Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt @ the British Museum

Temple lintel of King Amenemhat III, Hawara, Egypt, 12th Dynasty (1855 to 1808 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This is a major exhibition held to mark the two hundredth anniversary of the year 1822 when French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion cracked the code of Egyptian hieroglyphs which had been puzzling scholars for the best part of 1,500 years.

At its heart is the eerily beautiful and hugely important Rosetta Stone, discovered by French troops in Egypt in 1799. The central part of the exhibition summarises the genuinely exciting narrative of the great Race To Decipher hieroglyphics, as it developed into a rivalry between Great Britain – represented by antiquarian Thomas Young (1773 to 1829) – and France – represented by the ambitious young scholar Jean-François Champollion (1790 to 1832).

The exhibition brings together a rather staggering 250 artefacts, many (as usual) on loan from foreign museums. As such it provides a unique opportunity to see so much high quality Egyptiana in one place – all presented in a beautifully designed and laid out exhibition space. If the sheer scale sounds daunting, maybe the crucial thing to grasp is that the exhibition is divided into three main areas or parts.

Part One: The end of hieroglyphics, the revival of interest

Part one briefly covers the end of the millennia-long tradition of writing and reading hieroglyphs in the years after the Greek conquest of Egypt in 320 BC. The Greek dynasty of the Ptolemy family kept up all the Egyptian traditions, but it was the advent of Roman rule from 30 BC (when the last of the Ptolemies, Cleopatra VII, committed suicide) which signalled the slow decline of hieroglyphic writing. It was the imposition of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire by the emperor Theodosius in 391, and the order to close down all pagan temples, which spelled the end of the tradition of writing and reading hieroglyphs. The last known hieroglyphic inscription dates from 394. Byzantine rule of the province continued for centuries until swept away by the great Arab Conquest of the 640s AD.

Intellectual energy in the centuries following the Muslim conquest went into elaborating aspects of Islamic religion and philosophy, as well as preserving and commenting on survivals from antiquity, especially Greek texts. There was only scattered interest in the pictorial language carved into the huge stone monuments all across Egypt.

Some Muslim scholars are namechecked, but for us in Europe it was only the revival of learning from the 1400s onwards, the period which came to be called the Renaissance, which saw sustained scholarly activity to decipher the hieroglyphs. A negative key factor was that there had been some scholarly enquiry during ancient times, with Roman scholars writing books about the hieroglyphs – but that these were often seriously wrong and misleading but were considered indisputable evidence throughout the Renaissance.

Interestingly, study of ancient Egyptian artifacts centred on Rome itself for the simple reason that victorious generals from Julius Caesar onwards had a fondness for stealing and shipping back to Rome impressive numbers of obelisks, stelae, statues, inscriptions and so on (a stela is an inscribed stone or wooden slab) – many of which were still standing 1,400 years later when the revival of interest in old texts (be they ancient Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syrian, Egyptian and so on) gathered pace.

The most significant figure was a German Jesuit and polymath, Athanasius Kircher (1602 to 1680). Working with Arabic grammars and dictionaries of Coptic acquired in Egypt by an Italian traveller, Kircher produced flawed but pioneering translations and grammars of the language in the 1640s and 1650s, leading up to his masterwork, the ‘Oedipus Aegyptiacus’ of 1652.

Unfortunately, Kircher brought to his studies a deep belief in mystic practices and magic. As a Jesuit he believed Egyptian religion must have foreshadowed the One True Religion i.e. Christianity, and so all his interpretations were coloured by a wish to find mystical meanings in even brief sets of symbols. In his hands even short texts of only a few hieroglyphic characters were translated into lengthy sentences describing mystical religious ideas.

But Kircher was only one of hundreds of scholars and commentators, including many of the early Muslim scholars, who were convinced the hieroglyphs represented ancient magic or the secrets of ‘alchemy’, and that true knowledge would allow modern practitioners to revive magical spells and incantations.

The Enchanted Basin

This belief that the hieroglyphs contained ancient magic is represented here by ‘the enchanted basin’, a large black granite sarcophagus from about 600 BC, covered with hieroglyphs and images of gods. Devotees believed that bathing in the basin (accompanied by the appropriate rituals and spells) could offer relief from the torments of love.

‘The Enchanted Basin’ aka the sarcophagus of Hapmen, Egypt, 26th Dynasty (600 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The ritual bath was discovered near a mosque in Cairo, in an area still known as al-Hawd al-Marsud – ‘the enchanted basin’ – and has been identified as simply a sarcophagus – for Hapmen, a nobleman of the 26th Dynasty.

Exhibition design 1

This first part of the exhibition is presented in the usual glass cases etc but against a backdrop of jet black walls themselves covered in silver hieroglyphic scripts which shimmer and capture the eye as you walk through them – evoking a world of black magic and mystery. Most wall panels relate to specific exhibits but the curators have also had the bright idea of creating standalone panels devoted to specific glyphs, explaining what they are and what they mean. This is one of several aspects designed, I think to appeal to children and school visits, and a charming idea.

One of the panels for schoolchildren in ‘Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt’

Part Two: The Rivalry

The second section declares its change of focus with a complete change of design, layout and atmosphere. No longer black, the gallery walls are lighter and the room is dominated by three long wooden benches, with wooden chairs set in front of them (which I think visitors are encouraged to sit at so as to study the artifacts on offer).

The dominance of stained wood reminds me of the British Museum’s extensive Enlightenment Gallery on the ground floor and is, I assume, intended to convey a sense of 18th and 19th century scholarship taking place in the civilised, wood-panelled rooms of Royal Societies and the private collections of rich European travellers across Enlightenment Europe.

This woody, benchy room is the setting for the gripping story of The Race To Decipher Hieroglyphs between the two men who are presented as rivals in scholarship and representatives of their respective nations, Thomas Young of Great Britain and Jean-François Champollion of France.

The Rosetta Stone

In fact the transition from part 1 to part 2 of the exhibition takes you past the famous Rosetta Stone itself, which was the clue to the whole thing and is a story, or several stories, in itself.

The Rosetta Stone, Rasid, Egypt (Ptolemaic, 196 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

History of the discovery

In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte led an invasion of Egypt with 40,000 troops. By this stage revolutionary France had been at war with Great Britain for five years and the Egyptian strategy was designed to cut off Britain’s lucrative trade with her greatest colony, India. But, being French and priding himself on being a man of the Enlightenment, Napoleon took with him 200 scholars, engineers, antiquarians and so on. Over the next few years these experts made numerous drawings, descriptions and maps of the antiquities of Egypt which were later published in the multi-volume Description de l’Égypte (1809 to 1829).

The following year, in 1799, French forces were rebuilding an old fort in the coastal town of Rashid, when they dug up this large fragment of stone covered in writing. Realising its importance the officer in charge sent it to Napoleon’s headquarters. It was taken into possession of the lead scientist in Napoleon’s force but events were about to take a significant twist. In August 1798 the Royal Navy defeated the French navy at the Battle of the Nile.

A treaty (the Capitulation of Alexandria) was then negotiated (in 1801) between the victorious British and the French by which the victors took possession of most of the artefacts, findings and notes created by the French antiquarians. Discussions were detailed and became heated, but to cut a long story short, the British seized the Rosetta Stone and shipped it back to London, where it was presented to the king who in turn passed it onto the fledgling British Museum. It went on public display in 1802, has been on public display at the British Museum almost continuously and is its most visited object.

Almost immediately the British Society of Antiquarians made plaster copies of the stone and printed reproductions of the text and distributed them to other institutions across Europe.

It is called the Rosetta Stone because Rosette was the name Europeans gave to the town Arabs called Rashid and the name stuck.

What I took from all this was that this breakthrough in Egyptology and understanding of the ancient world came about almost entirely because of war between the great powers.

All down the line, from the first officer to see it, through the experts on Napoleon’s staff, through to the British officers in charge of the peace negotiation, through to the king’s advisors and officials at the British Museum, everyone recognised the stone’s immense importance.

Why is the Rosetta Stone important?

Because it was the first artifact found anywhere in Egypt which contained several languages or scripts in parallel. At a glance you can see that the top part of the stone contains rows of hieroglyphics, the next section contains lines of text in another script, and the lower third of the stone contains text in yet another script, which scholars quickly recognised as Greek.

To be precise, from top to bottom, the top two scripts are in Ancient Egyptian, the top one using hieroglyphic and the second one ‘Demotic’ script, while the bottom one is in Ancient Greek.

What is ‘Demotic’? We now know that the ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphs on their official monuments, but on administrative and religious life used a form of cursive script which was easier to write and read. This cursive script changed and evolved over the thousands of years of Egyptian history:

  • the oldest form is called ‘hieratic’ from its development in the third millennium BC until the rise of Demotic in the mid-first millennium BC
  • the so-called Demotic form of the language developed and then held sway from about 650 BC to the 5th century AD
  • and was replaced by the third major form, Coptic, the final development of the Egyptian language, spoken by the common people from around the third-century AD through till the Muslim conquest in the 7th century AD. Coptic has no native speakers today, although it is preserved and still recited by priests of the Coptic church

So what the Rosetta stone presents is a text in classical hieroglyphs, a text in ‘Demotic’ i.e. the common form of written Egyptian of the day, and then a text in ancient Greek.

Scholars immediately realised that, if the three sets of script represented the same text in three different languages, then they should be able to use the Greek at the bottom to read the hieroglyphs at the top and, in so doing, identify what words or sounds individual hieroglyphs stand for and so crack the code, decipher the language of hieroglyphs.

The Rosetta Stone as it appears in the exhibition. Note the animated timeline of the Race To Decipher in the right background, and blown-up reproductions of scholarly texts hanging from the ceiling

Unexpected delay

In my ignorance I thought the discovery of the stone meant we had the key to the door, the job was done, and we could start deciphering hieroglyphs immediately.

Not at all. Turns out there was still a lot of work to be done, not least because there was disagreement on fundamental facts. For example, not all scholars agreed the three scripts contained the same text. And the stone at first presented more puzzles than solutions because antiquarians could no more read demotic than hieroglyphs. So at first sight the stone presented double the problem, two challenges – of aligning the ancient Greek (readable) with the demotic and hieroglyphs (unreadable).

It took a surprising amount of scholarly guesswork, trial and error, devising and testing different theories for knowledge to inch forward. This room – the wooden table room- presents a year-by-year account of the 20 or so years between the stone going on public display and Champollion’s breakthrough in 1822. You might think all this is a fairly niche subject, but think again; there’s an impressive number of books on the subject:

Major landmarks in the decoding included recognition that:

  • 1799: the stone shows three versions of the same text
  • 1802: the demotic text uses phonetic characters to spell foreign names
  • 1814: the hieroglyphic text uses phonetic characters as well, and so has numerous similarities to the demotic
  • 1822: phonetic characters were used to spell not just foreign names but native Egyptian words

The breakthrough 1822

Scripts for languages can be either:

  • ideographic – symbols are used for words or concepts
  • syllabic – symbols are used to convey the sounds of syllables which make up words
  • alphabetic – a symbol is assigned to individual elements out of which words are built

The latter two are examples of phonetic languages i.e:

You can look at a written word and know how to pronounce it. Or you can hear a word and know how to spell it. With phonetic languages, there is a direct relationship between the spelling and the sound.

The ancient Romans had queered the pitch and misled centuries of scholars by claiming that all hieroglyphs were symbols, one glyph directly standing for one idea or concept. Hundreds of scholars wasted their lives trying to figure out what each hieroglyph ‘stood for’.

As I understand it, Champollion’s big breakthrough was realising that Demotic and hieroglyphic i.e. ancient Egyptian language as a whole, was a combination of ideographic and phonetic. He realised this after seeing another scholar’s decipherment of foreign names as phonetic sounds in the hieroglyphs. This was the actual key – that the names of foreign (generally Greek) rulers, were spelled phonetically.

Rather than try to explain further, I’ll quote Wikipedia:

In 1822, Champollion saw copies of brief hieroglyphic and Greek inscriptions taken from an obelisk found at Philae, on which William John Bankes had tentatively noted the names “Ptolemaios” and “Kleopatra” in both languages. From this, Champollion identified the phonetic characters ‘k l e o p a t r a’. On the basis of this and the foreign names on the Rosetta Stone, he quickly constructed an alphabet of phonetic hieroglyphic characters, completing his work on 14 September and announcing it publicly on 27 September in a lecture to the Académie royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. On the same day he wrote the famous “Lettre à M. Dacier” to Bon-Joseph Dacier, secretary of the Académie, detailing his discovery. In the postscript Champollion notes that similar phonetic characters seemed to occur in both Greek and Egyptian names, a hypothesis confirmed in 1823, when he identified the names of pharaohs Ramesses and Thutmose written in cartouches at Abu Simbel.

1824 Champollion published a Précis in which he detailed a decipherment of the hieroglyphic script demonstrating the values of its phonetic and ideographic signs.

In 1829, he travelled to Egypt where he was able to read many hieroglyphic texts that had never before been studied, and brought home a large body of new drawings of hieroglyphic inscriptions.

In 1832 Champollion died from illnesses brought on by travel in Egypt.

1838 his Grammar and Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian was published posthumously. But if you thought that was the end of the affair, you’d be wrong, for Champollion erroneously assumed that the hieroglyphs could be read directly in Coptic script, whereas in fact they represented a much older stage of the language which differs in many ways from Coptic.

It took scholars the rest of the century to work through all the details of ancient Egyptian and work is still ongoing because it turns out to have developed in more forms and variations and dialects than initially thought.

What does the Rosetta Stone actually say?

At the end of all that, what does the Rosetta Stone text actually say? Each of the 3 languages records a priestly decree of 196 BC issued by a council of Egyptian priests from the city of Memphis during the reign of Ptolemy V Epiphanes (i.e. ironically, it’s a text about a Greek ruler and not one of the classic ancient Egyptian pharaohs). The text praises the righteous acts of the king and lists the honours bestowed on him by the priests.

So no magic spells or alchemical procedures, much more banal than that. Interestingly, this kind of decree wasn’t even an Egyptian tradition, but hailed from Greece, a type of inscription imported along with the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty.

Part Three: Modern Egyptology

Design 3: Airy design and huge videos

Struggling to process the complexities of this story, the visitor walks from wood-lined part two of the exhibition through an Egyptian archway into a completely different space.

Here the walls are white and the ceiling is high, creating a sense of light and clarity. On the wall on the right is a video projection of part of an ancient wall with birds flying by – but this is dwarfed by the end wall onto which is projected a huge landscape video of the River Nile itself, a long band of rippling blue water, above which sits the fabulously fertile green riverbank – all reeds, grasses and palm trees – and then the deep blue of the Egyptian sky.

So, in terms of design, the visitor has progressed from pitch black walls at the start, though the gentlemen’s-club brown wood panelling of the second part, and now arrives in the kind of bright light space typical of modern art galleries. I guess this is also symbolic of passing from ignorance, through purblind scholarship and study, into the modern age of research and understanding.

Egyptian social history

This final part of the exhibition could almost be staged in its own right, for it is a fascinating overview of Egyptian social history, social life, in all its many aspects.

If you want the history of ancient Egypt – the political history of all those pharaohs, their wars, their dynasties, maps of their territory etc – that is already available in the vast series of rooms which, as it happens, you exit into after the exhibition space, the long gallery called Room 4. This isn’t that.

Instead this third part of the exhibition presents a careful selection of objects which illustrate the modern understanding of all aspects of Egyptian society, which Champollion’s discovery (much elaborated and built on by later scholars) allowed. It is a collection of choice artifacts which shed unparalleled insight into the lives, not of kings and pharaohs, but of ordinary people – their lives, loves, marriages, divorces, financial affairs, loans and mortgages, the stories they told each other, the poems and hymns they recited, their religious beliefs and practices, maths textbooks, guides to the interpretation of dreams, their calendar and how they structured the year, the months, the weeks, the days, even shopping lists and tax returns.

For example, a papyrus from about 1200 BC explains that the Egyptian year was divided into 12 months of 30 days. Their week lasted 10 days, and the year had three seasons – Akhet (flooding), Peret (growing) and Shemu (harvest).

Or take the richly illustrated Book of the Dead papyrus of Queen Nedjmet is over 3,000 years old and more than four metres long. A recitation of the texts demonstrates the power of the spoken word and includes ritual spells. The papyrus features alongside a set of four canopic vessels that preserved the organs of the deceased. These were dispersed over French and British collections after discovery, and this is the first time this set of jars has been reunited since the mid-1700s.

Detail of The Book of the Dead of Queen Nedjmet (papyrus, Egypt, 1070 BC, 21st Dynasty) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The mummy bandage of Aberuait from the Musée du Louvre, Paris has never been shown in the UK. It was a souvenir from one of the earliest ‘mummy unwrapping events’ in the 1600s where attendees received a piece of the linen, preferably inscribed with hieroglyphs.

A 3,000-year-old measuring rod from the Museo Egizio in Turin was an essential clue for Champollion to unravel Egyptian mathematics, discovering that the Egyptians used units inspired by the human body.

Royal cubit rod of Amenemope (18th Dynasty) Torino, Museo Egizio

The cartonnage and mummy of the lady Baketenhor, on loan from the Natural History Society of Northumbria, was studied by Champollion in the 1820s. In correspondence with colleagues in Newcastle, Champollion correctly identified the inscription on the mummy cover as a prayer addressed to several deities for the soul of the deceased only a few years after he cracked the hieroglyphic writing system. Baketenhor lived to about 25 to 30 years of age, sometime between 945 and 715 BCE.

Cartonnage of the lady Baketenhor (late 22nd Dynasty, between 945 and 715 BC) Courtesy of the Natural History Society of Northumbria. Image © Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums

Prayers to Hathor, the goddess of love and music, were often accompanied by the sistrum, a musical instrument used in dances and religious ceremonies. When shaken, the sistrum produced a soft clink or a loud jangle which had power to appease the gods. Note the face at the top of the handle.

Ancient Egyptian sistrum (747 to 332 BC)

(There are references to a sistrum – ‘the sacred rattle… the jingling bronze of the sistrum…’ – being used in worship of Isis, book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and it’s also referred to in the thirteenth satire of Juvenal.)

On a much more humble level, a papyrus from 1100 BC records the separation of Hessunebef from his wife Hener and tells us that he supported her for three years after the divorce. The reasons for the divorce aren’t stated but we know from other sources that the wife probably kept the possessions she brought to the marriage.

Papyrus from 1100 BC recording the separation of Hessunebef from his wife Hener

We now know the ancient Egyptians had over 90 recipes for the treatment of eye problems. Black and green kohl had antibacterial properties and could be carried around in pots to be used as eye liner.

There’s a book helping with the interpretation of dreams, a perennial topic in the ancient world. This one belonged to a certain Qenherkhepshef and contains the following useful advice:

If a man sees himself in a dream looking after monkeys: bad – a change awaits him!

And hundreds more.

