The majestic, seemingly timeless sight of Stonehenge, standing for millennia on the Salisbury Plain, is one familiar to many, drawing the attention of artists for centuries, among them Turner, Constable, and Henry Moore. The image we have of vast trilithons – trios of stones resembling doorways – conjures up permanence, but the monument as we know it today was not the first at the site, nor was it alone in its surrounding landscape.
Between about 5,000 and 3,500 years ago, Stonehenge saw intense activity and many transformations, reflecting its enduring importance for successive generations of people. It bore witness to wider developments in prehistory, with the arrivals of newcomers from continental Europe, as well as new metal technology, contributing to innovations in material culture. The iconic monument stands as a powerful stony testament to people finding their place in the cosmos. This was not something that happened in isolation in south-west England, but, as a new British Museum exhibition explores, on a wider scale in Ireland, the Scottish Islands, the Danish coast, Germany, and many other places across Europe. The first Stonehenge – a circular earthwork enclosing an inner space – was built using antler tools around 3000 BC. In its interior was a ring of 56 pits for holding timber or stone posts, now known as the Aubrey Holes. Even before this, the wider Stonehenge landscape served as a monumental meeting place. An older earthwork – the Larkhill causewayed enclosure – was constructed as early as 3750-3650 BC, just 4km away from the famous stone circle.
Around 4,500 years ago, work on Stonehenge as we know it began. The vast, imposing sarsens – a hard sandstone, sourced from Marlborough Downs 25km away – were set up in a horseshoe in the centre of the now 500-year-old enclosure. Unusually, the stones were pounded to make them smooth and more rectangular, extra attention to detail afforded to this special monument. The placement of the horseshoe carefully considered the sun. To the north-east, its axis aligns with the rising sun at the summer solstice, and the setting midwinter sun to the south-west. For the Neolithic farming communities who worked on this monumental feat, the passage of the sun and these turning points during the year were crucial. The all-powerful sun determined the well-being of crops.
Surrounding the horseshoe, smaller bluestones (from the distant Preseli mountains in west Wales, some perhaps repurposed from the Aubrey Holes) were placed in a (possibly incomplete) circle, and around them a further circle of sarsens. The bluestones were later rearranged into a horseshoe inside the sarsen horseshoe, and a complete circle within the sarsen circle. These bluestones held some magnetic allure for many centuries to come. They were attributed with magical properties, as the 12th-century Geoffrey of Monmouth described, and chips were taken from them, perhaps for use in amulets.
Stonehenge may be the most famous stone circle, but it was by no means alone. There are an estimated 1,300 stone circles across Britain, Ireland, and Brittany in the north of France, among them the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney, and Avebury, not far from Stonehenge. Other Neolithic architecture reflects ideas similar to those we see at the site. Substantial communal effort was needed, for example, for magnificent passage graves in Ireland and Orkney. At Newgrange (Ireland) and Maeshowe (Orkney), the light of the rising midwinter sun pours in and floods the main chamber. This combination of light and place of burial perhaps represents a link between the power of the sun and the cyclical nature of life.
Monuments were built out of wood too. In 1998, carefully arranged pieces of wood were discovered in the sands of the north Norfolk coast, a liminal space where land meets the water, and where the sun rises out of the sea. Dubbed Seahenge, this remarkable discovery was an Early Bronze Age timber circle, its wood dated to the spring of 2049 BC. This was a time when metal was firmly on the rise, about 500 years after Stonehenge. The old ideas – the organic world and importance of wood and the sun – met new technology and metal tools. Connections between Seahenge, landscape, sky, and nature are reflected in the exhibition by work by artist and archaeologist Rose Ferraby.
The original 55 oak posts were placed closely together, completely enclosing the central space, apart from a small opening (with a small cover to control access) that aligned with the summer solstice sunrise. With a large upturned stump at its centre, roots in the air, it would have made an impressive sight. Jennifer Wexler, project curator of The World of Stonehenge, says, ‘You probably would have only seen the upper bits of the roots, looking like branches, so it would have looked like a giant tree essentially, which is pretty fascinating.’
One suggestion to explain the stump is that it could have been used for excarnation practices. ‘There is a question there and we unfortunately can’t know for sure,’ Wexler adds. ‘Was the idea of regeneration perhaps even connected to burial? If a person, a body, was put on to the central stump, if they’re exposed to the light of the solstice, does that bring in some regenerative properties?’
The natural world and organic resources like trees would have been of great importance during the time of Stonehenge, as they had been before, but organic materials rarely survive. What does survive is a world of stone, and later metal. Carved into walls of Neolithic tombs and buildings in Orkney, into stone objects like enigmatic decorated balls, and into rock panels in the open air are a range of motifs, among them dense spirals and concentric circles, zigzags and chevrons, lozenges, oblongs, and triangles. Shared motifs found all across Britain and in Ireland point to connectivity between far-flung regions and shared beliefs, or at least some common ways of creative expression.
