Ancient History Repeating: The World of Stonehenge

It’s a pretty tall ask to fit a few thousand years of use and relevance, plus all the geographic and social connections of an ancient monument into one exhibition, even if the exhibition is at the British Museum’s newest, largest, and fairly flexible exhibition space. So, how did they do?

image description: several large stones, with faint petroglyphs often of spirals, are displayed in extreme profile in a line up under a bright light, on a green stand
In a pleasing act of deliberate symmetry, the curators had a line-up of engraved stones from significant sites around the country arranged directly opposite a hemispherical replica of the Seahenge monument from Britain’s East Coast, which in its original form is a circle of wooden posts emerging from the tidal flats.

Unexpectedly well.

So well, in fact, that despite booking tickets for the busiest time of day, despite arriving late, despite arriving soaked from the rain, and facing the constant pressure of a dinner engagement at the other end, the exhibition suffered not at all for all the circumstances surrounding it. It’s a rare excursion that can make the claim that it completely obliterated all thought of the outside world.

As is beginning to be the tradition with pandemic-era exhibitions in this space, the flow was pre-determined and the space prior to the placards roomy: not so much once the action started, which may be a shame for those still hoping, vainly, to social distance. My advice would be to get an opening-time ticket.

Also as is beginning to be tradition for exhibitions in this specific spot, the first thing visitors encounter is a sole piece. With the Nero exhibition it was a boyhood depiction of the emperor. With the Stonehenge exhibition it was, rather appropriately, a tiny and highly simplified replica of the monument which acted as a lamp or night light. It might have seemed like a tacky idea, had the replica itself not been constructed several thousand years ago.

The choice works on several levels: the summary of what Stonehenge is and represents within its long, long time-frame, and also an encapsulation of what I’d say is the underlying theme of the broadranging exhibition: the way that the introduction of portable wealth, portable power in the form of stating the carrier’s connection to the life-giving sun, began to change the spiritual and political landscape of Europe away from static sites of solar worship such as Stonehenge and towards more trade-and-conflict oriented societies.

It’s quite a lot of work for a fist-sized piece of carved stone to carry off.

The exhibition is roughly chronological, but the introduction still dwells on a its themes a little before getting into that: carved standing stones, a piece of golden regalia, and the emphasis on the connection between the land and the sun as the important elements for the many generations of cultures we’re about to witness small glimpses of.

Regular visitors to other collections with good memories may recognise some of the pieces as borrowed from other museums, and from elsewhere in the British Museum itself: the most obvious examples for me were the Museum of London‘s auruch skull, and the British Museum’s beautiful Star Carr headdress, which is so iconic that it features on a piece of (highly-coveted) merch for the exhibition.

description: a headdress made of the topmost part of a large deer skull with truncated antlers is displayed in a glass box above a green display area with more artefacts
Featured above some rolls of preserved birch bark and a large fungal mask, the Star Carr headdress is immediately recognisible.

Other items were new to me. The inclusion, in the first chronological section of the exhibition, of the Glastonbury Idol–a consciously intersex wooden idol which features alongside some benches in the centre of the ovoid selection of display cases–was an unexpected treat, coming as it did after a wall of interchangeable and not particularly appetite-whetting stone axe heads of the kind obligatory to any discussion about Ancient Britain.

Artefacts preserved from the ancient histories of different cultures reach modern eyes due to a whole host of circumstances aligning correctly, and on a perpetually-wet island where a lot of the stone is intractible granite, the likelihood of finding complex, large-scale monuments and well-preserved documents of the sort which came to light in Egypt is remote. Our acidic soils and anaerobic bogs have given us unexpected wooden treasures such as the idol and Seahenge, leaving us mostly with a profusion of arrowheads and those same hand-axes.

There are, however, other methods of preservation and one case in this first area demonstrates one of the weirder ones: the deliberate calcification of important items in mineral-rich Yorkshire caves.

Dilettant antiquarian that I am, I simply hadn’t heard of this! The exhibition gets two very enthusiastic thumbs up for introducing me to two major and quite mind-blowing new things within the first section of the exhibit: an intersex/intentionally transgender idol actually labelled this way by the museum, and a case full of evidence of deliberate preservation/transformation by ancient Britons using a mineral process they doubtless found exactly as cool as their modern counterparts do.