I also noticed the way a number of wall labels featured quotes all attributed to ‘Voices from Rashid’. What is this? The British Museum interviewed schoolchildren from the town of Rashid (modern day Rosetta) about the stone and ancient Egyptian life and these quotes are the opinions of the schoolchildren on aspects of Egyptian history, the hieroglyphics, the stone and so on, sprinkled on panels throughout the exhibition.

Statue of a scribe (6th Dynasty) Photo © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Georges Poncet

This exhibition is fascinating, inspiring, beautifully designed and laid out. In the section about the Race To Decipher, it is surprisingly gripping. And the wide-ranging final section brings you closer to the concerns of ordinary ancient Egyptian men and women than you would have thought possible.


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The Procession by Hew Locke @ Tate Britain

Every year Tate commissions established artists to create installations for its two London galleries. The ones which fill Tate Modern’s huge Turbine Gallery tend to get a lot of press. Less attention is devoted to the commission to fill the long hall or central atrium of Tate Britain. This year’s commission was awarded to well-established Black British sculptor Hew Locke. With a certain inevitability, a Black artist decided to cover the topics of race, slavery and empire.

The result is a big bold piece which fills the central hall of Tate Britain with a parade of mannequins – of men, women, children, horses – dressed in a spectacular array of clothes and costumes, designed, stitched together, a surreal mish-mash of fabrics and colours and patterns, created just for this show, and titled ‘The Procession’.

Installation view of ‘The Procession’ by Hew Locke (2022) (Photo by the author)

Like most Tate shows this one is accompanied by a wealth – possibly a rather overwhelming wealth – of explanation and interpretation. You can read:

  1. Tate’s Hew Locke biography
  2. Tate’s Introduction to The Procession
  3. Tate’s fairly long Guide to The Procession
  4. or watch the 8-minute video about its inspiration and creation

Introduction

To quote Tate:

‘The Procession’ invites visitors to “reflect on the cycles of history, and the ebb and flow of cultures, people and finance and power.” Tate Britain’s founder was art lover and sugar refining magnate Henry Tate. In the installation Locke says he ‘makes links with the historical after-effects of the sugar business, almost drawing out of the walls of the building,’ also revisiting his artistic journey so far, including, for example, work with statues, share certificates, cardboard, rising sea levels, Carnival and the military.

Throughout the long, busy work, visitors will see figures who travel through space and time. Here, they carry historical and cultural baggage – from evidence of global financial and violent colonial control embellished on their clothes and banners – alongside powerful images of some of the disappearing colonial architecture of Locke’s childhood in Guyana.

The installation takes inspiration from real events and histories but, overall, the figures invite us to walk alongside them, into an enlarged vision of an imagined future.

I must say I didn’t get any of this at all from actually walking round and along ‘The Procession’. The colours and the way some figures were riding on horses distantly reminded me slightly of Renaissance processions – a very ragtag, surreal distortion of one. But the main impression is of daunting, intimidatingly alien figures with masks or veiled faces or blank mannequin faces from a nightmarish horror sci-fi movie.

Installation view of ‘The Procession’ by Hew Locke (2022) (Photo by the author)

Exhibition guide

The exhibition guide explains that ‘The Procession’ is divided into into sections devoted to themes or topics, mostly about empire, colonialism and rebellion.

  • Carnival
  • Post-Colonial Trade
  • Ghosts Of Slavery
  • Environmental Disaster
  • Monuments To Empire
  • Revolution And Emancipation

These read like chapters from a book and that is very much what the guide turns the work into – a series of tableaux, each one exemplifying one of the themes listed above. Reading the guide you realise that an impressive amount of work has gone into selecting the themes, thinking about them and then crafting tableaux to represent them using an interesting variety of source materials.

Installation view of ‘The Procession’ by Hew Locke (2022) (Photo by the author)

Each element of each outfit, every bit of fabric, plus objects like the palanquin or banners or huge images of old share certificates painted onto fabric, each of these elements has a complex backstory. Some elements are from the white imperialists and business organisations which organised and profited from the slave trade and sugar production on slave-worked plantations in Guyana (where Locke grew up).

But others reference African culture, slave culture, and the post-slavery Black culture Hew himself grew up and experienced. All changed, transmogrified into a Surreal and often quite nightmarish vision of history collapsing in on itself. The friend I went with absolutely loved the workmanship of the fabrics, looking in detail at how different coloured fabrics, printed or painted with a bewildering variety of patterns, had been crafted, juxtaposed and so on.

But I was frightened. I found the whole thing ominous and nightmarish. Faceless figures threatening violent revenge.

Installation view of ‘The Procession’ by Hew Locke (2022) (Photo by the author)

The man below – one of two bearing a stake of wood from which hangs a small fabric basket containing the bust of a white man – he doesn’t look like he’s marching into “into an enlarged vision of an imagined future.” The small figures wearing veils of fabric in the first two images in this review don’t look like carefree toddlers in a playground; to me they look like the psychopathic dwarf in the movie ‘Don’t Look Now’.

Installation view of ‘The Procession’ by Hew Locke (2022)

The Surreal fusion of white, Black, Western and African aesthetics didn’t strike me as Rainbow Nation liberation but reminds me all-too-much of the bizarre post-civilisation outfits worn by the many rebel guerrilla movements which have characterised Africa since independence – voodoo believers dressed in Man Utd shirts and toting semi-automatics. Cold-eyed killers wielding machetes while wearing garish wigs and women’s dresses. Scroll through the first five pages of this website to see what I mean. Or:

Torture, death and dismemberment have come to millions of Africans wearing bizarre outfits, wigs, handbags, kids’ toys, makeup, machine guns and machetes. The deliberate mashup of Locke’s work might be intended to make all kinds of points about resistance to Western imperialism and economic and social norms, but – unfortunately, and unintentionally – reminded me of the hundreds of descriptions I’ve read of mind-boggling violence in African conflicts.

Maybe my imagination has been damaged by reading too many accounts of too many African civil wars, but this installation gave me the willies. Instead of liberal guilt, which I assume is the desired output, I just felt fear, fear of a world which will – in light of inevitable global climate change, the collapse of Third World countries and the resulting mass migration (which, the guide tells us, Locke references somewhere amid these garish costumes) – become more and more like this, multicultural incomprehension, social collapse, people living amid the rags and tatters of the old civilisation, inventing new cults, practicing horrific violence.

Sorry. That’s how it felt to me. The friend I went with felt none of this and just loved the fabrics, the patterns, the designs and how they’d been cunningly assembled. Either way it’s a striking installation. Go and decide for yourself.


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Wars in Africa

I’ve read too many books about unbelievable cruelty, atrocity and horror in post-independence Africa.

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Cornelia Parker @ Tate Britain

Cornelia Parker (CBE, RA) is a very well-known and successful figure in British art. Born in 1956, she’s become famous for her ‘immersive’ i.e. BIG works. Above all she is a conceptual artist. What is conceptual art? According to the Tate website:

Conceptual art is art for which the idea (or concept) behind the work is more important than the finished art object. It emerged as an art movement in the 1960s and the term usually refers to art made from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.

In some exhibitions you react to the painting or sculpture immediately, as an object in space which fills your visual cortex with sensations and impressions. You don’t necessarily have to read the wall labels. With conceptual art it is almost always vital to read the wall label in order to understand what you’re looking at. Sure, you could still respond naively and sensuously to the work’s appearance but you would be missing out on 99% of its meaning and intention.

The wonderful wall labels

This major retrospective of Parker’s career brings together almost 100 works, spanning the last 35 years. So that’s quite a lot of reading you have to do in order to understand almost every one of these pieces.

But a major feature of the exhibition is that the wall labels are written by Parker herself. Most wall labels at exhibitions are written by curators who, in our day and age, are obsessed with the same handful of issues around gender and ethnicity and lose no opportunity to bash the visitor over the head with reminders of Britain’s shameful, imperial, racist, slave-trading past etc etc.

So it is a major appeal of this exhibition that, instead of every single piece explained solely in terms of race or gender – as it would be if Tate curators had written them – Parker’s own wall labels are fantastically interesting, insightful, thought-provoking insights into her way of thinking and seeing the world. Instead of the world of art being reduced to a handful of worn-out ideas, Parker’s wall labels are as entertainingly varied as her subject matter, full of stories, anecdotes, bright ideas, explanations of technique, aims, collaborations.

They give you a really privileged insight into her worldview and into her decades’-long ability to be interested, curious, take everyday objects and have funny and creative ideas about how to transform them. After spending an hour and a half working through her thought processes for the different pieces, some of her creative spirit begins to rub off on you, you begin to see the everyday world the way she does, full of opportunities for disruptive and fun interventions. In this respect, this exhibition is one of the most genuinely inspiring I’ve ever been to.

Types of work

The exhibition includes immersive installations, sculptures, photographs, embroidery and drawings, as well as four large-scale, room-sized installations, and two rooms showing her art films. At the simplest, physical level, the pieces can be divided into two categories: Small and Large. Examples of the small will serve as an introduction to the large.

Introductory

In the downstairs atrium of Tate Britain stands a single sculpture, preparing you for the exhibition ahead.

The Distance (A Kiss with String Attached) by Cornelia Parker (2003) © Tate Photography

It is, of course, a life-size cast of Rodin’s sculpture, The Kiss, wrapped up in a mile of string. A vague symbolic gesture towards ‘the ties that bind’ people in relationships, maybe. In the nearby wall label Parker describes this as a ‘punk gesture’, which I found very significant. It’s the only time she mentions punk but she was just 20 when it hit, maybe at art school by then, so its attitude of really offensive, in-your-face irreverence must have taken her art school by storm. The point is, various later wall labels repeatedly say that she is interested in destruction and violence – but not violence against persons, against things. Her art does violence to inanimate objects in all kinds of inventive, creative and often very funny ways.

But there is, as so often, a further twist to the tail. Wrapping The Kiss in string is a relatively tame thing to do compared with Dada, Surrealist, Duchamp provocations from 100 years ago. It becomes more interesting when you learn that some opponents of conceptual art within the art world, fellow young irreverent artists, vandalised the original version of The Distance by cutting up the string into short sections, thus ‘liberating’ the sculpture.

And best of all, that Parker was undaunted and promptly gathered up all the cut-up pieces of string and tied them back together around a mysterious object at the centre, ‘a secret weapon’, which is unnamed and unknown.

‘The Distance (with concealed weapon)’ by Cornelia Parker (2003) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Small

I’ll jump straight in and give examples.

‘The Negative of Words’ (1996)

Parker realised that when an engraver engraves words into silver, for example into a cup like the Wimbledon champion’s cups, tiny fragments or curls of silver are generated. This piece is a pile of the shavings thus created. Parker contacted a silversmith, who agreed to her proposal, and it took several months to accumulate enough shavings for her to create the little mound, with sprinkled outliers, which we see on display here. As she points out, each sliver represents a letter, is the trace of a letter, is the inverse of writing, of language. They are absences made solid. This idea really resonated with me as I admired this carefully created little mound and its sprinkled outliers.

‘The Negative of Words’ by Cornelia Parker (1996) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

‘Luck Runs out’ (1995)

In the case next to it is an old dictionary. Under careful supervision, Parker arranged for a shotgun loaded with dice to be fired into the back of the book. The die penetrated to different depths into the text and jammed most of the pages together.  As it happens the post-shooting dictionary automatically fell open at a page about ‘luck’. Hence the title, The luck of the draw. The roll of the dice.

‘Luck Runs Out’ and ‘The Negative of Words’ by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Apparently it’s part of a series titled ‘Avoided Objects’, so-called ‘object poems’ which ‘explore the fractured, unmade and unclassified’. The series explores ‘the denied and repressed’, which sounds a bit hackneyed and stale until she goes on to specify what that means in practice – the backs, underbellies or tarnished surfaces of things, which is much more interesting. Hence shooting this dictionary ‘in the back’.

‘Embryo Firearms’ (1995)

While in Hartford Connecticut, Parker asked to visit the factory where the famous Colt 45 handgun is made. She was surprised to discover the process began with blank featureless gun-shaped casts, before any working parts were added. She asked if she could have one and the Americans, obliging as ever, gave her two and gave them a nice smooth industrial polish. Adding the word ’embryo’ to firearm juxtaposes the birth of the gun with the general idea of the birth of a human being, alongside a tool which might potentially bring it to an end.

‘Embryo money’ (1996)

Fascinated by money, Parker asked permission to visit the Royal Mint in Pontyclun, Wales. She asked for some samples of coins before they were ‘struck’ i.e. had the monarch’s face, writing, value, corrugated edges and everything else added – just the blank dummy coins. Embryo money, before it has accrued any of the power which so dominates all our lives.

‘Embryo Firearms’ (1995) and ‘Embryo money’ (1996) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

See what I mean by ‘conceptual’. You could relate to these just as intriguing objects, but the stories behind them – the anecdotes of Parker’s expeditions to interesting and unusual places to see industrial processes in action – add immeasurably to the enjoyment.

‘Exhaled cocaine’ (1996)

Parker developed a relationship with His Majesty’s Customs and Excise. She visited and got to know them at their Cardiff headquarters over a period of several months. One of the many, many types of contraband objects they confiscate are drugs. Parker persuaded them to let her have a seizure of cocaine after it had been incinerated. A million pounds worth of cocaine turned to ash, which is on display here, as a sad little pile.

In her wall label, Parker adds the coda, which you’d never have got from a curator, that she really loves the way Customs and Exercise destroy things in such a theatrical way, steamrollering fake Rolex watches or alcohol. ‘Like me, they are often symbolically killing things off.’ This kind of casual, candid opinion is a lovely insight into her way of thinking.

Inhaled cliffs’ (1996)

A personal favourite was ‘Inhaled cliffs’. She asked Customs about methods people use to smuggle stuff into the country, especially drugs, and discovered that some drugs can be used to ‘starch’ sheets, so a set of innocuous looking sheets turn out to be drenched in heroin, cocaine or other illicit substances which can be extracted once they’re safely in the country. This notion inspired ‘Inhaled cliffs’ in which Parker starched sheets with chalk from the white cliffs of Dover, ‘smuggling’ those great symbols of England into bed with her. She is tickled by the notion of ‘sleeping between cliffs’.

‘Exhaled cocaine’ (1996) and Inhaled cliffs’ (1996) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

I’m focusing a bit much on these objects in cases. There were conventional things attached to the wall, prints, flat objects treated in various ways. Photographs, for example. On her way to her studio past Pentonville Prison she noticed workmen plastering cracks in the perimeter wall, creating vivid white abstract shapes. They then started to whitewash the wall as a whole so, before these irregular, crack-shaped gestures disappeared, she quickly took photos with her phone and developed a set of 12 prints which are hung here, titled ‘Prison Wall Abstract’.

Or the ‘Pornographic drawings’ (1996). As part of her ongoing conversations with HM Customs she asked for examples of contraband and they gave her (along with the bag of cocaine ashes) chopped up lengths of pornographic film. Parker dissolved the fragments in solvent to create her own ink. She used this ink to create Rorschach blots i.e. poured them on one side of a piece of folded paper, pressed the other side down on the inked side and reopened it to have a symmetrical image. For some reason, all the ones she made (or chose to display) came out ‘to be particularly explicit’.

It dawns on me that these works are beyond ‘conceptual’ in the sense that they might better be described as anecdotal. Often there isn’t a grand concept, project or goal behind them – there is happenstance and accident. Seeing an opportunity to do something interesting and seizing it.

The other obvious thing is that she’s about transforming objects from one state to another. She starts with ‘found objects’ – gun moulds, unstamped coins, porn movies, cocaine and so on – and, in the examples I’ve given, doesn’t even transform them herself, but recognises their artistic potential.

Medium

Using this technique of remodelling the existing and everyday, is a middle-sized work titled ‘Black Path (Bunhill Fields)’ from 2013. Parker describes playing hopscotch on pavements with her daughter. This led her to pay attention to pavements and to notice the antiquity of the old stone paving in Bunhill Fields near Old Street. She got permission to pour liquid rubber into the cracks in a path through Bunhill Fields. When the rubber dried she used the mould to make a metal cast, memorialising the captured cracks in bronze. She then suspended the mould on pins so that the cracks in the pavement hover a few inches above the floor, making it seem more spectral and ghostly. (It’s an accidental quirk that my photo of it features so many people’s feet.)

‘Black Path (Bunhill Fields)’ (2013) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Large

The interest in destruction I’ve mentioned earlier really comes to the fore in the three most famous room-sized installations in the exhibition. These are by way of being her greatest hits. They are:

  • Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988 to 89)
  • Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991)
  • Perpetual canon (2004)

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991)

I’ll quote her wall label in its entirety:

We watch explosions daily, in action films, documentaries and on the news in never-ending reports of conflict. I wanted to create a real explosion, not a representation. I chose the garden shed because it’s the place where you store things you can’t quite throw away. The shed was blown up at the Army School of Ammunition. We used Semtex, a plastic explosive popular with terrorists. I pressed the plunger that blew the shed skywards. The soldiers helped me comb the field afterwards, picking up the blackened, mangled objects. In the gallery, as I suspended the objects one by one, they began to lose their aura of death and appeared reanimated. The light inside created huge shadows on the wall. The shed looked as if it was re-exploding or perhaps coming back together again. The first part of the title is a scientific term for all the matter in the universe that can’t be seen or measured. The second part describes a diagram in which a machine’s parts are laid out and labelled to show how it works.

I’ve seen photos of this many times. Seeing it in the flesh I realised several things:

  1. it is a mobile – a very complex mobile, but in principle the same kind of thing my son makes to hang his origami figures from his ceiling
  2. it has a cubic, rectangular shape i.e. it is the opposite of chaotically exploding outwards; it is very contained
  3. this is achieved by hanging multiple objects from the same string, not just one
  4. as people walk slowly respectfully round it the eddies of air they stir
  5. and placing a single light bulb at the centre of it means not only that is casts shadows on the wall, but as the string move gently, so a) your perspective through the multiple layers of debris shifts and changes b) the shadows they cast on the wall subtly change

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Perpetual canon (2004)

Again, I’ll give Parker’s words verbatim:

I was invited to make a work for a circular space with a beautiful domed ceiling. I first thought of filling it with sound. This evolved into the idea of a mute marching band, frozen breathlessly in limbo. Perpetual Canon is a musical term that means repeating a phrase over and over again. The old instruments had experienced thousands of breaths circulating through them in their lifetime. They had their last breath squeezed out of them when they were squashed flat. Suspended pointing upwards around a central light bulb, their shadows march around the walls. This shadow performance replaces the cacophonous sound of their flattened hosts. Viewers and their shadows stand in for the absent players.

Perpetual canon (2004) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

The ghosts of music past. I was really taken by the idea that the shadows of us, the visitors, stand in for the long-dead players of these instruments.

Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-89)

Tate own this piece. In Tate’s words:

‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’ comprises over a thousand flattened silver objects, including plates, spoons, candlesticks, trophies, cigarette cases, teapots and trombones. All the objects were ceremoniously crushed by a steamroller at Cornelia Parker’s request. She then arranged the transformed silver artefacts into thirty disc-shaped groups, which are suspended about a foot from the floor by hundreds of fine wires. Each ‘disc’ is approximately ninety centimetres in diameter and they are always hung in orderly rows, although their overall configuration is adapted each time to the space in which the work is displayed. The title refers to the biblical story of how the apostle Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus in return for thirty pieces of silver.

