The World of Stonehenge: Exhibition Review
17 Feb 2022–17 Jul 2022
#TheWorldOfStonehenge British Museum
The World of Stonehenge is one of the best exhibitions I have seen at The British Museum (my favourite since Sunken Cities actually). Richly atmospheric and artfully curated with twilight-inspired lighting and natural soundscapes, you feel a million miles away from buzzing central London. The objects and display design do a good job of transmitting the reverence our ancient ancestors had for the life-giving energy of the Sun, the celestial radiance of the stars, the power of Earth’s natural forces, and the teeming, multifaceted life of our planet. At the heart of all this, is the idea of Stonehenge — as radial hub and living timekeeper for a people in service of the Sun.
Here in the archaeological treasures of Neolithic into Bronze Age Britain and Europe, you can see the transmission and manifestation of simple but life-changing spiritual belief systems. A fingerprint of the divine is intimated in the human-made spirals, circles and whorls upon stone and gold… And then what GOLD! So much gold — and it is BREATHTAKING. In this exhibition the immortal, immaculate and imperishable qualities of gold appear truly dazzling and supernatural. It is easy to see how ancient eyes perceived the incredible sun-like gleam of gold. A divine metal, as pure and eternal as the sun, it can draw the potency of the heavenly orb into the mortal realm, its golden glistening bestowing solar status upon the body it adorns. Ancient gold-working is truly gorgeous, from crescent moon-shaped lunulae and paper thin solar discs, to golden cups and twisted gold ribbon torcs, the earliest creations seem to communicate the inseparability of gold and Sun.
The World of Stonehenge is a philosophical museum experience. As there are no contemporaneous written records or inscriptions, much of the interpretation of the ‘ritual’ objects (or at least those with no obvious practical application) is speculative, often based upon artistic motifs, symbols and cultural conventions that are seen to persist into later literate iterations. There is something simple and wondrous about this, a great show for children — as they are often the most excellent philosophers. This exhibition allows for a deep contemplation of each object, it invites an attempt from the observer to get into an ancient mindset and eliminate the constant rabble and lunacy of 21st century chaos. It is a meditation upon the magic, beauty and wonder of life and nature.
For me, it is the small things and the details that communicate ideas most powerfully. Tucked into a corner of the exhibition is a palm-sized jet disc, like an obsidian mirror, carved with the symbol of the solar cross and displayed with a dozen smooth jet buttons. I marvel at an expertly worked flint arrow-head with tiny uniform notches, a translucent amber finial with worked in suncross, a buried baby carefully decorated with the teeth of fifty dogs (perhaps for protection in the afterlife). There can be no doubt that these items were created by highly skilled, thoughtful and infinitely patient craftspeople, people with rich inner lives and a deep sense of belonging to nature and each other.
Weapons often speak most viscerally of the harsher realities of life in ancient times. The brutality of hand-to-hand combat is reflected in the blades of swords that have sliced through adrenaline-flushed flesh, or heavy clubs embedded with jagged shark teeth. As nature has a habit of running through cycles, we see the halcyon days of gold-bedecked communal feasting roll into meadows strewn with arrow-riddled corpses. When we turn our gaze from the heavens, we can easily forget our divine kinship - we are all the children of Heaven and Earth.
The Nebra Sky Disc, Golden Hats, Seahenge, Sun Pendant, Amber Suncross