Too, Too Solid Bone

With recent exhibitions one of the main problems I’ve seen repeat itself is the feeling that one should be using technology for technology’s sake: the discourses about whether VR headset walkthroughs will do away with museums altogether hotting up during pandemic lockdowns, the highly disappointing attempts to give video tours of planned exhibitions which overlooked the importance of personal choice and setting one’s own pace, the light shows which add nothing and in some cases actively detract from experience of an artefact on display or give the whole exhibition a disappointingly “fake” or “unreal” feel.

I’m happy to say none of that was in evidence here. The light shows, such as they were, concentrated on the elements which were of key importance to the exhibition’s central and uniting point: celestial events as viewed from the ground. There is, therefore, a wall-sized night sky focussing on the Pleiades in the section in which the (unphotographable) Nebra Sky Disc is displayed. There is a changing level of sunlight through shadowy standing stones at the exit, and there is a distant undulating landscape over which an artificial sun traverses repeatedly at the end wall, the turning point between down one stream of the exhibition flow and up the other. And that is all.

The remaining use of technology is to enhance existent artifacts. My particular approval goes to the ox wagon, displayed opposite the case of calcified antlers and shells, which imposes a light-lines drawing of the reconstruction over the remains before fading out again, giving visitors a chance to see both how it would have looked then, and how it looks now: linking the past to the present.

Bone is also in evidence as a material for use, of course: needles, toggles, and combs, flutes are made from it. And it is present in the form of two (warned-for) human skeletons, facing each other across a long eternity. Later in the exhibition, when warfare becomes a dominant way of life in the archaeological record, bones once again rise to the surface in a chaotic riverbed jumble which marks the site of a massacre.

Pilgrims or pioneers? asks the placcard beside this human skeleton, one of a pair, buried alongside grave goods in a sleeping position.

It All Henges On This

Fitting an entire henge in a museum space at full size would of course be a challenge, but the British Museum set itself that challenge and met it in a creative way: an artistic, 50% replication of the Seahenge wooden monument cleaves a semi-circle out of the second section of the exhibition opposite a line-up of mirroring carved stones taken from a variety of locations, most notably the finds at Orkney.

While the Seahenge replica is perhaps more visually arresting and a great photography trap, tying the exhibit together physically as well as acting as a stand-in for the metaphorical tie-together of Stonehenge itself, it’s the Orkadian displays which hold the more interest, inviting speculation on the nature of the temporary creative and spiritual settlements and their ritual destruction, on the ultimate purpose of the huge number and variety of fist-sized stone balls and their carvings, and on the role which the Orkadian project played in the wider, connected world of pre-historic Europe.

A close up of SeaHenge, a series of equidistant aged oak stumps, here presented on plinths
SeaHenge’s original form saw an upturned oak tree in the centre of the circle: the half-replica replaces this with an illuminated etching, casting an etheral impression over proceedings.

Past the Orkadian ritual settlement and its mysteries on one side, and Seahenge on the other, visitors were confronted first with the spectre of death, the buried travellers displayed facing each other, and then by what could be viewed as an underworld. The next secton of the exhibition is displayed entirely in the black of night, the better to highlight both the impressive display of gold torcs, and the highlight of the exhibition: the Nebra Sky Disc.

This section is all about the precious metals. The Nebra Sky Disc is constructed from gold and what looked like patina’d copper, and in the previous section the introduction of metalworking (bronze, initially) to the world of Stonehenge is noted to have marked the beginning of a shift in how the population related to the land, and to the sun, the source of all power. Metalworking was a powerful magic, and allowed symbols of power as well as tools to become portable. Centres of power were no longer tied so heavily to specific sacred sites. A seismic shift was underway.

The Nebra Sky Disc, depicting an important map of the constellations (necessary both for ritual and for navigation), thought seeming ancient and timeless, was in fact a great symbol of modernisation.

a wall full of golden torq necklaces, shaped like crescent moons, are displayed above a selection of urns

Fittingly, then, the vestibule in which this physically unimposing but archaeologically impressive disc and its surrounding displays of golden hats, torcs, and other ancient regalia resides marks the last stop before the change in the direction of the gallery’s flow: the next stage opens out into a mock-vista with a sun cycle projected onto the wall.

In this section the connections between the ancient world are brought to the fore via the medium of grave goods: jet beads from Whitby, which remained highly sought after until well into the modern era, were moved across the country by travelling peoples, and buried far from home. A ceremonial amber cup, constructed from materials source from the Baltic, buried in England. Without the written record left by later civilisations, archaeologists can only make highly educated guesses, and so there’s a lot of “maybe” and “possibly” and “probably” in the placard texts. This is, I have to say, an improvement on some of the mid-century anthropology and archaeology texts I’ve had a chance to look at recently, in which some highly suppositional and often since-disproven explanations are bandied about as mere commonsense!

