave goods suggest cosmologically and spiritually-minded people who held positions bestowed upon them by their communities.
By about 3700 years ago, Stonehenge formed the heart of the densest concentration of burial mounds in Britain, including some of the richest in Europe. The emphasis had shifted from building communal monuments to raising mounds in cemeteries that staked claims to land, history and kinship.
The continental European tradition of placing metal objects in hoards without bodies began in southern England around this time. The Stonehenge sarsens were inscribed with carvings of these new, treasured, objects. This bold act may have bordered on iconoclasm.
VIDEO – Connections across Britain and Ireland during the age of Stonehenge
The time of Stonehenge was a period of many weird, wonderful and other-worldly places. How we think about daily life and the lived experience of the people behind these monumental places is one of the most pressing research questions for this period.
PART XI – TO THE SEA
About 3500 years ago, the influence of the Stonehenge region began to wane. Communities on the south coast of England looked to social and political relationships in continental Europe, which was becoming an increasingly important source of valuable bronze.
As these continental connections increased, European metal and exotic goods began to flow across the North Sea and the English Channel.
As new types of objects emerged, so too did new ideas about offering precious items to repay or seek protection from nature or ancestral spirits. This challenged older religious beliefs and the role of monuments like Stonehenge.
PART XII – STONEHENGE UNSETTLED
The arrival of the Beaker-using people was a watershed moment in the world of Stonehenge. Although it is possible that some of the first newcomers assisted or inspired the great achievements in stone, it is also clear that they had different priorities and beliefs.
Fragments of bluestone found at the site from around this time suggest that the monument was being reworked or even vandalised. Elsewhere, henges were being broken up and dismantled. Monument buildings slowed dramatically as death and the afterlife became dominant cultural concerns.
PART XIII – THE RISE OF WARFARE
Mounting pressures caused by the expansion of trade networks and new land divisions gave rise to warfare across northwest Europe around 3300 years ago. Skirmishes, raids and large clashes of trained warriors became a grim fact of life.
The ceremonial roles that monuments and burials played were now partly transferred to new arenas of violence and the dramatic destruction of valuable possessions. Damage was wrought to both bodies and objects, including frequent ritual deposition of metalwork in watery locations, perhaps as symbolic killings.
Atlantic sea routes linked the ocean-facing communities of Europe, providing a major network in which people, technologies and objects could move.
Despite violence and uncertainty, increased connectivity resulted in new social and cultural relations being forged 3000 years ago.
Gift-giving and feasting became important, providing the ideal environment for relationships between allies or feuding enemies to be settled or confirmed. Connected by water, people continued to live dynamic and resilient lives despite the tumultuous and changing times.
VIDEO – Living on Water in the World of Stonehenge
Explore the concept of ‘living on water’ throughout the period covered by The world of Stonehenge exhibition. Highlighting recent excavations and research from across this sweep of time at a number of key water’s edge sites, including the internationally famous settlements at Star Carr and Must Farm, a panel of experts will consider what made these locations attractive to people and what benefits they brought.
PART XIV – THE LAST OF THE LIGHT
By 2800 years ago, the world of Stonehenge had changed. The stone circles still used in parts of Britain and Ireland no longer attracted large gatherings. European trade networks carrying ritually-charged objects and materials broke down.
This decline occurred as climatic and environmental change undermined social and economic confidence. The result was the end of the era charted by this exhibition.
Stonehenge stands not for a landscape, region or even country, but for the generations of people who have made meaning from an enduring place in a changing world.
VIDEO – New scientific discoveries: reinterpreting Stonehenge
Discover the latest research on the world-famous monument with leading experts on Stonehenge. Hear about fascinating discoveries from the last few years, and how excavations have revealed new details which have prompted reinterpretations of the ceremonial and religious role the ancient stone circle has played.
STONEHENGE EXHIBITION: PRACTICAL INFORMATION
PLANNING YOUR VISIT
VISIT STONEHENGE IN ENGLAND
Couldn’t see Stonehenge at the British Museum? Or excited to see it in person? Plan your trip to Stonehenge in Salisbury, England with help of The Travel Tester!
Make sure to read our extended article on visiting Stonehenge from London. Here you’ll find everything you need to know about transport options, entry fees, opening times and much more!
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