Sophie Campbell



The wider World of Stonehenge

February 17, 2022
Stonehenge, Wiltshire, c. 3,000-1,500 BC © SC

It’s ironic. Just as the world’s most famous stone circle retreats into splendid isolation on Salisbury Plain – thanks to the closure of the A344, the building of a discreetly-distanced visitor centre and the burying of the A303 in a tunnel due to start next year – a new exhibition at the British Museum places it slap-bang in the middle of a slowly awakening and clearly cultured Neolithic Europe.

This, incredibly, is the first significant exhibition on the subject of Stonehenge in its wider context, not just at the British Museum but in Britain, and such is the concentration of spectacular objects on show that it’s hard to remember that the period covered here is not mere centuries, but millennia.

Life was slow. Flights of polished axe heads on the wall look deceptively simple, but on the floor a huge grooved polishing stone from Scandinavia is a reminder that each represents weeks, maybe months, of painstaking, repetitive work. Same with elegant Alpine axes of jadeite from Monte Viso, with their Kendal Mint Cake glitter, or those made of Langdale tuff from Cumbria, or the bed of black and white flints, oddly like chopped mushrooms, from the flint shafts at Grimes Graves in Norfolk.

Flight of the axeheads © SC

There’s a 3,500-year-old auroch skull with a label on its forehead saying ‘Bos primigenius, Burwell Fen’: its owner, a huge, horned bovine, was wandering around Cambridgeshire as Stonehenge slid into its final decline. As for a cabinet of mysterious stone balls from Scotland, I have seen similar objects in a collection in Argentina – could these be Neolithic bolas, roped and thrown to bring down animals?

Auroch skull, c. 3,500 BCE © SC
The mysterious stone balls © SCC

Every so often there is a gasp as somebody sees a sensational exhibit such as the Nebra Sky Disc, a flat circle of bronze green and gold, the world’s earliest surviving representation of the night sky, which was found in East Germany in 1999. Or the exquisitely incised chalk drum, the size of tea caddy, placed tenderly by the head of the eldest of three entombed children, two of whom are holding hands. They were buried around 5,000 years ago at Burton Agnes, near the coast of East Yorkshire.

There are over 400 items in this exhibition, two thirds of them loans from across Britain and Europe, stretching chronologically ‘from deep history to the present day’, says Hartwig Fischer, the museum’s director. They give us unprecedented insight into the materials and values of a world on the move.


World of Stonehenge
Nebra Sky Disc © British Museum
Incised chalk drum © SC

Perhaps the most striking exhibit is a section of ‘Seahenge’ (below), a Bronze Age circle of 55 tree trunks set around an upturned oak tree, re-discovered in 1998 on a North Norfolk Beach when the sea washed away its surrounding sand and peat. So fragile are they that this is the first time they have left Norfolk, thanks to the Lynn Museum, where half the tree circle can normally be seen. They probably formed some sort of ritual enclosure; we don’t know. Is it a coincidence that the original earthwork at Stonehenge, constructed a thousand years earlier, contained a circle of 56 timber posts?

Preserved oak timbers from 'Seahenge', North Norfolk © SCC

Striking they may be, but there’s competition. The Amesbury Archer, for example, found on a construction site six miles from Stonehenge with extensive grave goods, including arrowheads, on loan from the superb Wessex Gallery at the Salisbury Museum. And dazzling gold objects from the charming Wiltshire Museum at Devizes, found around the body of a warrior interred in Bush Barrow, overlooking the stone circle, include a lozenge engraved with lines corresponding to solar angles.



Bush Barrow Hoard © SCC
Gold chest lozenge detail © SCC

There’s so much to see at this show, much of it very moving – something difficult to achieve so far back in time. Nothing is ever simple, though, and soon the Homeric world intrudes as humans began to compete for materials and tribes slid into cycles of violence. This in turn changed the status of the house, as safety became more important, which led to the rise of the earliest domestic consumer.

The show ends, as it begins, with a bang: the Shropshire Bulla, a 3,000-year-old gold disc shaped like a part-eclipsed sun, was found in 2018 in that most contemporary of ways, by a metal detectorist. And if several of the superstars of this show have reappeared in the last 20 years – well, what next?

  • The World of Stonehenge (February 17 to July 17, 2022) is open Saturday to Thursday 10 am to 5 pm and Friday 10 am to 8.30 pm at the British Museum. Admission from £20. 
Shropshire Bulla, c 1000-750 BC © SCC

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