by Roderick Conway Morris

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Stonehenge © English Heritage

Shining a light on Stonehenge

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 1 April 2022


The last Ice Age began to draw to a close some 15,000 years ago. Between then and 10,000 years ago, as the climate warmed, hunter gatherers began to venture across the land bridge that still linked Britain with the Continent. As the ice sheets retreated, some areas became forested but others remained as open grasslands.

One such that took on a particular significance was Salisbury Plain. It was already a sacred site to our ancestors 10,000 years ago. The first bluestones each weighing up to five tons - quarried in the Preseli hills in Pembrokeshire in the far west of Wales, and brought from 125 miles away - were erected where Stonehenge now stands 5,000 years ago.

Later re-arranged, the bluestones were positioned to encircle a horseshoe shaped arrangement of five trithlons, pairs of stones surmounted by a third horizontal lintel, made of sarsen, a hard silicified sandstone. These two inner formations were then surrounded by a perfect circle of sarsen stones with lintels, each weighing 20 tons or more and standing up to 5 metres high. Thus, the Stonehenge we admire today was already completed around 4,500 years ago.

This venerable monument is the focus of a beautiful wide-ranging exhibition at the British Museum, 'The World of Stonehenge', which, through 430 objects from 35 institutions, vividly evokes the lives of this nation's distant forebears.

Curated by Duncan Garrow and Neil Wilkin, the show artfully leads us from the era when hunter-gatherer migrants crossed the land bridge now known as Doggerland (submerged by rising sea levels around 8,000 years ago), on into the new age of agriculture, which commenced around 6,000 years ago and saw the creation of great stone monuments, the mightiest of which was Stonehenge. The story then continues into the age of metals, bringing us up to the arrival of the Celts in these islands and almost to the coming of Julius Caesar and his legions, when our written history began.

In the 1720s, William Stukeley, an antiquarian and founding Trustee of the British Museum, was the first to undertake a scientific investigation of Stonehenge and its environs and to realize it was the tip of the iceberg of an enormous sacred site. He was also one of the first to understand the astronomical alignments of the building. Unfortunately, he was also the first to promote the abiding myth connecting the monument with the Celtic Druids, who did not arrive in Britain until at least a millenium and half later.

The full extent of the sacred complex surrounding Stonehenge, including innumerable burial sites, is still in the process of discovery. One outstanding revelation has been the uncovering of Stonehenge Avenue, a ceremonial thoroughfare leading from the monument down to the Avon, possibly memorializing the route along which the Welsh bluestones were conveyed towards the end of their journey. Indeed, recent finds at West Amesbury on the banks of the Avon, suggest the bluestones may have formed a circular monument there, before being relocated to Stonehenge.

Another neighbouring henge at Durrington Walls seems to have been the site of a large settlement, possibly of the people who were involved in the erection both of the sarsen stones at Stonehenge aligned to mark the midsummer and midwinter solstices, and also of four 'station' stones indicating astronomical sight lines for the rising and setting moon.

It is possible that Durrington Walls consisted of up to a thousand houses, which would have made it the largest town not only in Britain but also in north-western Europe. No less intriguing is the fact that the detritus of feasting unearthed at Durrington Walls provides evidence that the largest communal celebrations were held there not at the summer solstice but at the midwinter solstice, suggesting that, while today's New Age enthusiasts congregate at Stonehenge at midsummer, the original builders of the site regarded the winter solstice - a pagan festival later absorbed into the Christian calendar - as the more important.

Stonehenge's Welsh bluestones were clearly regarded with special reverence judging by the numerous chips from them, taken by ancient visitors as talismans and souvenirs, that have turned up in distant places. Axe-heads, probably sourced from Stonehenge but conceivably from where they were quarried in Wales, have been unearthed near Bournemouth. Connections between Stonehenge and the south-west of Wales seem to have been enduring. It has been established that later burials at the site include those of individuals from the Preseli region; some were even cremated there and their ashes brought to be interred at Stonehenge. The belief that the bluestones of Stonehenge had magical properties survived well into the Christian age, their powers still being attested by the 12th-century chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth.

The raising of the massive sarsen stones that marked the final phase of the erection of the monument coincided with the building of the Great Pyramid at Giza and the Sphynx in ancient Egypt, but how the sarsen stones were manoeuvred into place remains a matter for speculation. Certainly, the operation must have required huge communal efforts.

But there are other, more intimate survivals from the period during which Stonehenge was being built. Most poignant among these are the finely carved chalk drums from children's graves. Three of these were unearthed in Folkton, North Yorkshire in the nineteenth century. But in 2015 another, exquisitely carved, was discovered at Agnes Burton, East Yorks, along with a chalk ball and a polished bone pin in the grave of three children, the oldest one protectively embracing the two younger ones laid to rest holding hands.

Metalworking came to Britain around the time of the completion of Stonehenge, which marked the end of the era of such massive stone monuments. However, the sun and the moon remained central to religious systems, and these symbols began to be represented in smaller forms, in bronze and precious metals.

The Beaker people who migrated to the British Isles acquired this name in the 19th century on account of their distinctive pottery, but they also introduced metal working. Among their most astonishing productions were crescent-shaped collars known as lunulae (little moons), made of a single gold ingot hammered wafer-thin and decorated with incisized motifs. Two such collars found in Ireland and Brittany were almost certainly created by the same goldsmith, one of the many examples throughout the exhibition of both artefacts and people crossing seas and travelling long distances.

Dating back to around 1,600 BC, the Nebra Sky Disc was unearthed by two metal detectorists near the small town of Nebra in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt as recently as 1999. The bronze of the disc, now with a green patina, was originally pitch-black to represent the night sky and studded with 32 gold dots for stars. There is also a gold crescent, presumed to be the moon, and a complete circle, either the moon or the sun. Between the crescent and circle is a cluster of seven stars, identifiable as the Pleiades or Seven Sisters. Their appearance and disappearance from the heavens marked the beginning and end of the agricultural year in Europe. As the Greek poet Hesiod wrote in around 700 BC: 'when the Pleiades rise it is time to use the sickle, but the plough when they are setting'.

The Pleiades were also used periodically to bring the lunar and solar calendars into line with one another. The first known written explanation of how to use this constellation to affect the adjustment is inscribed on a Babylonian cuneiform tablet dating back to the seventh or sixth century BC. But all the elements required to make the calculation are clearly shown on the Sky Disc in purely visual form a thousand years before the Babylonian tablet. The gold strips on either side of the Disc (one now missing) were also very precisely measured to indicated the full range of points on the horizon at which the sun sets and rises in a solar year.

Curiously enough, the solar and lunar observations that are recorded on the Disc are very much the same as those that gave rise to Stonehenge - although in the case of the former in portable form. Later owners of the Disc may well have been less sophisticated than its original makers. For at some point a further gold crescent was added at the base of the sky, which is not a celestial phenomenon but a 'sun ship' characteristic of Nordic mythology and metalwork - by which time the Disc may well have lost its astronomical purpose.

One of the loveliest pieces in this revealing landmark exhibition provides a worthy conclusion to it. The Shropshire sun pendant sank to the bottom of an alder- and reed-fringed pool 2,800 years ago. Only rediscovered by a metal detectorist in 2018, this glittering, exquisitely fashioned object has incredibly delicate incisions that not only catch the light but also create an amazing illusion of three-dimensional raised geometric patterns.

The World of Stonehenge; British Museum, London; British Museum, 17 February - 17 July 2022

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023