'If people want Stonehenge to be a UFO landing site, that's fine'

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Giants’ dance: Stonehenge as we know it is as old as the Great Pyramids of Giza - Andre Pattenden
Giants’ dance: Stonehenge as we know it is as old as the Great Pyramids of Giza - Andre Pattenden

‘Giants’ Dance”: that, during the Middle Ages, was what people called Stonehenge. To medieval monks, the origin of the ancient stone circle on Salisbury Plain was obvious: Merlin must have used magic to bring it over the sea from far away. This is one of the earliest documented theories about the prehistoric monument, which is the subject of an ambitious new exhibition at the British Museum. Nine hundred years after Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote it down, it’s arguably no more far-fetched than many of the others that have been aired.

The 17th-century architect Inigo Jones, for instance, was adamant that the Romans were responsible for Stonehenge. (In fact, it was constructed millennia before the centurions marched into Wiltshire.) For the 18th-century antiquarian William Stukeley, who wrote that Stonehenge “pleases like a magic spell”, it was, rather, the work of the Druids. Generations of grumpy archaeologists have pointed out that he, too, was wrong, but an association between greybeards in flowing robes and the World Heritage Site, which, before the pandemic, was attracting 1.5 million visitors a year, remains astonishingly powerful, as anyone who has been to Stonehenge at dawn on the solstices will attest.

To the Romantics, including Turner and Constable, Stonehenge was a thrilling spectacle of the sublime: a primal setting for elemental dramas involving lightning bolts and rainbows. “A building of eternal death” was how William Blake described it, at the start of the 19th century; more prosaically, while visiting in 1877, Charles Darwin wondered if earthworms were responsible for the sinking of the stones into the ground.

For Cecil Chubb, a barrister from Salisbury, who, in 1915, bought Stonehenge at auction for £6,600, after the aristocratic estate to which it had belonged was broken up, the monument was private property. Three years later, he gave it to the nation, marking the moment when the archaeologists moved in – though the ingenious, and flawed, interpretations kept coming. Stonehenge was a cemetery, a royal burial ground, a hospital. Unless, of course, it was an observatory, an orrery, or a fertility symbol. It has even been described as “an ancestor of the modern traffic roundabout”. And who could forget its memorable cameo, in miniaturised form, in the 1984 “rock­umentary” This Is Spinal Tap?

By 1967, the archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes had had enough. “Every age has the Stonehenge it deserves – or desires,” she wrote in an article dismantling a theory doing the rounds that it was a sort of astronomical computer. Even today’s archaeologists, despite using up-to-the-minute scientific techniques, are no closer to discovering Stonehenge’s “truth”. So, what sort of Stonehenge do we dream of – and have we got?

Smile! The star exhibit is the 3,600-year-old Nebra Sky Disc from Saxony - LDA Sachsen-Anhalt, Juraj Lipták
Smile! The star exhibit is the 3,600-year-old Nebra Sky Disc from Saxony - LDA Sachsen-Anhalt, Juraj Lipták

The World of Stonehenge will be the first exhibition the British Museum has devoted to prehistoric Britain: “Why it didn’t happen years ago,” one of its curators, Neil Wilkin, tells me, “is as mysterious as Stonehenge itself.” More­over, it won’t get bogged down in specific, technical questions about the provenance of the stones – whether, for instance, the smaller, volcanic “bluestones” came from one quarry or another in the Preseli Hills of west Wales.

Instead of considering the monument in isolation, the exhibition will bring into focus, arguably for the first time, the prehistoric people who built it, and for whom it had sacred meaning. “Stonehenge is only important and powerful,” Wilkin argues, “if you understand the world that made it possible.”

After all, he adds, there was “intense” activity at Stonehenge for a millennium and a half, beginning in about 3000 BC, when a circular ditch, with inner and outer banks, was constructed, containing an area with a diameter of 331ft. During this period, which spanned about 100 generations, rings of ­timber posts, then later standing stones, were arranged in complex formations, some oriented on solar alignments to mark the longest and shortest days of the year. The version we know today was erected about 2500 BC, about the same time as the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. So, the meaning of the monument, says Wilkin, who believes it began life as “a very important cemetery”, must have fluctuated over time.

Twin horse-snake hybrid: part of a hoard unearthed in Jutland, Denmark, this bronze sculpture is dated 1200-1000 BC - National Museum of Denmark
Twin horse-snake hybrid: part of a hoard unearthed in Jutland, Denmark, this bronze sculpture is dated 1200-1000 BC - National Museum of Denmark

Twentieth-century archaeologists could be dismissive of pre­historic British society. “They explicitly described the people who built Stonehenge as primitive savages,” explains archaeologist Mike Pitts, whose new book, How to Build Stonehenge, will be published next month. By contrast, the British Museum’s exhibition argues that the people who built and gathered at Stonehenge were sophisticated, with well-established links across Europe. The show, says Pitts, “is putting Stonehenge into a European world, rather than a ­British or even southern English one, which is where it’s usually seen”.

