As you enter the British Museum, on the floor, you can read: “And let your feet / settle for millennia / in the midst of knowledge”. Alfred Tennyson’s verses perfectly describe the feeling you get when you arrive at Stonehenge, the Neolithic monument located on Salisbury Plain that, 4,000 years after its construction, still contains mysteries. Science works to decipher them and, when scientific explanations are lacking, poetic ones are good, because this place – which is going to be the subject of a major exhibition at the London museum – is very magical.
Stonehenge, in a strict physical description, are four concentric circles of stones surrounded by a moat. From there, the puzzle unfolds. Why did they put the rocks like this? What was this point for? What was its function? Where did these stones come from? Who brought them? How did these people, our ancestors, live so many thousands of years ago?
The ambitious exhibition of the British Museum, curated by Neil Wilkin, responsible for the European collections of the Neolithic and the Bronze Age that accompanies us on this trip, will try to provide answers by placing the monument in a broader context: regional, since the area is rich in archaeological sites such as Avebury or Dorset; and international, since connections have been shown between communities living in Britain and others on the continent.
Stonehenge and its ceremonial character
stonehenge it’s a calendar. The pieces that compose it are not placed randomly, but in such a precise way that mark the rhythm with which the seasons of the year follow each other, in a perfect connection with the sun and the moon. An astronomical temple, important for communities that lived in close relationship with the earth. “The rites to the sun are important throughout Europe and in fact, the communities that began to work in agriculture here came from the continent, as has been shown with different burials found in the area,” explains Wilkin. In the exhibition, in fact, you can see the Nebra Disc arrived from Germanya piece that dates back 3,600 years and that represents the first representation of the stars and the cosmos in history.
This ritual place still today attracts thousands of people at each winter and summer solstice to celebrate pagan rites, as if they were Celtic druids, although it seems that those shamans passed through here.
What is certain, although there are various hypotheses about its function, is that it had a ceremonial character. It is not habitable and could not defend itself. Another theory is that it was a site for funeral rites -human remains have been found in the vicinity; or even that it was a sanatorium pilgrimage point where sick people from all over Europe came to be healed by contact with its blue stones, brought from Wales, from an area 250 kilometers away.
How were those stones transported? And above all, why? “Obviously they had to be motivated by something. This would be like a temple, like a church, maybe that’s why its interior is quite clean, objects have been found in the surroundings, but this place was special. Maybe those who built it were in a kind of pilgrimage, like someone going to Mecca today,” explains guide Susan Greney. Far from us in time, perhaps they were not so far from us in their approaches. They were also worried about their health, their well-being, the future.
There are no texts written at that time, perhaps for this reason, Stonehenge, built at the same time as the Sphinx in Cairo, remains in many ways a mystery that feeds legends, a challenge for archaeologists who use cutting-edge technology to continue deciphering secrets hidden behind those stones, under those lands. Many, perhaps, we will never get to unravel them and in part, that is their attraction.
An exhibition with pieces from all over Europe
The British Museum’s exhibition is made up of 430 pieces that have come from different countries: Germany, Ireland, Italy and France. Because Stonehenge transcends Whiltshire and goes beyond the United Kingdom. “Stonehenge is thought of as an English, British monument, but when you study it tentacles are seen all over Europe. This is at the heart of this exhibition,” says Wilkin. This is to demonstrate the interconnectedness that existed between peoples from all over Europe and that makes it impossible to understand the place without that broader context.
In fact, it determines it, since at that time metals and new materials began to arrive from the continent, agriculture spread, new trade routes were opened. In short, great social and technological changes occurred that possibly led, with the establishment of a new era, to the end of this iconic monument as a ceremonial epicenter.
“It is impossible to bring Stonehenge to a museum in London and we have tried,” jokes Neil Wilkin. In his defect, another of the key pieces is seahenge, a similar temple, but in wood, from Norkolk. What is possible is that an exhibition like this arouses interest in visiting the monument and the area in which it is located. That’s the idea. and there goes The Great Western Wall who has designed a kind of ‘British Route 66’which runs from London to Bristol, passing through this area of immense archaeological and natural value.
Stonehenge, said in one of his poems Seasson Siegfried, “is the roofless past. A place whose stillness will survive the clouds of History that rush above them.”