There are the known unknowns: the 52 sarsens – ‘Saracen’ stones, accessories to un-Christian religion – clustered on the bare Wiltshire upland. It is now agreed that the boulders of quartzite, weighing on average 25 tons, arrived at the site around 2500 BCE after a twenty-mile journey from the slopes south of Marlborough, and that the 44 bluestones nestled among them, igneous rocks of between two and five tons, had come eight times as far, from a hillside in Pembrokeshire. Around a million visitors each year approach the resulting ensemble of Stonehenge along a tarmacked path that cuts through a shallow bank-and-ditch perimeter across neatly mown lawns, while traffic roars in the background, two hundred yards away. Proposals to fix that clash of registers have been debated for more than thirty years, with the transport secretary currently bidding to bury the A303 in a budget-friendly tunnel likely to degrade further whatever archaeological evidence remains. And so southern Britain flows around this awkward island in the stream, three times as old as England: a gaunt stone colander for sun, rain and wind, an anomalous centre to circles lost to sight.
The archaeologists Duncan Garrow and Neil Wilkin have devised an inspired complement to the Wiltshire visitor experience. Entering The World of Stonehenge, their exhibition at the British Museum (until 17 July), you swap the breadth and breathiness of Salisbury Plain for a winding path through darkness, along which spotlights shine on exquisite carvings and mouldings and multifarious trophies from prehistory. Excavated burials stand upended as panels. Great slabs of rock art and of timber – for instance, the circle of tree trunks uncovered on a Norfolk beach in 1998, the so-called Seahenge – rise up along the way. There are eloquent peat-preserved minutiae: an elm leaf from a Lancashire site intact after six millennia, a basket from Devon intact after four. There is haunting trash – pots smashed when a millennium-old metropolis on Orkney was destroyed, not long after Stonehenge was built – and near baffling magnificence: a golden upper-body carapace or ‘cape’ from Mold that would have immobilised some female dignitary of the 18th century BCE. There are disarmingly clever infographics and tactics to get stones to speak: notably, a shoal of ninety axes swimming up a wall, intended to represent the generations of slash-and-burners who first enabled farming. The axe-heads’ range of origins maps onto the show as a whole, not only the British-Irish archipelago, but reaching as far as Iberia, Lombardy and Sweden.
The glamorous loans – including another quite recent archaeological sensation, the ‘Nebra sky disc’, a bronze and gold star chart from Saxony c.1600 BCE – elicit oohs and aahs from visitors. Not least because the curators have plumped for poetry. They bow to unknown unknowns, declaring in the entrance lobby that the monument remains a ‘mystery’. An audio system immerses you in birds warbling and waters rushing as you turn into the first main gallery and are introduced to those hunter-gatherers who, from around 9000 BCE, took on Europe’s north-west as the ice retreated, before rising seas created its present configuration. You are embarking on a very long epic: this poem will run to around 800 BCE, the point at which the by now long-marooned north-westerners began employing iron. But it concludes with a flourish, flaunting a metal detectorist’s 2018 coup, a two-inch crescent of chased gold dug out from Shropshire marshland: ‘2800 years ago, this pendant was cast into the sky before it sank into the gloom of a pool dotted with water lilies.’
Such broad-brush lyricism comes with an elegiac rhetoric. The Mesolithic salmon-fishers by those rushing streams were, the curators assure us, still ‘working with nature’, leading ‘successful lives’ that were reabsorbed by their environment. The pendant, however, witnessed an age when ‘skirmishes, raids and large clashes of trained warriors became a grim fact of life’ and when ‘damage was wrought to both bodies and objects, including frequent ritual deposition of metalwork in watery locations.’ (It is preceded by bronze weapons and shattered bones from a battle fought in Brandenburg around 1250 BCE.) The moral itinerary crossing the eight intervening millennia takes many turns but runs prevailingly downhill. Farming, coming to the archipelago around 4000 BCE, created distinctions between wild and tamed land, an aspect of this new take on space being the place-making practice of stone circle erection which ‘drew together large numbers of people in works of collaboration and creativity’. But ‘growing inequality and social differentiation’ gradually gathered force, eroding their fellow feeling. From monuments that all could share in, creative initiative switched in the second millennium BCE to metal finery meant exclusively for powerful individuals. A sorry tale about Britain’s recent centuries is extended to cover its remoter past: from around 1500 BCE, ‘acts of enclosure controlled access to the most important sites, cemeteries and agricultural land.’
