The British Museum’s big exhibition for 2022 is the crowd-puller The World of Stonehenge, on until July. James Burge went to see it for Historia and found surprises, mystery, and exquisite displays.
Stonehenge is probably the most famous mysteriously atmospheric building in the world. The monument’s celebrity is filling The World of Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum day after day. In the show the henge provides a 3,000 year timeline but the main subject is the people who built the stone circles and (to quote the accompanying book by Duncan Garrow) their relationships with the sky, the land and each other.
Visitors in search of atmosphere will not be disappointed as they enter a dark gallery where brightly lit exhibits draw the attention in all directions. Plainly written, well nuanced captions guide us round stone, bone, wood and gold, weaving a subtle narrative as they go.
‘Warning: This exhibition may make you quite interested in stone axes’ is what should be displayed on the way in. Early on we encounter about a hundred of the things, mounted on bright panels, aligned like a flight of birds.
There are sharp cutting edges for fine work, some are blunt instruments shaped perfectly for the hand, some are pitted with use, others smoothed so flat and fine that Brȃncuşi would envy them. The colours range from utilitarian grey to exotic mottling and flash stripes. These were obviously desirable objects.
We cannot help wondering about the people whose skills are so evident here. In the absence of writing there is little information but still, at some level, it seems possible to feel their presence. It is that mysterious, probably unreliable, sensation of contact that is the basis of the appeal of Stonehenge.
Mystery continues to be a theme as we progress. There are exquisite little cylindrical stone drums of which no one is even able to guess at the purpose. The same is true of the series of decorated stone balls that seem to have been popular in Scotland, not to mention the widespread craze for decorating rocks with spiral grooves.
Archaeology provides more information, often still mysterious. Why, for example, would the people of the Ness of Brodgar in Orkney suddenly, around 2,500 BC, smash up their settlement, slaughter their animals and then have a feast leaving the bones on top of their ruined homes? But that’s what they did.
Some of the evidence, on the other hand, has a poignancy that reaches across time, as with the grave of three children buried with their special objects, two of them laid in the earth holding hands.
In the first part of the show we meet a people who, the catalogue tells us, drew value and meaning from a deep sense of kinship with the environment and left few traces. Now we encounter a profound societal change. It seems to coincide with the construction of the last substantial and indeed the only unique feature of Stonehenge: the massive arch structures known as the trilithons.
This is the time when metal was used for the first time and trade in the objects it made increased. A caption suggests to us that ‘greater interpersonal inequality and violence may have come about through the growth of trade and exchange of metal in its raw and worked forms’.
The advent of metal is illuminated by a room-full of extraordinary bling. Highlights are an upper-body garment made entirely of worked gold and two, frankly ludicrous, tall conical hats also in pure gold. They are worth the cost of the ticket alone.
Fractured bones and pierced skulls from about a dozen individuals have been fixed in just the positions in which they were found. Once more, across the gulf of millennia, the visitor is impelled to imagine these people.
But this time it is not a barely comprehensible, mysterious scene – we have seen it for ourselves far too often on television.
The exhibition resists (just) the temptation to make any bold claims about some neolithic golden age from which we have all been expelled. It would be almost impossible to substantiate such an idea rigorously. But it would not be entirely impossible to come away from this show reflecting that perhaps things do not necessarily have to be exactly the way they are.
The last word is given to the eminent 20th-century archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes for her remark that ‘every age has the Stonehenge it deserves’. With its concentration on ‘works of collaboration and creativity in stone’ perhaps this exhibition actually gives us a Stonehenge that is rather better than we deserve.
James Burge writes books about the Middle Ages and makes videos.
He’s reviewed a number of TV programmes and films for Historia, including:
The Windermere Children
The Crown, season 3
Charles I: Downfall of a King
Victoria and Abdul
British History’s Biggest Fibs With Lucy Worsley
See more about the British Museum’s The World of Stonehenge exhibition. It’s open until 17 July, 2022.
If you’re interested in the events of the Bronze Age, you might enjoy these features:
The triumph of Greek myths and the destruction of a civilisation by Hilary Green
Troy: an ancient story for a modern age, a review of the British Museum’s 2020 Troy: Myth and Reality exhibition by Emily Hauser
The Trojan Wars: Men or Myths? by Hilary Green
Women of the Trojan War by Emily Hauser
Beware of Greeks: when Homer meets Holmes by Peter Tonkin
Images (all supplied by the British Museum or the author):
- Stonehenge: ©English Heritage
- Exhibition visitors looking at stone axe display: by James Burge, 2022
- The Schifferstadt gold hat, c1600 BC, which was found with three bronze axes Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany: Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer
- The Tollense display: by James Burge, 2022