And in Parker’s own words:

Drawn to broken things, I decided it was time to give in to my destructive urges on an epic scale. I collected as much silver plate as I could from car-boot sales, markets and auctions. Friends even donated their wedding presents. All these objects, with their various histories, shared the same fate: they were all robbed of their third dimension on the same day, on the same dusty road, by a steamroller. I took the fragments and assembled them into thirty separate pools. Every piece was suspended to hover a few inches above the ground, resurrecting the objects and replacing their lost volume. Inspired by my childhood love of the cartoon ‘deaths’ of Roadrunner or Tom and Jerry, I thought I was abandoning the traditional seriousness of sculptural technique. But perhaps there was another unconscious reason for my need to squash things. My home in east London was due to be demolished to make way for the M11 link road. The sense of anxiety lingers even now.

‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’ by Cornelia Parker (1988-89) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Newer works

‘War Room’ (2015)

The biggest thing in the show is a big long room entirely lined with red paper with holes in, titled ‘War Room’, from 2015. As usual, you need to read the wall label to understand what this is about.

‘War Room’ by Cornelia Parker (2015) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

In Parker’s own words:

I was invited to make a piece of work about the First World War. I had always wanted to go to the poppy factory in Richmond, London. Artificial poppies have been made there since 1922. They are sold to raise for money for ex-military personnel and their families. When I visited the factory, I saw this machine that had rolls of red paper with perforations where the poppies had been punched out. The fact that the poppies are absent is poignant, because obviously a lot of people didn’t come back from the First World War, and other wars since. In this room there’s something like 300,000 holes, and there’s many more lives lost than that. I decided to make War Room like a tent, suspending the material like fabric. It’s based on the magnificent tent which Henry VIII had made for a peace summit with the French king in 1520, known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. About a year later they were at war again.

The story, the anecdote, is, as usual, interesting but the resulting work less so.. You walk in, you walk round, you walk out. Meh. A slightly shimmery effect is created by having two layers of hole-y red paper hanging everywhere but…this is a minimal effect.

‘Magna Carta (An Embroidery)’ (2015)

One work dominates the penultimate room. It is an enormous, thirteen-metre long, hand-sewn embroidery of the Wikipedia page about Magna Carta.

‘Magna Carta (An Embroidery)’ by Cornelia Parker (2015) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

It is a collaborative work which involved over 200 volunteers including public figures, human rights lawyers, politicians and prisoners. On the wall is a list of the worthies who signed up to be involved, an entertaining list of the usual suspects: media-friendly left-of-centre politicians (Tom Watson, 55), actors, psychotherapists (Susie Orbach, 75), academics (Germaine Greer, 83), other high profile artists (Antony Gormley, 72), writers (Jeanette Winterson, 63, Philip Pullman, 75) and so on.

What struck me was how old all these people are. Our generation is declining, now, Cornelia. We’ve trashed the planet, wrecked the economy and degraded the political system for our children: best to withdraw tactfully and not keep on shouting and marching and trying to dominate everything. We’ve had our time. Over to a younger generation and hope they can do better.

The videos

There are two rooms featuring 7 or 8 art videos running consecutively. The best thing in the first room is a new six-minute video titled ‘FLAG 2022’ and made specially for this exhibition. Very entertainingly this shows the creation of a Union Jack by seamstresses in a factory only run backwards – so we see the British flag being systematically unsown and unstitched. It’s accompanied by a straight orchestral rendition of the hymn Jerusalem. Shame. It would have been funnier if Jerusalem had been played backwards, too – but maybe that would be a bit too 1960s, too much like the old avant-garde.

The second film room is about America. Oh dear. That far away country of which we hear so little, which is so rarely in the news, whose cultural products we so rarely get to see. This room contains:

  • One film which Parker shot at the annual Halloween Parade in New York, that city we so rarely hear about. Personally, I’d have though New York has enough artists of its own to do this kind of thing.
  • Another film showing supporters of Donald Trump milling about in New York outside Trump Tower sometime during his election campaign. I don’t know whether you’ve heard of Donald Trump? He was quite big in America, apparently.

Frankly, these films are a let-down. It’s disappointing to see Parker genuflecting to God’s Own Country – as if New York or America need the slightest bit more coverage or publicity than the saturation exposure they already enjoy in the British media, TV, radio, films, academia, all across the internet and the toxic marshes of social media. There are other countries in the world, you know.

I’d like to have shared FLAG or any of the others in t his review, but I can’t find any of them on the internet.

Politics

From here onwards – in the second half of the exhibition – politics emerges as an increasingly dominant theme.

As well as the flag movie, the British film room includes a film made in the empty chamber of the House of Commons in 2018 using a camera attached to a drone, titled ‘Left Right and Centre’. Not only did they make this film, but they made a film about the making of the film, in which I caught Parker telling us how damn difficult it was to make because of health and safety, fire risk assessment etc. When artists start to think they are heroes…

I thought the result was very underwhelming. The drone hovered over the table you see in front of the Speaker of the House’s chair, set between the two front benches, which usually has the Mace on it – except in this film it had been covered with copies of England’s daily papers, which fluttered in the downdraft of the drone’s little rotors.

As with Donald Trump, I am sick to death of Parliament, the succession of incompetent politicians we have had leading our nation for the past 12 years, and the corrupt newspapers which lie and distort in order to keep the ruling party in power. Watching a 10-minute film on the wretched subject of contemporary British politics went a long way to destroying the happy, creative, open impression inspired by the first half of the exhibition.

In 2017 Parker was the first woman to be appointed official artist for the General Election. In this role, she observed the election campaign leading up to the 8 June vote, meeting with politicians, campaigners and voters and producing artworks in response. She made several films during this period including the aforementioned drone movie, and one titled ‘Election Abstract 2018’, a documentation of Parker’s observations during the campaign, posted on her Instagram account.

None of this, to my mind, is as funny or inventive as flattening a load of silverware with a steamroller, or displaying a little pile of incinerated cocaine, or soaking sheets in white cliff chalk, or taking a mould of Bunhill pavement. It just looks and sounds like the news, with little or no inventiveness and no particular insight. British politicians are idiots. Our newspapers are studies in bias and lies. So what’s new?

My heart sank even further when I read that another of her films is titled ‘Chomskian Abstract 2007’ and is an interview with the American social critic and philosopher Noam Chomsky, apparently about ‘the entwined relationship between ecological disaster and capitalism’.

Oh dear God. It’s not that Chomsky’s wrong or that hyper-capitalism driven on by American corporations and banks is not destroying the planet; it’s just that he is such a bleeding obvious choice for Great Man of the Left to interview. And so very, very, very old (born in 1928, Noam Chomsky turns 93 this year).

Is this the best Parker can do in the field of ‘radical’ or oppositional politics – interview a 93-year-old? It’s like waking up one morning and deciding you need to make a film about the environment and, after careful consideration, deciding you’d like to interview David Attenborough (aged 96) on the subject. Topics, and interviewees, don’t come more crashingly obvious than this.

Each year thousands and thousands of students in Britain graduate from international studies, politics or environmental courses. It would have been so much more interesting to interview the young, the future generation, and get their point of view rather than the done-to-death, decrepit old.

And he’s another Yank for God’s sake. What is it with the British cultural establishment and their cringing obeisance to American culture, artists, film-makers, politicians and intellectuals. Of the 200 contributors to the Magna Carta embroidery, in their summary of the show the curators single out just two – Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales (who stitched ‘user’s manual’ into the embroidery) and Edward Snowden (who stitched the word ‘Liberty’).

Notice anything about them? Yes, they’re both American. Americans just seem carry more weight with Britain’s art establishment. They have a little more human value than mere Brits like you and me. More pizzazz, more glamour.

Lastly, what has Chomsky actually changed in his 50-odd years of railing against the American government and global capitalism? Nothing. Come to that, what good does getting 200 media-friendly worthies to contribute bits to a 13-metre-long embroidery achieve? Nothing. It’s a feel-good exercise for everyone involved and maybe it makes some of the gallery visitors feel warm and fuzzy and virtuous, too. Which is nice, but…

But meanwhile, out in the real world, Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng are destroying the economy, ruining Britain’s standing in the financial world, and declaring war on the poor, the unwell, the vulnerable, even trashing support among their own middle-class, mortgage-paying supporters, in a zombie march of ideologues divorced from reality.

Flying a drone round the House of Commons or stitching a room-length embroidery are not only feeble responses to the world we live in but, worse, I found them imaginatively limiting and cramped. If you’re going to tackle the terrible world of contemporary politics, at least do it with some style and imagination. Old newspaper photos of Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn didn’t take me anywhere new – unlike the pile of silver shavings or a cast of Bunhill pavement or most of the pieces in the first half of the show, which opened magic doors in my mind.

Maybe Parker should stick to what she does best – blowing things up. Guy Fawkes Night is coming. Just a thought…


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

The Island by Mónica de Miranda @ Autograph

‘Tide’ from ‘The Island’ by Mónica de Miranda (2021) © Mónica de Miranda

Autograph

Autograph is a small gallery in Hoxton, which is open from Wednesday to Saturday only, but is FREE.

Details of opening hours and location here.

It’s housed in an ultra-modern building with a main gallery space – one wide square room with high ceilings – on the ground floor, and other spaces, of more conventional size, upstairs.

Whenever I’ve visited there’s only been a handful of other visitors so, apart from the exhibitions themselves, it feels like a cool, slick oasis of calm amid the hustling backstreets of Hoxton let alone the hectic traffic on nearby Shoreditch High Street.

Currently, Autograph is displaying a work by the Angolan-Portuguese artist Mónica de Miranda.

Mónica de Miranda – official biography

De Miranda is an Angolan Portuguese visual artist, filmmaker and researcher who works and lives between Lisbon and Luanda. Her work incorporates photography, video, drawing, sculpture and installation. Through it she investigates postcolonial politics of geography, history, and subjectivity in relation to Africa and its diaspora through a critical spatial arts practice.

Often conceptual and research-based, de Miranda is interested in the convergence of socio-political narratives, gender, and memory at the boundaries between fiction and documentary.

De Miranda is affiliated with the University of Lisbon where she is engaged on projects dealing with ethical and cultural aspects of contemporary migration movements linked to lusophone Africa, such as Post-Archive: Politics of Memory, Place and Identity, and Visual Culture, Migration, Globalization and Decolonization.

Intriguingly for someone who has roots in, what for many Brits are rather exotic countries – Portugal and Angola – her qualifications are very English. She holds undergraduate and post-graduate degrees in art and arts education from Camberwell College of Arts and the Institute of Education, and a doctorate in Visual Art from the University of Middlesex.

The exhibition

The exhibition consists of two elements:

1. The Island is a film, a 37-minute art film. This is being played on a continuous loop in the upstairs exhibition space. The room is dark, you make your way to one of the 4 or 5 basic benches provided, settle down and watch.

2. The main exhibition space downstairs contains half a dozen still photographs from the film. These have been blown up to large scale and cut up into a number of perfectly symmetrical separate frames. So one still from the film may be cut up into two, four or six separate sections, each beautifully framed and placed with mathematical precision on the white walls.

Installation view of photographic stills from ‘The Island’ by Mónica de Miranda at Autograph

They are all large, digitally clear, very calming images of a handful of people in lovely rural settings. Presumably they’re in Portugal, maybe even in Angola, but the lack of tropical foliage, and the look of the trees often made it feel like somewhere in the Thames Valley.

There are only about 6 of these big cut-up photos in the entire exhibition space. It makes for clarity and calm. It’s a very mindful experience.

The film

The problem with making any kind of art film must be persuading the audience to sit all the way through it. I wonder if there’s any data, from any gallery, of what percentage of visitors make it all the way through an art film. I watched about ten minutes of it.

During that time a striking, statuesque black woman wearing a long white dress stood in a haunting, abandoned quarry. Then she was wearing a bright red jacket trimmed with gold epaulettes and standing in what looked like a ruined outdoor auditorium with tiers of concrete benches.

Still from ‘The Island’ by Mónica de Miranda @ Autograph © Mónica de Miranda

Two young black women wearing black jumpers and red berets (the uniform, I think, of 1970s radicals) walked along paths through woods. The same two women wearing white dresses played on a hilltop with panoramic views over a wooded landscape. Without warning they are suddenly wearing Regency era dresses. Time jumps. Different historical eras are overlapped, photoshopped. At another point we see them sitting on a fallen tree half-sunk in a lake (see image at the start of this review).

The statuesque woman sat on some rocks. She was joined by a handsome black man. Cut to the same couple sitting down at a table placed just so on the sandy bank of a river. Long lazy tracking shots of the riverbank, as from a boat slowly drifting along the river.

Three points:

1. It’s all shot in a slow, classic style i.e. all the shots are long and lingering, they’re all set up to give full view of the scene. It’s consciously beautiful, especially the shots in the abandoned quarry, now filled with a huge pool of deep green water, some of which were really haunting.

‘Whistle for the Wind’ from ‘The Island’ by Mónica de Miranda (2021) © Mónica de Miranda

2. But more striking is the words. There are frequent shots of the striking woman speaking deep and meaningful sentences while staring into the middle distance. When she and the handsome man sit down at the dinner table on the river bank they don’t chat, they declaim more deep and meaningful sentences. As the two young women pick flowers in the woods, or walk through woodland paths or hold hands and spin round on the hilltop, there’s a voiceover of the same kind of deep and meaningful commentary. All spoken in a rich Portuguese accent, heavy on ‘sh’ sounds, sounding more East European than Latin.

I can’t find a transcript anywhere online. All I can find is the text accompanying the trailer on YouTube, where the voiceover tells us:

Do not stay lost.
Do not stay forgotten.
Do not lose the memory of who you are.
Breathe!

All the voiceover for the ten or so minutes I saw is like this. It, could have been copied from any one of the hundreds of books which fill the Spirituality and Mindfulness sections of bookshops. Like mottos from a series of inspirational posters. From the same place as the famous ‘Desiderate’ prose poem of healing advice:

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence…

Either you like this kind of thing or you don’t. Chacun à son goût. Personally, I found it very relaxing. My companion had to stifle her titters.

Thirdly, the music. It’s very, very low-key, slowly-changing chords generated by some kind of synthesiser or electronic instruments i.e. not orchestra or pop music etc. It’s ambient, relaxing and lulling. It reminds me of Brian Eno’s ambient albums from the 70s and 80s.

The combination of the bland bromides of the voiceover, sensitively read in a rich Portuguese accent, the slow ambient music, and the lazy tracking shots of the riverbank, of girls walking through woods, of the striking woman standing in abandoned sites…explain why after ten or 12 minutes I fell slowly, lazily asleep. I think I was woken up by my own snoring.

‘Ground Work’ from ‘The Island’ by Mónica de Miranda (2021) © Mónica de Miranda

The curators’ version

The curator’s commentary accompanying the show wants us to believe that de Miranda:

deploys the metaphor of the island as a utopian place of isolation, refuge, and escape: a space for collective imaginings that speak to new and old freedoms. Anchored in cultural affinities and ecofeminism, the artist considers soil as an organic repository of time and memory, where ancestral and ecological trauma linked to colonial excavations continue to unfold. The Island urges us to develop a more conscious relationship between our bodies, the past and the lands we inhabit – and all that they hold – towards regenerative possible futures.

The visitor is free to take these ideas and spin them on into complex post-colonial critiques, pondering empire, slavery, colonialism, gender and ethnicity, all the usual topics of contemporary art.

But as an actual sensory experience the film, and then the big white room full of beautiful photos, are wonderfully calming, relaxing and healing. If you’re in that part of London on one of the days when Autograph is open, it’s worth making a detour to experience a chilled half hour of these calm and healing music and images.


Related links

Angola reviews

In case you get the impression that Angola is all beautiful woods, picturesque ruins and spiritual ladies, here are reviews of books by people who’ve worked in or visited this tragic, war-torn country recently.

Other Autograph exhibitions

Feminine power: the divine to the demonic @ the British Museum

This is the first major exhibition ever held at the British Museum focusing solely on goddesses – on female spiritual beings from mythological traditions from around the world – and it is absolutely fabulous!

Queen of the night relief, c. 1750 BCE, Iraq, painted clay © The Trustees of the British Museum

Questions about women and femininity

The exhibition sets out to ask questions about images and ideas of the divine: How do different traditions view femininity? How has female authority been perceived in ancient cultures? Are sex and desire the foundations of civilisation or their disruptors? To what extent do female deities reinforce patriarchal social systems or subvert them? What relevance to goddess from ancient or remote cultures have for us, here, today?

To ‘answer and explore’ these questions the exhibition brings together female divine and demonic figures feared and revered for over 5,000 years from traditions all round the world. It includes painted scrolls from Tibet, Roman sculpture, intricate personal amulets from Egypt, Japanese prints, Indian relief carvings, statuettes and figurines, alongside contemporary sculptures.

Ancient and modern

It’s important to realise that the exhibition combines ancient and modern. It brings together historical artifacts – ancient sculptures and sacred objects relating to female goddesses from all around the world – but also includes modern and recent works of art by contemporary female artists such as the renowned American feminist artist Judy Chicago, and the creations of less well-known woman artists from various cultures, such as this fearsome headpiece from India.

Dance mask of Taraka, workshop of Sri Kajal Datta (1994) India, papier mâché © The Trustees of the British Museum

The aim is to explore the multitude of ways in which femininity has been perceived, conceived, created and depicted across the globe, from the ancient world to today. The exhibition explores the embodiment of feminine power in deities, goddesses, demons, saints and other spiritual beings, associated with the widest possible range of human experiences and attributes, from sex and fertility, through wisdom, passion and nature, to war, mercy and justice.

18th century Chinese porcelain of Guanyin, the Chinese translation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, with child and attendants © The Trustees of the British Museum

Treasures

What makes the exhibition so enjoyable is not necessarily its feminist aims (although many visitors will, of course, identify with these) but a much simpler factor. Recent British Museum exhibitions about Nero or Stonehenge featured fabulous objects but also a lot of run-of-the-mill coins or skeletons or shards of pottery. These were important because they tell us about the subject’s archaeology and history, but sometimes they can get a bit, well, boring.

Here, by contrast, having selected 50 or so of the most interesting, relevant or thought-provoking goddesses from traditions around the world, the curators were free to pick only the very best objects to represent them. Almost all of the objects are from the museum’s own collection and they showcase its extraordinary breadth and range. But more importantly, lots and lots of them are really beautiful or, if not beautiful, then striking and fascinating.

Statue of Venus, 1st to 2nd century Rome © The Trustees of the British Museum

I studied the labels and read the extensive feminist commentary but then I have read the same kind of thing thousands of times, and read it every day in the papers and hear it every day on the radio and TV. Discussions of gender and sexuality and gender stereotyping and #metoo and the gender pay gap and female empowerment and strong independent women and women pioneers in culture and science and sport are now part of the permanent background hum of modern life.

