The world of Stonehenge

In February, the UK’s first major exhibition focusing on the story of Stonehenge will open at the British Museum. Carly Hilts went to a preview of the upcoming blockbuster to find out more.

The imposing silhouette of Stonehenge is one of the most recognisable archaeological sights (and sites) in the UK, if not the world. For many, the Neolithic stones appear to stand in glorious isolation on Salisbury Plain – but recent geophysical surveys have revealed what a monument-crowded landscape this once was (see CA 296 and 320). An exhibition set to open at the British Museum next month, however, will place the Wiltshire landmark in its wider context, exploring the world that its builders knew and the immense social, cultural, and technological changes that the site witnessed.

Organised in partnership with the State Museum of Prehistory, Halle/Saale, Germany, the exhibition will feature more than 430 objects drawn from 35 institutions across the UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Denmark, and Switzerland. These artefacts will include new archaeological discoveries from the Stonehenge landscape and from key sites like the Ness of Brodgar in Orkney, many of which have never been on public display before.

left The Nebra Sky Disc, the earliest known representation of the cosmos.
The Nebra Sky Disc, the earliest known representation of the cosmos. Image: LDA Sachsen-Anhalt, Juraj Lipták.

The exhibition’s story begins before the building of Stonehenge, in the hunter-gatherer world of the Mesolithic – a landscape that curator Neil Wilkin describes as one of ‘wild woods and wild animals’ – where objects like one of the deer skull ‘frontlets’ found at Star Carr (CA 282 and 349) hint at how people understood and related to their natural surroundings. The displays will then trace how Britain made the transition to a Neolithic way of life, as new ideas including farming and animal husbandry arrived from the Continent. Huge monuments began to rise within these shores, and intricate new artistic styles evolved in Orkney and Ireland.

These Continental connections gave rise to far-ranging trade networks and migration in the Bronze Age, something that will be reflected by the inclusion in the exhibition of grave goods from some of the richest burials from the Stonehenge landscape. These include artefacts interred with the ‘Amesbury Archer’, an individual who had travelled from central Europe, and was laid to rest three miles from Stonehenge with objects reflecting the new technologies, particularly metalworking, that had travelled with him and his contemporaries (CA 184 and 265). Exemplifying these long-distance commercial links is the cargo of the Langdon Bay shipwreck, found near Dover. This mass of metal objects was being transported from what is now France to Britain when they were lost to the waters – and the scale of this collection highlights that it was not just individual objects being carried across the Channel: this was a significant, organised trade.

As well as commercial developments, The World of Stonehenge explores the evolution of different religious ideas. Stonehenge’s own solstice-centred alignment points to a keen awareness of the heavens, as does the Nebra Sky Disc, the oldest surviving depiction of the cosmos, which will travel to the UK for the first time as part of the exhibition. Some of the other objects on display reflect an interest in solar imagery: these include striking conical gold hats from France and Germany which are covered in solar symbols, and the Shropshire bulla, cover star of CA 349. This gold pendant, adorned with geometric designs, has potent Irish parallels and, for Neil Wilkin, ‘evokes the world of solar symbols, connectivity, restless creativity – it distils all the themes of our exhibition, and all in a jewel that fits in the palm of the hand.’

left The Schifferstadt gold hat, c.1600 BC, found in Germany.
The Schifferstadt gold hat, c.1600 BC, found in Germany. Image: Historisches Museum der Pfalz, Speyer.

Of all the objects included in the exhibition, however, one of the star loans is an actual monument from the time of Stonehenge – not one of the Salisbury Plain sarsens, but elements of Seahenge, the Bronze Age timber circle revealed by shifting sands on a Norfolk beach in 1998 (CA 167 and 219). The 4,000-year-old monument represents a rare survival of the wooden circles that are thought to have scattered the prehistoric landscape – including around Stonehenge.

Further information
The World of Stonehenge runs from 17 February until 17 July 2022 at the British Museum in London. For more information, see www.britishmuseum.org/stonehenge.
Stonehenge is cared for by English Heritage; for more about the site, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/stonehenge.