History journalist Andrew Southam shines the spotlight on arguably the most famous prehistoric monument in the world, the subject of an exhibition in a national museum for the first time.
Never has a national museum revealed the civilization of the people who built and worshiped at Stonehenge.
Today, a groundbreaking exhibition at the British Museum unveils prehistoric society, not just mysterious rituals, but also technology, tools, social change and connections to continental communities.
People living in the late Stone Age, called the Neolithic, between 4900 BC and 2000 BC began building stone and wooden monuments across Britain, Ireland and Europe.
Over a thousand stone circles remain today, stretching from Wales to the Orkney Islands in Scotland and from the stones of Carnac in northern France to the temples of Malta.
Stonehenge is the largest followed by Avebury and Stanton Drew in Somerset.
Prominent European galleries have lent 430 treasures to bring this world to life.
Intriguing neolithic object
Among the amazing objects is the oldest known map of the universe called Nebra Sky Disc.
This marvel found in Germany, which experts believe to be an astronomical clock or calendar, combines Cornish pewter with knowledge from modern Scandinavia, the Mediterranean and Egypt.
Next are two of the four known gold cone-shaped hats worn by Neolithic priests and priestesses when worshiping the sun, called the Schifferstadt gold hat of southwestern Germany and the Avanton cone of France .
None of these gems have come to Britain before. British artefacts include an intricately worked dagger from Bush Barrow, a burial site from 2000 BC. AD near Stonehenge.
The handle of the dagger had thousands of gold studs made either by a child with perfect vision or by a severely myopic adult. And the gold came from Ireland with the dagger made in Brittany.
Fascinating wooden circle revealed by the tide
The most alluring is a wooden circle never seen outside of Norfolk. In 1998, a ring of oak stumps emerged from the shifting sands of the Norfolk coast.
In the middle was a huge overturned tree, probably used to spread the bodies – the locals think the birds could pluck their flesh!
Dubbed Stonehenge of the Sea or Seahenge, the site dates to 2049 BC. These artifacts offer tantalizing glimpses of life at the end of the Stone Age.
What is the museum exhibition?
British Museum curator Neil Wilkin says the exhibition is about ‘the people who built and worshiped at the monument, but it’s also a story that transcends Salisbury Plain and even Britain and spans away in continental Europe.
The eternal mystery and significance of Stonehenge can only be fully understood by mapping the surrounding world that made it possible”.
Hunter-gatherer tribes arrived on foot from modern Belgium around 10,000 years ago before a tsunami separated Britain from Europe.
A wave of immigration
A second wave of immigration came from modern Turkey 6,000 years ago, bringing seeds and livestock, with agriculture marking the start of the Neolithic period.
Choosing Salisbury Plain as their sacred place of worship and burial, these Neolithic people began erecting monuments 5,000 years ago. Why here? The mystery remains.
In fact, they built and rebuilt Stonehenge several times over 1,500 years – almost the same span between Roman Britain and today.
A huge ditch formed the first great construction. Then, in 3200 BC. AD, bluestones weighing three tons were quarried from the Preseli Mountains of South Wales.
How were the stones transported 200 miles to Wiltshire? Maybe by water or more likely using sleds on 60 day journeys.
Huge stones delivered by Merlin
The medieval chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth gives an alternative explanation. He claimed that King Arthur’s imaginary wizard, Merlin, delivered the Stones of Ireland by magic!
The next major construction followed 500 years later with huge slabs of hard local sandstone called sarsen delivered from the Marlborough Downs.
Masons fashioned these multi-ton monsters into large circles around the original blue stones adding lintels that form the mesmerizing view today. The Sphinx and the Great Pyramid of Egypt were built at the same time, 2500 BC.
Expert builders from all over Britain came
Experts believe the builders came from all over Britain. A temporary base at nearby Durrington Camp suggests 1000 houses, the largest settlement in Northern Europe.
What force organized 4,000 illiterates into a common enterprise when the population numbered only in the thousands? Were they commanded by the equivalent of a pharaoh or guided by religion?
No one has sure answers or can easily explain the true purpose of the circles.
Stone alignments capturing the summer solstice suggest sun and star worship, but the reason is unclear.
Although there is evidence of a burial site, other possibilities include a place of connection with an afterlife, a place of healing, a place of pilgrimage, or a memorial.
Although the riddle may never be solved, why did activity at Stonehenge stop around 1500 BC?
Stone Age society gave way to the Bronze Age between 2500 BC and 800 BC with a third wave of immigrant farmers arriving from central Europe called the Beaker people because of their beaker pottery distinctive.
New social and religious practices emerged with metal working replacing stone tools and these new people overtaking Neolithic communities.