‘The World of Stonehenge’ Review: Ancient Mysteries in London

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The Stonehenge circle in England was raised around the same time, 2500 BC. AD, as the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. Its alignment suggests it was almost certainly a solar sanctuary. But Stonehenge has no hieroglyphs, only folk druidic mythology from the memoirs of Julius Caesar and the Asterix cartoons. “The World of Stonehenge”, an ingenious and innovative exhibition at the British Museum, is as close as possible to its making and its creators.

The world of Stonehenge

English Museum

Until July 17

Curators Jennifer Wexler and Neil Wilkin use 430 objects from 35 lenders across Europe, along with state-of-the-art ground imaging and DNA analysis, to place Stonehenge in a landscape sacred whose human aspirations reached up to the sun, below the chalky topsoil, and far to the horizon in Europe. We are in darkness – although the end wall of the museum’s Sainsbury Gallery is a window, the lighting is deliberately kept low – but the clever sequence and explanation of the exhibits in one space takes us from fire and prehistoric shadows in the light of modern science.

We start with the oldest human traces on the chalk plain that surrounds Stonehenge. These date back to 10,000 BC and the Mesolithic era, long before the early Brexit of rising sea levels which, around 6,000 BC, separated Britain from the European mainland. We are at the time of traces: fragments of horn and flint, the material of axes and fire, and an elm leaf fallen into the mud during the first clearings for agriculture.

Dagger from Bush Barrow grave goods


Photo:

The British Museum

The stone circle – the “henge” is the moat that surrounds it – was erected at the start of a 1,500-year burst of building activity during the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age ( approximately between 3000 and 1500 BC). Some of the stones came from a nearby sarsen quarry, but the massive blue stones for the circle were quarried about 200 miles to the west in the Preseli Hills of Wales. Presumably they were dragged east by human muscle and wooden sleds. On the site, holes were dug. Pairs of verticals were put in place, probably by rope and pulley, then surmounted by a massive lintel to form a “trilith”.

The mystery is less how they did it than why. The builders and devotees of Stonehenge had no written language. They were farmers and hunters, greedily pursuing wild game and, as a rich harvest of battered skulls seen here attests, they supported each other. A few of them, however, left their DNA in cremated bone fragments buried under stones. Their owners came from the west of Brittany, like the blue stones. Were the builders buried with their creation, or are they the remains of the dynasty that ruled it?

Nebra Sky Disc


Photo:

The British Museum

The main exhibit remains 200 miles west of London on Salisbury Plain. The centerpiece here is the blackened, squat remains of Seahenge, a circle of oak trees discovered on a Norfolk beach in 1998. An upturned oak tree, its roots skyward, has been placed inside the circle of Seahenge, linking can – be the living or the dead to their ancestors. and the cosmos: an image suggesting the ritual function of Stonehenge. This orientation is found on the Nebra disc, a “celestial disc” of hammered bronze and gold. Excavated in Nebra, Germany in 1999, it is the oldest representation of the cosmos in the world. Dozens of these discs have been found in northern Europe, some of them small enough to suggest they were portable, a literal, spiritual compass.

Beliefs and habits can also be inferred from the “burial objects” in “The World of Stonehenge”. These treasures evoke the interior life of a lost world: daggers and spearheads in bronze, necklaces of amber and jet, metal jewelry and discs incised with the concentric volutes of the cult of the sun, headgear gilded like a hat of wizard, and stacks of wood, flint and ax. heads, the tools of the Bronze Age trades. The Amesbury Archer, buried near Stonehenge around the time the Blue Stones were laid, was buried with some of the earliest copper objects ever found in Britain, including metalworking tools, knives and arrowheads. His metals were probably mined on the continent and he may have been an immigrant. His skills – shooting crushed stone at molten metal, shaping it and turning it into weapons and ritual objects – must have seemed like some kind of magic.

Seahenge wooden poles


Photo:

The British Museum

A flint mace head from Knowth in Ireland has a carved human face, its mouth open in a silent scream where the wooden shaft of the handle goes. These mace heads, more commonly made from antler, are often dredged from rivers; they were probably placed there to appease the water spirits. The Folkton “drums”, three chalk cylinders arranged along the spine of a child buried in North Yorkshire around 3000 BC. J.-C., also carry messages for the other world. Their surfaces are sculpted with concentric circles, chevrons, parallel lines and diamond shapes, but two of them also bear eyes and eyebrows reminiscent of Owl in “Winnie-the-Pooh”. Are the patterns decorative, an abstract cosmology or a first step towards a realistic representation?

Bronze twin horse-snake hybrid


Photo:

The British Museum

Around 1500 BC. AD, the Beaker people crossed the English Channel with the bell-shaped drinking vessels that gave them their name and, it seems, a different set of beliefs. The closing exhibitions – cases of broken skeletons, sculptures of boats – suggest a sometimes violent reintegration in Europe. Construction came to an abrupt halt at Stonehenge, and the religious complex at the heart of a people’s life fell into its long slumber as a city of the dead. ‘The World of Stonehenge’ is a stunning otherworldly revival and an essential stopover if you’re in Europe around this summer’s solstice.

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