Given both its age and its scale, it’s unsurprising that Stonehenge has been such a constant source of intrigue and obsession, as well as artistic inspiration. From archaeologists to druids, historians to poets, ardent pilgrims to the occasional impulse buyer, its mysterious origins and powerful material presence have captivated people not just for centuries, but millennia. It is a place that immediately poses questions. Where are the stones from? (The short answer: the smaller ones, known as bluestones, are from Preseli in South-West Wales, 220 miles away, while the larger ones originate from Marlborough Downs, which is 20 miles from Stonehenge.) How were they transported and arranged? (Extraordinary human effort, potentially involving land, sea, sledges, wooden tracks and jointed timbers.) What was the purpose of it all?
This last question remains the most open-ended. It is one that the British Museum’s current exhibition The World of Stonehenge seeks, at least in part, to answer. By taking a comprehensive look at the artefacts created and materials used by the people from the Neolithic era through to the Bronze Age, the exhibition seeks to unravel the complex meaning of these standing stones. Across the course of the show, Stonehenge figures as many things: a stake claimed to the land, a space for community and ritual, a burial site, art on a vast scale, a monument with great cosmological significance, a magnetic draw for visitors from afar. The show argues for Stonehenge as a place of shifting significance, added to over time and reflecting the extraordinary transformation brought about by the technological transition from stone to metalworking.
“There’s something about the way Stonehenge has come to crystallise or symbolise a sense of the deep past,” lead curator Neil Wilkin explains, when asked about why the site continues to exert such a hold on us today. This is a past before written records, before easy documentation, a past that marries “the natural and historical” with the speculatively ceremonial and spiritual. The exhibition compares Stonehenge with several other stone circles, as well as Seahenge: a timber circle with a tree stump at its heart built in 2049BC on a Norfolk saltmarsh, which was rediscovered in 1998. Excavated to preserve it from the elements, the timbers are currently on show in the British Museum, ancient wood standing to attention in the gloom.
The power of a stone circle
Although megalithic stone circles appear in other locations including France, they are mostly concentrated in the UK (recent news has focused on Stonehenge’s parallels with elaborate pebble circles in Japan). “The henge monument, which is a ditch and bank, those monuments are exclusive to Britain and Ireland, which is a very curious thing – and difficult to explain,” Wilkin says. The curiousness of the stone circle has made it an attractive meeting point for all sorts of people, and all sorts of purposes.
Artists Lally Macbeth and Matthew Shaw run Stone Club: a place “for stone enthusiasts to congregate, to muse, and most importantly to stomp to stones”. Founded in 2021, they put on events, sell merchandise, organise outings, and encourage a general enthusiasm for all things prehistoric. “The second rule of stone club is that it’s for everyone,” Macbeth explains. “We really felt like it had to be a space which is completely inclusive, whatever viewpoint you were coming from.” What this means in practise is that they are an open house for geologists and folklorists alike. Whether you want to learn about strata formation or hear about how your local circle might be composed of women petrified as punishment for dancing on the sabbath, all are equally welcome.