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The World of Stonehenge

 (British Museum, 17 February – 17 July 2022)

Review by Anjali Joseph

Every exhibition is an act of storytelling, and The World of Stonehenge is a fascinating example of what a fantasy novelist might call ‘worldbuilding’. Stonehenge, in this story, is an enigmatic lead character on to whom a great deal can and inevitably will be projected, but despite already having taken place, this particular drama remains resolutely incomplete. Perhaps it’s that very incompleteness which makes Stonehenge fascinating, even now, 4,500 years after it was completed. 

The exhibition opens with the world before Stonehenge. Headlines: in 8,000 BC, Britain separated from continental Europe (we are speaking of a geological, not elective movement). Around 6,000 BC, humankind began to interfere in a sustained, somewhat unrelenting way with the natural world – that is, to farm, to coppice forests and start to domesticate herd animals like the auroch, a magnificent horned beast that was the forerunner of the cow before, naturally, we killed them all – it only took one bull auroch to undomesticate an entire herd of cows.

Nine thousand years ago, on a hilltop not too far from the later site of Stonehenge, our own prehistoric forerunners put up three huge tree trunks. ‘Like totem poles,’ says a caption, ‘they may have marked events or celebrated important people and places’. Perhaps some sites become palimpsests of reverence, spots in which even as rude a species as humanity pauses to breathe and become quiet. On the other hand, perhaps few places on earth have not known every human mood, from worship to war. 

Under the direction of lead curator Dr Neil Wilkin, the exhibition gains momentum with displays of clusters of things. First, beautiful stone axe heads, sharpening stones, mining tools from across Britain. Then, a ghostly display of the whole skeletons of a pair of oxen sacrificed in Germany around 3,000 BC, with an animated light drawing superimposed on them to show the cart and cattle lifted up and brought back to life. Short animated films suggest how the enormous sarsen stones and bluestones that make up Stonehenge were transported to the site, tracing the route by which the Welsh bluestones were brought from the Preseli mountains through Milford Haven by sea and river to their present home.

Offering context for Stonehenge, there are also displays of artefacts from Orkney, ‘cup-marked’ stones from Northumberland, and 4,000 year-old oak pillars from a timber circle found in a Norfolk saltmarsh and dubbed ‘Seahenge’. 

From Stonehenge, the exhibition pivots into metal objects, especially those made of or decorated with gold. A caption notes, ‘Gold was turned into jewellery and cult objects, imbuing its wearers with the power of the sun… This marked a significant departure, from fixed monuments where the sun was observed and worshipped at carefully prescribed times of year, to items that could be held or worn to express a close, personal connection with the heavens.’ The displays of ritual gold jewellery, belts, armlets and other ornaments are surprisingly striking. The urge to acquire that those prehistoric humans seem to have felt when they saw gold hasn’t gone anywhere. But, with its mise-en-scène of characters, tools, landscapes, settlements, burials, violent conflict and beautifully wrought weapons, the World of Stonehenge exhibition is also presenting a world with lines that continue into our own. It could be the story of the fall of Man, or the start of environmental catastrophe, but it’s fascinating and well worth seeing.