The World of Stonehenge – British Museum Exhibition

Castlerigg stone circle
Castlerigg stone circle by David Baird on Geograph, licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0

Looking at pre-history collections in museums used to be boring: just rows of stone axe-heads and flint arrow-points. But archaeology has moved on and collaboration over the findings from many sites has provided a fuller picture of how humans lived in Europe before the Romans. As stated on the British Museum website about this World of Stonehenge exhibition:

“Following the story of Britain and Europe from 4000 to 1000 BC, you’ll learn about the restless and highly connected age of Stonehenge – a period of immense transformation and radical ideas that changed society forever.”

The exhibition is divided into three periods: before the Stonehenge era, during that era, and after. Physical objects in horizontal glass cases alternate with imaginatively made short films to illustrate or explain discoveries.

Stone was traded

The first exhibit for period one is a large wall display of stone axe-heads. What is remarkable about this is the variety of types of hard stone that were utilised for this tool. They have been found far from their place of geological origin which means that the stone must have been traded. This introduces a major theme of the whole exhibition: the trading of materials, tools, artefacts and visual ideas across Europe. Another type of stone, flints needed to make blades, is plentiful in some parts of Great Britain, especially here in Kent. The natural stone was knapped (struck with a heavier stone) so that a chipped sharp edge was made that could be used for cutting, or scraping an animal skin for clothes. This is all pre-Stonehenge, in what is called the “Mesolithic” Age (Middle Stone Age), which in Great Britain dates from just after the last Ice Age at approximately 11,600 years ago to 4000 BC, just before the Stonehenge era.

Comparison with Middle Stone Age in South Africa

I found it interesting to compare this pre-Stonehenge section of the exhibition with what I know of the Middle Stone Age in South Africa. The dates of these archaeological periods are completely different there, as this period in Africa stretches from around 280,000 years ago to 50-25,000 years ago. There were no ice ages in Africa and no Neanderthals. Under the “Out of Africa” story of human origins, modern humans (homo sapiens, our ancestors) migrated out of Africa around 70-50,000 years ago.

Nebra's sky disc shows the world's oldest known concrete representation of the cosmos and is a unique testimony to the history of mankind.
Nebra disc by Rodrigo Barquerra on Flickr licensed by CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Cultural artefacts of early Homo Sapiens

I became involved with an archaeological project at the Sibudu site near Durban which has uncovered layers of human occupation in the Middle Stone Age. The tools and techniques of these inhabitants are significant because these are the tools and knowledge which these humans carried out of Africa which enabled them to spread across the globe, out-competing earlier human species like the Neanderthals. Some of the Sibudu artefacts (a bone needle tip, evidence of a plant mattress, symbolic incisions like writing) are the oldest of their kind in the world so far discovered. There are also exquisite shell beads, with holes drilled to lace them together. There is evidence of plant knowledge in the use of glues and poison arrow-heads. So compared to this, the finds from Mesolithic Britain lack evidence of this type of cultural progress.

What the British Museum finds do show are the first signs of using stone for art, in the swirling spiral patterns incised into stone. There was also a depiction of a stone-age chariot wheel made, of course, of stone!

Stone Circles and feasting

The heart of the exhibition is the story of Stonehenge. I had no idea how many stone circles of this Neolithic period are still in evidence across the British Isles and on the continent of Europe. There is a digital display which pin-points these numerous sites. It is emphasised that the purpose of these sites was probably communal gathering for ritual purposes. They were not initially used for burials.

An astounding number of animal bones have been found in the access area of Stonehenge which are evidence of huge feasts, mainly of pork. It is generally agreed that the people who built Stonehenge were farmers, not the same people as the mesolithic hunters. These agrarian people migrated into Great Britain as agricultural skills extended across Europe from lands east of the Danube. So there is speculation about how they replaced the earlier hunter-gatherers – fighting? out-breeding? competitive land-use? One tiny piece of evidence from the feasts is that they contain the bones of both farmed animals and of hunted animals like red deer. So possibly there were ‘bring and share’ feasts that included both communities.

Designer houses of the Scottish neolithic era

By this time, the farmers would have lived in settlements near the land they farmed or the waters they fished. If these were built of wood, our muddy wet climate would have eliminated the traces in most places. But there is the intact stone settlement (circa 3100 BC) at Skara Brae in the Orkneys, complete with stone bed and kitchen-type shelves! Here were also found artefacts of bone and mysterious stone balls which might be maces, or symbols of authority. Incisions on the stone in these Scottish neolithic sites, of triangles and diagonals, could be early attempts at writing or decorating.

Long barrows, of which more than 150 are visible in the south west of England, are also from this Neolithic period. These are oblong earth mounds, held up by stones, that were used for multiple burials of a family or clan. Artefacts found in them consist of stone tools, pottery and beads.

The migrant metal workers

These neolithic people were replaced by a migration of “Beaker” people, so called because of the distinctive beaker shape of a pot commonly found with their remains. They were metal-workers who first used bronze for making weapons and tools. There are various Beaker people graves in the vicinity of Stonehenge. They used round barrows and often buried metal objects (weapons

decoration) with the corpse. The Amesbury Archer is one of the burials found near Stonehenge, with five beakers, copper daggers, arrow tips, gold ornaments and a stone used in metal-working. Tests on his bones and teeth show that this individual was born in Alpine regions, so the speculation is that he was an honoured migrant bringing new metal-working techniques.

Necklaces Bronze age
Bronze Age necklaces, photo by Zde on Wikimedia Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0

Spectacular treasure of the Bronze Age

As the Neolithic moves into the Bronze age, archaeology has discovered various graves of important individuals buried with spectacular treasure. The most interesting is the famous “Nebra” bronze disc with sketches indicating the position of the sun and moon, which has been borrowed from Germany for this British Museum exhibition. In this post-Stonehenge age part of the exhibition, there were some beautiful decorative pieces borrowed from various places in Europe. This was a more individualist age when powerful individuals were buried with their bling, of beautiful (unused) swords, gold neckpieces, and jewellery of amber beads mixed with jet. Such jewellery of mixed stones shows that the trade links stretched far across Europe for precious materials.

Chariots and battles

Sadly the Bronze Age, as we know from Homer, was also a time of battles, with the new weapons of chariot and horses. There are even burials of whole chariots: one from Germany included the skeletons of the two horses. Also from Germany was an exhibit about the finds of a battlefield at Tollense where as many as 4,000 warriors fought and died, their damaged bones now uncovered by archaeologists. The contributions of Germany to this British Museum exhibition are noticeable as this was in fact a collaboration with the State Museum of prehistory, Halle.

High quality gift and souvenir shop

After an hour, the museum guides were calling that it was near closing time, so I hurried out through the museum shop, which had various items on sale connected with this Stonehenge exhibition. I bought a fridge magnet of the Nebra disc and a kids book about the Stone Age. For luxury purchase (more than £100 price), there was a display of jewellery made in imitation of some of the Bronze age pieces. This made me realize that such design is not at all “primitive” – it was a sophisticated mix of materials that were traded, craft skill and tools, with buyers to acquire such treasure.

This special British Museum Exhibition has to be booked in advance at £20 (half price for pensioners on Monday afternoons). Allow at least an hour to view.