‘World of Stonehenge’ offers a brief opportunity to step out of our century…
Jo Bourne is a London-based supervisor and photographer at the Ness of Brodgar. In 2013 she uncovered the ‘butterfly’ stone beside the northern annexe of Structure Twelve. We asked her to head over to the British Museum for a reunion and to give us her thoughts on the new World of Stonehenge exhibition.
By Jo Bourne
Minutes after stepping into the soft dark construct of The World of Stonehenge, a small, snakey line began to form before the first exhibit as polite visitors shuffled past the artefacts, each allowing the other time to read and look.
It’s early Saturday morning, a time deemed “quieter” than later in the day, and it’s pretty full.
There was no audio guide for the exhibition, so no glazed-looking drifters fiddling with tech. It’s just visitors, a bird-call soundtrack and the stuff.
The stuff is impressive.
A large carved stone from Valcamonica, Italy, c2500BC, is the first striking draw, basking in golden museum light. Its carvings merit more than the minute I felt I could afford to spend on it, but traffic is piling up behind.
Beyond a cabinet of bones (Star Carr, I believe; I hovered but couldn’t get close) is a flock of stone axes.
They fill several panels of a wall and have been curated from all over Europe and Scandinavia. It’s the technology that got us where we stand today. Alone they show trade, skill and artistry; hafted, they cleared land for farming and set us on the path of the modern world.
I stood mesmerised for a while by a silent film of two oxen and a wooden wagon, an intentional sacrifice excavated in Germany, as it conjured the beasts and their burden from the grave.
An oxen’s momentary turn of the head and flick of the tail has the six-year-old me thinking “It’s okay! They’re not really dead!” before the film was over and they became dust and bones again.
An elm leaf, a recently-found little gem, 6,000 years old, from the waterlogged site of Windy Harbour, Lancashire, had me realising that I don’t know what an elm tree looks like. The people were like us, but their landscape really wasn’t.
A jewel of a macehead, made from banded gneiss from northern Scotland, underpins – together with grooved ware – the connection between Orkney and Stonehenge. It was placed with pottery, animal bone and cremated human bone within Stonehenge around 3000BC, about the time the Stones of Stenness were erected.
On the far wall of the exhibition, a huge aerial picture of the Ness of Brodgar, by photographer Jim Richardson, backs the Ness artefacts: maceheads, the carved stone ball and incised and dressed stones.
We returned to an unofficial queue to view. A testament, maybe, to the Orkney artefacts’ perceived importance by the visitors, who were quietly reverential. I got in line. The case display is magnificent.
Beside it, mounted separately, was the “butterfly” stone.
“I found that, on a dig in Orkney”, I said to a young girl with her dad, pointing at the small end of the three-part slab. She stared at me blankly and so did her father.
I hung around and had more luck with two ladies and a younger woman artist, who all seemed genuinely interested, both in the finding and the design.
“Please follow the dig online…” I said, and they assure me they will.
I was reluctant to leave the stone and stood there for about ten minutes, keeping it company.
“I’ll be back,” I said to it in my head, as visitors flowed around me.
There was much more to see. Irish maceheads of flint from Knowth and Brú na Bóinne; chalk drums from Yorkshire; rock art from Cumbria and Aberdeenshire; and a shoal of carved stone balls in a case.
“What were they for?” said a woman beside me.
“Nobody knows…” said another.
“Weights…” said a man, and I suppose his guess is as good as any, though I don’t believe it for a moment.
I moved on to the world of metal, past the dazzling Mold Cape, lunulae and the conical hats from France and Germany to the Nebra Sky Disc.
The bronze disc, inset with Cornish gold, dates to around 1600BC, and is believed to be the oldest surviving map of the cosmos. The seven circles are thought to represent the Pleiades, a star cluster close to the constellation Taurus.
The Pleiades and the cluster Hyades form “gateposts” either side of the ecliptic, the apparent path the sun takes across the sky over the course of a year.
It was famously used as a navigational tool by Odysseus, in the eighth century BC but recognition is thought to be marked in the cave paintings of Lascaux 17,000 years ago, where dots are painted over the shoulder of a bull.
I’m envious of the ancient ability to see the cluster without binoculars or a long camera lens. There’s light pollution, and modern eyes have grown shorter sighted, as we focus on books and now computers, and stretch them insufficiently to the horizon.
I waited my turn to stand in front of the disc. It’s beautiful. I can see a face in the back of it, in the cabinet’s reflection, like the man in the moon, but it’s pure pareidolia. The visitors looked softly awed and crept around the case.
Beyond, at the far end of the room, lay the twilight of Stonehenge – a projection of the sun and moon fading in and out on a loop. The colours blazed through the cabinets, lighting gold and amber artefacts and impressing the Roos Carr wooden sea gods in their serpent-headed boat.
The figures were found in East Yorkshire and were a waterway deposit, thought to help with safe passage for sailors. They give the first real – albeit strange – human faces to the whole span of the exhibition.
Birdsong melted into a soundtrack of bronze horns, metal weapons and other ritual depositions, and I skirted the huge Seahenge, feeling woozy from lack of breakfast and the intensity of it all. There was more to see, but not now…
“You can’t step out of your century…” insisted a metallurgist lecturer from the British Museum when I was studying years ago, impressing upon us the near-impossibility of imagining ourselves back in a time before our own.
But we get tiny glimpses, and this exhibition may just afford us that.
In the gift shop I bought a catalogue, a card, a fridge magnet and a keyring, wanting to take a bit of the magic home with me – or at least the memory of it.
Later that evening the storm clouds cleared enough for me to take a picture of the Pleiades in the night sky with my phone.