Stonehenge 4500 years past ... a world of belief, technology and connection

History journalist Andrew Southam shines spotlight on arguably world’s most famous prehistoric monument, subject for first time of national museum show.

Endlessly fascinating Stonehenge (above) (photo: English Heritage)
Endlessly fascinating Stonehenge (above) (photo: English Heritage)

History journalist Andrew Southam shines spotlight on arguably world’s most famous prehistoric monument, subject for first time of national museum show.

Never has a national museum revealed the civilisation of the people who built and worshipped at Stonehenge.

New exhibition

Now a ground-breaking British Museum exhibition unveils a prehistoric society, not only of mysterious ritual but technology, tools, social change and links to continental communities.

People living in the late stone age, called Neolithic, between 4900 BC to 2000 BC began building stone and wooden monuments across Britain, Ireland and Europe.

Over a thousand stone circles remain today, stretching from Wales to Scotland’s Orkney Isles and from the Carnac Stones in northern France to temples in Malta.

Stonehenge is the largest followed by nearby Avebury and Stanton Drew in Somerset.

Endlessly fascinating Stonehenge (above) (photo: English Heritage)

Prominent European galleries have loaned 430 treasures to bring this world to life.

Intriguing Neolithic object

Astonishing objects include the earliest known map of the universe called Nebra Sky Disc.

Nebra Sky Disc, Germany, about 1600BC (photo: State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt, Juraj Lipták)

This marvel found in Germany, which experts think is an astronomical clock or calendar, combines Cornish tin with knowledge from modern day Scandinavia, Mediterranean and Egypt.

Next are two of only four known gold cone-shaped hats worn by Neolithic priests and priestesses in sun worship called golden hat of Schifferstadt from Southwest Germany and Avanton cone from France.

Ornate dagger

None of these jewels have come to Britain before. British objects include a finely crafted dagger from Bush Barrow, a 2000 BC burial site near Stonehenge.

The dagger’s handle had thousands of gold studs made by either a child with perfect vision or a severely short-sighted adult. And the gold came from Ireland with the dagger made in Brittany.

Dagger from the Bush Barrow grave goods (with replica handle), 1950 -1600BC. Amesbury, Wiltshire (photo: David Bukach - Wiltshire Museum, Devizes)

Fascinating timber circle revealed by tide

Most beguiling is a timber circle not previously seen outside Norfolk. In 1998 a ring of oak tree stumps emerged from the moving sands of the Norfolk coast.

In the middle sat a huge, upturned tree possibly used to lay out bodies – locals think so birds could pick their flesh!

Dubbed Stonehenge of the Sea or Seahenge, the site dates to 2049BC. These artefacts offer tantalising glimpses of late Stone Age life.

A rare find - Seahenge at the time of excavation (photo: Wendy George)

What is museum exhibition all about?

British Museum curator Neil Wilkin says the exhibition is “about the people who built and worshipped at the monument, but it is also a story that transcends the Salisbury Plain and even Britain and reaches far into continental Europe.

Stonehenge’s eternal mystery and significance can only be fully understood by charting the surrounding world that made it possible”.

Hunter-gatherer tribes arrived by foot from modern day 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 day Turkey 6,000 years ago bringing seed and cattle, with agriculture marking the start of the Neolithic period.

Selecting Salisbury plain as a sacred place of worship and burial, these Neolithic people began erecting monuments 5000 years ago. Why here? Mystery remains.

They actually built and rebuilt Stonehenge many times over 1,500 years – nearly the same length of time between Roman Britain and today.

Monumental construction

A huge ditch formed the first major construction. Then in 3200BC came quarried blue stones weighing three tonnes from the South Wales Preseli mountains.

How were the stones carried 200 miles to Wiltshire? Possibly by water or more likely using sledges on 60-day journeys.

Huge stones delivered by Merlin

Medieval chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth gives an alternative explanation. He claimed that King Arthur’s imaginary wizard Merlin delivered the stones from Ireland by magic!

The next major construction followed 500 years later with huge slabs of tough local sandstone called sarsen delivered from the Marlborough Downs.

Stoneworkers shaped these multi-tonne monsters into large circles around the original blue stones adding lintels which form today’s mesmerising view. Egypt’s Sphinx and Great Pyramid were built at the same time, 2500 BC.

Expert builders from across Britain came

Experts think the builders came from across Britain. A temporary base at nearby Durrington Camp suggests 1000 homes, the largest settlement in northern European.

What force organised 4,000 illiterate people into a common enterprise when the population numbered only thousands? Were they commanded by the equivalent of a pharaoh or guided by religion?

No one has confident answers or can easily explain the true purpose of the circles.

Stone alignments capturing the midsummer solstice suggest worship of the sun and stars but why is unclear.

While there is evidence of a burial site, other possibilities include a place of connection with an afterlife, a place of healing, a pilgrimage site, or a memorial.

Although the riddle may never be solved, why was activity at Stonehenge stopped around 1500 BC?

Stone Age society gave way to the Bronze Age between 2500 BC to 800 BC with third wave of immigrant farmers arriving from central Europe called the Beaker people because of their distinctive beaker pottery.

New social and religious practices emerged with metal working replacing stone tools and these new people overtaking Neolithic communities.

Museum exhibition

The world of Stonehenge runs until July 17 with further details available at site.