The purpose of Stonehenge, built around 4,500 years ago in what is now Wiltshire, England, continues to elude historians. Was it a temple? A solar calendar? A place of ceremony? An exhibition at the British Museum, called “The World of Stonehenge”, hopes to answer these questions by examining the prehistoric community that erected it, according to a statement from the museum.
“Stonehenge is such a familiar landmark that people feel like they know it well, but it’s actually quite dark,” Jennifer WexlerBronze Age archaeologist and chief curator of the exhibition, tells clean artit’s Sarah Cascone. “The people who built it and who lived in this world are generally not well understood. What we really wanted to do in this exhibition is put Stonehenge in context and focus on objects that are connected to this larger world.
The exhibition will largely explore what life was like in Britain, Ireland and northwestern Europe at the time Stonehenge was built, reports clean art. These include the advent of agriculture, early forms of metalworking and the creation of religious objects used for individual worship – a marked departure from the traditional communal worship common at that time, reports Melanie McDonagh for the evening standard.
One of the highlights is the ancient Nebra Sky Disk, which experts say is between 2,600 and 3,600 years old, and the oldest physical representation of the night sky in the world, according to Jonathan Jones for the Guardian. Made in northern Germany, this gold and bronze artifact depicts the constellation Pleiades as well as the sun and moon. It was later used by Babylonian astronomers to calculate leap years.
The sun is a recurring theme throughout the exhibition, as the celestial body was of the utmost importance to prehistoric Britain, reports the Guardian. Stonehenge and other British landmarks are exactly aligned with winter solstice sunrise, which prehistoric communities also used as a calendar to determine when to plant crops. Sun worship iconography and symbols can be seen in numerous gold pieces included in the exhibit, including a delicately crafted pendant and an opulent gold cap.e.
Other artifacts include deer horn tools containing human fingerprints, horned helmets made from deer antler skull caps, and human skulls marked with evidence of blunt trauma – evidence of the violent nature of the period , which coincided with the rise of metal tools, according to the evening standard.
One notable inclusion – an ornate 5,000-year-old chalk drum is described by curators as the most significant discovery of British prehistoric art in a century, reports the Guardian. Buried alongside three embracing children, the drum would have served as a sort of grave offering or protective talisman.
Believed to have originally been a cemetery, the initial phase of Stonehenge, built around 3000 BCE, included only the inner circle of smaller pillars, according to clean art. The megaliths were erected 500 years later and moved 15 miles from West Woods to Marlborough Downs. Experts believe it would have taken at least 1,000 people to move each slab, and the process would have taken generations.
Absent the stone slab monument, however, the exhibit also includes half of Seahenge, a monument erected in 2000 BCE and discovered in Norfolk in 1999. A ring of tall wooden posts surrounds a toppled tree with its roots in the center, the monument was “probably more of a local shrine or the equivalent of a parish church for a local community”, Wexler said clean art. “There was probably a mythology around it when they built it, a way of connecting the heavens and the underworld. Maybe by stepping into the circle you could step into the cosmos.
“The World of Stonehenge” is on display at the British Museum until July 17.