Saturday 16 July 2022

#068 A day at the museum (part 1) - The World Of Stonehenge

This spring and summer the British Museum hosted the World Of Stonehenge special exhibition.

Short of lifting in the renowned stone circle, you couldn't have wished for a more comprehensive and thorough storytelling of Stonehenge. From its Mesolithic beginnings through to the late Bronze age. Although, having mentioned megalithic stones, this major exhibition did not stop short of presenting several excellent and no doubt extremely weighty examples of rock art from across Europe. As the title indicated, the assembled artefacts truly represented the people of the stone age, their culture, origins, inspiration and connectivity. 

This stele from the alps was revisited for centuries, with new decoration and
meaning added by successive generations. It depicts the sun over gatherings of 
people, the migration of wild animals and the farming seasons. In the age of the
first farmers, the heavens governed the timing and tempo of domestic and ritual
life. (Text: British Museum). Capo di Ponte stone, Cemmo, Italy circa 2500BC.

Photo: Stu Westfield

Stepping into the exhibition space, it started where all journeys do, at the beginning; in this case 10,000 years ago in ancient Britain when bands of hunter-fisher-gatherers lived off the land. Which, at the time, was still connected to the European landmass.

Image: British Museum

It was wonderful to be reunited with an example of the enigmatic Star Carr red deer headdresses, which I had first seen at the Rotunda museum, in Scarborough, several years ago.

Photo: Stu Westfield

A number of excellent examples of stone and bronze axe heads, hafted onto wooden handles, gave a  tangible sense of our ancestors connection to their environment. In hands that cleared the wild woods during the Neolithic farming revolution and beyond. 

Without doubt, for me, the most stunning exhibit was the Nebra Sky Disc, named after the village in which it was found in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany and on loan from their state archaeology office. This was too convenient a chance not to miss seeing it.

The Nebra Sky Disc reveals the creativity and advanced astronomical
knowledge of cultures without writing. The distinctive rosette of seven
stars represents the Pleiades. These stars play a key role in an ancient
rule, known from a 2700 year old Babylonian text, that allowed the 
shorter lunar year to be kept in step with the solar year. A leap month
should be added every third year of a crescent moon a few days old 
appears next to the Pleiades in the springtime sky. (Text: British Museum)

The 12 inch diameter thin disc, made from bronze and gold, is the oldest depiction of the cosmos in the world. Dated to about 1600BC, it underwent four stages of development. But also of interest is the diverse origins of materials: The first phase gold and tin from Cornwall, copper from Austria and later additions of gold from the Carpathian mountains. 

As with all the displays, there was a wealth of supporting information and other exhibits to provide all the context one could wish for.

Photo: Stu Westfield

Astonishing, was how much gold was in use during the Bronze age for adornment, ritual and practical purposes. Melted in sufficient quantities to be fashioned into some substantial items, such as the cosmos calendar headwear (on loan from the Louvre) and cape (found in Flintshire). 

Photo: Stu Westfield

Although, humble by comparison, the Amesbury archer display brought a smile, as I had cited the impressive array of grave goods as an example in my 2020 Oxford Uni Fundamentals Of Archaeology short course assessment.

Amesbury archer grave goods. Photo: Stu Westfield

Near the exit, the final artefact was a diminutive sun pendant, crafted around 1000BC, found in Shropshire. But in its size, there was such exquisite work and beauty.

Sun pendant. Photo: Stu Westfield

Having feasted on the stone age for two hours, which passed so quickly, it was time for some feasting of a culinary nature. Trips to London are infrequent, so I treated myself to a pleasant mid-afternoon lunch in the Great Court restaurant. Then, degustation's completed with a refreshing black coffee, there was time to head down into the Sainsbury rooms to see some favourite African displays.

Benin bronze plaques. Photo: Stu Westfield

I'm always filled with wonder at the high craftmanship of the cast Benin Bronzes and in comparison, the simple, yet efficient, functionality of the San bushman's hunting kit.

Photo: Stu Westfield

The display of Kenyan and Tanzanian kanga fabrics adding a vibrant splash of African colour.

Photo: Stu Westfield

My day finished with a quick visit to the UCL Zoological museum on the way back to Euston train station. Specifically, as I had found out that it held a rare specimen of the extinct thylacine, otherwise known as the Tazmanian Tiger. I had written about the thylacine back my 2016 blog Expeditions, Projects And Extinctions. But only ever seen grainy depictions of the animal on the television. 

Photo: Stu Westfield

What surprised me was how small the skeleton appeared. Just the same as a medium size dog.

Any extinction impoverishes us, but the tale of the thylacine at the hands of humans is desperately sad and could have been so very different. If you care about species on earth, I urge you to watch the film The Hunter. It is fiction, but offers a salutary tale.

Full of thoughts and ideas, I boarded my train home and glad to be out of the oppressive humid heat that had been building up throughout the day. I took a sip of water and started writing.

In part 2 of A day at the museum blog, I'll return to talk about the 'elephant in the room'. As we should not pass-by artefacts like the Beinin Bronzes without discussing how they came to be where they are now and what future possibilities might be.

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