Attention to the details and quality of the stone is an important characteristic of Neolithic art, whose makers clearly appreciated their materials and sought out special, sometimes possibly sacred, sources. An exquisite example of carefully chosen stone is a beautifully coloured and laboriously worked piece of flint with an earthy orange-brown that fuses into milky white. Found in the passage grave at Knowth in Ireland, the object is a mace-head whose decorations in relief resemble a face – though whether this was its maker’s intention is impossible to know.
Wexler comments, ‘It’s not just the rock you find walking down the road. They have this deep knowledge of where these materials are coming from in the landscape.
‘I always joke that the Neolithic people were the first geologists. I spent a lot of time going through our stone axe collection in the British Museum for the wall of axes in the exhibition. They’re stone and flint, and some of them are polished beautifully. The colours are amazing – it’s made me quite obsessed with them! You realise that these are not just some practical object to work with. Yes, there’s an element of that, they’re practical tools, but a lot of them were also objects of beauty.’
This can be seen in the alluringly smooth green jadeitite axes. Sourced from rock outcrops high in the Italian Alps, they have travelled far and wide, passing hands over centuries and even – though rarely – reaching Britain. The effective high polish adds little to their functionality, but it emphasises the symbolic and aesthetic value that these objects had.
Around the time when the bluestones of Stonehenge were rearranged and the sarsens were set up is also roughly when we see metalwork arriving in Britain and Ireland, bringing with it the potential to create new objects to connect with the power of the sun. The availability of gold, a shiny, yellow metal that doesn’t tarnish, and that looks like and could reflect the sun, allowed long-standing cosmic ideas that were attached to fixed monuments to move into portable objects.
Gold appears in the Early Bronze Age burial of the Amesbury Archer. This man was interred 4km from Stonehenge around 2300 BC, far from what study of his remains suggests was his original home, possibly in Switzerland. His is an early example of a lavish individual burial in Britain, and one of the richest in Europe at the time, complete with numerous carefully arranged objects. Among them are five locally made Beaker pots (a style of pottery originating in Iberia that spread around Europe), flint arrowheads, a small anvil or cushion stone, and two gold ornaments possibly to be worn in the hair, crafted in a British style, though the metal was probably sourced from the Continent. He may have been a specialist metalworker, seemingly highly regarded if his burial is anything to judge by, who brought with him technical expertise from afar.
Sun-discs are among the novel objects that came into being between around 2450 and 2000 BC. Small, delicately thin circles of gold sheet of this period have been found mainly in Ireland (where 29 have been recorded), but also in Britain and in lesser numbers in France and Iberia. Some have holes that may have been used to sew them on to clothing, making these portable – and even wearable – symbols of the sun. Some are decorated with circles and dots, others with crosses evoking radiating beams. It has been suggested that some of these designs may even represent real solar effects at specific times.
Sheet gold was also used for beautiful, paper-thin collars called lunulae (named for their crescent moon-like shape) in the same period as the gold sun-discs. Around 80 are known from Britain and Ireland, with others found in France, Iberia, Denmark, and Germany. These too are decorated with sun-like motifs, with triangles resembling rays. Their middles, though, are generally left unadorned as a plain shiny surface, perhaps more perfectly to reflect the power of the sun at the very centre of the object.
Wearable visions of the sun persisted. Later, in Scandinavia, large bronze discs full of spirals and sun motifs adorned belts that were buried in the graves of some women. An interesting feature of these discs is the conical point that extends out from their exact centres, making them more three-dimensional and perhaps marking the centre of the sun’s power. Other potential three-dimensional evocations of the sun and its power come in the form of extraordinary gold ‘hats’. Four of these strikingly tall objects have been discovered – two in Germany, one in Germany or Switzerland, and one in France. The wafer-thin hammered gold was decorated using bone or wood punches to cover the hats with dense bands of circles and solar crosses (like on the gold sun-discs). Their undeniably eye-catching appearance may have helped give the wearer the appearance of some higher power. Various suggestions have been made and debated: that they are symbols of power or authority, or even that they are some form of calendar.
Also from Germany is one of the clearest images of Bronze Age engagement with cosmic events, the Nebra Sky Disc, which is on loan to the UK for the first time for this exhibition. Found in Nebra in 1999 by metal-detectorists operating illegally, and recovered by the authorities a few years later, the remarkable Bronze Age disc measures some 30cm across. On a bronze background that originally would have been a nocturnal purple are pieces of gold marking out a celestial map. The very fabric of the disc speaks to connections across Europe. Analysis has shown that the copper in the bronze came from a local source in Germany, but probably the gold (and possibly also the tin) came all the way from Cornwall.
Buried around 1600 BC, the Nebra Sky Disc illustrates one of the more complex visions of the cosmos that began to emerge around that time. We see on its face a gold crescent moon, a large circle (initially the full moon, but perhaps later representing the sun), and a scattering of small stars, seven in a distinct cluster. This cluster is thought to be the Pleiades, which are considered ‘calendar stars’ as they only appear between October and March, and are linked to the passing of agricultural years in some cultures.
