The World of Stonehenge, British Museum
As you walk into the dark of the new Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum, you are presented with two backlit objects: first, a stone stele decorated with people and animals under a blazing sun. It is dated 2600BC and is from Italy. Next to it, a blazing golden neck piece from Ireland, circa 800BC. The first is a standing stone, of which Stonehenge is of course the world’s most famous example, a public monument around which people gathered to worship and celebrate. The second is a personal, portable object made from the sun-like precious metal that was brought to Britain and Ireland from continental Europe about 4,500 years ago. The inter-relation between the personal and the public, the power of the sun and of gold, is at the heart of this extraordinary exhibition.
The first part of the exhibition is designed to bring us into the world as it was when Stonehenge was constructed. There was movement of peoples from across Europe, farming was being introduced. But this is no school Stone Age history book with drawings of mud huts and families outside with spears. I am not sure I have ever been to a show where the objects on display ‘speak’ so powerfully. And if you want to demonstrate to a child (or an adult) that archaeology is not about dry old stones, this is the place to come.
There is an antler headdress found with the body of the ‘Bad Durrenberg shaman’. Modern science amazingly can show that she had a rare condition that caused her to lose control of her body and enter trances. There is a photo of what she might have looked like. She was buried with a 4–6 month old baby. There are beautiful bone necklaces from the Orkneys, a vibrant community circa 3000BC that ended its days in a violent act of self-destruction after a millennium. Watch the bones of two oxen come to life with a short video projection that turns the bones into real oxen pulling a cart. There is the ‘Glastonbury Idol’, a human body with both male and female body parts found in the ‘transitional’ marsh landscape of the Somerset wetlands. The display cabinets are well spaced, there is a hypnotic background soundscape. Huge credit to the curatorial team - it is beautifully done.
There are loads of spears, a pair of ginormous tridents from the Irish sea and some super-cool stone balls from eastern Scotland, about 3000BC. There is the bluestone from the Preseli hills in Wales, dragged to form the first Stonehenge stones. There is not, obviously, Stonehenge itself. But in its place, a wooden timber circle, dubbed Seahenge, discovered under the sands of a Norfolk beach in 1998. It is perfect. You approach the wooden posts in awe.
In the next section of the exhibition the Bronze Age comes storming in and with it the rise of the individual. Gold is everywhere – look at the breastplate of the Welsh lady buried in 1900BC. The extraordinary Nebra Sky Disc, the oldest surviving representation of the cosmos anywhere in the world. Delicate golden armlets and earrings, strange elongated golden hats that could belong to a witch. Beautiful, magical treasures.
But time is marching on. A time of trade, of progress, of war. As the importance of Stonehenge recedes with the arrival of the Beakers (yup, named after the distinctive pots they had) from the Netherlands, the body count goes up. You move into this section of the exhibition with two carefully laid out individual skeletons. The night skyline fills the back wall and you turn towards the exit, with a frightening mass array of human skeletons - a war grave from a German battlefield. Stonehenge has become a symbol, now in relief against a red sky, ‘for the generations of people who have made meaning from an enduring place in a changing world.’
There are a few labels specifically designed for kids (ages 7–11) but the show doesn’t really need them. With an adult on hand to guide (and read any explanations that are tricky) this will be a family trip that will live in the memory for all. It is magnificent.
The Making of Stonehenge is at the British Museum 17 February–17 July. Tickets: £20 adults, £18 students and 16–18s, under 16s free.
14 February, 2022