The mysteries of Stonehenge have arrived in London, at an impressive new exhibition at the British Museum
This is an exhibition called Stonehenge, but isn’t about Stonehenge itself, but far more interestingly, the people and cultures that were able to create Stonehenge, and its eventual demise as a place of importance. Ranging from early fabrics, gold ornaments, the oldest known map of the stars, so many carved stones and so much surviving art, it’s a feast of a display.
Just as you can’t tell the history of Christianity by looking at Westminster Abbey, you can’t tell the story of the people by looking at Stonehenge. You need to range further and deeper, to the excavations of burial sites around Salisbury plain, but also to mainland Europe, to the Orkney Islands, to Ireland. This is a European display for a British monument.
That’s what the British Museum has done, pulling in exhibits from dozens of collections to tell the story of the people, not the stone.
As an exhibition, it opens in a space packed full of atmosphere. A small stone cup stands isolated and alone, made centuries after Stonehenge fell into disuse, it shows how even then, henge shaped trinkets were still valued. An amber disk from the top of a staff glows wonderfully evilly in the darkened room on a black monolith, next to a mysterious standing stone and a golden torc.
The oeuvre over, the main display is roughly chronological, from the people on the edge of moving from nomadic hunter-gathering to settled arable farming, through the Stonehenge era, and onto to beyond.
It’s sometimes difficult to make a room full of old things look exciting, and here, the choice of objects, some clever displays and information about the people make this captivating.
Objects remarkably preserved in wetlands are unexpected, from the rolls of birch tree bark used to make adhesive for tiny flint blades, to later on in the exhibition, clothing and fabrics. This was the wild times, and it’s very Herne the Hunter for a while, with deer skulls and headdresses dominating.
Deer skulls swiftly give way to a wall of flints laid out on a wall that would pass for a decent modern art gallery. Turn around and are those wooden benches? No, it’s a preserved walkway that once sat amongst the reeds of a watery land — and evidence of how nomadic groups were settling down and working together for the common good.
Stone axes from around the UK, and beyond into Europe, and I can’t help feel at times the curators have had a bit of fun in how they’ve labelled some of the objects and displayed them. A collection of axe heads from the Alps as trees is inspired. Small stones soon pass over to big stones, from all across the lands, showing off carvings and spiral decorations, how ideas flowed across the country and Europe and the close trade links that must have existed for that to happen.
An exhibition called Stonehenge can be presumed to be dominated by the stone age, but here’s the oldest known statue to have been made in Britain, which you can miss as it’s very small, and also both male and female in one body. It’s also made of wood which makes its survival remarkable. Dominating one corner is more wood, Seahenge excavated in Norfolk and now preserved. The rotted gnarled oaks mounted on plinths are oddly evocative. Are they ancient tree gods waiting to come alive again?
Mankind moved on, and we move out of stone and wood and into gold. Communal spaces for worship were being replaced with smaller objects belonging to individuals, migration with new ideas was increasing, and slow death of Stonehenge has begun.
We often look back at the European stone age as rather backward compared to its Egyptian and Mesopotamian cousins, and while our cities and monuments are smaller, this exhibition leaves you with no doubt that culturally, our ancestors were just as rich as any living at the time in the middle-east.
This is probably the largest exhibition the British Museum has put on for many years. You get to the end of the stones and think it’s finishing, and through a door into a room full of gold. Turn a corner, and another room opens up. Is it over yet? Nope, turn a corner and another corridor packed with objects that would make a good exhibition on their own.
Only then do you get to the end, a golden pendant in the shape of a setting sun, but no, stop! Turn around, there’s one last hidden delight on the back of the display case to look at.
Now you may leave.
This is an exceptional exhibition, of the sort that leaves you almost bewildered at how much has been brought together into one large space at the same time. It truly is up there with the big blockbuster exhibitions of the sort that you remember for the rest of your life.
Entry for adults is £22, although it’s free for members, which costs £69 and that gets you free entry to all their exhibitions for the year ahead.