What is not an everyday experience is to be able to take a walk through the mythologies of the world, to savour the beauty and force of a carefully curated selection of exquisite and surprising and fascinating historical and cultural artifacts.

Not all the objects on display are masterpieces, but many of them are really, really beautiful, and all of them have fascinating stories to tell and many of them shed lights on countries and cultures I knew little or nothing about. The exhibition amounts to a kind of David Attenborough odyssey through the weird and wonderful products of the human imagination.

Mami Wata headpiece, Nigeria, early 1900s, painted wood and metal © The Trustees of the British Museum

Five themes

One of the curators explained that they went out of their way to consult far and wide, with heads of departments across the museum, with stakeholders and members, in order to draw up a long list of themes and subjects relating to female power. Alongside this they drew up a long list of objects to illustrate the themes, at the same time drafting a list of feminist commentators who might be interested in commenting on them.

The outcome of this long process of consultation and consideration has been to divide the exhibition into five themes, each of which is introduced and explained by the curators – and then a leading contemporary feminist was invited to contribute thoughts on the theme and reflections on the objects.

The five themes are:

  • Passion and Desire, introduced and analysed by Classics Professor Mary Beard
  • Magic and Malice, commented on by writer and podcaster Elizabeth Day
  • Forces of Nature, commented on by psychotherapist and campaigner against violence against women, Dr Leyla Hussein
  • Justice and Defence commented on by human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique
  • Compassion and Salvation commented on by writer, comedian and podcaster Deborah Frances-White

Thus each section each of the individual exhibits has two panels, one a factual description by the curators and one a subjective and thoughtful comment by the contributors. There are also some standalone video ‘thought-pieces’ of the five commentators giving their thoughts about women and power.

Creation and nature

To give an idea of the sheer number and range of goddesses and deities involved, this is a list of some of the exhibits in just the first section, devoted to ‘Creation and nature’.

  • Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes with flaming red hair and a fiery temper
  • Sedna, the Inuit mistress of the sea
  • Lashmi, the Hindu goddess of abundance
  • Oshun, the Yoruba orisha of water, coolness and healing
  • Mami Wata, the mother water of African spiritual traditions
  • Izarami-no-mikoto, a creator deity of both creation and death in Japanese Shinto mythology
  • sheela-na-gigs, the primitive stone figures found in the Middle Ages across Britain, France and Spain
  • Papatūānuku, the mother earth figure of In Māori tradition, who gives birth to all things, including people

You get the idea. Not so much about the goddesses as such, but the impressive range and diversity of cultures represented.

Kali

The exhibition includes a newly acquired icon of the Hindu goddess Kali by contemporary Bengali artist, Kaushik Ghosh, the first contemporary 3D representation of Kali in the collection.

As one of the most prominent and widely venerated goddesses in India, this devotional image of Kali reflects the living tradition of her worship, important for millions of Hindus around the world today.

The statuette was commissioned especially for the exhibition, together with the London Durgotsav Committee, who run the annual Kali Puja festival in Camden, in Kali’s honour.

According to the curators: ‘Loved and feared for her formidable power and aggression, Kali is the goddess of destruction and salvation, who transcends time and death, destroys ignorance and guides her followers to enlightenment. Although superficially terrifying, the bloodied heads that she wears and carries represent her power to destroy the ego, setting her followers free from worldly concerns, and the belt of severed arms signifies that she liberates them from the cycle of death and rebirth, by the many weapons she wields.’

Kali Murti, Kaushik Ghosh, India, 2022. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ancient and modern

There’s a kind of doubled or paired approach to everything. I’ve mentioned the way many of the exhibits feature a panel giving the historical and cultural facts, as written by the curators, and next to it a panel giving the more subjective view and reflections of the guest commentator. Doubling. Two perspectives.

But I mean it in another way as well, which is the curators’ deliberate juxtaposition of the very old and the very contemporary. This is announced right at the beginning of the exhibition (although it was only when the curator pointed it out that I understood it).

Right at the beginning of the ‘Creation and nature’ section they have two exhibits, not quite next to each other, a bit more subtly placed than that. One is a trio of Cycladic figurines of women, those primitive, flat faced half-abstract figures which date from as long ago as 3,000 BC.

A figurine of a woman, from the Cyclades, over 4,000 years old.

These are so beautiful as objects and shapes that I could look at them all day. Anyway, just round the corner from them the curators have hung a print titled ‘The Creation’ by the American feminist artist, Judy Chicago (born in 1939 and still going strong).

I needee a bit of help deciphering this but it is an image of a woman giving birth, taken from between her parted thighs, with her two breasts as hills on the horizon, one a volcano exploding. Obviously it’s heavily stylised, and features strata of creation on the right including sea life and, above them, lizards and apes and humans.

The Creation, Judy Chicago, USA, 1985, coloured screen print in 45 colours on black paper. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

In other words, it’s a stylised image of the creation of life on earth. An interview with Chicago is quoted in which she jokes that Michelangelo’s famous image of the ‘Creation’ depicts a man (Adam) lying lazily on his back while a complacent God reaches out and touches his finger. Chicago wanted to counterpoint this patriarchal fantasy with a depiction of the more effortful, bloody and seismic moment of creation in a woman giving birth, but at the same time give it modern mythic overtones, reflecting our knowledge of geology and evolution.

So far so interesting and both works are examples of what I meant by saying that all of the exhibition’s artefacts are powerful and beautiful. It also exemplifies the juxtaposition of ancient and modern I was talking about.

History and art

But it is a dichotomy or duality on another level, as well, which is that the Cycladic figures are conventionally thought of as being of predominantly archaeological and historical interest whereas the Chicago piece is clearly a modern ‘work of art’.

So the curators are enacting another form of doubling: they have deliberately mixed together works which come from the staid academic world of history and anthropology with living works of art.

So there are, arguably, three sets of pairing or doubling going on throughout the exhibition: ancient and modern, curator and commentator, history and art.

These juxtapositions set up forcefields of energy between ancient objects of worship and veneration whose purpose was clearly ‘religious’ and modern works of art whose purpose is, well, what?

In her speech the curator said she was explaining the difference between the consciously ‘sacred’ objects (depicting goddesses and ritual) and the modern ‘profane’ art works to an exhibition sponsor, and the sponsor asked: ‘Is there a difference?’

Good question, and the exhibition provides a fascinating field of study for similar questions and reflections, either prompted by our own impressions as we stroll among these weird and wonderful objects, or by the factual summaries of the curators, or by the reflections of the feminist commentators, or by the vibrant juxtaposition of objects from such different times, places and cultures.

The visitor strolls not only between beautiful objects but amidst a complex matrix of factual information, aesthetic experiences, and intellectual discourses, jangling and buzzing, prompting all manner of thoughts and feelings.

Lilith

Take the figure of Lilith. Since the late first millennium AD, Lilith has been known in Jewish demonology as the first wife of Adam and the consort of Satan. Her origins are thought to lie in Mesopotamian demons. The exhibition includes several representations of this talismanic figure, including a ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD), featuring a rare early image of Lilith in female form. Buried upside down under the thresholds of houses these bowls were inscribed with charms to protect the owners (who are named in the text) from demonic forces. They regularly name Lilith as a demon to be warded off, sometimes as grammatically singular and feminine, but also masculine or plural, one among many indications of the gender fluidity found in many mythologies.

Ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

So far, so historical or archaeological. But the exhibition also includes a very striking sculpture of Lilith by American artist Kiki Smith, made in 1994. Smith’s sculpture is cast from the body of a real woman and the striking thing is that this life-size black metal sculpture is attached half way up the gallery wall. This would be a striking installation in a gallery of contemporary art but in the staid world of the British Museum with its glass cases carefully spotlighting tiny coins and bits of pottery, it makes a huge statement, visually and physically. The artist herself writes of her work:

Lilith becomes this disembodied spirit that goes off and wreaks havoc and doesn’t want to be subjugated. Here she is transcending gravity and the constraints of her body.

Yes, the legends about Lilith and the havoc she wrought we may or may not be familiar with. But it’s the fact that she is a life-size sculpture hanging upside down on the gallery wall which makes the statement.

Lilith by Kiki Smith (1994) image © Pace Gallery

The exhibition poster

Of all the objects in the exhibition, the Lilith sculpture is the one the curators chose to go on the poster and promotional material. Personally, I think that was a mistake. I think it would have been better, more accurate, to use a montage of 3 or 4 of the most striking objects to give a true sense of the exhibition’s breadth and diversity. It’s also a bit boring that out of all the cultures of the big wide world, the curators have chosen an artist from America. Disappointing. As if we don’t hear enough about American artists already. Would have been more genuinely diverse to promote a work by a Hindu or Nigerian or Inuit artist.

But then again, it is a strange and disturbing object. Maybe it recaptures, in our blasé culture, some of  the shock and mystery and weirdness that many of the more obviously ‘religious’ objects on display conveyed to their contemporaries, long ago and far away.

Lots of goddesses

If nothing else, the exhibition shows that there have been lots of goddesses and female spirits, in all societies, at all times. In the second half of the show I noted a fourth kind of doubling, which is where the curators have a panel describing an important goddess in a general sense, and then introduce a specific instance of the goddess, drawn from their vast collection.

So there’s a curator panel describing the figure of Eve, explaining her provenance and significance in Christian theology; the curators then give an example of the iconography of Eve in the form of a striking woodcut by Renaissance artist Cranach the Elder. Then one of the feminist commentators gives a more subjective assessment of the importance of Eve in shaping and projecting ideas of femininity in the Christian tradition.

A similar two-panel treatment (general explanation, then specific artifact) was meted out to (to name just the ones that really struck me):

  • Radha (Hindu)
  • Ishtar (Babylonia and Assyria)
  • Aphrodite (Greece)
  • Lilith (Jewish-Christian)
  • Tlazo Iteotl (Aztec)
  • Hekate (Greek)
  • Circe (Greek)
  • Cihuateteo (Aztec)
  • Rangda (Bali)
  • Taraka (Hindu)
  • Sekhmet (Egypt)
  • Athena (Greece)
  • Luba (Congo)
  • Mahadevi (Hindu)
  • Kali (Hindu) Isis (Egypt)
  • Maryam (Islam)
  • Mary (Christian)
  • Guanyin (China)
  • Tara (Tibet)
  • Medusa (Greece)
  • witches (Christendom)

Women and gender identity

The curators assert that the representation of feminine power in world belief and mythology has played – and continues to play – an important role in shaping global cultural attitudes towards women and gender identity.

I suppose this is true of many places, still, but…. there’s something not quite right with that statement. On reflection I think it’s that the curators are pushing it a bit far when they say the exhibition explores or investigates the role religion, and female deities, goddesses and spirits have played in representing, defining, limiting and empowering women through the ages. To really properly do that would require a library full of books and studies of religious sociology and anthropology. To be blunt the exhibition, big and broad though it is, only scratches the surface of a vast, global, pan-historical subject.

As an example, the exhibition includes a section devoted to the Virgin Mary who is (obviously) the most prominent female figure in Christianity, itself the most widespread religion on earth. This section contains five artefacts connected with her veneration, which is more than most of the other goddesses get, but, still… It would obviously need quite considerably more than that to amount to a proper ‘investigation’ or ‘exploration’ of the role of Mary in defining and limiting women’s roles in Western society over the past 2,000 years. Vastly more. Thousands of books and objects. A huge exhibition could be devoted to Mary alone. And that’s just one among the 50 or 60 female deities on display here.

And that thought brings out the exhibition’s weakness, which is that a lot of the very broad (and very familiar) generalisations which the feminist commentators make about gender and identity are not really supported by the exhibits.

The curators tell you the facts about Rangda (Bali) or Taraka (Hindu) or Sekhmet (ancient Egypt) and then the commentators shoehorn onto them one of the handful of familiar feminist concerns about gender stereotyping or gender fluidity or the power of desire or women as strong independent figures and so on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s spot on. But sometimes it feels…contrived. You feel the unknowable weirdness of some of these objects, the strange worlds they inhabit and the fearsome spirits they represent are being hijacked to pad out a Guardian editorial.

A friend of mine, a designer, goes to lots of exhibitions and makes a point of never reading the labels. She likes to engage directly with the objects on display, unmediated by the curators’ editorialising. The commentators opinions are over familiar and tend to drag you into the squabbling world of the modern media and culture wars and twitter and so on.

Whereas the exhibition’s great strength is the way the objects themselves open doors in your head to weird and wonderful otherplaces and otherminds, leading you through the looking glass, through the back of the wardrobe, into a huge range of times and places and cultures.

And the way these beautiful or fascinating objects have been carefully juxtaposed with notable works of contemporary art to set up all kinds of resonances and vibrations. This – the often strange, haunting beauty of the objects themselves, and resonances set off by their artful positioning – is what I responded to, what I found very stimulating and rewarding.

(To be fair, the exhibition is accompanied by a big heavy catalogue packed with essays by feminist academics, and this does go into considerably more detail about the issues around women and gender and sexuality which the exhibition references. Read the catalogue blurb to get the publishers’ summary of it. ‘The publication concludes with a discussion of contemporary feminism…’)

The curators speak

Here are the voices of two women closely involved with the exhibition. Belinda Crerar, curator, British Museum, writes:

This exhibition is a tour through history and around the world to see the different ways that female power and authority have been perceived in spiritual belief. The diversity of these goddesses, spirits, enlightened beings and saints, and their profound influence in people’s lives today and in the past, gives us pause to reflect on how femininity – and indeed masculinity – are defined and valued now and in the future.

Muriel Gray, Deputy Chair of Trustees of the British Museum, writes:

The Citi exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic is brimming with magic, wisdom, fury and passion. I am very proud that through the breadth and depth of the British Museum’s collection, alongside special loans, we can tell such powerful and universal stories of faith and femininity from the most ancient cultures to living traditions around the world. I would like to thank Citi, whose ongoing support has allowed the Museum to realise this ground-breaking exhibition.

A word from our sponsor

The exhibition is sponsored by Citi. Citi is the swish new name of what used to be Citigroup Inc, an American multinational investment bank and financial services corporation headquartered in New York (where Kiki Smith lives and works). A spokesman for the bank writes:

As a global bank, our mission is to serve as a trusted partner to our clients by responsibly providing financial services that enable growth and economic progress. Success in our mission is only possible if we can continue to foster a culture of equality and inclusion that enables and encourages diversity of thinking. To drive that message of equality and the power and influence of women over time, we are delighted to see the Museum use its collection, along with some spectacular loans, to create a thought-provoking look at the diversity of representations and complex meanings of the divine female over time.

So the exhibition, which the curators and contributors like to see as ‘subverting’ the patriarchy and ‘questioning’ masculinity and ‘interrogating’ gender stereotypes etc – is wholeheartedly aligned with the values of American multinational investment banks and financial services corporations.

Whether you like it or not, ‘equality’ and ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ are now fully integrated into the lexicon of international capitalism, and it is money from American capitalism which makes possible exhibitions like this, makes possible the curators’ good intentions and the feminist commentators’ ‘subversive’ comments. What do you think of that, O goddesses of fire and flood and fury?

Tiare Wahine, Tom Pico, Hawai’i, 2001, Ohi’a wood © The Trustees of the British Museum

I’m not especially singling out this exhibition. It’s the same kind of irony which meant that the huge sculpture lamenting the transatlantic slave trade made by the American artist Kara Walker (also based in New York) was hosted at Tate Modern, a gallery founded by sugar plantation owner Henry Tate who, although he never owned slaves, made a fortune out of black labourers descended from slave in the Caribbean, whose name the Tate organisation insists on retaining despite protests.

Or that until recently Tate, whose exhibitions routinely campaign for a better world, was funded by BP, the oil corporation, which is actively engaged in destroying the world.

Ditto the National Portrait Gallery, which is only ending its funding by BP this year, having only just noticed global warming and oil companies’ role in creating it.

Or that the Serpentine Gallery in London has only just (2021) dropped ‘Sackler’ from its name because of the Sackler family’s involvement in selling the opioid painkillers which have made large numbers of Americans into addicts, wrecking hundreds of thousands of lives. (A link I was making two and a half years ago, Patrick Staff: On Venus @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery.)

In fact I attended a press launch of an exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery which was addressed by its Chief Executive, Yana Peel, and I squirmed a bit as she imperiously lectured us about sexism and racism (it was the exhibition by African-American female artist Faith Ringgold). So I was all the more surprised and amused when Peel was then forced to step down from her post after the Guardian revealed her involvement in ‘the NSO Group, an Israeli cyber intelligence company whose software has allegedly been used by authoritarian regimes to spy on dissidents’.

And then, of course, there are the many, many art galleries and cultural institutions which have spent the last 30 years deeply entwining themselves with the money or support of Russian oligarchs. Russia. Oligarchs. Putin. Nice company to keep.

So I’m just adding this exhibition to the many which promote high-minded values about gender and race, and advocate for sweeping social change, while being funded by money from harmful or immoral  or deeply reactionary sources. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to find this kind of irony hilarious. There’s no point getting upset, it’s the way of the modern world. But you are allowed to smile at the ironies.

For young readers

There is, of course, a sumptuous catalogue accompanying the exhibition, but a book has also been written for younger readers, what the press release describes as a ‘fascinating and empowering introduction to 50 female figures from around the globe’, entitled Goddess: 50 Goddesses, Spirits, Saints and Other Female Figures Who Have Shaped Belief, written by Janina Ramirez and illustrated by Sarah Walsh.


Related links

Other British Museum reviews

Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945 to 1965 @ the Barbican

Layout

The Barbican gallery is a big exhibition space, spread over two floors. On the ground floor, as you come in, there’s the ticket desk and shop, then you walk through a doorway on your right into the ground floor display space. This is divided into three successively larger ‘rooms’, the third and final one being a fairly big atrium. You then emerge from these into a corridor which runs back alongside the atrium spaces back to the shop, and off which are three alcove rooms or ‘bays’.

Back by the shop there are stairs up to the first floor gallery which runs round the walls and allows you to look down onto the atrium space you’ve just left, so you can see paintings and sculptures from above. You can walk right round this gallery but there are only alcoves or bays on along two sides of it, four bays on one side and four on the other. 3 + 3 + 4 + 4 = 14 distinct display spaces.

14 rooms, 14 themes

So when the curators set out to design this exhibition of post-war British art they had 14 spaces to play with and have come up with 14 topics or subject areas, accordingly. Starting in room 1, the visitor walks through 14 themed aspects of post-war British art, which are also arranged in a loosely chronological order, starting just after the end of the Second World War and ending in 1965.

‘Cyborg collages’: First Contact by John McHale (1958) Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York © Estate of John McHale

The new

The curators have made one key decision which defines the entire show: believing that post-war artists had to cope with the aftermath of ‘a cataclysmic war that called into question religion, ideology and humanity itself’, they have consciously chosen to focus on THE NEW ARTISTS of the period. They have ignored artists who’d come to prominence between the wars (so no Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth, for example; no Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, no Stanley Spencer, Surrealists or Bloomsburyites).