Among the earliest of the 430 objects on display is a sleek, sea-green jadeite axe-head from Canterbury, which is more than 6,000 years old. It was mined high in the Alps, thus providing, as Wilkin puts it, “a slice of Italian style in ­England… Finished to perfection, it’s far from just a functional tool: it’s a thing of beauty, to be enjoyed as such.”

Then, there’s the star exhibit, the 3,600-year-old bronze Nebra Sky Disc, inlaid with a gold moon and stars, which is, Wilkin tells me, “the oldest depiction of the cosmos ever discovered”, encoding “astronomical knowledge that many people won’t believe was known” so long ago. It was unearthed in 1999 in Germany – but the show will also contain 10 beautiful British and Irish “lunulae” (crescent-shaped necklaces or collars dating to c 2400-2000 BC), which, according to Wilkin, combine local gold-working styles with continental decorative motifs. “What I really love about them,” he adds, “is that they left large areas of the surface undecorated to allow the life-giving light of the sun, which was central to their beliefs and cosmology, to reflect off them.”

All that glitters: Bronze Age sun pendant, 1000–800BC - British Museum
All that glitters: Bronze Age sun pendant, 1000–800BC - British Museum

Wilkin’s vision of Stonehenge certainly sounds original. To return, though, to Hawkes’s remark, I can’t help wondering if it, too, will reflect its times. After all, it’s sometimes argued that Stonehenge is an artificial 20th-century reconstruction, made by raising fallen stones and setting them in concrete. Wilkin happily concedes that the “blurring” of ancient and modern at the site is a “fair point”, since, he accepts, “people project their own values onto it”.

So, what will feel contemporary about this new vision of Stonehenge? Appropriately, for our digital, globalised age, the exhibition’s watchword is “connectivity”. In the catalogue, too, there’s a lot of emphasis on Stonehenge’s “communal” significance, which chimes with the sense of social solidarity that has emerged during the pandemic, as well as a recent vogue for collectives within contemporary art. Perhaps, even, the ongoing ­process of modifying Stonehenge was the monument’s point: a series of vast, collective endeavours, designed to bring communities together. Stonehenge was never, says Wilkin, “like a cathedral, where you put the roof on it” – and, lo, it was complete. Rather, he explains, “a lot of the meaning was in the making”: it was “constantly fluid – until a certain point”. Fluid: another term with resonance today.

In other words, the “Stonehenge of the present” – which, Wilkin says, “was built by people, by communities, and not by shadows or ghosts, which might have been the impression in recent decades” – is inclusive and empathetic, a kind of temple to respect for others. It’s even egalitarian: in the catalogue, an apparently high-status individual interred, surrounded by grave goods, in a nearby barrow isn’t described as a chieftain, but as “both a leader and a servant of the wider community”.

“For the first time,” Pitts tells me, a new generation of archaeologists is “prepared to be emotive about the past, as well as academic.” Today’s archaeologists, he adds, “do not judge people in the past, but neither do we judge people who have their own ideas. If people want Stonehenge to be a site of ­Druidry and pagan celebrations, or a landing place for UFOs, that’s fine”. According to the historian Rosemary Hill, author of Stonehenge, an excellent, and concise, cultural history of the monument, there was a belief, for much of the 20th century, that “Stonehenge belongs to archaeology – and of course it doesn’t”.

New dawn: Stonehenge on a winter's morning - James O Davies
New dawn: Stonehenge on a winter's morning - James O Davies

What else, then, about the British Museum’s version of Stonehenge will be of the moment? According to Hill, the “big change”, since Hawkes was writing in the 1960s, “is that environmentalism has come in from the fringes”. Stonehenge now is bound up with conservation and green politics – hence the decision, taken a decade ago by English Heritage, the charity that administers the site, to grass over the nearby A344: “The car,” explains Hill, “is no longer king.” It’s notable, too, that, in the catalogue, the curators express careful deference for our hunter-gatherer predecessors, and lament the deforestation of Britain that occurred during the Neolithic period, with the arrival of farming.

What, though, of the Stonehenge we deserve? For Hill, that’s easy: the soul-sapping endlessness of the debate about the A303 – which every summer gets bottlenecked, as passers-by slow down to gawp – ensures that, she says, “the Stonehenge we’ve got at the moment is a Stonehenge that’s completely stuck”. The endless schemes and never-ending legal wrangling over whether the road should be hidden within a costly tunnel are, she explains, indicative of wider political gridlock and fractiousness, and thus “reflective of the present age”.

At the same time, Hill argues, we still yearn for Stonehenge to be a symbol of “continuity” and “reassurance”, so that we feel “in touch with something bigger and more primal, reassuringly epic in time and space”. “People say we’re a very secular society,” she tells me. “But I don’t think we’re at all secular: we’ve just given up, largely, on organised formal religion. I think we want Stonehenge to be sacred.”

The World of Stonehenge opens at the British Museum, London WC1 (britishmuseum.org), on Feb 17

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