Icons, Art & History: Stonehenge at the BM
‘Towering above the Wiltshire countryside…, perhaps the world's most awe-inspiring ancient stone circle,’ reads the introduction to The World of Stonehenge on the British Museum website. ‘Perhaps’ is doing a lot of work here. Have we checked with the rest of the world recently? Confining ourselves to the UK, people presumably struggle to rattle off some of the others even in these green and pleasant lands (myself included, though the Ring o’Brodgar I remember from some sort of school project). I’m at pains to think of a more iconic site than Stonehenge. But it doesn’t really exist alongside other stone circles in the national consciousness, rather on another plane entirely, up there with landmarks that scream ‘Britain’: the Millennium Dome of the third millennium BC.
Above: Stonehenge today (CC Diego Delso)
Despite – or perhaps because of – its origins in the deep past of these islands, Stonehenge has been subjected to unparalleled levels of (re)interpretation, setting it somewhat apart from other notable monuments. Not to dwell too long on tangential London hotspots, but a structure like the Millennium Dome cannot escape the whiff of late twentieth century visions of the future - a quality (as my editor observes) that we only really ascribe when we think buildings have aged badly. It luxuriates in the engineering that made it possible: great yellow spikes shooting upwards, the web of cables holding up the roof, a ring of uncompromisingly metallic cooling towers that surround it. The whole thing is proof that a lack of frills and adornment doesn’t prevent a building from being self-satisfied, an impression that is only compounded by the complete disregard for setting. It enjoys the benefits of the bend in the Thames that afford wide-angle views, but it sits in acres of car park, not a tree or patch of grass in sight making its environs rather drab. The absence of such redeeming features was presumably thought tolerable because of the wonder of the structure itself, though today function perhaps overrides aesthetics in justifying its maintenance. In any event, whether acting as museum, concert hall or anything in between as a venue, in design it remains very much of its time.
Above: the Millennium Dome (CC Matt Buck)
To draw a contrast with Stonehenge might seem to be absurd: surely nothing says ‘Stone Age’ / ‘Neolithic’ like a literal stone circle. Does it not also revel in its own production, the feats of engineering that produced it being some of its more enduring qualities? This is no doubt true, but unlike modern monuments, Stonehenge is detached from a historical record or sense of the times in which it was made that grants a more stable frame of viewing (should we desire such a thing). Although we can confidently make claims about Stonehenge that are astonishingly detailed – thanks to the accumulated work of generations of archaeologists – the structure remains enigmatic in so many ways.
One reason why the monument is so open to interpretation is because it is only accessible to us through ‘things’: images, objects and their assemblage. Voices reach us only in the products of direction and exchange, not through the words themselves. There is so much that they communicate, and yet it is always us doing the talking. Its iconic status makes the stones all the more susceptible to modern claims of identity and communal understanding. Perhaps this is why it can even be deemed a fitting canvas for images of the Queen (one of the more tortured celebrations of the Jubilee year in an already crowded field).
Above: an image that will long live in our hearts - Queenie projected on Stonehenge (from the Salisbury Journal)
* * *
The World of Stonehenge (TWOS), mounted at the British Museum, is only partly about the monument. In fact, I would put money on the curators having envisioned a show on the period of c.3000-1000 BC in the British Isles and Northern Europe, and being compelled (not unreasonably) to draw the link to something that was going to get people through the door. But the interpretative dilemmas that surround Stonehenge go well beyond it, suffusing all of the material on the exhibition floor. Framing – ever important – is here absolutely central to what you take from what’s on display.
TWOS is a superb exhibition, and as such it raises questions as well as providing answers. I found myself wondering about what it is to present histories through icons and ‘art’. That first aspect I've touched on, but what of the latter? Over the last few years, it’s safe to say that the BM has ‘art-ed’ up in both the choice of its exhibitions and the way it’s displayed them. 2017 saw ‘The Scythians’ – rubies, gold and extraordinary metalwork - and ‘Hokusai’s’ prints; 2018’s ‘Rodin and the art of ancient Greece’ speaks for itself, and since then there have been shows on Manga, Munch and the sculpture heavy Troy and Nero outings, to name only a few. Hardly a shock: people want to look at beautiful things.
Above: a wall of axes displayed in 'The World of Stonehenge' (Jo Bourne)
So, what does that mean for TWOS? There is plenty to takeaway about the people of the time: their technologies, relationships and their understanding of the world around them. A focus throughout on ‘making’ ties together many of the things we see with these people, from walkways on the Avalon Marsh to the Nebra Sky Disc. But it is the making of ‘art’ and beautiful things that comes across most of all. Take, for example, the assemblage of stone axes that dominates one of the walls towards the start of the exhibition. Arranged in diagonal, downward strokes, the axe-heads are all that remain of the original apparatus that would have combined wood and binding. Differences in size, shape and material can be enjoyed through this common grouping of objects from ‘England; France; Italy; Romania; Spain; Scandinavia; Scotland; Northern Ireland; Republic of Ireland’ made between ‘4500–1500 BC’. One of the most evocative parts of the exhibition are some of the fifty-five oak trunks from Seahenge found at Holme-next-the-Sea. It’s hard not to appreciate their totemic, gnarled quality in contrast to some of the highly-polished stone of the wider exhibition.