Instead the curators have tried to catch the mood conveyed by The New Generation of young artists who emerged immediately after the war and set a new tone. The result is that, although the exhibition contains the huge number of 200 works of painting, sculpture and photography, by an overwhelming number of artists (48) it has a surprising unity of feel.

Leaving aside the (excellent) photographers, the paintings in particular demonstrate what you could call a kind of damaged abstraction. There’s a blurred, grey and brown, muddy quality to much of the work. There are lots of earth tones, earth grey, earth cream, earth browns.

West Indian waitresses by Eva Frankfurther (1955) Ben Uri collection, presented by the artist’s sister Beate Planskoy © the Estate of Eve Frankfurther

The war hadn’t pulverised a specific landscape, as in the images of the Western Front made famous during and after the First World War. It had ranged far more widely than that. Crucially, it had permanently damaged mankind’s view of itself.

It was hard to be optimistic about people or ‘culture’ or ‘civilisation’ after news of the concentration camps broke in May 1945, and then the atom bombs were dropped in August 1945. And then the H bombs and the start of the incredibly fearful and menacing Cold War. Many artists struggled to believe in anything positive and channelled their energies into devising novel ways to express their horror and despair.

With so many works by so many artists, there are some exceptions, but overall I’d say this is quite a grim, depressing exhibition, with much to be justifiably depressed about. If you put the (five) photographers to one side, then there’s hardly any figurative work, and when there is (Auerbach, Freud, Bacon, Bratby, Cooke, Souza) it is heavily stylised or deliberately distorted. There are certainly no landscapes. It is an accumulation of damaged psyches.

From murk to clarity

It occurred to me that you could arrange almost all the works along a spectrum from Murk to Clarity. Then you further could sub-divide these categories. What I mean is that the murky end of the spectrum could be divided into images which look like:

  • bodies melted in a nuclear blast (Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter King)
  • bodies eviscerated in some grotesque medical calamity (Magda Cordell)
  • people drowning in Holocaust concentration camp mud (Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff)
  • bodies blurring into hunks of meat (Francis Bacon)
  • bodies reimagined as abstract shapes, blots, drabs and dribbles of paint (Gillian Ayres)
  • bodies combined with inorganic materials such as metal to become ominous cyborgs (Lynn Chadwick’s semi-abstract sculpture of a demonic bird, John McHale’s robotic family, Elisabeth Frink’s menacingly humanoid Harbinger Birds and the St Sebastian sculptures by Eduardo Paolozzi)

The murkiest of the murk

I’ve always heartily disliked the paintings of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. Both applied unbelievable amounts of paint to their canvasses to create nightmare brown meringues of mud. They themselves in interviews claimed they were seeking to get at the essence of the subject or to capture the fleeting nature of reality or some such. They obsessively painted London scenes such as two big muddy paintings here, of the Shell building on the South Bank and Willesden railway junction.

But for me the key fact is that both were Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and, to me, all their paintings powerfully, oppressively convey the feel of the grim Polish winter mud in which so many of their fellow Jews were worked to death, starved to death and exterminated.

‘Drowning in the mud of the Holocaust’: Head of Gerda Boehm by Frank Auerbach (1964) Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts © The Artist

Clarity

At the other end of the spectrum is what I’ve called Clarity, which can be sub-divided into maybe three rooms or artists:

  • artists in the Concrete room
  • Lucian Freud
  • Surface / Vessel room

In the room called Concrete are a set of surprisingly calm, clean, crisp, white abstract images. Victor Pasmore was a celebrate figurative artist when, in the late 1940s, he underwent a conversion to abstraction. By 1951 Pasmore had established a circle of younger artists who were equally committed to the cause of geometric abstraction, which they referred to variously as ‘Concrete’, ‘Constructionist’ or ‘Constructivist’ art, artists including Mary Martin, Adrian Heath, Anthony Hill, Robert Adams and Denis Williams.

Concrete is right next to the death camp vibe of the Auerbach room, Scars, and I really needed it. The white geometric shapes projecting from the canvas as Modernist friezes reminded me of Ben Nicholson (famous between the wars and so banned from this show).

Lucian Freud may seem an odd artist to group under the heading of clarity, but the exhibition features three of his earliest works which do, in fact feature this quality. Edgy, though. Distorted. The curators put it well when they say that ‘Freud’s forensic attention to small details suggests an uneasy vigilance, revealing anxieties just below the surface.’

‘Neurotic clarity’: Girl with Roses by Lucian Freud (1948) Courtesy of the British Council Collection © The Lucian Freud Archive/ Bridgeman Images, photograph

The third ‘calm’ room is titled Surface/Vessel. It features the paintings by William Scott and ceramic vessels by Lucie Rie and Hans Coper. What they have in common is the withdrawal of all bright colours and a return to the colour of canvas and clay, textured surfaces and irregular forms. I might have liked them because 15 years later they set the tone for the kind of abstract prints you could buy at Habitat and Ikea and my parents decorated my childhood home with reproductions of these kind of gentle, cream and earth brown soothing shapes.

Installation view of Postwar Modern showing two works by William Scott: Message Obscure I (1965) and Morning in Mykonos (1961)

Room guide

The themed rooms are:

1. Body and cosmos

The first three rooms are the three progressively bigger ones on the ground floor. Each is dominated by a big signature work. This first room is dominated by Full Stop by John Latham. This seems pretty meh in reproduction which doesn’t convey its size. It’s huge, monumental, 3.5 metres by 2.5 metres, a Mark Rothko of a painting, and a hypnotic image. Is it a solar eclipse, a black hole, an enormously magnified piece of typography. Something has ended – but what?

‘The death of colour’: Full Stop by John Latham (1961) Tate © the Estate of John Latham

Much smaller is the set of three prints by Eduardo Paolozzi, born in 1924 the son of Italian immigrants, so an impressionable teenager during the war. It’s impossible to make the prints out as heads because the images look eroded and decomposed as if by acid or, as wall label suggests, evaporated in the atomic blast so many around the world feared was coming.

2. Post atomic garden

The second room is bigger, contains more but is dominated by the mutant bird sculpture by Lynn Chadwick named The Fisheater (1951). It was commissioned for the 1951 Festival of Britain. It’s set on a slender tripod and aerial assembly, a slender outline of a bird made from thin metal rods and sheets of metal, looking a bit like the skeleton of Concorde, very slightly swaying in the ambient air, beakily looking down at us soft and vulnerable humans.

Installation view of Postwar Modern at the Barbican showing The Fisheater by Lynn Chadwick (1951)

Fisheater epitomises the combination of light, modern industrial elements with unnerving menace which is one of the threads which runs through the show, as in the Paolozzi robots and the robot-humanoid nuclear family grimly depicted in John McHale’s First Contact (above).

3. Strange universe

The third ground floor space is the biggest, lined with huge paintings by a variety of artists, but it is dominated by a signature work, three metal sculptures, about man-size mutant cyborgs made out of complex metal and engineering detritus, welded together and melting at the edges as if they’re robots which have been brought to a halt and slightly melted in the ultimate nuclear apocalypse. They’re by Eduardo Poalozzi who, I think, has more pieces than anyone else in the exhibition and emerges as its presiding spirit.

‘Humanoid figures assembled from electrical scraps and castoffs’: Installation view of Postwar Modern showing Saint Sebastian by Eduardo Paolozzi (1957)

This room also features some enormous paintings by Magda Cordell which are splashed with red and orange and look like the freshly flayed and eviscerated carcass of a humanoid life form.

Figure 59 by Magda Cordell (1958)

4. Jean and John

The first of the bays off to the side of the ground floor corridor contains 8 or so paintings by the husband and wife artists Jean Cooke and John Bratby. Bratby’s stylised but basically figurative still lifes of their home, with boxes of cereals on the kitchen table, were nicknamed ‘Kitchen Sink’ art, presumably before kitchen sink drama came along. Although figurative and colourful, these paintings somehow bespeak the horrible, pokey domesticity of English life and it came as no surprise to learn that Bratby was jealous of his wife’s talent, destroyed much of her work and beat and abused her. See what I mean by grim?

5. Intimacy and aura

This is the room with the neurotic early paintings by Lucian Freud which I mentioned above.

But it also features the first of the photographers, Bill Brandt. Photography, with its figurative realism, comes as a big relief after four rooms loaded with paintings of bleakness, despair, mutant robots and huge abattoir paintings. But it is even more of a relief to discover that Brandt is represented here by a series of photos of female nudes. It’s not that they’re nude so much as that they’re studies of people who are young, fit and healthy. It is a sudden oasis in a desert of radioactive despair.

Apparently Brandt had been renowned in the 1930s for his photojournalism (thus breaking the curators’ self-imposed rule that no-one from between the wars has a place) but 1945 saw a radical shift in his practice as he began experimenting with nude studies indoors. Not only indoors, but in spare, spartan uncarpeted rooms. So, although fully realistic, these studies also have a strange, spooky, spectral mood. Arguably these photos, although entirely naturalistic, manage to share the same sense of nervy ominous as so many of the paintings and sculptures.

The Policeman’s Daughter, Hampstead, London 1945 by Bill Brandt © Bill Brandt Archive

6. Lush life

This room is a surprise. One entire wall is a hugely blown up photo of the interior of a new model home designed by the visionary architects Alison and Peter Smithson. It’s a photo of their stand at the 1956 Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition. It was titled ‘House of the Future’ and the furniture was created using plaster, plywood and paint masquerading as the moulded plastic they’d like to have used but couldn’t afford, the kind of new super-slimmed-down ideals for living designs which were being pioneered and mass produced in America and which featured in the Barbican exhibition about Charles and Ray Eames.

Installation view of Postwar Modern showing the wall-sized photo of Alison and Peter Smithson’s 1956 ‘House of the Future’, with just one yellow ‘egg chair’, made from moulded reinforced polyester, on the low dais.

The American theme is echoed in a series of humorous collages created by Eduardo Paolozzi (is he the most represented artist in the show?). It’s a series of A4 sized collages he created by cutting up images from glossy American consumer magazines, titling the series Bunk. Of course they’re meant to be ironic and subversive and whatnot, but what really comes over is the power and optimism of the original images. Particularly when set against the post-atomic, post-Holocaust nihilism of so much of the rest of the show.

Bunk! Evadne in Green Dimension by Eduardo Paolozzi (1952) Victoria and Albert Museum, © The Paolozzi Foundation

7. Scars

As described above, the Auerbach and Kossoff, drowning in mud, Holocaust despair room.

The room also has a little TV on which is playing a film of a 1961 event carried out by another Jew (the curators emphasis the common ethnicity of these three artists), Gustav Metzger. Metzger pioneered an art of ‘auto-destruction’ in the late 1950s, staging works that enacted their own disintegration, mirroring the violence he felt in a world hell bent on its own destruction. In the grainy old film Metzger is wearing a gas mask, with St Paul’s in the background, while he sprays acid onto canvas which promptly shrivels and dissolves. ‘Happenings’ had been happening in America among beatnik audiences art colleges throughout the 1950s. This appears to be Metzger’s variation on the idea which – as so often in this exhibition – accentuates the negative.

8. Concrete

As described above, a roomful of works by Victor Pasmore and his fellow ‘Concrete’ artists. I especially enjoyed the small-scale, abstract sculptures by Robert Adams. Calm and healing.

Installation view of Postwar Modern at the Barbican showing works by Robert Adams, being: Divided form (1951), Rectangular bronze form number 7 (1955) and Balanced bronze forms (1955).

9. Choreography of the street

More photography, thank God. The black and white snaps of Nigel Henderson and Roger Mayne who specialised in capturing children at play in the gritty, ruin-infested post war streets. Mayne’s most famous body of work was created between 1956 and 1961, capturing the working-class community of Southam Street in North Kensington, west London. One of his photos was used for the cover Colin MacInnes’s novel, Absolute Beginners (1959), a copy of which is here in a glass case.

Street scene 1957 by Roger Mayne © Roger Mayne Archive / Mary Evans Picture Library

Reminds me a bit of the photo of young toughs in Finsbury Park, 1958, which marked the start of Don McCullin’s career.

The lovely and hugely evocative photos of kids playing in bomb sites are interspersed with a series of collages by Robyn Denny and Eduardo Paolozzi (surely Paolozzi is the most featured artist in the show?). And alongside these, collages and in the radical print designs created by Henderson and Paolozzi for their company Hammer Prints Ltd (1954 to 1962).

10. Two women

The two women in question are German refugee painter Eva Frankfurther and home-grown Mancunian photographer, Shirley Baker. Baker documented the changing face of Manchester in the 1950s and early 60s as the old slums were demolished and cleared for high rises and social housing. She walked the streets with a camera always in her bag, taking wonderfully evocative black and white photos of wretched slums and the old-style, working class inhabitants. In 1965 she started experimenting with colour photography and some of her colour photos are feature here.

I was lucky enough to go to the Shirley Baker exhibition at the Photographers Gallery a few years ago – none of the colour photos here are as good as her black and white ones. In a funny kind of way, colour shots of this kind of scene look oddly older, more technologically dated, than the pure black and white ones.

Anyway, the point is… look at the rubble! And in 1965! Twenty years after the war, large parts of England were still struggling to drag themselves into the modern age.

Hulme 1965 by Shirley Baker © Nan Levy for the Estate of Shirley Baker

11. Cruise

The wall label in this room informs us that:

Cruising, or looking for a casual sexual encounter in a public place, was central to the expression and exploration of male same-sex love and desire in the postwar years…

And so it is that one wall features a couple of early works by David Hockney, large browny-black background with all kinds of graffiti, words, lines and squiggles drawn across them:

The title My Brother is Only Seventeen (1962) was derived from graffiti that Hockney read on the toilet walls of Earl’s Court station, a popular cruising spot.

My Brother is only Seventeen by David Hockney (1962) © Royal College of Art

But the real revelation of this room is arguably the best thing in the exhibition. In 1954 Francis Bacon painted a series of seven huge paintings depicting a man in a dark suit sitting at the bar of a hotel, although the background has been stylised to become the slender bars of some kind of cage set against a very dark background. Three of the series are hung here, side by side.

Man in Blue I by Francis Bacon (1954) Collection Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam © The Estate of Francis Bacon

A photo like this doesn’t do the paintings any kind of justice. They are not only enormous but also, despite their stylised subject matter, have the depth and resonance of Old Master paintings. It took me a while to realise that, unlike all the other rooms in the show, the walls of this room are painted black, as if we are in a very old museum or gallery, and these three Man in Blue paintgins have the power and depth of Old Masters.

Black upon black, depths of blackness, inky impenetrability and ominousness. Possibly the best part of the entire exhibition was standing in front of these three enormous variations on a dark, baleful image and letting it soak right in to your soul.

12. Surface/vessel

As described above, a calming, peaceful room of the paintings by William Scott and ceramic vessels by Lucie Rie and Hans Coper.

13. Liberated form and space

Big colourful paintings by Gillian Ayres, Patrick Heron and Frank Bowling. From the reproductions I thought I’d like the Ayres, but in the flesh I found them a too big and I didn’t warm to her use of ‘dribbles, splashes and stains’ of paint, as the curators themselves describe her work.

‘A world of abstract shapes and dripping paint’: Break-off by Gillian Ayres (1961) Tate © the Estate of Gillian Ayres, courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, London

By the same token, I didn’t warm to the press release photos of paintings by Patrick Heron, but in the flesh found them to be some of the very few genuinely colourful, vibrant and life affirming paintings in the entire exhibition. The wall label explains that, like Pasmore and other post-war artists, when he moved from figurative to abstract painting Heron experienced a great sense of liberation.

June Horizon by Patrick Heron (1957) Wakefield Council Permanent Art Collection (The Hepworth Wakefield) © The Estate of Patrick Heron

14. Horizon

The exhibition ends on an oddity.

We met Gustav Metzger in the Scars room, represented by a film of one of his auto-destructive events. Here, at the end of the exhibition is a blacked out room with half a dozen film projectors projecting onto two walls a series of abstract swirling shapes, which were to become super familiar in the Psychedelic movement and subsequently in the lava lamps of millions of suburban bedrooms. Metzger had moved away from the ‘auto-destructive art’ of the 1950s and towards what he now titled ‘auto-creation’, in which the work of art takes on its own life. This immersive room, complete with bean bags (but no spliffs) is titled Liquid Crystal Environment and was created in 1965 using heat-sensitive chemicals sandwiched between rotating glass slides in a projector.

It’s an odd piece to end on because it seems so out of synch with the rest of the show. It feels like a little bit of the Psychedelic Sixties which has got lost in an exhibition which is overwhelmingly about the grim psychic damage, the anxieties and angst of the early Cold War, with the long memory of the Holocaust festering under the shadow of nuclear apocalypse.

Maybe it’s meant to feel cheerful but it doesn’t, which might explain why the two or three times I walked past I didn’t see anybody on the numerous beanbags.

Immigrants

An impressive number of the artists were refugees from Nazi Europe (Auerbach. Kossoff, Metzger, Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Eva Frankfurther, Magda Cordell). But the curators go out of their way to include artists from colonial backgrounds, non-white immigrants from what was still the British Empire. These include:

  • Francis Newton Souza (India), with his intimidating, highly stylised black Christs (1958) in the first room
  • Anwar Jalal Shemza (Pakistan) with a series of Islam-inspired abstracts in the same room as Heron and Ayres
  • Kim Lim (Singapore Chinese) with her delicate abstract sculptures

The Barbican’s birthday show

The curators point out that the exhibition has been timed to coincide with the fortieth birthday of the Barbican’s opening, for it was in the grim post-war period that the Barbican Estate was first conceived, to occupy what was at the time an enormous bombsite in the heart of London.

The Barbican itself, a grim, forbidding, concrete bunker, on an oppressive grey, rainy day, was the perfect setting for an exhibition about the damaged lives, damaged psyches and damaged country which – despite occasional bursts of colour – is what comes over so powerfully in this show.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

The world of Stonehenge catalogue by Duncan Garrow and Neil Wilkin (2022)

All the catalogues to British Museum exhibitions come in the same format and style. They are big, heavy and black. The front cover image emerges out of a dead black, matt black background as if from an unfathomable past – the cover of the Nero exhibition had this style, and the Peru exhibition, and in the case of this catalogue it is a collage of a night-time photo of Stonehenge itself dominated by the most striking exhibit in the show, the Nebra sky disk (made in Germany 3,600 years ago).

Front cover of The world of Stonehenge catalogue.

The hardback versions are very heavy and have the dimensions of coffee table books, 13.8 inches tall by 11.5 inches wide. But the classic coffee table book consists of mostly full-page photos or illustrations with captions and minimal text. Whereas, although it has photos on almost every page, beautiful photos of Stonehenge and scores of other prehistoric sites, and hundreds of images of finds and relics, they are what you might call moderate size, and embedded in a great deal of information-rich prose.

