My photo doesn’t really do this piece justice. It absolutely glows with antiquity and mystery. It’s the Nebra Sky Disc. It’s 3,600 years old and was found in 1999 in east Germany. It depicts the sun, moon, stars and solstices and it absolutely shines a light on the sophisticated people whom we tend to dismiss as ‘prehistory’ humans. In fact, this incredible show at the British Museum really brings the ancient prehistoric world up close and personal with the presentation of household artefacts from the time of Stonehenge.
You cannot help but be moved by the sight of the ‘chalk drums’ – objects found carefully placed in the tombs of children, two clasping each other and an older one also within the grave. You are left convinced that only loving adults would have laid their infants to rest so carefully. Likewise, there’s a burial of an archer, within sight of Stonehenge, done with equal care and surrounding the body with the tools of his trade.
This exhibition definitely gives lives from so long ago a truly human perspective. Not only do we see tools which were carefully crafted by hours of skilled work, such as the stunning display of axeheads, but we get to see the hard stone that was used to smooth these axes and a real sense of the dedicated hands which spent time laboriously pushing the flints back and forth to create the required shape. These were useful and valuable tools, important for the hunting of animals, the preparation of food and creation of safe homes to live in.
The curators have referenced Stonehenge as the starting point but this exhibition is more about the people who lived in England and Europe before the great monument was built, those who worshipped within in, expanded it and those who were buried close to or within sight of this important site. It’s fascinating to understand that there was an indigenous race living in this island who were, most probably, overwhelmed by ‘visitors’, the hunter-gatherers, from Europe who arrived with radical ideas about farming, enclosing animals and managing their lives in a more proactive, organised and efficient way. Life was never the same for these people.
The worshipping of the sun was paramount to these people. Images of the sun, the rays of light emanating from the star appear over and over. But looking at these pieces I tended to see faces too – call me fanciful, but I am willing to believe that there might have been an element of human representation within the depiction of the sun.
The highlight of the exhibition is the display of a 4,000 year-old Bronze Age timber circle, known as Seahenge, which reemerged on a Norfolk beach in 1998. it consists of a large upturned tree stump surrounded by wooden posts made from oak. The posts would have been tightly packed. I liked the artwork created by Rose Ferraby, one of the archaeologists who discovered the monument and contextualised it with her own artwork.
I’ll finish with a little gallery of images which caught my eye. There are so many astonishing elements to explore within this show but you certainly do emerge with a sense of the people who created the pieces and that the humans who lived all those thousands of years ago were not vastly different from the people we are today.
The World of Stonehenge is on at the British Museum until 17 July 2022.