As the UK’s most famous ancient monument, it is a sight familiar to millions around the world. But despite its popularity both as a tourist attraction and as an icon of Britishness, there is a sense in which Stonehenge has always felt strangely isolated.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985, it sits in apparent solitude amid the vast and sparsely populated chalk downlands of Salisbury Plain. And with no contemporary record of its construction for us to consult, it often seems cut off from our conception of history, too.
As we are reminded this week on The Past, however, Stonehenge did not come out of nowhere. Nor was it, as the 12th-century chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth suggested, magically delivered to its current home with help from the wizard Merlin. Rather, it was the extraordinary result of several distinct periods of activity, stretching from about 3,000 BC to 1,500 BC.
As curators Neil Witkin and Jennifer Wexler explain in the new issue of Current Archaeology, a major new exhibition, The World of Stonehenge (opening at the British Museum on 17 February), is designed to deepen our understanding by placing Stonehenge in this wider context – drawing together more than 430 objects from across Europe to explore the ideas it expressed, the natural and material landscapes that its builders would have known, and the many social, cultural, and technological upheavals witnessed over the 1,500 years of its construction. We are pleased that Jennifer is also the special guest on this week’s edition of The PastCast, our brilliant podcast.
Elsewhere this week, we’ve also been digging in the archives to reveal more about Stonehenge past and present: we rounded up the most surprising recent discoveries about the site; we visited the Preseli Hills, in Pembrokeshire, where its famous bluestones were quarried; and we even dropped in at the Visitor Centre to see how its presentation has been transformed over the years.
And finally, if all that whets your appetite for more, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed Quiz, which this week also focuses on Stonehenge. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!
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