Review: Stonehenge - A European Story At The British Museum

Stonehenge, The British Museum ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 25 months ago

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Last Updated 06 April 2022

Review: Stonehenge - A European Story At The British Museum Stonehenge, The British Museum 4
The stone circle is simply the start in this huge exhibition. © English Heritage

There's a lot of speculation around Stonehenge, its purpose and the people who built it. Even the druids, who are closely associated with it, came along after it had been built, exercising some Bronze Age cultural appropriation.

The British Museum has curated a major exhibition around the topic of the mystical stone circle and, rather than focussing solely on how and why Stonehenge came to be, it has zoomed right out to show the wider spiritual context; Stonehenge was created at a time when Western Europe was transitioning into a continent of farmers and moving away from the hunter-gatherer way of life.

Artefacts on show include a wooden circle dubbed 'seahenge', a timber equivalent to Stonehenge, and the next best thing given Stonehenge itself was never going to be part of the show.

The remnants of the wooden monument known as 'seahenge'. Photo Tabish Khan

From the world before the time of Stonehenge, we see an outfit made from animal bones that would have been worn by a German female shaman-esque figure, and a fearsome headdress made from a deer's skull and antlers in Yorkshire.

It's after this time that agriculture changed the world. Several axe heads on display would have been used to cut down forests to make space for farming land — deforestation that continues even today. Spirituality then started to revolve around the sun, as demonstrated in the creation of large monuments like Stonehenge, right down to a small amber gem that captured the sun's light.

As part of this agricultural revolution, domesticated oxen were brought across from the continent, wiping out the native auroch (a wild ox). Clearly our ancestors started early on species extinction too.  The domesticated oxen were very important to the early Britons; a giant slab contains two full skeletons of cattle that were intentionally sacrificed and buried, possibly as part of a fertility ritual. One of the most spectacular items is an auroch skull, with an axe head embedded into it with such force that it snapped off inside the skull.

The Nebra sky disc from Germany shows the Pleiades constellation and is one of the earliest known representations of the wider cosmos. Photo courtesy of the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology, Saxony-Anhalt, Juraj Lipták.

These cultural changes weren't just happening in the UK — plenty of trade was happening across Western Europe. Some of the axe heads found in the UK originated in Italy, and a local burial site contained gold and daggers made with material sourced from the continent. Britain wasn't evolving in a bubble, and trade across hundreds of miles was commonplace thousands of years ago. While the museum doesn't mention Brexit specifically, it's hard not to think about it when exploring this European exhibition.

The gallery hosting the show is huge, and if you told me you could fit all of the stones from Stonehenge into this space, I wouldn't be surprised. That may be the one flaw in this fascinating exhibition; it reaches too far and is so broad that most of it isn't really about Stonehenge, but wider European Neolithic culture.

There is a section on Stonehenge, but it's arguably one of the least interesting parts of the show, as it doesn't have much in the way of artefacts to back up the stories. It feels harsh to fault a show for aiming big and giving you too much information, but it does make for a meandering narrative to the exhibition, and you'll definitely need two visits to take in all the eye-opening historical information and items on display.

The World of Stonehenge is on at The British Museum until 17 July. Tickets are £20 for adults, under 16s go free.