The world of Stonehenge: placing a famous monument in context

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A new exhibition at the British Museum explores the landscape that Stonehenge emerged from, and the social, cultural, and technological transformations it witnessed. Neil Wilkin and Jennifer Wexler told CA more.

An immense communal effort, continental connections, and exotic materials travelling long distances for people to gather and marvel at: this could be a summary of the story of Stonehenge, but it also describes the creation of a new exhibition opening at the British Museum this month, and the challenges of arranging hundreds of international loans during a pandemic. Organised with the State Museum of Prehistory, Halle/Saale, Germany, and developed with Professor Duncan Garrow at the University of Reading, The World of Stonehenge places the monument in its wider context, exploring the natural and material landscapes that its builders would have known; the technological, cultural, and social changes it witnessed over 1,500 years (and the dramatic changes the monument itself underwent); and the ideas it expressed.

Over the course of 1,500 years, Stonehenge witnessed dramatic changes, both to its own design and within the cultural landscape of prehistoric Britain. Photo: English Heritage.

It is a story that begins millennia before the first elements of Stonehenge took shape, towards the end of the last Ice Age when the lands that would become Britain were inhospitably cold and long abandoned by early humans. As temperatures began to rise some 15,000 years ago, intrepid hunter-gatherers ventured back across what is now the English Channel, following herds of horse, reindeer, and bison over a wide plain – now known as Doggerland – that formed a bridge to continental Europe until it was lost to the rising waters of the North Sea c.8,000 years ago. These would have initially been seasonal hunting expeditions, but some of these nomadic communities stayed, and began to leave lasting traces in the landscape.

On Salisbury Plain, just 250m from where the first phase of Stonehenge would be built 5,000 years later, Mesolithic people dug great pits and raised tall timbers whose traces were rediscovered in 1966 during the expansion of a car park built for modern visitors to the site. Whether these 10,000-year-old posts were erected as utilitarian markers or elaborately carved totems is unknown, as their timbers do not survive, but they suggest that the site was recognised as special in some way from a very early date – and hint at people putting their own stamp on the landscape before Britain had become an island, an early expression of permanence in a still very mobile world.

Living with the landscape

The lives of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were intimately entwined with the landscapes that they moved through. Knowing how to find water, how to track animals, and what plants were good to eat or practically useful could literally be a matter of life and death when food supplies were seasonal and sometimes precarious. They may have understood their relationship with the natural world as a reciprocal and placatory one, and a possible reflection of such beliefs lies 250 miles to the north, beside a now-vanished lake in the Vale of Pickering that became a fascinating focus of activity during the period when the ‘car-park posts’ were being erected on Salisbury Plain. Star Carr represents, if not a settlement, then a more persistent place in the landscape, and the wooden platforms and simple structures created by its occupants have been preserved by the anaerobic conditions of the lake shore (see CA 282 and 349).

One of 33 red-deer ‘frontlets’ excavated at Star Carr, a Mesolithic site in North Yorkshire. Image: Trustees of the British Museum

Many artefacts from the site illuminate aspects of everyday life, but some are more enigmatic, none more so than 33 ‘frontlets’. Crafted from the tops of red-deer skulls, these are interpreted as some kind of headdress, possibly worn in shamanic ceremonies, and one is included in the British Museum exhibition. An intriguing continental counterpart, also among the displays, comes from the burial of a woman discovered near Halle in Germany in 1934. She had been interred around 8,500 years ago, when lakeside activity was still flourishing at Star Carr, and her grave goods include red-deer antlers, as well as numerous tusks, teeth, and bones from other wild species, that may have formed part of an elaborate headdress.

This polished jadeitite axe is made of materials quarried in the Italian Alps. Image: Trustees of the British Museum

Covered in red ochre and buried upright in a crouched position, accompanied by a baby, this figure has been dubbed the ‘Bad Dürrenberg shaman’ because of the objects buried with her – but there are also physical clues to why she may have been perceived as special. An unusual deformation at the base of her skull and the top of her spine would have possibly caused auditory and visual hallucinations, and a tendency to faint or enter a trance-like state when she turned her head. This change of consciousness, possibly accessed at will, could have been associated with an ability to travel through other worlds or commune with wild animals or supernatural forces.

Returning to the Stonehenge landscape, evidence of more lasting connections with specific places is found at Blick Mead, c.1.5 miles from the site of Stonehenge. Beginning c.9,500 years ago, large groups of people seem to have gathered beside a spring, to hunt giant cattle known as aurochsen and share the spoils. Tens of thousands of flint tools reflecting repeated visits, as well as quantities of burnt animal-bone testifying to lavish feasts, have been excavated at the site since 2005 (see CA 271, 324, 325, and 381). It took outside influences for more formal settlements to evolve in Britain, however – influences that brought seismic changes.

