Intensely moved by the human stories at launch of ‘World of Stonehenge’
By Dr Antonia Thomas
Tuesday, February 16, and I’m in London for the first time since 2019.
After more than two years – during which I have hardly left Orkney – this was an overwhelming experience itself, but nothing prepared me for how I felt at the British Museum that evening.
I’d been invited to the opening reception of The World of Stonehenge exhibition, a long-awaited culmination of ten years of collaborative research and development between the British Museum and the State Museum of Prehistory, Halle/Saale, Germany. The items on show here represent some of the finest prehistoric artefacts from across Europe, including a fantastic display on the Ness of Brodgar.
For many people, Stonehenge is synonymous with the Neolithic or New Stone Age, the period which (in north-western Europe at least) roughly spans the fourth and third millennia BC.
It is the time which in Orkney, saw the construction of sites like the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness, Maeshowe, Skara Brae and the Ness of Brodgar. The people who built these sites were skilled architects and farmers, acutely aware of their natural environment and the relationships between sun and sky, land and animals – relationships which are emphasised throughout this stunning exhibition.
But Stonehenge is not just a Neolithic site.
Its origins stretch further back into the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age – a time of hunter gatherers rather than farmers and monument builders, and it was a major focus for funerary activity several millennia after the first stones were raised on the site. It is these wider chronological and geographical connections that are explored in the show, which is on until July 17.
Bringing together 430 exquisite artefacts from across Britain, Ireland and continental Europe, the displays weave a narrative that spans an incredible time period from the Mesolithic, starting around 12,000 years ago, right through the Neolithic and into the Bronze Age, ending around 800BC. This vast chronological backdrop provides a stage set for the curators – Jennifer Wexler, Neil Wilkin, and Duncan Garrow – to tell a series of stories, each one rich with humanity.
Walking into the Great Court, with the striking glass lattice of Norman Foster’s canopy overhead, the first people I saw were artist Grayson Perry, chatting to Cambridge classicist Mary Beard and former chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne, all trustees of the British Museum.
Museums are always contentious and problematic institutions, and the British Museum is perhaps the most controversial, not least for its continued sponsorship arrangement with oil and gas giant BP. It is unfortunate that this relationship takes the polish off an otherwise sparkling show, which is a masterpiece of international inclusion.
The artefacts on show were loaned from more than 35 collections from across the UK, the Republic of Ireland, France, Italy, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland. This was a truly European endeavour, which highlighted not only our shared deep history, but the immense value of cross-border collaboration and research now.
In fact, in many ways, this exhibition isn’t about the site and monument of Stonehenge at all.
Many people understandably criticise Stonehenge – and also Orkney – for the popular and academic attention these areas get, often to the detriment or oversight of other, equally rich but less publicised regions in the Neolithic. That criticism cannot be levelled at this exhibition.
Despite the name, Stonehenge isn’t really the dominant focus, and the Wiltshire site merely provides an anchor point for the discussion, a wider context for the objects on display, each of which offer tantalising vignettes of European prehistoric life.
One of the first displays seen on entering the exhibition space in the Sainsbury Gallery is a magnificent headdress from Star Carr in North Yorkshire, one of 33 found on the site. These were made from the top of red deer stag skulls, complete with antlers but with the facial bones cut away, with holes bored in the back which would have allowed them to be attached to human heads, possibly during shamanic rites.
Dating to around 9,000BC, they belong to a time when Britain was still connected to the continent. Similar headdresses from this time are known throughout Northern Europe, including from Bad Dürrenberg near Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, in Germany.
In 1934, the skeletal remains of a 35-year-old woman and an infant were found covered in red ochre and surrounded by a mind-boggling array of artefacts: tortoise shells, perforated ornaments made from the teeth and bones of bison, wild boar and red deer, and an antler crown or headdress.
Displayed here for the first time in the UK, this is interpreted as the burial of a shaman, who could probably shapeshift and communicate with the animal and spirit world. It dates to a time when the Star Carr site was still in use, and suggest that animism was a common belief system amongst European hunter gatherers.