Main ideas

I dare say the authors (Duncan Garrow and Neil Wilkin) had numerous ideas they wanted to get across, but three really big ones came over for me:

1. What is a henge?

Ironically Stonehenge is not a henge. A ‘henge’ is a type of Neolithic earthwork which features a ring-shaped bank and ditch, with the ditch inside the bank (the term was coined by British Museum curator Thomas Kendrick in the 1930s). So the ‘henge’ in Stonehenge doesn’t refer to the stone circles at all; it refers to the circular ditch and bank which surrounds the stone circle. There are some 120 henges, or prehistoric circular ditches with a bank, scattered across the British Isles, but there’s a much larger number of stone circles, at over a thousand. Whole passages of the catalogue are devoted to discussing in detail many of these other stone circles, particularly in Ireland and in the Scottish islands of the Orkneys and Hebrides, all accompanied by beautiful photos (pages 95 to 99).

Anyway, even the ditch part of Stonehenge isn’t a ‘true’ henge because its ditch runs outside its bank (Stonehenge catalogue, page 19).

Henges often have entrances i.e. an earth bridge across the ditch, sometimes marked just inside by a pair of flanking wood poles or standing stones – but far from being consistently aligned with astrological features i.e. the sun or moon, there is a wide variety of placement and no consistency or pattern. Henges which are large enough to contain a sizeable central flattened area where structures were subsequently erected are called ‘henge enclosures’.

Because another key thing about henges is that the wooden or stone circles built inside them were often built a lot later so the two might not have had the same purpose or meaning. Maybe stone circles were built within henges because they had become holy sites, but the cultures which built them were separated by up to 1,000 years in time.

2. Packed landscape

Nowadays we see Stonehenge as a strange and mysterious edifice, standing unique and solitary on the windswept Salisbury Plain. But nothing could be further from the archaeological truth. If there’s one thing to take away from the exhibition and the catalogue it is that, in its day, Stonehenge was embedded in a crazily busy, heavily developed landscape.

The Avenue We now know there was a wide ‘avenue’ carved into the chalk which led off northeast from the henge, before bending east, then south to join the River Avon.

Blick Mead This is a chalkland spring about a mile east of Stonehenge and excavation at the site indicates that there was continuous human habitation here from 10,000 to 6,000 years ago, an immense period of time, and covering the early stages of the construction of Stonehenge (p.36).

Bluestonehenge Very recent excavations have discovered that at the landing place from the river there was a flattened area and another circle, 60 feet wide. Excavations have revealed 27 holes which held stones. No stones remain but flakes of stone suggest they were ‘bluestones’ like the ones used at Stonehenge, so archaeologists speculate that some time after it was erected, the circle was taken down and the stones moved to form the middle circle at Stonehenge (p.89).

Bush Barrow less than a mile south-west of Stonehenge is a burial site dating to around 3,900 to 3,700 years ago. The burial chamber contained one individual accompanied by some of the most spectacular grave goods ever found in Britain.

The gold lozenge of the Bush Barrow grave goods, 1950 to 1600 BC Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. Photographs taken by David Bukach. © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

Car park postholes Just 250 yards north-west of Stonehenge three massive pits have been discovered which held upright wooden poles. The holes and poles date back ten thousand years and mark the earliest known human building activity in the area (p.29). At this point Britain was still fully connected to the continent by the large area of land, subsequently drowned to form the North Sea, and now referred to as Doggerland (p.33).

Coneybury henge A mile south east of Stonehenge is the remains of Coneybury Henge, an oval ditch around 45 metres by 55 metres in diameter, inside which are some pits and stakeholes and an arc of postholes which may have represented a post circle (p.44).

Durrington Walls Two miles north east of Stonehenge is Durrington Walls, which is now known to have been a substantial Neolithic settlement and site of the second-largest Late Neolithic palisaded enclosure known in the UK. Excavations suggest the settlement may once have included 1,000 houses and perhaps 4,000 people, making it the largest settlement in northern Europe, the London of its time (p.86). Durrington was inhabited for about 500 years, from about 4,800 to 4,100 years ago.

Excavations as recent as 2020 revealed a number of pits and holes apparently designed to hold massive timbers, which could be part of a 1.2-mile-wide circuit of 33 foot pits. If this interpretation is correct, this would be Britain’s largest prehistoric monument (p.84). Meat was consumed her in huge quantities. Pig was the most popular source of meat (p.87).

Professor Mike Parker Pearson has proposed the theory that the organic wooden nature of buildings and circles at Durrington may have symbolised food and community and Life, by contrast with Stonehenge, a site dominated by cold, lifeless, hard stones and laced with burials, a site devoted to Death and ancestral spirits, not living people (p.88).

Greater Cursus A mile to the north of Stonehenge is the Greater Cursus, an earthwork 1.9 miles long and between 330 and 490 feet wide. It was built before the stone circle, dated to 5,630 and 5,375 years ago, several hundred years before the earliest phase of Stonehenge 5,000 years ago. Cursus is the Latin word for racetrack, as this is what 18th century antiquarian William Stukeley mistakenly speculated it may have been for (p.57). In fact its exact purpose is unknown. Maybe it was a boundary between sacred and profane territory. Maybe it had a ceremonial purpose.

Lesser Cursus Same uncertainty surrounds the Lesser Cursus to the north-west of the Greater Cursus. The Lesser is  a 400 metres long and 60 metres wide earthwork. Its purpose is utterly unknown. It is mind boggling to learn that both long, deep, wide trenches were dug with reindeer antlers fashioned into basic picks, and ox shoulder blades used as shovels.

Barrows At the eastern terminal of the Cursus is a Neolithic long barrow. To the south-west of the Cursus is the Cursus Barrows Group, a round barrow cemetery which extends 1,200 metres west-to-east along a ridge and measures 250 metres wide (p.54).

In total a staggering 670 burial mounds are known in the landscape around Stonehenge, though the real number may be closer to 1,000 (p.197).

Larkhill enclosure Two miles north of Stonehenge a monumental enclosure has been discovered at the village of Larkhill which seems to be aligned to the solstices and was built 3,750 to 3,650 BC i.e. maybe 500 years before the first stones were erected at Stonehenge. Maybe it acted as a kind of template for the later building? (pages 19 and 56).

Winterbourne Stoke Two miles west of Stonehenge a massive barrow was built in around 5,500 years ago i.e. 500 years before the earliest building at Stonehenge (p.55).

Woodhenge And that’s not all – a short walk from the south of the henge is the structure called Woodhenge, a henge and timber circle dated to between 2,470 and 2,000 BC, about the same time as, or slightly later than, construction of the stone circle at Stonehenge. Radiocarbon dating of artefacts shows that the site was still in use around 1800 BC.

The site consists of six concentric oval rings of postholes, 168 holes in total. Most of these held wooden posts but excavations in 2006 indicated that there were at least five standing stones on the site arranged in a ‘cove’. The deepest post holes measured up to 6 feet and are believed to have held posts which reached as high as 25 feet above ground. Those posts would have weighed up to 5 tons, and their arrangement was similar to that of the bluestones at Stonehenge.

Some theorists speculate that woodhenge maybe symbolised the organic transient world of Life, while the huge stone circle a mile away, which was also a burial ground, symbolised the cold eternity of Death (60 cremation burials dating between 5,000 and 4,800 years ago have been found in or just next to the henge, containing up to 120 bodies; p.67).

Seahenge at the time of excavation © Wendy George

Durrington South timber memorial And just 20 metres away from the periphery of Woodhenge is a completely separate edifice, the Durrington South timber memorial (p.100).

Summary

So what emerges is a picture of Stonehenge the opposite of how we see it today. Far from rising in splendid isolation from a flat plain, it would have been surrounded by numerous other circles of stone or wood, plus the long ditches of the cursuses and the dramatic wide Avenue leading down to another circle by the river. Maybe there were more paths or tracks between these various sites. Maybe pilgrims to the sites had to process around them in a ritual order, as Muslim pilgrims do at the sites of Mecca. Certainly the more we discover, the more densely packed the prehistoric terrain becomes and the more puzzlingly dense with long lost meanings and rituals.

Prehistoric sites around Stonehenge Ordnance Survey (source: Wikipedia) compare with the map on page 90 of the catalogue.

Avebury stone circle Not that much further afield, at Avebury just 25 miles north of Stonehenge, is another, huge stone circle with multiple associated henges and circles and causewayed enclosures and barrows.

Silbury Hill Between the two is Silbury Hill, the largest artificial mound in Europe, 30 metres high and 160 metres across, in the construction of which an estimated half a million tons of chalk were moved requiring about 4 million man hours of labour (p.94).

3. Speculation

It’s not surprising but it is noticeable how much of what the exhibition and the catalogue describe is pure speculation. Obviously it’s speculation by highly experienced experts in their field but, nonetheless, it is speculation, informed guesswork. This really struck home in a paragraph of six sentences on page 101, every one of which hinged on the verb ‘may’. ‘May’, along with ‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’, ‘probably’ and ‘likely’ do a lot of work in this text. Maybe this, perhaps that, possibly the other. This carving could indicate, that dating might suggest…The reader moves from one conditional speculation to another.

On this same page the authors speculate freely that the close proximity of the two massive complexes at Stonehenge and Avebury may have played a part in social rivalry and competition (p.101). Maybe. Maybe not.

The entire chapter 3, about the possible religious beliefs of the henge builders, is a high point of speculation. Just about every relevant object is subjected to flurries of conditionality – these rock carvings may indicate some form of mythological story, these objects might have taken part in religious ceremonies, perhaps these sites had resonant astronomical significance.

  • The sight of flames baking the solar images to the bottoms of these special pots may have added an extra layer of meaning to their production and use. (p.129)
  • Lunulae may have been regarded as too powerful or special to be grave goods associated with any one individual. (p.129)
  • Perhaps the role or identity they conveyed on their wearer was fleeting or part of a rite of passage or ceremony. (p.130)
  • The bronze axe may have been a product of both Ireland and Cornwall. (p.130)
  • It may be impossible to divorce the benefits of trade from beliefs about the cosmos and the role and origin of the sun itself. (p.131)
  • In a ceremony with all kinds of sensory stimuli, from fire, smoke, sounds and spectacle, the movement of the cart may have enacted the passage of the sun through the heavens… (p.133)
  • The bird-sun-boat motif may symbolise a myth or story distinct from but related to the Scandinavian version… (p.135)
  • The chariot might have played a part in ceremonies that did not require a fixed temple… (p.135)
  • Two bronze horses from Scania, Sweden, may have come from a similar model, their glowing amber eyes, again, perhaps representing the sun. (p.137)
  • Sacrificing valuable objects that represented the sun to supernatural forces may be an example of exhortations to the powers of spirits or ancestors, perhaps perceived as the best way to guarantee fertility, regrowth and regeneration. (p.138)
  • [The Amesbury Archer] may have been a specialist metalworker, bringing knowledge of this new, apparently magical, craft… (p.165)

As I read on I became increasingly sceptical about such claims, for the simple reason that the experts  and their theories often radically contradict each other. The authors candidly explain the two or three theories about the meaning and purpose of every site and ditch and stone circle and passage tomb and bronze object and rock carving, and they are often interesting and stimulating speculations.

But the net effect is that a moderately intelligent layman like myself soon comes to realise that there are two utterly distinct levels at play here: on the basic level are the objects themselves, the sites and henges and stones and carvings and axes and metal objects, together with concrete, factual information about the sites where they were discovered – and then, completely separate, is a distinct second layer of speculation, initially tied to these objects but often roaming off into misty worlds of speculation, fantastic descriptions of night-time ceremonies, of the multi-sensual impact of religious rites, for which there is no evidence beyond the authors’ imaginations.

It is also noticeable that many of the conditional speculations are in the direction of current academic and modishly woke concerns: in other words, the academics tend, often without any evidence whatsoever, to rope in ideas about ‘gender’ and ‘identity’ and ‘ethnicity’ as if they were writing a Guardian article or a BBC documentary or a Tate gallery label.

I was particularly struck by the half dozen times they speculate that pots and beakers may have contained ‘intoxicating substances’ to help participate in cult rituals. This sounds cool and modish but there is absolutely no evidence at all of any such substances, after thousands of years there couldn’t be. It’s just a cool Channel 4-type guess or speculation that fits the mood of our drug-soaked times, that gives otherwise dry scholarly articles a rakish, rebel air.

A hundred and fifty years ago the Victorians superimposed their ideas of race and history and religion onto these objects, and now contemporary archaeologists are projecting our values onto them, in turn. The artifacts are like Rorschach tests, complex but unknowable objects onto which scholars project very vividly the concerns and clichés of our own day.

So reading the book tells us about its subject, an encyclopedic overview of the archaeological knowledge of the years 8,000 to 800 BC. But it’s also like looking in a mirror at the values and issues uppermost in the mind of the academic community of archaeologists and ethnographers and ancient historians.

What this aspect of the book displays in spades is the human need for narrative and explanation and causation, all subsets of the fundamental human need for meaning and purpose. A woman friend of mine goes to as many exhibitions as I do, but rarely reads the big wall labels explaining the detailed historical context, or the small labels describing individual exhibits. She just enjoys the objects for what they are, here and now, enjoys them as necklaces, earrings, pendants, figurines, whose presence ennobles and enriches your life, even for a few moments, as you walk among them, with no straining after meaning or context. Just for their beauty alone. I wish I had her courage.

Plain v-perforated jet buttons from Harehope Cairn, Peeblesshire, Early Bronze Age, 2200 to 1750 BC. On display at The world of Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum (Photo © National Museums, Scotland)

Prehistoric trivia

Impossible to summarise such an encyclopedic text, but certain facts stood out:

– Stonehenge was built between 5,000 and 4,000 years ago, roughly contemporary with the construction of the great pyramid at Giza, the Sphinx (4,500 years ago) and the royal cemetery at Ur in Iraq.

– The first modern to carry out fieldwork, map and describe Stonehenge was antiquarian and founding trustee of the British Museum William Stukeley, during the 1720s. He was instrumental in popularising the notion that Stonehenge was built by the Druids which is wildly incorrect, out by a period of some 3,000 years (Stonehenge started construction 3,000 BC, Druids active when the Romans landed in 43 AD).

The relevant periods are:

  • the Mesolithic: c. 12,000 to 6,000 years ago
  • the Neolithic: c. 6,000 to 4,500 years ago
  • the Bronze Age: c.4,500 to 2,800 years ago

– Collective monuments to house the dead were built in Britain and Ireland for the first time around 6,000 years ago (p.21).

– The period 6,000 to 5,000 years ago i.e. the millennium before Stonehenge was the era of burial chambers and tombs and chambered graves which occur all across the British Isles which often contain numbers of dead, particularly in the period 5,750 to 5,400 years ago (pages 60 and 62). After 5,400 these developed into ‘passage tombs’ with passageways leading into one or more connected burial chambers all covered by stone lintels themselves covered in earth and grass (p.61).

All of the art and decorative work (on stone) from the early Stonehenge period (6,000 to 4,500 years ago) is abstract and non-figurative: lots of circles, whorls and lozenges (p.119).

– 4,500 years ago a major cultural change. The sarsen stone phase of Stonehenge was completed and stone circle building across Britain came to an end. Maybe due to the immigration from the continent of people who brought metal working, the Beaker People. Instead of communal activity or worship, Stonehenge became the focal point of scores of individual burial mounds. Offerings of weapons and tools start to be made at natural places, for example springs and rivers, miles away from man-made henges and circles, as if religion became more personalised, local and easy. Again and again the curators speak of ‘the waning influence of Stonehenge commencing with the arrival of the metal smelting people 4,500 years ago’.

– The last person to be buried at Stonehenge was interred between 4,400 and 4,200 years ago, an adult male aged 25 to 30 who had been shot by several arrows. It is widespread evidence like this which leads experts to suggest that, with the arrival of the Beaker People, society became more individualistic and violent (p.161).

– The agricultural revolution spread from the Middle East from about 9,000 years ago. By about 7,000 years ago it had reached most of north-west France. But then there was an epic delay, and evidence of the farming revolution in lifestyle (fixed settlements, agricultural implements, seeds, domesticated animal bones) didn’t appear until a millennium later, around 6,000 years ago. Why the huge delay? Nobody knows (p.41).

– Knowledge of domesticating plants and animals wasn’t transported to Britain in the abstract. Neither the plants nor the animals naturally existed in Britain. Wheat and corn, cows and sheep and goats and pigs and chicken had to be physically transported across the Channel in primitive boats (p.43).

– A thousand years after the first stones were erected, and several hundred years after the last reconfiguration of the stones, some of the big sarsen stones were decorated with carvings. A total of 119 carvings have been identified, 115 axes and four daggers (p.195). In the curators’ opinion this shows the Beaker People-era shift from communal edifices to the veneration of the new, metal, portable objects. Presumably it indicates the way axes and daggers had not just practical utility but some kind of numinous power.

– In the late 3,000s the emphasis switched from communal effort to create a vast edifice like Stonehenge towards numerous burials of individuals, indicating a switch towards the prioritisation of families and individuals. No fewer than 670 burial mounds are known in the vicinity of Stonehenge (p.197).

– About 3,500 years ago bronze artifacts become so common across Europe, implying a step change in trade routes and exchange of metal ores and finished products, that some scholars refer to it as the ‘bronzisation’ of Europe, comparable to modern ‘globalisation’ (p.209).

– The focus of society moved away from the heartlands of the Wessex chalkland towards the coasts. Analysis of bronze and gold objects shows that the original ore was imported across the Channel. Bronze Age ships and their cargoes have been discovered. It is at this period that precious objects begin to be deposited in waterways, springs and lakes, presumably to propitiate spirits. The huge communal effort required to build Stonehenge belongs to a long distant past.

– There was an increased shift to living close to water, reflect in and permitted by advances in boat and canoe building. In a landscape with few if any roads, waterways were the easiest way to travel and to tap into what all the evidence suggests were farflung networks of trade and connectivity (p.238).

– The closer we come to historic times, the more violent societies all across Europe became. Metal means weapons and armour. The late second millennium BC refers to 1300 or 1200 BC and the authors repeatedly compare the design and use of decorated axes, helmets, maces and armour with that described by Homer in his epics about Troy, set at a legendary epoch often dated to 1300 to 1200 BC.

– The Bronze Age, which is said to have commenced about 2,500 BC, is said to end about 800 BC with the relatively quick introduction of the much more durable, useful medium of iron, having lasted about 1,700 years.

– Not only iron but glass begins to be found in the record from 800 BC and a new type of complex interwoven zoomorphic designs which we nowadays call ‘Celtic’. It was a big revelation to me to see Celtic patterns, designs and culture as the end point of all the previous changes, as a relatively brief phase barely even a thousand years long before the arrival of the Romans in 43 AD.

– And that the late Iron Age also saw the advent of a completely new kind of edifice, the hill fort, which quickly became very widespread across the British Isles, and characterised the Britain the Romans discovered much more than the – by now – ancient and often ruined stone circles, chambered tombs, causeways and circular ditches which littered the countryside (p.243).

