Glowing in gold … The Nebra Sky Disc at The World of Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum, London. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA
British Museum, London
This fiercely emotional exhibition venerates the people of ancient Britain, uncovering a mystical landscape of gods and kings
The Guardian-Jonathan Jones
Stonehenge is a place you just have to go and see. An exhibition inspired by it is surely doomed to fail – the mystery killed by cases of broken beakers. But The World of Stonehenge is as magical as a great barrow full of glinting treasure. It hooks you with a wooden trident (two of these are on display) and plunges you into primal waters of the imagination. It is a knockout epic.
It can’t include Stonehenge, of course, but it does have Seahenge. This monument is made of wood and had to be removed from its seashore home to preserve it – so here it returns from the past. Gnarled wooden columns stand in the twilight. You go up to the semicircle and stare closer into their ridged brown surfaces. Maybe you glimpse a face, an eye, a shadowy form. You know these are not just old posts but the embodiment of ancient powers whose names we have forgotten, for now.
Seahenge is the physical and emotional heart of the British Museum’s moving journey to the lost world of European prehistory. It was erected by the shore in Norfolk in 2049BC (according to tree ring analysis), around 500 years after the main construction of Stonehenge. It brings the outdoors inside, and holds you mystified.
But if you are not already in a pretty woozy state by the time you reach this installation, you haven’t paid attention. Even the stone axes astound, arranged in a wall of smooth jade forms whose similarity becomes an asset. In front of the axes are finds from Avalon Marsh. This is not a new folk festival but a bog outside Glastonbury whose name associates it with King Arthur. The ancient wooden track reassembled here helped people keep their feet dry crossing this wetland nearly 6,000 years ago. Also from Avalon Marsh is a rough wooden idol that’s contemporary with Stonehenge. It has “male and female attributes”, says the catalogue: breasts and a phallus.
Was it thrown in the marsh deliberately? Like Arthur getting his sword from the Lady of the Lake, ancient people seem to have seen magic in water and cached gods and weapons there. Seahenge is surely the expression of a reverence for the grey waters of the North Sea.
The centre of the belief system that built Stonehenge, however, was the sun. You meet it right at the start of this exhibition on a standing stone from Italy that has drawings scratched on its front. Human figures and herds of animals scurry about under a huge round flaming sun engraved at the summit of the stone. The sun also glows in gold against a blue bronze sky on the Nebra Sky Disc, from Germany, a stunning map of the night sky made about 3,600 years ago: the Pleiades twinkle between the sun and a crescent moon, apparently showing a juxtaposition that was later used by Babylonian astronomers to calculate leap years. There is also a boat on the Sky Disc – the boat of the sun. This is a reminder that Stonehenge was built when the pyramids were being raised in Egypt. Next to the Great Pyramid at Giza survives the Solar Boat of Khufu, a full-sized ship for him to sail through the sky with the sun god.
It’s customary to look down on the people who created Stonehenge, compared with the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians: they were after all illiterate. But this exhibition turns that upside down. The world unveiled here is remote but not “primitive”. Stonehenge and other monuments in the British landscape are cleverly, exactly aligned to sunrise on the winter solstice, so people could gather there at the dawn of the shortest day to propitiate the sun to renew their crops. It worked: they had a hearty lifestyle. This is shown by the cosy domesticity of Skara Brae, Orkney, where people lived in snug houses with stone shelf units – it was like The Flintstones.
This is a fiercely emotional exhibition, full of love for the people of the distant past. It even wants us to learn from them. The early agriculturalists who built the henges were communal, sharing feasts at a camp called Durrington Walls near Stonehenge. There are even remains from a party when early farmers and the last hunter-gatherers ate together, the hunters cooking venison they caught, the farmers serving beef from their herd.
Soon after the lintels were placed across the sarsens at Stonehenge, evidence of inequality and power intrudes on the hippy days of collectivism. The landscape around Stonehenge is dotted with barrows where notables were buried with rich grave goods. Trade was on a new scale. So was war. The exhibition culminates in glory and horror, with astonishing evidence of a Europe where combat was king. There are shattered human remains from a German battlefield, stunningly sophisticated Bronze Age armour and a man buried on Salisbury Plain with arrow heads in his spine.
This is up there with the British Museum’s legendary shows on the Terracotta Army and Aztecs. It uncovers a rich and strange world under our own feet. You almost agree with the William Blake prints at the end that Stonehenge is the temple of lost Albion, a better Britain before our dark satanic mills.