These remarkable Mesolithic finds highlight the symbolic power of the natural world and the blurred boundaries between animals and humans for these hunter gatherer communities. It would be several millennia until the structures at the Ness of Brodgar started to be built, but I have often wondered whether – as seen at Stonehenge in the form of massive Mesolithic postholes that predate the megaliths – the Stenness-Brodgar area was also important from the earliest occupation of Orkney.
Moving further through the exhibition, we find ourselves firmly within the Neolithic, and the Orcadian connections start to become apparent.
The Ness of Brodgar’s display opens with the Brodgar Stone, on loan from the National Museum Scotland, and the first discovery on the site way back in 1925.
The dressed red sandstone pillars from Structure Ten’s dresser are displayed on top of one another to suggest their original configuration, alongside two of the stones with bas relief dressing forming triangular motifs, and the famous “butterfly” stone.
I have been privileged to have worked on the carved stones from the Ness for more than a decade now, with these forming a major part of my PhD research.
Having excavated, drawn, photographed and written about them in considerable detail, I feel a strong personal connection to these stones and it is a wonderful experience to see them here.
Smaller, more portable objects from the Ness also feature, including the the exquisite polished “cloud axe”, maceheads in striking igneous and metamorphic rock, and the carved stone ball from Structure Ten, one of only a very small number to have been found within its original context.
It is a credit to the dedication of Nick Card and Anne Mitchell, and the rest of the Ness of Brodgar team, that these are presented alongside some of the most important archaeological discoveries in the world.
My fascination with Neolithic art leads me to the next display, and the famous Folkton Drums.
These are three elaborately carved chalk cylinders which were found in the grave of a Neolithic child in North Yorkshire in the 1880s, decorated with lozenges and spirals, and even an “eyebrow” motif similar to that seen on the Westray Wife figurine from the Links of Noltland.
They are joined in their display by a more recent discovery. The Burton Agnes drum, discovered in 2015, just 15 miles away from the Folkton site, is widely hailed as one of the most important examples of prehistoric art found in the last century and is displayed to the public for the first time.
Its carved decoration include spirals, concentric circles and lozenges, similar to the carvings found on the walls of passage graves, from the Boyne Valley in Ireland, to Orkney and beyond. Found alongside a chalk ball, and a polished bone pin – also displayed here – it is an exceptionally poignant artefact that highlights the power of objects to tell stories.
Like the examples from Folkton, it was found in a burial, at the head of three children who had been carefully laid to rest holding each other’s hands, around 5,000 years ago. It is impossible not to be touched by this, not least because I’m accompanied tonight by my nine-year-old daughter, Lucie.
As I stared at this astonishing object, I realised that Alice, the archaeologist who had uncovered this precious object was stood beside me. Hearing her talk about her discovery, made during the routine excavation of land being developed for a biogas plant, made me reflect upon my own relationship to the artefacts on show.
It was a reminder that behind every object are human stories and connections, not only of the past, but of how these items come to be discovered and displayed now.
Decorated with carved spirals, lozenges and triangles, the Burton Agnes drum’s design compares to that found on other artefacts from elsewhere including Orkney.
It made me think of my favourite artefact from the Ness, the heart-shaped stone with its fine lattice decoration – also on display here, and an example of another personal object that bridges the past and present.
Portable Neolithic art is further represented in the chalk plaques from King Barrow Ridge, Amesbury, incised with lozenges and Greek key motifs, which compare to decoration found in Orkney. Displayed alongside the Burton Agnes and Folkton Drums, the famous spiral and lozenge decorated pottery sherd from Skara Brae, these objects highlight the common visual repertoire of Neolithic art across a considerable distance.
This show is certainly much more than the “stones and bones” that typify many archaeological exhibitions. And as the story moves forward into the Bronze Age, we start to encounter some serious bling.
Personal items of adornment such a the crescent-shaped neck ornaments known as lunulae from Cornwall, and County Wicklow in Ireland, and the exquisite Gleninsheen Gorget from County Clare, all feature, as do arm-rings, finger rings and buttons – all worked from pure gold.
Extraordinary items of clothing, again worked in pure gold, such as the mindboggling cape from Mold in North Wales, and bizarre tall pointed hats from France and Germany.