Video

The best video I can find consists of an interview with Mike Parker Pearson, Professor of Archaeology at University College London, who not only explains the sequence of building at Stonehenge but relates it a) in spatial terms, to the construction the huge nearby site at Durrington Walls (Pearson’s speciality) and b) in time, to the big cultural shift which took place with the arrival of the Beaker People about 4,500 years ago, which swept away the communal ethos – and, if the DNA evidence is to be believed – the actual populations responsible for the construction of Stonehenge and the many other henges and circles and chambers and barrows which are the subject of this big, beautifully illustrated and fascinating book.


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Prehistoric timelines

Texts about prehistory are liable to use three different timelines or naming systems interchangeably so it’s as well to be absolutely clear about them. What follows isn’t definitive, it’s the opposite. It’s my attempt to make sense of the timelines and period-related terminology used in the Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum. As far as I can tell there are three systems:

  1. the geological eras
  2. the sequence of ice ages
  3. the archaeological periods relating to human culture

1. Geological eras

The geologic time scale is the very high level division of earth history into units called — in descending order of duration — eons, eras, periods, epochs and ages. We are interested in just two epochs:

a) The Pleistocene epoch: 2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago

This long period includes all the earth’s most recent periods of glaciations. It ends with the end of the most recent ice age and general climate warming.

b) The Holocene epoch: 11,650 to now

The Holocene is said to have started about 11,650 years ago, at the end of the most recent maximal glaciation or ice age, and we are still living in it today (although see the note at the end about the possible creation of a new epoch, Anthropocene).

Human figurines carved from yew wood with quartzite eyes from Roos Carr, East Yorkshire, 1000 to 500 BC © Hull Museums

2. Ice ages

The Quaternary glaciation: 2,588,00 YA to the present

The Quaternary glaciation started around 2,588,000 years ago (YA) and is ongoing. The dating of its start is based on the formation of the Arctic ice cap. The Quaternary glaciation itself consists of a sequence of glacial and interglacial periods and we are living in the most recent of its interglacial periods i.e. a warm spell between ice ages.

The Last Glacial Period (LGP): 115,000 to 12,000 YA

The Last Glacial Period (LGP), known colloquially as the last ice age, covers the period 115,000 to 12,000 years ago. The LGP is just part of the larger sequence of glacial and interglacial periods known as the Quaternary glaciation (see above). During this last glacial period there have been alternating episodes of glacier advance and retreat.

Last Glacial Maximum (LGM): 33,000 to 12,000 YA

The most recent period of glacier advance, when ice reached its furthest extent, is called the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). Ice sheets covered much of North America and Northern Europe leading to a large drop in sea levels. The ice sheets began to grow 33,000 years ago and maximum coverage was reached between 26,500 and 20,000 years ago. At this point all of Scotland, most of Ireland and Wales and England north of a line from the Wash to the Bristol Channel was under ice. South of the ice the land was covered by permafrost with scattered glaciers and ice sheets at high points further south.

During the last glacial maximum, 26,500 and 20,000 years ago, the sea level was about 125 meters (about 410 feet) lower than it is today. After about 20,000 years ago deglaciation commenced in the Northern Hemisphere, and the ice cap began to retreat north, causing sea levels to rise.

The Holocene: 11,650 YA to the present day

Relevant both as a geological epoch and in the timeline of glaciation, the Holocene is the most recent geological epoch and the one we’re all still living in today. In Britain it correlates to the withdrawal of the ice sheets from the entire country.

As the ice sheets withdrew, Britain continued to be part of the continent of Europe, joined by an extensive area referred to as Doggerland. With the withdrawal of the ice and the rise of sea levels, Doggerland was flooded, creating what we now call the North Sea and the English Channel, a process which was complete by about 8,000 years ago.

Bone-bead necklace, part of the finds from Skara Brae, c. 3100 to 2500 BC Skara Brae, Orkney, Scotland © The Trustees of the British Museum

3. Human culture timelines

Human archaeology and ethnography uses what is called the ‘three age’ system, dividing the prehistory of humans into three broad categories – stone age, bronze age, iron age – according to the type of tools found in find sites.

It’s surprising to learn that this schema is 200 years old. It was developed by Christian Thomsen, director of the Royal Museum of Nordic Antiquities in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the 1820s. Thomsen wanted to categorise objects in his collection chronologically according to the main medium used for tool making in each era, and his collection suggested that stone tools came first, then bronze, then iron.

In 1865 the British archaeologist and ethnographer John Lubbock sub-divided the stone age into two, the old stone age or paleolithic (from the Greek paleo meaning old and lithos meaning stone) and the new stone age or neolithic (from the Greek neo meaning new and lithos). Almost immediately the British archaeologist Hodder Westropp suggested an intermediary stage, the middle stone age or mesolithic (from the Greek meso meaning middle and lithos meaning stone), which is still used but is a little more controversial.

Finally, it was realised that the huge extent of the so-called ‘paleolithic’ itself needed to be subdivided, eventually into 3 stages, the lower, middle and upper, which were proposed in the 1880s. And so we find ourselves with the following schema:

  1. Stone Age: 
    • Paleolithic 3.3 million years ago to 15,000 YA
      • Lower Paleolithic: 3 million to 300,000 years ago
      • Middle Paleolithic: 300,000 to 30,000 years ago
      • Upper Paleolithic 50,000 to 12,000 YA
    • Mesolithic: 15,000 to 5,000 years ago
    • Neolithic: 5,000 to
  2. Bronze Age 5300 years ago to 3200 YA
  3. Iron Age to (depends on region)

Two reservations

1. It’s worth emphasising that this entire system works well in Europe and some parts of Asia but doesn’t far at all with human developments in Africa, the Americas or far Asia. In many parts of the world there was no Iron Age at all, for example in Pre-Columbian America and the prehistory of Australia.

2. The term Megalithic does not refer to a period of time, but only describes the use of large stones by ancient peoples from any period.

Now let’s look at the ages in a bit more detail:

Fine jadeitite axe-head made from material quarried in the high Italian Alps, c. 4500 to 3500 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum

Paleolithic or Old Stone Age: 3.3 million years ago to 15,000 YA

Paleolithic indicates the fact that from the dawn of the first proto-humans who used any kinds of tools through to the discovery of metal smelting, all human species used tools made from stone, particularly flint blades and axes. The paleolithic covers a vast period of time, from the earliest known use of stone tools by hominids c. 3.3 million years ago to the start of the Holocene era, about 12,000 years ago. It covers 99% of the period of human technological prehistory. For that entire period humans appear to have been roaming bands of hunter-gatherers living off the land.

As mentioned, as long ago as the 1880s it was found necessary to subdivide the Paleolithic into three:

Lower Paleolithic: 3 million to 300,000 years ago

The Lower Paleolithic is the earliest subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. It spans the period from around 3 million years ago when the first evidence for stone tool production and use by hominids appears in the archaeological record until around 300,000 years ago.

I was a bit puzzled by use of lower and upper until I equated this with the physical location of the finds with the older findings being literally lower down in the earth, and more recent findings being less deep or uppermost.

Middle Paleolithic: 300,000 to 30,000 years ago

The Middle Paleolithic is the second subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age as it is understood in Europe, Africa and Asia. Anatomically modern humans (i.e. Homo sapiens) are believed to have emerged in Africa around 300,000 years ago. Around 125,000 years ago they began migrating out of Africa and slowly replaced earlier pre-existent Homo species such as the Neanderthals and Homo erectus.

The use of fire became widespread for the first time in human prehistory during the Middle Paleolithic and humans began to cook their food about 250,000 years ago.

The later part of the period saw the development of a range of new tools: about 90,000 years ago harpoons were invented which brought fish into human diets. Microliths or small stone tools or points were invented around 70,000 to 65,000 YA and were essential to the invention of bows and spear throwers.

Upper Paleolithic 50,000 to 12,000 years ago

The Upper Paleolithic or Late Stone Age is the third and last subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. About 50,000 years ago there was a marked increase in the diversity of artifacts. In Africa, bone artifacts and the first art appear in the archaeological record.

The early modern humans who migrated out of Africa and into Europe about 50,000 years ago, commonly referred to as the Cro-Magnons, left sophisticated stone tools, carved and engraved pieces on bone, ivory and antler, cave paintings and Venus figurines.

The distinct species Homo neanderthalensis, which had first emerged in the fossil record 400,000 years ago and lived widely across Europe and Asia, continued to live for a very long time – as long as 10,000 years – alongside the new incomers Homo sapiens. Then, abruptly, Neanderthals disappear completely from the fossil record 40,000 years ago, leaving archaeologists to speculate about the reasons for their sudden disappearance to this day.

This upper paleolithic revolution which kicked off 50,000 years ago saw many innovations. It witnessed the first evidence of human fishing. New implements were invented: for example, the spear thrower (30,000 years ago), the net (around 29,000 YA), the bolas, the bow and arrow (30,000 to 25,000 YA). From this period date the oldest examples of ceramic art, for example, the Venus of Dolní Věstonice (about 29,000 YA). Members of the European early Upper Paleolithic culture known as the Aurignacian had even developed lunar calendars by 30,000 YA.

Human populations

A really important fact to grasp is that human populations during this period were tiny. The entire population of Europe between 40,000 and 16,000 years ago was probably somewhere 4,000 and 6,000 individuals.

Bronze Age sun pendant, 1000 to 800 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Mesolithic (in Britain): 12,000 to 6,000 years ago

The Paleolithic is said to end with the end of the last ice age and the spread back into Europe of human communities which developed new tools and techniques. The period from the end of the ice age to the arrival of metal smelting 4,500 years ago was initially simply referred to as the Neolithic or new stone age because of the proliferation of new techniques.

But, as we’ve seen, archaeologists almost immediately felt the need to define an interim period between the end of the Old Stone Age and the final period of innovation – hence the creation of the term mesolithic, which refers to the final period of hunter-gatherer cultures in Europe and Western Asia, between the end of the Last Glacial Maximum and the Neolithic Revolution. In Europe it spans roughly 15,000 to 5,000 years ago.

Precise dating of the Mesolithic varies between areas because they were impacted by a) deglaciation and the creation of newly habitable land and b) the arrival of the agricultural revolution, at widely varying times. Thus the mesolithic is said to start in warm Greece around 15,000 years ago but in chilly Britain only around 12,000 YA.

Broadly speaking the Mesolithic is associated with a decline in the group hunting of large animals in favour of a broader hunter-gatherer way of life, and the development of more sophisticated and typically smaller lithic tools and weapons than the heavy-chipped equivalents typical of the Paleolithic.

The Neolithic (in Britain): 6,000 to 4,500 years ago (2,500 BC)

The Neolithic is now used to refer to the period after the ice age when human society was transformed by the advent of agriculture with its enormous cultural, social and economic consequences, but most tools continued to be made of stone, albeit of high levels of sophistication.

The advent of agriculture is sometimes referred to as the Neolithic Revolution. It saw the wide-scale transition of many human cultures from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and settlement, with the domestication and breeding of edible grasses and farm animals. With settlement came villages and then towns. We have religious records which point to polytheism.

Some archaeologists refer to a ‘Neolithic package’ in which they include farming, herding, polished stone axes, timber longhouses and pottery. Farming formed the basis for centralised administrations and political structures, hierarchical ideologies, depersonalised systems of knowledge (that’s to say, writing), densely populated settlements, specialisation and division of labour, more trade, the development of non-portable art and architecture and greater property ownership.

The agricultural revolution spread from its origins in the Middle East, through Turkey, across Greece and slowly into central and western Europe. Different sites in the Middle East point to different dates for the domestication of different plants or animals but the process was underway by as long ago as 12,000 years ago.

The diffusion across Europe, from the Fertile Crescent through Anatolia, across the Aegean and central Europe to Britain, took some 3,000 years (9500 to 6000 years ago). It is calculated to have spread at a speed of about 1 kilometre a year, but it was patchy, spreading to some (fertile) areas, moving round mountains, stalling, then suddenly jumping again.

Interestingly, there is evidence of some communities keeping to the mesolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle for very long periods after the neolithic package arrived, for as long as a thousand years! Archaeologists call such societies are called ‘subneolithic’, the ‘sub’ just meaning hanging on after the main era had ended.

One of the mind-blowing aspects of the neolithic revolution is that all the evidence suggests it made human beings measurably worse off! Many of the cultivated crops (wheat, barley, maize) are deficient in vitamins and minerals and relying on them and cow or goat milk to the exclusion of other elements in a diet can be very harmful. All the archaeological evidence suggests that the Neolithic Revolution led to much more limited diets and poorer nutrition. Human height decreased by an average of 5 inches! Apparently human height didn’t return to pre-neolithic levels until the 20th century.

In addition, close habitation with animals led infectious diseases to jump the species boundary. Smallpox and influenza are just two diseases we got from animals. And higher population densities, living with poor sanitation led to tainted water supplies and the usual diseases of diarrhoea and dysentery, typhoid and cholera.

Jared Diamond suggests that the status of women declined with the adoption of agriculture because women in farming societies typically have more pregnancies and are expected to do more demanding work than women in hunter-gatherer societies.

Having read widely about it, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Neolithic Revolution was a catastrophe for most humans.

The Bronze Age (in Britain): 2,500 BC to 800 BC

Bronze is produced by smelting copper and alloying it with tin, arsenic, or other metals to strengthen it i.e. use it to make stronger, more durable tools or weapons.

In Eurasia the development of bronze tools definitely follows the final refinement of stone ones, and supersedes them. When exactly this happened varies largely from region to region and even from site to site within regions.

In Britain the advent of the Bronze Age is generally agreed to be marked by the arrival of the so-called Beaker culture, so named for the sudden appearance of beaker- or bell-shaped bowls in graves. In Britain the Bronze Age is subdivided into an earlier phase (2500 to 1200 BC) and a later one (1200 to 700 BC).

The Beaker people appear to have known how to smelt copper from their first arrival but it is only around 2150 BC that there is evidence of them smelting copper with other metals (generally tin) to make bronze.

A 2017 study suggests that the Beaker People almost completely replaced the island’s earlier inhabitants, with an estimated 90% of Britain’s neolithic gene pool being replaced! That’s to say, the people who built Stonehenge were substantially wiped out and superseded.

Primarily the Bronze Age is characterised by the widespread use of bronze tools and implements. It is usually accompanied by most of the traits of ‘civilisation’, including craft, urban centres, crafting of precious objects, widespread trade. In the Middle East and Greece we know it was accompanied by the worship of ethnic gods.

Devon and Cornwall were major sources of tin for much of western Europe and the earliest Greek and Roman historians refer to trade with these remote islands which brought the ore to the Mediterranean heartlands.

Bronze twin horse-snake hybrid from hoard, 1200 to 1000 BC. Kallerup, Thy, Jutland, Denmark © National Museum of Denmark

The Iron Age (in Britain): 800 BC to 43 AD

The Iron Age in Britain is dated by the first finds of iron tools in burial sites (around 800 BC) to the arrival of the Romans (43 AD).

The Iron Age is characterised by substantial population growth which allowed increasing social specialisation in societies living in large settlements. In Britain there was a proliferation of large hill forts. There is sophisticated social organisation, for example a class system overseen by a king and the implementation of taxation. There is extensive trade, nationally and internationally, leading to burial sites rich in high value goods, sometimes transported across great distances.

Also a good deal of immigration with entire tribes moving into and settling territories. Whether this involved conquest or peaceful ‘diffusion’ is debated to this day. When the Romans arrived they found a land divided among tribes with a highly developed sense of identity, regional allegiance, names and kings.

The Iron Age is said to end when writing begins. Even though the same kinds of tools are used, a culture has clearly entered a new phase when it enters the historical record. But obviously this happened at different times in different regions.

Thus in the Ancient Near East the Iron Age is taken to end with the start of the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BC, as it enters history in the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus. In Western Europe the Iron Age is ended by the Roman conquest, which was established by 100 AD. By contrast in Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe that the Romans did not reach, the Iron Age is said to have continued until the start of the Viking Age in about 800 AD.

As the Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum strongly indicates, the later Iron Age was characterised by increasing warfare and social strife. Skeletons show signs of multiple injuries. Average life expectancy at birth was around 25. Into this culture arrived the Romans with their writing, education, towns, roads and laws.

P.S. A new geological era – the Anthropocene?

Remember how I said we’re only interested in two geological epochs, the Pleistocene and the Holocene. Well, there is a new, third category: many scientists are pushing for the scientific community to recognise that the Holocene has ended and we have entered a new epoch, to be named the Anthropocene.

The idea is that this new era should be dated to mark the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. With widespread acceptance that manmade global warming is having (and will continue to have) a significant effect on the world’s ecosystems, you can see the logic of arguing that we live in an entirely unprecedented era. But to date, none of the official bodies which recognise the geological eras have accepted the anthropocene and there is ongoing debate about when  it should be said to have started.

The problem with our over-documented, over-determined time is that too much has happened. Since Hiroshima we live in The Atomic Age. And since the end of the Second World War we are also all living in an age of rapid technological and social change, which some historians call the Great Acceleration.

Or should we be going further back, should the start of the anthropocene be lined up with the start of the Industrial Revolution in 1710 or 1770 (depending on which precise technical discoveries you prioritise)?

Or, in a massive leap, should we go right back to the start of the neolithic revolution described above, which is when human beings first began to have a measurable impact on their environment? Which would make it identical the current term, the Holocene?

The debate is ongoing and there’s no shortage of candidates but if we stick to permanent markers which are being laid down now and which geologists will find in a million years time, then apparently radioactivity from the nuclear tests is now embedded in ice cores and a thin layer of microplastics has been laid down on the ocean beds, the kind of thing which 100% fulfil the geological criteria.

Personally I think it should be the 1780s and the invention of new, more efficient steam engines, as it was this breakthrough – more than agriculture itself – which set us on the course of greater and greater reliance on energy, first coal, then oil and gas whose use, we all now know, has led to our runaway proliferation, our destruction of every ecosystem we come into contact with, and what looks likely to be massive and irreversible effects on the entire global climate.

Will Stonehenge, built as a result of the neolithic agricultural revolution, survive long enough to see the world transformed by the manmade global warming which is that revolution’s long-term legacy? (Photo © English Heritage)


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The world of Stonehenge @ the British Museum

This is an awe-inspiring exhibition, in at least two senses of the word:

  • it is huge and includes a whopping 430 exhibits, far more than the human mind can reasonably process and relate to
  • and it chronicles the strange and fugitive world of late Stone Age and Bronze Age spirituality, life and society, over a huge time period and a very wide geographical range

Stonehenge © English Heritage

The exhibition is about much more than Stonehenge. The Stonehenge material represents only about 10 or 15% of the content. Sure, Stonehenge provides the central structure to the exhibition, but timewise it covers a much longer period, opening nearly five thousand years before the earliest workings at Stonehenge, in around 10,000 BC, and ending thousands of years after it had ceased to be an active religious monument, about 1000 BC.

