Arts feature

Stupendous: The World of Stonehenge at the British Museum reviewed

Christopher Howse is bowled over by the astonishingartefacts in the British Museum’s Stonehenge exhibition

19 February 2022

9:00 AM

19 February 2022

9:00 AM

This exhibition is Hamlet without the Prince, and all the better for it. Stonehenge is not there; it remains in Wiltshire. But 430 astonishing artefacts from the neolithic and bronze ages fill a hairpin course like a Roman chariot-racing circuit in a vast room. It is blessedly free from videos of prehistoric Britons tugging on ropes to move monoliths.

There is a henge on display, though. (The word in its technical sense was invented in 1932 by Sir Thomas Kendrick, later director of the British Museum.) This is the Seahenge that emerged on the shore at Holme-next-the-Sea in 1998: 55 big oak posts round a two-ton upturned rooted trunk. Gloriously, being trees, they can be dated to a year: 2049 BC. It was sad that it had to be dug up, but here it is, anatomised in a museum. Like Stonehenge it is aligned with the sun.

In a generation, such fortuitous archaeological discoveries, combined with the finds of metal detectorists, have transformed knowledge of the centuries when Stonehenge throve. I fear, though, there’s a danger of losing the wood for the trees in the treasure house of The World of Stonehenge, so it is worth spending five minutes mugging up beforehand on the time-narrative on the museum website.

There is a story here, of the building 5,000 years ago of a circle of blue stones brought more than 120 miles from the Preseli mountains in Pembrokeshire. For 500 years cremation burials were made in the Wiltshire circle. Then the great sarsen stones with their lintels were erected, and the blue stones rearranged within their circle as if in a shrine, or, as Neil Wilkin the exhibition’s curator suggests, a museum.

Stonehenge was built when hunter-gatherers (following migratory animals and evolving into nomadic cattle raisers) turned into settled farmers. The Salisbury Plain location had been unforested since the ice age, with a big sky. Post holes romantically named after the car park excavated in 1966 date back 10,000 years, a stretch of ritual worship only to be guessed at. Stonehenge itself, after a millennium of use, began to show a cessation of activity by 1500 BC. It was already an ancient monument.

For me, though, it was not the narrative but the stupendous objects in the exhibition that bowled me over. I asked Neil Wilkin which exhibit he was most glad to have included, and of course he first said one (the seahenge), then another (Irish objects of gold and, from Knowth, an extraordinary carved mace head like a human face from 3500 BC), but then he took me back to the first item in the show, which, in my eagerness to see more, I’d not examined.

It was a sunholder: a little ring of bronze an inch and a half across on a shaft, like a lollipop. Within the ring is mounted a disc of amber, incised with a cross. Light coming through the amber makes it glow red. Perhaps it was attached to a model ship, for bigger sunholders were fixed to real boats and displayed in processions.

This sunholder, Danish from about 1200 BC, is of great beauty and, like many of the artefacts on show, has a reticence of artistry that comes not from primitive crudity but from the choices of an accomplished craftsman. None is more exactly judged than the Shropshire sun pendant, found in 2018 by a detectorist, perfectly shaped like a golden Art Deco tangerine segment, strictly incised with parallel semicircular grooves and triangular patches hatched to reflect the sun’s beams. Dr Wilkin likens it to the craftsmanship of Fabergé, and it seems to me in better taste.

A showier star of the exhibition is the celebrated Nebra sky disc, from 1600 BC. Found in 1999 by detectorists searching illegally 40 miles from Leipzig, it’s kept in Halle, usually, and I’d never seen it before. Its 20in disc (copper green but once black) shows the sun and moon in gold with stars, notably the Pleiades. If you care for present-day resonances, pubs called the Seven Sisters, or the underground station, refer to this star cluster. Old Hesiod wrote in 700 BC about the Pleiades marking the time in the sun’s year for harvest and for ploughing. Two dominant elements in the British Museum exhibition are evident here. One is the ever-present sun. The other is the absence of writing.

The sun glints from two golden hats from 1000 BC or earlier. These are extreme, outdoing any Welsh woman’s headgear, one being 30in high, with a curled brim. It reminded me of ‘How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin’ in the Just So Stories, where there is a Parsee ‘from whose hat the rays of the sun were reflected in more-than-oriental splendour’.

We don’t know who wore the hats or how. They wouldn’t have gone shopping in them. They suggest a hieratic function, certainly something ritual. A strong impression left by The World of Stonehenge is that man is a ritual animal; its objects are imbued with a human reaching for the transcendent.

Maybe these are not hats at all, except insofar as a plastic traffic cone is a hat when put on the head of the Duke of Wellington’s statue in Glasgow. The sun they certainly represent, since the expertly beaten thin surfaces are covered with lovely geometric decorations, including the sun-wheel.

The sun-wheel is a circular motif marked with a cross, like that amber sunholder. It is to be seen in the wheel and spokes of the sky-traversing Trundholm sun chariot from Denmark (about 1400 BC), which visited the Royal Academy in 2012. In its purest form, the sun-wheel is represented by gold sun discs, two or three inches across, marked with a cross that anyone unfamiliar with their prehistoric origins would take for a Christian symbol. So far, 29 sun discs have been found in Ireland, three in France, four on the Iberian peninsula and four in Britain, one of them in Wiltshire from around 2300 BC, when Stonehenge was up and running.

The beliefs that went with all these ritual objects are unknown. That is why the lack of writing is important. Stonehenge is contemporary with the Great Pyramid of Giza, but the Book of the Dead (from about 1000 BC) tells us about Egyptian beliefs, at least in mythic form. But in the many burials around Stonehenge (showing a development from the communal to the individual) did the mourners think that their kin really took grave goods into the next life? Or, as they could see that the objects remained in the grave, did they think instead that the dead benefitted from the goods in a sacramental way, as it were, enjoying what they signified?

We cannot tell, though that doesn’t stop hypothesisers. But we do know that the architectural marvel of Stonehenge was surrounded by a civilisation with enough time and skill to make it a living ritual site. From the first, transport and exchange figured in that life. If the advent of the iron age brought warfare and a break up of society, the trade routes of the Atlantic shores endured in a way that made the ancient Britons internationally cultured, not the barbarians in skins of past caricature.

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The World of Stonehenge is at the British Museum until 17 July.

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