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Europe at the Time of Stonehenge

With the goal of creating the most detailed image of the world at the time Stonehenge was built 4,500 years ago, London's British Museum has acquired hundreds of artifacts on loan to present the full panoply of Bronze Age Europe: the people’s beliefs, capabilities, and knowledge.

Stonehenge pictured under cloudy skies

Seven countries have sent some of the most precious and extraordinary Bronze Age finds of the period (2,500 BCE) for the exhibition. Placed together they reveal a sophisticated understanding of astronomy, metalworking, and foreign trade routes.

“It’s almost like we’ve become over familiar with the monument but the context and the people are missing from the picture,” said Neil Wilkin, lead curator of the exhibition. “We only really understand the monument if you understand what is happening in that world at the time it is built.”

Stonehenge was built around 4,500 years ago, during a period where few distinctive features interrupted the natural scenery save these stone circles. However, we now know that timber circles would have been much more common.

Seahenge on a remote beach in Norfolk, England
Seahenge discovery on Holme Beach. Wendy George / British Museum

Among the exhibited items will be part of “Seahenge” or “Stonehenge of the Sea.” Seahenge is the overturned stump of a massive oak tree which emerged from the sands of a remote Norfolk beach in 1998. Surrounded by a circle of partially-skinned timber poles 6.6 meters in diameter, it’s a fascinating example of a timber circle.

“We know about some aspects of the monument, including that it was constructed in the spring and summer of 2049 BC, from mighty oaks,” says Dr. Jennifer Wexler, project curator of The World of Stonehenge. “But there’s much that still eludes us, including exactly what it was used for.”

Bronze and gold depiction of the cosmos on the Nebra sky disc.
Nebra sky disk. Dbachmann, CC license

Many of the exhibition's objects are made of gold or bronze, and are thought to depict movements of the moon, the sun, and the stars. Probably the most striking is the Nebra Sky Disk, one of the two oldest depictions of the cosmos ever found. Forged of bronze and gold and found in Germany, it was buried 3,600 years ago, but archeologists have no way of knowing when it was actually made.

Another astronomical calendar is a pair of conical gold hats also found in Germany, and also made around 3,600 years ago, that features bands of stamped circles and flat spaces. Archeologists believe the hat was worn by someone with tremendous social status - likely within a Sun cult, which were so common as to be almost universal in Europe at that time.

Conical gold hat believed to represent an astrological calendar.
Schifferstadt gold hat c.1600 BC, Germany/Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speye; British Museum

“The mystery of Stonehenge is a source of enduring fascination for every generation

who visit or catch a glimpse of its distinctive silhouette,” said Wilkin.

“This landmark exhibition will begin to reveal its secrets by setting this great monument in the context of a period of radical change on these islands, and by bringing together exceptional objects that shed new light on its meaning and significance.”

The World of Stonehenge runs from now to 17 July at the British Museum.


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