Or if you prefer, this exhibition hails ‘an age of mobile pioneers, progress and innovation’. So claims the vice president of its sponsor, BP, in a foreword to the catalogue, though perhaps all she intends is a trade-off: we plunder the planet but pay poets to apologise. However you spin the rhetoric, the exhibition retains a cohesive narrative. But close in on the artefacts and you are released from the reductive grading of ‘successful’ – or otherwise – lives and epochs. You might be drawn to wonder, for instance, what it was like to make that Shropshire pendant: to scribe a gold sheet with a flint or agate point so that immaculately serried lines, hatched in triangular compartments, lie packed some seventy to the inch. Or to consider a mace head made around 3000 BCE and found at Maes Mawr in North Wales. This three-inch-long flint was holed to house a now vanished wooden shaft, then knapped and burnished so that some two hundred tiny pleatings, as though of a lace ruff, criss-cross its creamy whiteness. My guess is that the conceit would have been to transmute tough stone to rippling water: this carver was choosing trickster magic over truth to materials. But to imagine how long was spent fretting with stone-tipped bow drills and gritted leather to deliver those suave fluctuations sets the mind reeling.
Prehistory is more abstract than history: untethered by written documents, it will always be open to guesswork. But the prehistory of Europe’s north-west is peculiarly abstract in that its art has so little to do with figures. What you see instead are lines and notches intended to occupy: at once by establishing fields for attention, whether over the flank of a rock or the belly of a pot, and by slowing down both maker and viewer. Steadiness of hand and mind seems the great desideratum in the reiterated scorings, an even-tempered refusal to let any single mark take precedence. Not that the rhythms couldn’t switch. A great boulder (designated ‘Kerbstone 52’) that abuts the Irish passage tomb of Newgrange is horizontally fissured: below this natural cleft, diamond chequers have been cut in sunk relief. Spirals reel above. A carved vertical band bisects the crack and to its right lie what look like power sockets and raindrop ripples. There is certainly drama in this Rosetta Stone of contrasting treatments of space, but will any of them translate into words? To reach for a symbolic code might be to fumble. When Garrow and Wilkin discuss in their catalogue another bafflement from c.3000 BCE, the balls of basalt or gneiss found at sites across Scotland that have been whorled or studded with consummate finesse, they deflect our questions: ‘Their meaning may have been partly realised by their makers in the time and thought invested in their creation.’
Alongside the acts of occupation went acts of orientation: that is the standard claim about the culture of the era – affirmed as much by that vertical band on Kerbstone 52 (aligned along a solstice line with another on the monument’s far side) as by latter-day sun-worshippers at Stonehenge. The precept ‘as in heaven, so on earth’ carries through from the heyday of Europe’s megaliths (between 4000 and 2500 BCE) to the succeeding boom in metalwork. The Nebra sky disc with its golden moon and Pleiades, and another stand-out continental loan, the Trundholm sun chariot from Denmark, glamorise the same skygazing mindset, to which the shimmering crescent from Shropshire, interpreted as another handhold on the sun, provides the curators’ closing witness. To look up from the horizon is to lose yourself, even as you might lose yourself in the mace head’s micro-manufacture: the emphases of the pieces on show are prevailingly contemplative rather than emotionally expressive.
At the same time, a difference in accent did emerge after the seas separated archipelago from mainland. The frame of reference for the modelled bronze horse that pulls the Trundholm sun disc resembles that of the Mediterranean world, where statuary abounded and where communities worshipped under temple roofs. Islander sensibilities were more diffident about bodies, more attached to the winds and the wild. You have to scrabble in corners for empathy. The show’s sole hint of ancient British sex is a rough-hacked effigy with big breasts and a large phallus, dumped in a Somersetshire bog. More poignant are the Folkton ‘drums’ from Yorkshire, little chalk tubs placed in a child’s grave around 3000 BCE. Unusually, their demurely restrained relief carvings lend the cylinders watchful – you might say ‘guardian’ – eyes.