The turn into the upward leg of the exhibition–if you imagine the exhibition mostly as a giant U-shape–towards the exit also coincides nicely with a thematic shift. Someone has clearly put a a lot of thought into how to use the space this time, and I appreciate that a lot; the last time the exhibition flow and themes so carefully mirrored each other in this space was the Manga exhibition.

Description: a silhouetted museum-goer inspects a slightly blurry illuminated case full of weaponry, mostly spear-heads and short swords
It’s all about the weapons in late-stage Stonehenge land

Weapons previously mostly limited to the ceremonial and the practical/hunting turn up in far greater number now. Many of them are ornamental, diplomatic gifts between leaders, but there is an undercurrent, and one which errupts into what feels like an inevitable violence in the form of a replica of the Tollense valley battle deathpit, a jumble of bones bearing horrific injuries. The Bronze Age has arrived, bringing with it war, and a near-simultaneous shift in the role of women in society.

The world of Stonehenge opened up further and further as the monument itself, already having undergone multiple iterations and different populations of people, already ancient by the Bronze Age, receeded in importance. Power became portable, masculine, unfixed from the land and carried in the hand as a weapon, a change which was only magnified and intensified by the passing into the Iron Age.

Two elongated wooden human figures stand on a crude ship. They have ovoid faces, stones for eyes, and clearly removable wooden penises
These elongated effigies, however, show certainty similarities with the ancient Glastonbury Idol, and indeed the (not on display here) Dagenham Idol, in the form of their removable/changeable genitalia. Something about the ability to transgress the boundaries between male and female was still of significant importance.

While the final section of the exhibition is richest in terms of artefacts, in some sense it suffers a little for that: the profusion of materials overloads the cases, and while individual pieces stand out (the cauldron, displayed in the centre of the flow of the exhibition, and the amber cup in vivid rusty red), the distinctions begin to blur together. At this point I started to get Object Fatigue, and it was clear other visitors were either giving up or clumping together in front of the cases and making it harder for themselves. The exhibition space here also narrows to a bottleneck as it prepares to finish. Charitably, this is evocative of the birth-canal-like exits of barrows, which were discussed in depth at the start of the exhibition, but mostly it just made it harder to concentrate.

At the close, we were confronted with the final image of Stonehenge, a silhouette with changing light levels behind a golden eclipse sun disc whose design “looks Aztec”, according to those friends who’ve spent less time looking at MesoAmerican artefacts recently and not noticed that most Aztec, Mayan, and indeed Moche art favoured a lot more sinuous and curved lines than they’re giving it credit for! The little eclipse disc was a suitable ending point and both mirrored and contrasted with the small stone lamp from the similar position at the start, harking back to when the power of the sun was considered fixed and related to the stone, instead of picked out as a portable symbol of wealth as much as ritual power.

Unfortunately this choice was a little undermined by a half-hearted decision to tie Ancient History to modernity through the selection of a couple of William Blake prints and some news articles about more recent interactions with the site. I felt the story of the site’s active use was quite enough to stand on its own, that the monument is globally well-known enough that it doesn’t need to scrabble for modern relevance, and that the Blake in particular smacked of a lack of curatorial confidence and also a lack of committment to that lack of confidence.

Demystification

Perhaps fortunately, many of the overriding mysteries of Stonehenge and the time periods that saw it in use will continue regardless of this exhibition, and no doubt regardless of any future finds: it is the nature of cultures without writing, and cultures where most artefacts are perishable items made of fibres or wood, that any concrete proof of theories remains forever out of archaeological reach. Which isn’t to say that the surrounds don’t still render up surprises, finds which simultaneously illuminate while casting new shadows in which speculation can thrive: in this exhibition I was thrilled to learn of a recent-ish discovery of a probable-shaman figure in nearby Wiltshire, whose mystical kit included a golden awl believed currently to have been used for tattooing.

An ambitious attempt to rescue Ancient Britain from her isolation in the cultural memory and emphasise the interconnectedness of our land-ancestors was pulled of pretty well here, and if it feels pointed in the light of current affairs, perhaps that’s for the best. ]

3 thoughts on “Ancient History Repeating: The World of Stonehenge

  1. Wow. Thank you so very much for writing such an illumined piece.
    I now want to jump on a plane immediately to come see the exhibition.

    Like

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