Adapted several times during its life, the Disc was clearly valued for an extended period before being deposited in a hoard. During this second phase of the Disc’s use, the full-moon circle probably represented the sun. Two thin gold horizon arcs were added to the sides (one was lost, probably before its burial), and mark the range of points on the horizon where the sun rises and sets in the solar year, with the solstice sunrises and sunsets enshrined at their ends. Recording similar solsitce alignments as the stones at Stonehenge and other astronomical phenomena, the Nebra Sky Disc is, as Wexler notes, in some ways a portable version of the older monument.
At the bottom of the Disc is the addition from its third phase: a relatively narrow curving strip of gold represents a boat that can carry the sun or moon between the two horizons. Around its edges are perforations from its fourth phase of usage.
Archaeological evidence from Denmark puts the boat and the perforations into further context. One intriguing Danish find is a ‘sun holder’, a small bronze lollipop-like object with a translucent amber disc, dating back to c.1200 BC. A cross was worked into the amber, like some of the imagery from the golden sun-discs, and other solar imagery in Germany, Scandinavia, and central Europe. The object may have been a diminutive sun-standard for a model boat. The Nebra disc may have had a similar function later in its life. Its perforations indicate that it was attached to something – perhaps a belt, or a ceremonial standard.
In northern Europe – especially Scandinavia and northern Germany – the ship and the horse had become the most prominent elements of solar imagery. They feature in a range of objects such as golden cups with horse-shaped handles, hinting at a religious feasting connected with the sun; a double snake-horse hybrid that was uncovered in a bronze hoard in Jutland; and the famous Trundholm Sun Horse, a bronze model of a horse pulling a two-sided gold sun-disc. The ship also features, for example, in a wooden figure from Roos Carr, northern England, at the end of the Bronze Age. A rich body of imagery from decorated razors and rock art from the Scandinavian coasts, places connected to the rising and setting sun, tells us about the mythological cycle of the sun, in which this sun horse and the boat played important parts. At the beginning of the day, a fish takes the sun off the sun boat and then hands it to a bird. The bird gives it to the horse, who carries it across the sky, and then at the end of the day gives it to a snake. The snake takes the sun into the underworld where it can’t be seen, and where a boat then carries it through the night.
Back in Britain, around 3,500 years ago, metal was replacing stone in importance, and coastal and river connections further south – vital for trade of metals and other materials from the Continent – were pulling focus away from Stonehenge and the Salisbury Plain. Special locations in the natural landscape, rather than massive monuments like Stonehenge, became hubs of religious activity. Yet religious ideas about the sun persevered in some form for centuries after these changes.
One eloquent example of this is a rare golden pendant deposited in a watery landscape in Shropshire at the end of the Bronze Age, between around 1000 and 800 BC. Discovered by a metal-detectorist in 2018 (and acquired by the British Museum a couple of years after), the small golden object known as the Shropshire sun pendant dazzles with its triangular rays that bear some affinity to those on the lunulae made 1,000 years earlier. ‘It has that amazing incised design that almost looks Art Deco,’ Wexler remarks. ‘It has a shimmery sun design that you could interpret as a sunset or a sunrise, depending on which way you look at it.’
Such pendants were named bullae by antiquarians, owing to their resemblance to Etruscan and Roman bullae, often given to children as protective amulets. Six other gold bullae – rather different in shape, but with some similar geometric patterns – are known from Ireland. Only one other sun pendant has been found in Britain, near Manchester, in 1722. It has since been lost, but in the surviving illustrations it bears a striking similarity to the Shropshire example.
Excavations in the area where the Shropshire pendant was found have revealed other objects deposited in a marshy area, possibly with small islands and platforms for these watery offerings to supernatural forces, even later in the Iron Age and Roman period. Made around the same time as the pendant and using a similar technique are some crushed gold rings in a heavy lead envelope, discovered very close to the pendant.
‘There is almost an idea of performance with these objects,’ says Wexler. ‘It would have been quite a dramatic experience to watch someone deposit these precious objects into the murky water. You would have been able to look down and see these beautiful gold objects – even though they were crushed and encased in lead – sparkling away in the deep.
‘I think that’s also the amazing thing about the sun pendant. It came out of the ground and it was sparkling. You get the power of these objects that don’t diminish over time. Even now we’re still drawn to them.’
The World of Stonehenge runs at the British Museum in London from 17 February to 17 July 2022. Visit the website www.britishmuseum.org for more information. An accompanying book by Duncan Garrow and Neil Wilkin is also available (ISBN 978-0714123493, price £40). The exhibition is organised with the State Museum of Prehistory, Halle/Saale, Germany. You can hear more from Jennifer Wexler about the exhibition on a recent episode of The Past’s podcast, which can be found at https://the-past.com/podcasts.