By Bernie Bell
I’d read reports by people who have been to the British Museum’s ‘The World of Stonehenge’ exhibition https://www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/world-stonehenge , and felt even more sorry that I won’t be able to go to it, as getting to London is beyond me these days. Then I wondered if we could buy a catalogue of the exhibition on-line? Of course it’s available on-line – what isn’t?
We looked at the on-line shop, where we found two prints for sale by our own Jeanne Bouza Rose https://jeannebouzarose.me/ – Kudos Jeanne! And we ordered a copy of the catalogue. It costs £35, plus a hefty p+p charge, but, as we have been staying at home for the last couple of years due to Covid, we spend very little – so we decided to go for it as it’s an opportunity not to be missed, or repeated.
Putting together a previous piece in TON… https://theorkneynews.scot/2022/03/03/from-orkney-to-london/ and what’s in the catalogue, I hope to be able to give the reader some idea of the breadth of scope of the exhibition.
It’s more of a guide than a catalogue and includes objects from across Europe showing how Neolithic Britain had links which spread very far and wide indeed. Since the Ness of Brodgar has started to be thoroughly excavated https://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/ it looks more and more like Orkney was more ‘central’ to life in what we now call Britain than Stonehenge was – as well as having sites with structures which date from earlier than Stonehenge – and the artefacts on display in the exhibition show how much Orkney connected with the world and, in my view, beyond.
There is a display of carved stone balls – a speciality of Scotland – and I can’t help wondering how they got them to balance on the sticks? Stone balls on sticks – how? Surely they didn’t make holes in them!!!! – or even use something sticky as, how do they then remove the sticky without doing harm? I tell myself that someone must have worked out something clever, as the people preparing and going to this exhibition wouldn’t accept anything which meant any harm coming to such very exceptional objects.
One display which is a marvel, is a ‘flight’ of stone axe-heads across a wall – this is particularly striking thanks to the lighting. In fact it looks like the lighting for the whole exhibition is the product of a lot of care and thought, unlike the objects plonked in glass cases in rooms with fluorescent strip lighting which are my memories of the Pre-history section in the local Cartwright Hall Museum of my childhood.
It’s all subdued lighting, which enhances the shapes of the objects but which is clear enough to enable folk to see them, clearly.
One exhibit which I have mixed feeling about is the Folkton ‘Drums’ and the Burton Agnes ‘Drum’ – the Burton Agnes Drum in particular. These ‘drums’ were found in graves in Yorkshire and in the case of the Burton Agnes drum, the grave held three children, buried holdings hands. It’s a personal thing I have about grave goods generally. I feel that they should be left where they were placed. I realise that, if archaeologists excavate a grave, record the contents then place everything back as they were, unscrupulous people would probably come and rob the grave. I accept that, once found, the inhabitants of these graves, and their ‘goods’ need to be cared for. At the same time, and it is a purely personal ‘gut’ feeling, I feel that the people and the objects which mattered to them, and which were placed so carefully, shouldn’t be separated and treated as any other ’object’. Maybe if a grave is kept entire, that would help, and that does happen sometimes – though when I see that in a museum I don’t feel any more comfortable about it.
Those people were laid to rest, not meant to be made a show of for future folk. Though, if I stay true to the idea that all that happened – is happening – and will happen – is happening at the same time, I should be able to see those children, in their grave, with their ‘drums’, still holding hands. And – I can do that. They are still there, in eternity – are even still living – maybe?
The other thing I have a gripe about, is Seahenge. I remember when it was found – OK, just my view – they could have studied it, recorded it, and left it where it had been very specifically and carefully placed. The sea would have taken it – so it goes.
It is a personal view, but I don’t see how archaeologists who ‘work with’ and respect the peoples of the past and their ways and beliefs, could disregard what was a very careful choice of placing. With today’s technology a perfect copy could have been made, and displayed, so the information would be there but – the actual site could have been left to be taken by the sea. That’s LIFE.
End of rant, and now for something completely different…….some pointy gold ‘hats’ – whatever are they? Gold – to show off with I suppose – but why pointy…..hat?…things? Another time when it would be good to have someone to ask ….. https://theorkneynews.scot/2021/12/01/someone-who-could-explain-the-ness-of-brodgar/.
There’s so much there, in the exhibition, and if you can’t get to the exhibition, there’s so much in the catalogue, too.
Some of the other things in the on-line shop are a bit bizarre – Stonehenge salt & pepper shakers and snow globe? But the Museum needs to get funding, and I’d rather they sell slightly questionable merchandise than that they accept very questionable sponsorship from oil companies.
Not wanting to end on a sour note – what is my favourite object from the exhibition? It has to be the EOASSK – just – has to be. There isn’t a pic of it in the catalogue, so …here it is…….
I remember when I was reading ‘The Wild Places’ by Robert MacFarlane https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-wild-places/robert-macfarlane/9781783784493 , where he writes……”as though……I were standing at the heart of a tree.”
This put me in mind of Seahenge.
The tree trunk in the centre of Seahenge had been placed upside down. I saw this as………that the curled up body would be placed in the centre of the roots of this upside down tree trunk – in the heartwood of the tree – ready to re-live. Heart-life of the tree, and of the person, connecting. Death in life. Life in Death. This is such power-full stuff yet those…..people, took that, and put it in a museum. GGGGGRRRRRR.
But….’Sister of Seahenge’ has been left where it was placed…….
Just….some more good things……
This is a well put together publication. BUT….but……. but………. but…..
As someone of Irish descent, living in Orkney, I can’t let this go by me.
On Page 60, the authors say “Both Newgrange and Maeshowe, for example, were built to exacting standards that enabled the sun to illuminate the main chamber precisely at midwinter sunrise.”
NO THEY WEREN’T!!!! In Newgrange, it’s the midwinter sun RISE. In Maeshowe it’s the midwinter sun SET!. A major difference.
One in Ireland, one in Orkney, marking the beginning and end of the midwinter day – the turn of the year and return of the light.
And I’m reminded of the following, written to a friend in 2012….
“When I first saw what they’re calling the Brodgar Eye,
I said to Mike, it’s Maes Howe, it’s a representation, of an aerial view of Maes Howe, as a ‘negative’. Each time I saw it, I was more convinced of this. I was looking at a booklet by Claire O’Kelly, about Newgrange ( in Ireland). I turned the page, and saw…….that carving. It’s on the underside of kerbstone 18 at Newgrange. To me, it’s a representation, of the same thing, as the ‘Brodgar Eye’ carving. So, to me, here is a carving, on the underside of a kerbstone at Newgrange, which looks awful like the ‘Brodgar Eye’ which was only found, a couple of years ago, at the Ness of Brodgar. To me, a direct link, through the carvings, between Newgrange and Maes Howe. Both, aerial views. The ‘Eye in the Sky’?
Mike also pointed out, that Newgrange is the ‘flip-side’ of Maes Howe, as in, the sun shines down the passage at Newgrange, at sunrise on the shortest day, and shines down the passage, at sunset on the shortest day, in Maes Howe. Reflecting and balancing each other.”