What strikes me once more is the incredible stylistic and material connections between different objects found over a vast geographical area, from western Ireland to eastern Germany, Brittany and Cornwall.
Orkney features again, in the form of finds from the Bronze Age burial mounds known as the Knowes of Trotty, in Harray.
Four gold discs, through to be covers for conical buttons, and decorated with scribed concentric lines and zigzags, along with Baltic amber beads from a space plate necklace – Orkney’s richest collection of grave goods. Originally investigated in the 1850s, the site was re-excavated in 2005 by Jane Downes and Nick Card of the UHI Archaeology Institute.
But the star of the show is the Nebra Sky Disc.
Found by illegal metal detectors in 1999 near Nebra in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, it shows the earliest depiction of cosmological phenomena known to humankind – the moon, the sun and the Pleiades star cluster. Dating to 1600BC, this unique item is now registered as part of the UNESCO Memory of the World.
Astoundingly, it includes gold and tin, from over 1,300 km away in Cornwall. The Nebra Sky Disc illustrates the enduring power of solar symbolism seen throughout this exhibition, from the sun-carved stone from Valcamonica in Italy, to the amber and bronze “sun-catcher” from Denmark, created over two millennia apart.
Other highlights include the Hove cup, a single-handled drinking vessel – about the size of a teacup – carved from a single lump of amber around 1750-1550BC, and the so called “god dolly” or wooden figurine from the Somerset Levels. Dating to around 2500BC, it offers a striking comparison with the Skara Brae Buddo, on display in Stromness Museum.
Prehistoric wooden artefacts are staggeringly rare, so it is a delight to see so many on show here. They include two wooden tridents, measuring over 2m in length and dating to c.3600BC, now from Cumbria and one from County Armagh. These curious items are arresting reminders of how little we know about the full range of source materials used in prehistory, and the way that wood was worked, and used.
Nowhere is this more clear than with the site of Seahenge, which emerged from the Norfolk shore in 1998. This timber circle consisted of 55 large oak posts, surrounding the boss of an upturned oak, its roots pointing upwards. This is on display for the first time outside of Norfolk, and is a truly awe-inspiring sight.
There are far too many treasures to describe here, and I am glad of the accompanying publication to jog my memory. More than just a catalogue, this is a richly illustrated and expertly researched volume that will also delight the amateur enthusiast as much as the archaeologist or art historian.
It presents, to quote the authors Duncan Garrow and Neil Wilkin, “what is grand, wonderful and at times incomprehensible, but also what is small, touching, intimate and personal, about the world of Stonehenge”.
It is this shifting in scales, between the everyday and the extraordinary, the local and European, that made this evening such a special experience. The reception was much more than a corporate event to entertain the British Museum’s trustees and sponsors.
It was an opportunity to champion some of the unsung heroes of archaeology, the excavators in commercial archaeological units, the finds specialists, the curators in small provincial museums and the conservationists who work behind the scenes.
On a personal level, it was wonderful to not only see so many friends and colleagues from the world of archaeology, but to see Orkney, and the Ness of Brodgar take centre stage at a show of this significance, was truly humbling.
It is a credit to the dedication of Nick Card and Anne Mitchell, that the Ness of Brodgar artefacts are on display here, alongside some of the most important archaeological discoveries in the world.
Visiting the exhibition was intensely moving, with each object encountered serving to reinforce the connectedness of people, animals and things, across time and space. I would urge anyone who is able to, to get down to London to see this remarkable show. There are certainly riches beyond compare, but shot through it all are very human stories.
These are what I will remember from this exhibition: the stories not only of the prehistoric people connected to these artefacts – people who once lived and were once loved – but also of the people who are involved in the discovery, recording and cataloguing of these objects now.
It is these human stories which make archaeology what it is.
The World of Stonehenge exhibition runs at the British Museum, London, until July 17, 2022.
Dr Antonia Thomas is a lecturer at the UHI Archaeology Institute and is Programme Leader for the MA Contemporary Art and Archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands. She is the decorated stone specialist for the Ness of Brodgar.