Ancient wonders | The World of Stonehenge, British Museum, London - Museums Association

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Ancient wonders | The World of Stonehenge, British Museum, London

On a quest to learn the secrets of this iconic prehistoric landmark
Prehistory Stonehenge
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The exhibition spaces are lit to reflect Stonehenge’s role in the solstices

The World of Stonehenge, the first exhibition at the British Museum to feature this icon of British archaeology, sets out to tell the story of the site in the context of prehistoric events and key locations in the British Isles and Europe. It is a major undertaking on a scale that should be expected of one of this country’s foremost museums.

There is no doubt that it is an important exhibition, having brought together under one roof for the first time more than 400 artefacts from regional and national museum collections. This has provided a rare opportunity for them to be seen together, and for parallel developments to be appreciated.

Stonehenge has a unique place in British consciousness. It is seen by the many people who cross Wiltshire’s Salisbury Plain on the A30 road, and it is visited by huge numbers of foreign tourists (at least before the pandemic) on day trips from London by coach, or by train and bus via Salisbury. Without doubt it is the best-known prehistoric monument in Britain. It is also an ambitious story that can only be told through archaeological evidence from a time when there were no written records. So how successful is it?

Setting an objective

On entering the exhibition, the first text panel sets out the intention to tell the story through the objects charting “fundamental changes in people’s relationship with sky, the land and one another” and through this process, to explain the mystery of Stonehenge.

The start of the exhibition was very crowded when I visited. The number of visitors the museum is seeking to attract should really be taken into account at the planning stage.

The gallery design takes visitors on a journey back to pre-history

At each stage of the exhibition the range, quality and importance of the finds on display are breathtaking. From the large display of flint tools, to the reconstruction of the walkway excavated on the wetland area of Somerset Levels, to examples of rock art and worked stones, the objects are fascinating.

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The most dramatic rock art I found was the Towie decorated and carved stone ball, but the gold sun-discs, musical instruments, and armour are also remarkable.

Extraordinary treasures

The star item is the extraordinary 3,600-year-old Nebra Sky Disc – the world’s oldest surviving map of the night sky – which is displayed against a backdrop of stars and constellations.

The headdress made of a deer’s skull and antlers worn by the Bad Dürrenberg shaman reminded me of the horn dance performed with antler headdresses in Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire, annually in September since at least the 13th century, possibly showing how these things became embedded in our subconscious.

Sunset on the stones – the major role Stonehenge has played throughout prehistory and modern history

It has never been easy to explain the meaning of sites and objects from prehistoric periods. The curators have avoided reaching for “ritual” as an explanation for anything not understood, although given the choice between “rites of purification” or “for grinding corn” on the caption for two decorated bowls, I would go for the latter. After all, a modern kitchen is likely to contain functional items that are decorated. And the curatorial team may be right that the Great Langdale quarry was a sacred site, but equally could it not have been the quality of the stone that led an archer in Cambridgeshire to source it for his wrist guard?

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Some of the interpretation panels are open ended in their conclusions allowing for the fact that even the experts don’t have all the answers. Where possible the information is simple and clear providing just the right amount of information without distracting from the objects. A good example of this is the panel for “Making music” describing the discovery by modern musicians that complex melodies could be made from the horns that formed part of the Irish Dowris hoard.

The exhibition ends with a section on the reimagining of Stonehenge with reproductions of four illustrations by William Blake, the 18th-century poet and artist. Given the place that Stonehenge has in the public’s imagination, more space should have been given to this section. The late English archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes wrote that “every age has the Stonehenge it deserves – or desires”. From its interpretation as a temple built by the mythical wizard Merlin to its adoption in the 1980s as a mecca for New Age travellers, the stone circle has a central place in our culture.

In the second world war, a cartoon by the illustrator William Heath Robinson showed soldiers training on Salisbury Plain camouflaged as sarsen stones and in 2012 a bouncy castle version of Stonehenge by contemporary artist Jeremy Deller toured the country. These, and other examples of Stonehenge’s place in contemporary culture should have been, to my mind, an integral part of The World of Stonehenge.

For me, the Stonehenge story got lost among the wealth of objects on display. I did, however, learn more about the site, though the exhibition book tells the story more effectively. But it’s the memory of the stunning artefacts, from the timbers of Seahenge to the Nebra Sky Disc that will remain with me for a very long time.

Project data
Cost
Undisclosed
Main funders
Supported by BP
Exhibition design
Ralph Appelbaum Associates
Lighting
Beam Lighting Design
Animations AV
Clay Interactive
Exhibition build
Scena Electrics Greater London
Electrical display cases
Showcase Services UK
Graphics
Displayways
Axe wall mounts
Plowden & Smith
Seahenge timber mounts
Simon Meiklejohn
Construction management, QS and CDM services
Fraser Randall
Exhibition ended
17 July
Admission
Free entry for MA members on Tuesdays

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