British Museum announce objects joining Ness artefacts at Stonehenge exhibition

Stonehenge. (English Heritage)

Stonehenge. (© English Heritage)

A selection of artefacts from the Ness of Brodgar are among the hundreds coming together for a special exhibition on Stonehenge at the British Museum next year.

Running from February 22, 2022, until July 22, The World of Stonehenge aims to bring the story of the iconic monument into sharper focus – placing it in the wider context of prehistoric Britain, Ireland and Europe.

The three fragments of the 'Butterfly Stone' found at the north entrance of Structure Twelve in 2013. (Antonia Thomas)

The three fragments of the ‘Butterfly Stone’ found at the north entrance of Structure Twelve in 2013. (Antonia Thomas)

The stunning polished stone axehead found in Structure Fourteen in 2014. (ORCA)

The stunning polished stone axehead found in Structure Fourteen in 2014. (ORCA)

Among the Ness finds heading to London are the “Butterfly Stone” found at Structure Twelve’s northern entrance in 2013; the carved stone ball found in Structure Ten in 2013; and the spectacular polished stone axe recovered from Structure Fourteen in 2012.

As well as artefacts from Skara Brae, the exhibition will also see the “Brodgar Stone” – a decorated slab found at the Ness in 1925 and now housed at the National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh – reunited with other artefacts from the site and on display in London.

They will be display alongside artefacts from across Europe, including the Nebra Sky Disk – the “oldest known map of the night sky” – and a Bronze Age “sun pendant” from Shropshire, England.

This exhibition will set Stonehenge in the context of one of the most remarkable eras on the islands of Britain and Ireland, which saw huge social and technological revolutions, alongside fundamental changes in people’s relationships with the sky, the land and one another.

At the heart of the exhibition will be the sensational loan of a 4,000-year-old Bronze Age timber circle, dubbed Seahenge. It is a hugely significant and extremely rare surviving example of a timber monument that has also been called “Stonehenge of the Sea.”

Seahenge at the time of excavation. (© Wendy George)

Seahenge at the time of excavation. (© Wendy George)

It re-emerged on a remote Norfolk beach in 1998 due to the shifting sands, and it consists of a large, upturned tree stump surrounded by 54 wooden posts. The oak posts, some up to 3m tall, were tightly packed in a 6.6m diameter circle with their bark-covered sides facing outwards.

Inside the circle was an oak tree, its roots upturned towards the heavens like branches. A narrow entranceway was aligned on the rising midsummer sun.

Seahenge’s inclusion in the exhibition will help tell the story of the shared beliefs that inspired ancient communities to build the many astonishing monuments found across Britain, Ireland and beyond.

•Seahenge timber posts on display in the Lynn Museum. On long term loan to Norfolk Museums Service from the Le Strange Estate.

Seahenge timber posts on display in the Lynn Museum. On long term loan to Norfolk Museums Service from the Le Strange Estate.

Dr Jennifer Wexler, project curator of The World of Stonehenge at the British Museum, said: “If Stonehenge is one of the world’s most remarkable surviving ancient stone circles, then Seahenge is the equivalent in timber. But as it was only rediscovered in 1998, it is still relatively unknown.

“We know about some aspects of the monument, including that it was constructed in the spring and summer of 2049BC, from mighty oaks. But there’s much that still eludes us, including exactly what it was used for. Perhaps the central upturned trunk was used in funerary rituals to support a dead body. Perhaps entering the circular shrine brought worshippers closer to the otherworld.

“By displaying Seahenge in this exhibition we hope to bring it to a wider audience, and it provides an unparalleled opportunity to time travel back to the moment when circles of stone and timber were at the heart of people’s beliefs.”

Nearly two-thirds of the objects going on display will be loans, with objects coming from 35 lenders across the UK, the Republic of Ireland, France, Italy, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland. Of these, the majority have never been seen in the UK before.

•The Schifferstadt gold hat, c. 1600 BC, which was found with three bronze axes Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer

The Schifferstadt gold hat, c. 1600 BC, which was found with three bronze axes Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. (Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer)

Among these are two remarkable cone-shaped hats – the Schifferstadt gold hat from Germany and the Avanton gold cone from France. These are decorated with elaborate solar motifs that presumably reflect the religious importance of the sun during this era.

Carefully buried alone or accompanied by axes, rather than interred with the deceased, it seems they were held in trust for the community. Similar motifs are to be found on a belt plate on loan from the National Museum of Denmark.

This example, and others like it, was found on the stomach of a women buried in Scandinavia. Its conical central point might represent the same concept as the sun hat, but in miniature form. 

Alongside the international loans, visitors will see some of the most important objects unearthed in the Stonehenge landscape, many of them now in the collections of neighbouring museums.

On loan from Wiltshire Museum will be the whole hoard of objects that accompanied a burial known as the Bush Barrow site.

•The gold lozenge of the Bush Barrow grave goods, 1950–1600 BC Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. (Photograph: David Bukach. © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes)

The gold lozenge of the Bush Barrow grave goods, 1950–1600 BC Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. (Photograph: David Bukach. © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes)

This burial hoard has never been lent in its entirety before. They include the “gold lozenge” – the “finest example of Bronze Age gold craftsmanship ever found in Britain” – which was buried across the chest of the Bush Barrow chieftain.

This grave, with commanding views of Stonehenge, shows close parallels with the richest graves from northern France, eastern Germany and even Ancient Greece. The exhibition will illustrate these long-distance connections.

•Dagger from the Bush Barrow grave goods (with replica handle), 1950–1600 BC. Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. (David Bukach. © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes)

• Dagger from the Bush Barrow grave goods (with replica handle), 1950–1600 BC. Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. (David Bukach. © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes)

From Salisbury Museum will be the treasures buried with the Amesbury Archer, a man honoured with remarkable grave goods after his death.

His grave contained the richest array of items ever found in a Bronze Age burial site in the UK, and 39 of these items – including copper knives, gold ornaments and flint tools – will travel to the exhibition. Although the Amesbury Archer was buried close to Stonehenge, he came from the area of modern day Switzerland or Germany.

Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum, said: “To understand the purpose of the great stone monument constructed on Salisbury Plain, it is essential to consider its contemporary world and the culture of its builders. We are delighted to be able to do this in this unprecedented exhibition.

“Over 430 exceptional objects are being brought together, objects which are the last and only testament of sophisticated and ingenious people, and we are grateful to all of the lenders who have made it possible.”

•Fine jadeitite axe-heads made from material quarried in the high Italian Alps, c. 4500–3500 BC. (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Fine jadeitite axe-heads made from material quarried in the high Italian Alps, c. 4500–3500 BC. (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Neil Wilkin, curator of The world of Stonehenge, added: “The mystery of Stonehenge is a source of enduring fascination for every generation who visit or catch a glimpse of its distinctive silhouette.

“This landmark exhibition will begin to reveal its secrets by setting this great monument in the context of a period of radical change on these islands, and by bringing together exceptional objects that shed new light on its meaning and significance.

“It is an exhibition about the people who built and worshipped at the monument, but it is also a story that transcends the Salisbury Plain and even Britain and reaches far into continental Europe. Stonehenge’s eternal mystery and significance can only be fully understood by charting the surrounding world that made it possible.”

Tickets for the exhibition are now on sale at https://www.britishmuseum.org/stonehenge

Stonehenge.

Stonehenge. (© English Heritage)

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