Living in a material world

Around 6,000 years ago, incomers from mainland Europe brought transformative new ideas and technologies to Britain, including the domestication of livestock, the cultivation of crops, and pottery-production – changes associated with the Neolithic period. The rise of agriculture heralded permanent settlements and a more reliable food supply, which may have also brought a change of mindset: ownership of land meant territory to defend, animals that needed to be protected and could be counted as wealth, and perhaps new ideas of status and identity tied to what you owned. Neolithic Britons were now living in a material world, with more substantial structures reflecting greater investment in houses and a less mobile lifestyle meaning that possessions did not need to be limited to what you could easily carry.

The Neolithic heralded the construction of permanent dwellings, including substantial stone buildings like those at Skara Brae in Orkney. Photo: Reading Tom, CC BY 2.0.

The impact of these early farmers on the landscape was on a completely different scale to their predecessors. Pollen analysis paints a picture of significant tree-clearance, and the tool most associated with this change is the axe. The displays ‘really go to town’ on this artefact, exhibition lead curator Dr Neil Wilkin says, with a wall of 90 polished stone axes from different parts of Europe during different parts of the Neolithic. Each artefact stands for a generation within the Neolithic, and their finely polished surfaces, representing hours of gruelling work with sand and water, also highlight that these were not just utilitarian tools, but prized and carefully worked artefacts, some of which had travelled long distances.

Among the displays are jadeitite examples from the Italian Alps, and grey-green Langdale stone from Cumbria, both harvested from high peaks that may in themselves have been perceived as spiritually important places. Another key artefact within this section is a hafted axe from Shulishader on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Dating to 3495-2910 BC, it was recovered from peat which had preserved its wooden handle almost intact – a rare survival that reminds us that these were not hand axes, but were mounted like their modern equivalents.

Monumental changes

It was not only through farming that Neolithic people left their mark on the landscape. They also created deep flint-mines like Grimes Graves and dug quarries to harvest stone for their constructions (although stone extraction itself has earlier origins), while wooden trackways criss-crossed watery areas to give access to these liminal spaces. Timbers from one c.5,200-year-old example, the Sweet Track, which was found near Glastonbury, are included in the exhibition, and such paths of planks seem to have acted as platforms from which to commit artefacts, possibly votive offerings, to the boggy waters.

Part of the Sweet Track, a Neolithic pathway that once allowed access into the Avalon Marshes near Glastonbury. Image: Trustees of the British Museum

Perhaps the most dramatic and enduring modification of people’s surroundings, though, was the rise of imposing monuments in wood and stone. From causewayed enclosures and circular arrangements of uprights to chambered tombs and long cairns, these constructions scattered the land, sometimes forming ceremonial landscapes in their own right, such as the Brú na Bóinne complex in Co. Meath, and the remarkable range of monuments around Brodgar and Stenness in Orkney. Stonehenge too was surrounded by monuments, though today it appears isolated, and many of them seem to have been built on astronomical alignments. Winterbourne Barrow, for example, which stands around 1.5 miles from Stonehenge and pre-dates it by c.500 years, is thought to be aligned on the midsummer solstice sunrise. Objects from this tomb are included in the exhibition, as are artefacts from another more recently excavated Salisbury Plain monument, that of Larkhill (see CA 326). This latter site, a causewayed enclosure dating to c.3750-3650 BC, is one of the earliest known monuments in the Stonehenge landscape, and is also carefully aligned on the midsummer solstice. Further afield, the midwinter sun seems to have played a key role in the design of the passage tombs at Newgrange in Co. Meath, and Maeshowe in Orkney, with light spilling into their central chambers at the solstice.

A carved stone from Structure 10 at the Ness of Brodgar (the wider site is shown below). Similar geometric designs are found across Britain and Ireland on a range of materials, constructions, and objects. Photo: ORCA.
The Ness of Brodgar. Photo: Hugo Anderson-Whymark.

Stonehenge itself began as a ditched and banked circuit c.5,000 years ago, and its first stones were brought an impressively long distance to form the next phase of the monument. A series of pits known as the Aubrey Holes are thought to represent the original setting of the bluestones, small geologically exotic uprights that were brought from the Preseli Hills in west Wales (CA 366, 345, and 311 – and once these stones were moved to their present arrangement, the site became an early cremation cemetery, with many of the burnt remains placed in the upper fills of the vacant stone-holes. Significantly, analysis of the burnt bone and charcoal suggests that some of these individuals had died and been cremated in west Wales too. The monument was already 500 years old when it gained its now-familiar sarsen uprights and trilithons; unlike the bluestones, these were of local material quarried in the West Woods area of the Marlborough Downs, around 20 miles north of Stonehenge (CA 367).

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 384. Read on in the magazine (click here to subscribe) or on our new website, The Past, which details of all the content of the magazine. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current World ArchaeologyMinerva, and Military History Matters.

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