Stonehenge’s distinctive silhouette in the flat landscape of the Salisbury Plain in southwestern England is immediately and iconic.
However, the 4,500-year-old monument and the world it encapsulated remains deeply mysterious – there are no written records that shed light on its significance and significance.
A major new exhibition at the British Museum, which collects 430 beautiful objects from the UK and Europe, aims to shed light on the rapidly changing and surprisingly sophisticated world that has centered on Stonehenge for thousands of years.
“It’s almost like we’ve come to know the monument too much, but the context and the people are missing from the photo,” said Neil Wilkin, chief curator of the exhibition.
“We don’t really understand the monument until you understand what’s happening in that world the moment it’s built.”
Spanning a period of 8,000 years, the exhibit brings to life radical changes: the shift from hunter-gatherer culture to agriculture and the transition from making stone tools and sculpted rocks to mastering metals such as bronze and gold.
Stonehenge is a quintessentially English landmark, but the grave goods and other exhibits on display reveal long-distance connections to Ireland, the Orkneys, Scotland, France, Germany — even ancient Greece.
Headdress, c.9000 BC, Star Carr, North Yorkshire. Credit: © The Trustees of the British Museum
At that time, life was deeply intertwined with nature. An 11,000-year-old headdress made from the grazed skull of a deer, found in North Yorkshire, is said to have granted special status to its wearer.
Stone circles are perhaps the best-known remnants of this era, but rarely surviving timber circles were also an integral part of the landscape.
An important exhibit is Seahenge – a wooden circle of 55 wooden posts around an upturned oak, whose roots reach up into the sky like tentacles. It didn’t appear until 1998 after spending millennia in the sands of a beach in eastern England. Like Stonehenge, it was built to align with the path of the sun, and the tree rings of the oak and stilts reveal that it was built in the spring and summer of 2049 BC. Some think that the oak stump carried a corpse during funeral rites.
This finely crafted jadeite ax head is made from material mined 6,500 to 5,500 years ago in the high Italian Alps. It is said to have belonged to some of the first farmers to arrive in Britain. Credit: The trustees of the British Museum
A beautiful jadeite ax head, made from Italian rock, heralds the arrival of farmers from continental Europe. It was found discarded along a raised wooden path, built 3,800 years ago by some of the first farmers, that crossed a swamp near Glastonbury, not far from Stonehenge. The battered shelves and supports are also part of the exhibition.
The Schifferstadt golden hat dates back to 1600 BC and was found in Germany. It is thought to be a cosmic calendar. Credit: Kurt Diehl/Historical Museum of the Palatinate Speyer
The exhibit also includes two cone-shaped gold hats believed to be cosmic calendars.
“These are conjectures of astronomical knowledge that we’re really surprised people had,” Wilkin said.
Despite the Nebra celestial disk being buried in Germany, the gold inlaid on the artifact is now known to come from Cornwall, England. Bodies buried in the shadow of the monument have also revealed that Stonehenge was formed by waves of immigration. A man known as the Amesbury Archer, who was buried close to Stonehenge, along with remarkable copper tools and gold ornaments, came from present-day Switzerland.
“Those long-distance connections are shown by science, and that’s very helpful in understanding that Stonehenge wasn’t an isolated culture, they were actually really connected,” Wilkin said.