Explore the Mysteries of Stonehenge at the British Museum

The institution’s latest exhibition examines the history of the famous monument through the lives of the people who built it

stacks of stone slabs on a green field
The purpose of Stonehenge's creation remains a mystery, as the culture at the time of its construction lacked a written language. The British Museum

The purpose of Stonehenge, built some 4,500 years ago in what is today, Wiltshire, England, continues to elude historians. Was it a temple? A solar calendar? A ceremonial place? An exhibition at the British Museum, titled “The World of Stonehenge,” hopes to answer these questions by examining the prehistoric community who erected it, according to a museum statement.

“Stonehenge is such a familiar monument, so people feel like they know it well in a sense—but actually, it’s quite shadowy,” Jennifer Wexler, a Bronze Age archaeologist and head curator of the show, tells Artnet’s Sarah Cascone. “The people who built it and who lived in that world are not generally well understood. What we really wanted to do in this exhibition is put Stonehenge within its context, and focus on objects that are connected to this broader world.”

The exhibition will largely explore what life was like in Britain, Ireland and northwestern Europe around the time of Stonehenge’s construction, reports Artnet. These include the advent of farming, early forms of metalworking and the creation of religious items used for individual worship—a marked change from traditional communal worship common during this era, reports Melanie McDonagh for the Evening Standard.

One highlight is the ancient Nebra Sky Disk, which experts argue is between 2,600 and 3,600 years old, and the oldest physical depiction of the night sky in the world, according to Jonathan Jones for the Guardian. Made in northern Germany, the gold-and-bronze artifact depicts the constellation of the Pleiades and the sun and moon.

blue disc with brass colored depictions of sun, stars and moon
The Nebra Sky Disc is the oldest-known depiction of the night sky and its celestial bodies. The British Museum

The sun is a recurrent theme throughout the exhibition, as the celestial body was of utmost importance to prehistoric Britain, reports the Guardian. Stonehenge and other British monuments are exactly aligned to sunrise on the winter solstice, which prehistoric communities also used as a calendar to determine when to plant crops. The iconography and symbols of sun worship can be seen in many of the gold pieces included in the exhibition, among them a delicately designed pendant and an opulent gold cape.

Other artifacts include antler horn tools containing human fingerprints, horned helmets made from the antlered skullcaps of deer, and human skulls marked with evidence of blunt-force 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 British prehistoric art find in a century, reports the Guardian. Buried alongside three children embracing each other, the drum is believed to have served as a kind of funerary offering or protective talisman.

Believed to have originally been a cemetery, the initial phase of Stonehenge, constructed around 3000 B.C.E., included just the inner circle of smaller pillars, according to Artnet. The megaliths were erected 500 years later and were moved 15 miles from the West Woods in Marlborough Downs. Experts believe it would have taken at least 1,000 people to move each slab, and the process would have lasted generations.

In absence of the stone slab monument, however, the exhibition also include half of Seahenge, a monument erected in 2000 B.C.E and discovered in Norfolk in 1999. A ring of large wooden posts surrounds a tree upended with its roots up at the center, the monument was “probably more of a local shrine or the equivalent of a parish church for a local community,” Wexler tells Artnet. “There was probably a mythology around it when they built it, a way of connecting the heavens and the underworld. Maybe through accessing the circle, you could get into the cosmos.”

“The World of Stonehenge” is on display at the British Museum through July 17.

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