Reviews, News and Commentary

Secrets of Stonehenge revealed at Auckland Museum

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Secrets of Stonehenge 

Auckland War Memorial Museum

Until April 21

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

On June  21st this year over 6000 people gathered at Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plain to witness the Summer Solstice. People from around the world came to gaze, party and marvel as the sun rose behind the Heel Stone in the north-east part of the horizon and its first rays shone into the heart of Stonehenge. They were continuing a tradition which first began thousands of years ago when the local inhabitants of the area would gather to witness the beginning of the new year. Each year prior to Covid over 1.6 million people visited the site every year

Stonehenge was built in six stages between 3000 and 1520 BCE, during the transition from the Neolithic Period (New Stone Age) to the Bronze Age. As a prehistoric stone circle, it is unique because of its shaped blocks of sarsen stones, and because of the remote origin of the smaller bluestone rocks.

Why the people of the time actually built the structure, who designed it and why it was built over such as long period has sparked curiosity for centuries.

Now audiences are able to see the international exhibition Secrets of Stonehenge  featuring 300 artefacts from more than 5,000 years ago, scientific and archaeological evidence surrounding the secrets behind one of the world’s most mysterious prehistoric monuments.

Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Stonehenge in Wiltshire, is one of the most famous landmarks on the planet. The monument once consisted of rings and horseshoes of standing stones, some topped by horizontal “lintels”. The largest stones are around 7 metres high, nearly 3 metres wide and weigh more than 22,000kg. Scientific analysis has revealed that many of the stones were transported from the Preseli Mountains in Wales, over 240km away.

The Secrets of Stonehenge exhibition was opened last week by the curator Professor Mike Parker Pearson, Professor of British Later Prehistory at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, and Fellow of the British Academy. 

He has been directing research on Stonehenge since 2003 and says “After centuries of speculation, we are finally reaching an understanding of Stonehenge: who built it, when how and why”

The exhibition examines how the stones arrived there to who the builders were and what their intentions might have been as they formed the stone circle. In addition to Stonehenge’s construction, the exhibition also speculates on the monument’s special place in the ancient landscape, its role as a domain of the dead, and how it related to nearby settlement Durrington Walls, the village of the builders in the domain of the living.

As Professor Pearson says, “We now know that Stonehenge did not appear ‘out of the blue’. This part of Salisbury Plain had been considered sacred for hundreds if not thousands of years before the first Stonehenge was built. That first Stonehenge, built around 3000 BCE, looked very different from its second incarnation, built 500 years later, when it took the form in which it broadly appears today. Its story is one of change and evolution—a story we are piecing together for the first time.”

The exhibition features artefacts relating to the construction of the landmark such as  stone tools, antler picks along with items related to the population who lived and worked in the area such as pottery, gold and bronze objects.

There are also  maps of the area, models of the  evolving structure, charts and explanatory panels. Holding all this together are a series of large video screens with Professor Pearson on the Salisbury plain providing informative guides to the development of the complex.

Ultimately it will be the individual viewer who makes connections with what is on display with the questions people have asked for centuries. Who had the original idea of the structure – a priest a farmer or a chief. Was it built as a simple calendar or for religious, cosmological, agricultural or burial purposes.

For many the place has spiritual connections as though once you control or understand the movements of the heavens you have control over your destiny or that of the tribe. It’s these spiritual aspects which tends to interest many people who see it as one of the astral points focussing cosmic energy although this approach is symboklic and mythic rather than offering anything concrete

It does seem unnecessary to build such a huge structure merely to know when the winter and summer solstice will occur – in fact they people who built it knew in advance where the solstices appeared

Then there are the myths such as the Druids and the Celts. It is now known that Druids had nothing to do with the building of Stonehenge, and there is no evidence for supposing that human sacrifice was ever practised there and the various Neolithic peoples who built Stonehenge predated the Celts.

The design and layout of the structure Its design seems to correspond to the observation of many astronomical events such as solstices, eclipses and moon cycles, but it would seem that these simple observations may have evolved into a religious or semi religious cult in a period when ancient Britons switched from the worship of landscape features like hills to some form of solar worship.

This exhibition may make you quite interested in stone axes and the way they were used to shape some of the stone. The Neolithic people did not have iron tools and used various rocks to shape the stones and there is one the axe heads on display  which looks a patu The various digging tools which were used were made of antlers which would mean the people who used them would have been skilled in particular techniques of digging and one gets a sense of the way in which their physical engagement with the land and the stones would have been like.

Like many of the big shows such as The Greeks which was on at the museum, the exhibition is educational and very rewarding. There is a lot of information which answers many of the questions a viewer will have but it also opens up further questions about our early ancestors and how we have changed and adapted over many thousand years.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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