There is history here, but showcased in a thoroughly 'artistic' manner. Are the two compatible? The wall of axes are an impossibly diverse collection that has never existed outside of a museum context. That’s a familiar museum issue, so thinking bigger, is ‘art’ something that cuts across time? Our ability to enjoy these objects today might simply be through their aesthetic qualities, but is it possible to separate what we see and experience in them from our sense of where they’ve come from? If not, then what they are as art is something quite different from then to now, precisely because of the passage of time and the value we place on survival. That can make thinking in terms of ‘art’ more problematic than we sometimes allow for. A further danger of ‘art-ing up’ is that we're bound to admire certain things from the past more than others. We can quickly exclude remains because they don’t suit our tastes, and thus distort (even more) our understanding of the past by dint of absence. The future archaeologist of early 21st London can’t ignore the Millennium Dome just because it might not suit their taste.
Above: the Knoweth Macehead (7.9cm high) on display at the BM (Dominic Dalglish)
Thinking in terms of ‘art’ can also affect what we see. One object that caught my eye was the Knowth Macehead from Brú na Bóinne, County Meath. Found in 1982, it’s been dated to c.3500-3000 BC, making it an extraordinary product for the time. It’s rightly thought of as one of Ireland’s great treasures. The BM label tells us the following: ‘A look of awe: The features of a face are hidden in this superbly sculpted mace-head, with a spiral for eyes, lozenges for hair and a shaft-hole for a mouth. Found in a chamber within a huge tomb at Knowth in Ireland, it was a symbol of authority, but it was not buried with a body. It appears to represent invisible power, perhaps of ancestors or spirit beings.’
Whilst we can’t ask short labels to do too much, it’s interesting to think about some of the assumptions at work here. The features of a face – in eyes, mouth and hair, and in the tapering form from brow to chin – are clearly present. The lighting helps to draw out the paler outer surface from the dark recess of the hole, and the reddish-brown colouration, particularly below the ‘mouth’, gives almost the impression of a beard or tongue. Seeing ‘faces in the clouds’ is something humans are hardwired to do, but as a made object – the product of hours of human labour and evidently a degree of premeditated design – surely this was intentional. We might confidently say so, but there is many a ‘drunk octopus who wants to fight’ that cautions against a snap assessment. Does the Knowth Macehead possess a look of awe, or are we all just saturated by Munchian Screams? That look of surprise or even horror would seem quite different when the hole was filled with a staff and the object became a mace, as was apparently its purpose.
Above: the aggressive drunk octopus, curse of bathroom doors.
TWOS exploits the iconic status of Stonehenge no less than those who would drape the stones in a Union flag, but it is ‘art’, not images of the Queen, that is projected onto them, and the wider cultural array brought together here. The truth of faces or the beauty of axes remains unchanged so far as we engage with the objects in TWOS. If we see them, then they are there. But ‘art’ is not an immutable and inherent quality that things possess, rather something we perceive and communicate, just as it ever was.
I want to say that the value of what we call ‘art’ should be much more important than the word itself. But perhaps we need this term to do justice to our iconic landmarks, and the things that we would want raised to their level; perhaps it’s only through this common, modern claim that we can really see value in axe heads and wooden stakes. Or is this rather to be blamed on the distortive effect of an icon like Stonehenge? Either way, this exhibition was a reminder that one of the most enduring qualities of the monument is its ability to invite (or even demand) from us, a constant repositioning. Iconic status demands it. Art today, but what next?
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 No doubt because the architect, Richard Rogers, made quite such an impact around this time. I should also say that I’m quite fond of the Millennium Dome, mostly due to nostalgia for the 90s rather than aesthetics...
 The anachronisms of these names signals another common feature of exhibitions these days, especially powerful in this post-Brexit age; the fallacy of an independent and isolated Britain (and indeed ‘British people’) couldn’t be clearer.
 It was also notable that the term ‘art’ was not used in the exhibition labels until precisely this section.
Further Links & Information:
The World of Stonehenge is open until 17th July 2022 at the British Museum.
A great website dedicated to the excavations at the Ness of Brodgar: https://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/
'‘It is Stonehenge!’ said Clare. ‘The heathen temple, you mean?’ ‘Yes. Older than the centuries; older than the d’Urbervilles!'' Stonehenge's appearance in Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles offers a brilliant contrast to the arty world of TWOS. Polanski's 1979 Tess has all the dark, brooding mystery that Hardy exploited in the setting: https://youtu.be/tmLu_Invf_0?t=429
Without doubt the most important use of Stonehenge in modern times, however, has to be Spinal Tap https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrJlyapt6OY
Dominic Dalglish is an Editor and Contributor at Curation Space