What special child might that have been? Death, the curators conjecture, had heretofore been communistic: the jumbled skeletons in graves of the fourth millennium BCE suggest an oceanic ‘realm of ancestors, making it appropriate for different individuals to be mixed together’. A mix of this kind – ‘a cross-section of the population’ – can be discerned in the cremated bodies buried at the turn of the third millennium BCE within the circular ditch and bank that were early features of the Stonehenge site. At the same time, genetic archaeology raises the possibility that some of the charred remains had been brought there from the Pembrokeshire hills, where traces of an earlier megalithic circle have recently been detected – the same bluestones, it’s hypothesised, that were transported not long after 3000 BCE to perch just inside the circular bank on Salisbury Plain. Some sacred legacy was being sent on an anabasis from the coasts of the Atlantic, the main high-cultural highway of the time.
The demarcated ring on the grassy plateau, therefore, was from its outset about heaven, in the sense of afterlife. Was it always also about the heavens, in the sense of sky-watching? Can we rediscover how Stonehenge’s meanings evolved in sequence? The sarsens with their solstice-facing internal horseshoe of titanic trilithons and its surrounding ring fence went up some five centuries after the arrival of the smaller bluestones, which were now corralled to crouch between. (A bad call, I reckon: left near the perimeter, they would have improved the visual hierarchy.) But the more we root for evidence about that architectural scheme, the thicker the mists gather. We learn that the stone circle was coeval with a ‘Woodhenge’ circle of tall posts two miles downhill, abutting a large settlement by the banks of the River Avon where the stonemasons must have lived. Discussing the relationship between the two, the archaeologists Ramilisonina and Mike Parker Pearson have pointed to building conventions in Madagascar: there, wood is for the living, stone for the dead. But what prompted the new specs to which the masons were hammering, the demand to dress the boulders into blocks, mortise-and-tenon-trimmed to slot together Lego-style? Was this project meant to see off another comparator, the far broader circle of undressed sarsens at Avebury, seventeen miles away? How had weights of up to 35 tons been transported and lifted? What geometry had the overseers? Garrow and Wilkin try to step back 4500 years: ‘Anyone visiting at the time must have been struck by the novelty, ingenuity and perhaps also the conceit of the plan.’ But if that passer-by was bemused, so are present-day researchers, who remain ‘unable to fully explain satisfactorily how the sarsens were raised’.
What politics were involved? Fashions in guesswork seesaw. You can focus on pharaonic priest-kings commandeering massed labour (Egypt’s pyramids were near contemporaries) or, more cheerfully, seasonal community heave-hoes in which ‘the act of building’ was ‘as important as the finished product’. (This is the preference of the present curators, implicitly siding with the sanguine rethink of the era by David Graeber and David Wengrow in The Dawn of Everything.) Those two pictures need not in fact contradict each other. But what pressures prompted the initiative? For a century British archaeology, proceeding shard by shard, identified strata of Grooved Ware that preceded strata of Beaker Ware, assigning to each type of pottery a people: the former being farmers using stone tools, the latter metal-working continental arrivistes, or perhaps conquerors. Then, during an irenic interlude from the 1970s onwards, there were no ‘Beaker Folk’, only Beaker styles assimilated by ‘culture contact’. Now the ‘Folk’ are back, restored to actuality by bone sampling that shows a clear switch in DNA.
That switch seems to overlap in date with the main work at Stonehenge. Down by the river, the remains are all Grooved; up on the plateau, there are Beaker burials in the monument’s vicinity, though many occurred while it was settling down to business as a pilgrim shrine before finally – from around 1500 BCE – attentions and allegiances moved elsewhere. So we reach another interpretive fork, and you choose in line with your taste in history proper. Stonehenge is the last of the archipelago’s megalithic circles, concluding a 1200-year pattern of construction. At the same time, nothing quite like it had ever been built before. Is it the New Delhi of Lutyens, the final spectacular of a hegemony facing imminent obsolescence? Or is it the Durham Cathedral of the Normans, a definitive ‘Look, natives, what we can make you do’? Those options, too, will make way for others once new evidence is gained. The past blows now this way, now that.