Arts & Culture Culture History

Stonehenge: Humans Remain

  • March 8, 2022
  • 5 min read
Stonehenge: Humans Remain

by Karen Butler

More mysteries of Stonehenge and the people who created it have been revealed at the British Museum with a unique exhibition, transforming our understanding of this iconic monument.

The exhibition explores the history of Britain and Europe from 4000 to 1000 BC and brings together over 400 objects from diverse collections around Europe for the first time. This eclectic collection places Stonehenge firmly in its historical context, in light of a new society, not long emerging from an Ice Age.

It does not involve itself in any of the ongoing mysteries of the stones themselves, but concentrates on giving rare insights into the type of people who lived and travelled to the landscape, bringing objects from afar, which record a period of immense transformation, and radical ideas, which were to change society forever. 

Introducing the exhibition is a tiny cup/aromatic burner. It could be mistaken for a souvenir, for it is clearly a representation of Stonehenge, and an object made centuries after it was built, and found three hundred miles away in Yorkshire. The glowing embers it would have held encapsulates Stonehenge’s far-reaching popularity and belief that the stones held certain powers.

The exhibition opens up in a roughly chronological fashion through a rapidly changing world from the Neolithic into the Bronze Age, and beyond. It depicts a society on the cusp of change from hunter/gatherers, to settled farmers, to warring seafarers. The choice of objects and creative displays are captivating, and chart fundamental changes in peoples’ relationships with the sky, the land and each other.

A large wall of hand knapped stone axe heads, quarried from sacred sources, shaped and beautifully polished to reveal the stones’ individual qualities, could easily adorn any modern art gallery. An elaborate antler headdress embellished with polished bones from wild boar and bison, was once the property of a female shaman. Buried upright and covered in red ochre paint, with a polished throat boar bone around the neck, suggests that this woman would communicate with the spirits on behalf of her community. Turn around, and what looks like some sturdy wooden benches is actually a preserved walkway dating back to 3800 BC.

When it was initially laid down on its ancient watery landscape, its supports were made of alder wood, which was known never to rot when left under water. This is compelling evidence of a knowledgeable society working together for the safety of the community. Found within this same area of marshland is a very rare wooden figurine, a small statue of a human body with both male and female body parts. Why? We are given no explanation. Yet, it is these cryptic and titillating finds that imbues the subject of Stonehenge with its ongoing mystery.

Orkney is represented as a centre of cultural innovation before Stonehenge’s existence, and some of the most recent ground-breaking discoveries are being shown here for the first time. The exhibition moves through the world of stone and wood into gold, where people from Continental Europe travelled to live and trade near Stonehenge. They brought new ideas, skills and objects, providing a range of portable artefacts, which could imbue the wearers with a close, personal connection to the higher powers.

The slow death of Stonehenge had begun. Now, as then, Gold discs reflect and hold the power of the sun in symbolism and beliefs. This part of the exhibition is filled with precious neck collars, ear spools, which could stretch the earlobes to up to 5cm, and huge magnificent gold hats dating back to 1600 BC. The gold discs are exhibited in a myriad of sizes but the Nebra Sky Disc stands out, showing an advanced astronomical knowledge of the Pleiades.

As warfare began in Europe (a consequence of the expansion of trade), Stonehenge had stood for 2000 years and no longer attracted large gatherings. The objects displayed from this period reflect the evolved skill of the goldsmiths, which were soon to be adopted as weapons of war. Shields and helmets, swords and spears, offer a stark reminder of how conflict was now a major part of society from around 1250 BC. This is the end of an era as depicted by this exhibition, which ends as it began. A small pendant made of gold shimmers with reflected light depicting a setting sun is a stunning piece, used by over 60 generations of goldsmiths by the time it was made. But don’t forget to turn around to find one last hidden delight showing the clear connection with a burgeoning European superpower, and of the future.

This is a fascinating exhibition that leaves you in awe at how this has all been brought together from collections all over Britain and Europe.

The world of Stonehenge is on at the British Museum until 17th July 2022 and should be booked in advance. 

British Museum. Great Russell Street, London. WC1B 3DG


Exhibition: The World of Stonehenge. 17th Feb – 17th July, 2022

About Author