Similarly the exhibition isn’t restricted to the stones and burials mounds in Wiltshire but ranges far, far further afield, introducing us to breath-taking archaeological discoveries from Wales and Ireland, from religious offerings at Grimes Graves in Norfolk to a blizzard of recent archaeological discoveries made in the remote Orkney Islands. There are countless strange and haunting objects like the beautiful carved balls, about the size of a tennis ball but carved from stone with a variety of geometric markings, made in eastern Scotland. There are objects from sites in Brittany, north Germany and Denmark, Spain and as far afield as Switzerland and Italy, all accompanied by elaborate commentary and explication.

So the story of Stonehenge is just the central thread or scaffold which the curators use to structure a far-reaching investigation of all aspects of late Stone Age and Bronze Age cultures, not only in Britain but further afield. As the catalogue puts it:

Stonehenge itself acts as a useful gateway and reference point for exploring the chronology of this ancient world. (Catalogue page 18)

It’s tempting to call it a portrait of an age or a window into a distant world except that, as the exhibition makes very clear, in the ten or so millennia it covers, Britain and Europe moved through a whole series of eras and worlds, each with their own distinctive economic, technological and artistic characteristics.

Keeping track of the multitudinous series of changes, trying to process the 430 objects with their huge variety of shapes and sizes and meanings and contexts, while also trying to keep a grip on the key stages of Stonehenge’s evolution, proves a daunting challenge. It was too much for me to really take it all in but I found it helped if I kept in mind the three really huge changes or revolutions in human society which occurred during the period 10,000 to 1,000 BC.

Three revolutions

1. Britain becomes an island

10,000 years ago Britain was joined to the continent by an extensive body of land. To put it another way, what are now the British Isles were then one more wiggly peninsula sticking out into the Atlantic, like Scandinavia or Spain. This extensive stretch of land is called Doggerland by modern scholars (after Dogger Bank which was once a stretch of high land and is now a notable shallow area of the North Sea). Modern research suggests it was a fertile area of tundra which was populated by large mammals and humans who would have access to good fishing.

Around 6,200 BC this vast stretch of land was flooded, slowly at first and latterly by a series of tidal waves, separating Britain from the continent. The people who lived on it must have moved west into Britain or east into Europe unaware that their descendants would become cut off from each other.

Map of north-west Europe about 10,000 years ago showing the extensive area of low-lying land which joined Britain to Holland and Denmark and which archaeologists refer to as Doggerland

2. The agricultural revolution

After the great separation, Britain was inhabited by a tiny number of hunter gatherers, maybe as few as 5,000. Imagine the native Americans of North America moving carefully through the forests of ancient Britain, living in awe of the natural world.

Then, about 6,000 years ago, the culture of farming arrived in Britain, marking the beginning of the Neolithic period (New Stone Age). There has been prolonged debate in the world of archaeology about whether the secrets of agriculture were spread to the native inhabitants or whether it was newcomers and immigrants who brought it with them. Modern DNA analysis of bones suggests the latter.

Agriculture can support a far larger population than hunting and gathering. Agriculture also produces surpluses which can feed non-productive members of the community, in the classic model of the Fertile Crescent, kings, priests and soldiers. There’s no direct evidence for any of these groups but the immense amount of physical labour required to quarry, transport and erect the stones of Stonehenge a) required the availability of people who weren’t required for agricultural work and b) someone to conceive, design, organise and supervise the work.

Each of the huge sarsen stones in the henge required at least 1,000 people to transport from their source 25 kilometres away. It took generations to complete the full design. What kind of society was able to do that?

As well as social change, the advent of agriculture leads to a profound psychological and cultural transformation. Hunter gatherers move through the landscape, placating its animals and spirits, knowing they are as transient as all the other forest creatures. With agriculture come roots, in multiple senses. People now believed that they owned the land, and monuments like the henge became markers of communal ownership and identity. In turn they became special places for burying the dead and for interring objects related to them. Multiple layers of meaning build up around ancestral land in a way which wasn’t conceivable for the hunter gatherers who moved through it without leaving a trace.

3. Bronze Age

The Bronze Age in Britain lasted from around 2500 to 800 BC. It was heralded by the arrival of the Beaker People, so-called because suddenly British graves are full of beakers of a size and shape which weren’t found earlier. The Bronze Age is generally sub-divided into an earlier phase (2500 to 1200 BC) and a later one (1200 to 800 BC). It is followed by the so-called Iron Age.

The arrival of the knowledge of how to smelt metals and shape them into treasures and weapons, about 4,500 years ago, transformed British society. In a nutshell, society became more selfish and violent. We know from their grave goods that neolithic peoples had some treasured possessions, axeheads, necklaces of teeth and the like. But the existence of Stonehenge and other comparable structures suggest that their culture or religion was communal and led to the creation of shared, communal edifices.

The latter part of the exhibition shows how all this changed with the advent of precious metals. Relatively small objects acquired immense value. In a sense religion became personalised. Instead of going into the creation of communal buildings which embodied shared beliefs and rituals, metal goods allowed religious feelings to be inscribed on images and objects which could be owned, shared, traded and gifted. The solstice positions which took such an immense effort to inscribe into a vast building and into the landscape, 500 years later was being inscribed into shiny portable objects. The entire concept of the religious and spiritual must have fundamentally changed.

And so Stonehenge fell out of use. It still existed as an awe-inspiring testament to the past, like a great cathedral, but now instead of being the focus of communal beliefs, it becomes surrounded by graves of the newly rich with all their precious metal goods, much like medieval kings and princes wanting to be buried inside a cathedral, for the prestige. The emphasis changed from building communal monuments to raising mounds in cemeteries for the purpose of celebrating powerful individuals. The 40 plus burial mounds which surround Stonehenge indicate a switch of focus away from community to family and status.

Not only is gold portable, it is stealable. The exhibition ends with a corridor packed with evidence of a new wave of violence which swept through Britain, testifying to the rise of a more selfish, fracture, war-torn society.

Earlier sections of the show displayed primitive but beautiful objects in a variety of decorative styles. The corridor of death showcases lots of swords and skeletons displaying signs of violent ends. One of the most startling things in the whole exhibition is a wall of skulls and bones, embedded in something like dried mud and attached to a very big panel stuck on the wall. It looks like an art installation but it is here to memorialise a big battle fought at the river Tollense by up to 4,000 men, aged between 20 and 40 sometime in the 1200s BC.

The wall of bones from the battlefield of Tollense, north Germany, where a major battle took place in the 13th century BC, used to indicate the way the advent of metal smelting signalled the descent into a more acquisitive, violent society

The final corridor of the exhibition is full of swords and shields and battle helmets and skulls with holes in them. A new age had dawned.

Stonehenge’s complexity

Use of Stonehenge as a chassis for the show adds multiple further layers of complexity because Stonehenge – on the face of it the series of concentric stone circles familiar to all of us – is, in archaeological terms, itself fantastically complicated: not only is there lots that is still uncertain about the henge itself, but it lies at the heart of what, with every passing year, is being revealed as a bewilderingly complex landscape covered with ancient ruins, burials, tracks, pits, roads, barrows and so on.

What we call Stonehenge is a series of monuments, of concentric rings of standing stones, earthworks and ditches believed to have been built and extended over a 1,000 year period between 3000 to 2000 BC. Stonehenge itself consists of an outer ring of vertical sarsen standing stones, each around 13 feet high, seven feet wide, and weighing around 25 tons, topped by connecting horizontal lintel stones. Within this circle is a ring of smaller bluestones (though I can’t say they look any different in colour from the outer sarsen stones). Inside these are free-standing trilithons, two bulkier vertical Sarsens joined by one lintel. The stone circle is surrounded by a circular earth bank and ditch which have been dated to about 3100 BC. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the first bluestones were raised between 2400 and 2200 BC.

Stonehenge © English Heritage

But there’s a lot more to it than that. Right inside the ditch and bank is a circle of 56 pits, each about a metre in diameter, known as the Aubrey holes. These may have contained standing timbers creating a timber circle or they may have been used to erect a bluestone circle. No conclusive evidence exists either way. Both at the immediate site and in the area around the henge there are numerous other archaeological sites and remains, many of which remain puzzling.

Recent discoveries

A little further afield over 20 burial sites and barrows have been identified, plus the Lesser Cursus and the structure called Coneybury Henge, and new discoveries are continually being made. Only recently has the ‘avenue’ which leads off from the north-east of the circle been traced all the way to the River Avon and here, in 2008 a previously unknown circular area was discovered which probably housed four further stones, most likely as a marker for the starting point of the ceremonial ‘avenue’.

In 2014 investigations using ground-penetrating radar equipment revealed as many as seventeen new monuments around the nearby settlement of Durrington, 2 miles north-east of Stonehenge, which itself has been shown to be a highly populated centre in the period between 2600 and 2400 BC.

In 2020 a geophysical survey at Durrington uncovered a number of pits, some natural sink holes and others apparently modified to hold massive timbers, interpreted as belonging to a 1.2-mile-wide circle 10-metre pits of Neolithic age. If this interpretation is correct, this would be Britain’s largest prehistoric monument.

In 2021 initial excavations to build a long tunnel in which to bury A303 have revealed a treasure trove of Bronze Age finds. Basically the entire area is riddled with burials and evidence of numerous other buildings, banks and ditches and barrows. It is holy ground, criss-crossed with memories, legacies, multiple layers of succeeding generations and cultures.

Dagger from the Bush Barrow grave goods (with replica handle) 1950 to 1600 BC. Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. Photograph by David Bukach © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

The sun

Throughout the changing eras, the curators emphasise the mystical and religious aspects of the  changing populations and cultures. At the heart of many of these belief was the sun. Obviously the sun has been worshipped by almost all societies as the source of warmth and light, but it has a special significance for agricultural societies which need light and heat to grow the crops on which they depend and so a central theme running through the exhibition is the importance of images and symbols of, and materials believed to be connected with, the sun.

Stonehenge itself was aligned in such a way that the north-east ‘entrance’ to the site precisely matched the direction of the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset, something which is open to all kinds of interpretations. Some people think it was a device for measuring the solstices, for marking time and agricultural processes, or maybe it had a religious purpose i.e. was used to invoke the sun or celebrate the advent of spring. Maybe it was a way of humanising, of bringing down to a human scale, the vast impersonal forces of nature. All these theories and more abound.

And it wasn’t a one-off. The curators describe a number of other neolithic henges and constructions which were deliberately orientated around the angle of the sun at its solstices, for example the communal enclosure at Larkhill which was built some 700 years before Stonehenge. Knowledge of the sun’s movements and worship of it at specially constructed sites existed for almost a thousand years before building began at Stonehenge.

The sun acquired a kind of new importance or urgency with the arrival of metal smelting at the start of the Bronze Age. The curators explain that burnished metal reflected sunlight and could be thought of as not only reflecting it but in some sense capturing it and partaking of its qualities. None more so than gold and the later part of the exhibition is awash with dramatic gold jewellery, necklaces, torcs and helmets. These included the objects known as lunulae, from the Latin meaning ‘little moon’, crescent-shaped early Bronze Age necklaces or collars.

Lunula, 2400 to 2000 BC from Blessington, County Wicklow, Republic of Ireland. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The wall labels tell us that the inner and outer edges were very finely decorated but the main body of the lunula was left plain in order to better reflect sunlight. If you own an object, a bracelet, necklace, mirror which reflects sunlight, do you in some sense own that bit of sunlight?

Religion and spirituality

Huge stones like the standing sarsens at Stonehenge are commonly interpreted by modern scholars as connecting the earth and the sky – bigger, higher and heavier than any human being, connecting human time and celestial time.

But it wasn’t the big shiny things that took my imagination, it was the eerie and peripheral objects. And I warmed more to many of the pre-metal age objects, less flash and shiny, but more earthy and mysterious.

In the fen country of Somerset a neolithic walkway made of wood has been discovered. Crossed beams of coppiced alder wood which does not rot when it is waterlogged supported a narrow walk of planks. It has been dated to 3,800 BC. So far so practical. But it seems that well-hewn axe heads and other precious objects were deliberately included in its foundations – offerings to the water gods or vouchsafing the builders’ seriousness?

General view of the first part of the exhibition showing the remains of a neolithic wooden trackway across Avalon marshes in Somerset, c.3800 BC. Next to it is a case displaying some of the axe heads found at its base. On the wall on the right is an animation showing oxen and a cart they would have pulled, reconstructed from skeletons found in a neolithic grave.

Five highlights

The curators are at pains to highlight a handful of really outstanding loans which lift the show into the blockbuster category. Thus, in chronological order:

The Bad Dürrenberg shaman

One of the earliest cases hold the deer skull and antlers and necklaces of teeth and other accoutrements associated with the skeleton of a woman buried near the modern German town of Bad Dürrenberg and a haunting artist’s impression of what she would have looked like.

Artist’s impression of the Bad Dürrenberg shaman in her full regalia c.7000 BC © State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt

This woman was aged between 25 and 35 when she died some 9,000 years ago and was honoured with a very rich burial indicating the privileged place she held in her society. She was buried in a sitting position with the body of a baby between her legs. Both bodies were covered in ochre paint. Why?

The grave contained a great diversity of animal remains including a necklace made from the teeth of many species and a polished boar tooth talisman, all presumably with symbolic importance long ago lost.

Analysis of the woman’s skeleton has revealed that her uppermost cervical vertebra was malformed and that blood vessels in the lower skull area could have been spatially restricted. Or, as the curators put it, she would have had the ability to make herself faint and ‘to enter trance states’.  This rare ability, they guess, was the cause of the respect with which she was interred.

This is the oldest burial site in all Germany, but the exhibition correlates it with similar finds of hollowed out deer skulls found at the neolithic treasure trove of Star Carr in North Yorkshire. Headdresses were made by removing the lower half of the deer skull, cleaning away the brain and blood and boring two holes in the bone, probably for straps, so that the wearer could become half human, half deer, and – presumably – able to communicate with the animal world or perform spells and magic to propitiate it.

Seahenge

In 1998 the tops of a circle of tree trunks was spotted emerging from the mud at the coastal Norfolk village of Holme next the sea. Archaeologists set to work and we now know it was built around 4050 BC on a saltmarsh, at a position halfway between sea and land. It was quickly nicknamed Seahenge or the ‘Stonehenge of the Sea’.

Seahenge consists of a large upturned tree stump surrounded by 54 wooden posts. The oak posts, some up to 3 metre tall, were tightly packed in a 6.6 metre diameter circle with their bark-covered sides facing outwards. Inside the circle was a large oak tree oak, its roots upturned towards the heavens like branches. Collectively the circle creates a giant tree. A narrow entranceway was aligned on the rising midsummer sun and it is thought the monument was used for ritual purposes.

Seahenge at the time of excavation © Wendy George

Nobody knows why it was built where it was or what its purpose was. Perhaps the central upturned trunk was used in funerary rituals to support a dead body. Perhaps entering the circular shrine brought worshippers closer to the otherworld.

it is one of the coups of the exhibition that many (not all) of the original trunks have been brought to London and re-erected in the British Museum. It is accompanied by a special soundscape commissioned from Rob St John, which plays quietly from concealed loudspeakers so that you walk into (and then out of) its ambient zone.

The Nebra sky disc

The Nebra Sky Disc from about 1,600 BC is the oldest surviving representation of the cosmos anywhere in the world. It is a phenomenal and awe-inspiring object, one of the top treasures in the exhibition.

Sky Disc, Germany, about 1600 BC. Photo courtesy of the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt, Juraj Lipták

The shapes of beaten gold are supposed to represent the moon in its various phases. The dots clearly represent stars and experts have realised that the distinctive rosette of stars between the round and crescent moon represents the Pleiades. these stars play a key role in an ancient rule, known from a 2,700 year old Babylonian text, that allowed the shorter lunar year to be synchronised with the longer solar year. the rule is that a leap month should be added every third year if a crescent moon a few days old appears next to the Pleiades in the springtime sky.

Other treasures

3,500 years ago the appearance of new objects and symbols in a range of locations across Europe suggest that a more complex model of the cosmos was emerging. In Scandinavia images of the sun, the horse and the ship acquired religious force. In central Europe two waterbirds connected by a boat-shaped body below a sun became widespread. Examples of both are included from a hoard found in Denmark and dating from around 1,000 BC.

A grave within spitting distance of Stonehenge, the Bush Barrow site, includes the ‘gold lozenge’ which is the finest example of Bronze Age gold craftsmanship ever found in Britain, buried across the chest of the Bush Barrow chieftain.

The gold lozenge of the Bush Barrow grave goods, 1950 to 1600 BC Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. Photographs taken by David Bukach. © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

The exhibition includes two rare and remarkable gold cone-shaped hats from around 1600 BC, the Schifferstadt gold hat from Germany and the Avanton gold cone from France. They are decorated with elaborate solar motifs that reflect the religious importance of the sun during this era. Only four examples of these hats are known to have survived. Serving as headgear during ceremonies or rituals, perhaps they endowed the wearer with divine or otherworldly status.

The Schifferstadt gold hat, c. 1600 BC, which was found with three bronze axes Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer

Respect

I attended the press launch of the exhibition where we were treated to an address by the curator, Neil Wilkins. He said many interesting things about the purpose of the exhibition and some of the star exhibits, but one stood out for me. He said that among its many purposes, one aim of the exhibition was to introduce us to specific ancient individuals. He said he and his fellow curators wanted us to meet these people and take them on their own terms and try to enter their world(s).

He was referring to the powerful image of the Bad Dürrenberg shaman, but to others as well. To the man widely called the Amesbury Archer, a man whose grave, found close to the henge, contained the richest array of items ever found in a Bronze Age burial site in the UK. No fewer than 39 of these objects – copper knives, gold ornaments and flint tools – are in the show. Even more arresting is that modern DNA techniques show that the archer originally came from modern-day Switzerland or Germany. What an odyssey he had been on!

Another treasure I haven’t mentioned yet is the Burton Agnes drum. This is a carved chalk cylinder or ‘drum’ dated from 3005 to 2890 BC which was found in 2015 near Burton Agnes in the East Riding of Yorkshire. The Museum has described it as ‘one of the most significant ancient objects ever found on the British Isles’ because of the skill of its creation and decoration. But the real point is that it was found in the grave of three children who were carefully buried so that they appear to have been touching and maybe even holding hands. And the ‘drum’ contains in its top three perfectly drilled holes, presumably relating to the dead children. What? Why?

These are the kind of people Wilkins was describing in his address, people like us and deserving of our respect.

This, I reflected as I listened to his presentation, seems to me to mark a shift in museum culture. God knows I’ve been to numerous exhibitions and museums over the decades and seen countless skulls and skeletons of the ancient dead. But Wilkins’ address made explicit a new mood, a new feeling which runs through the exhibition and which gently brings out the humanity of all these long dead people.

These are not exhibits, they are people. Subtly, alongside the wood and metal remains, we are introduced to individuals. Due to DNA analysis we know more about them than ever before. We know that the Amesbury Archer was buried along with his great grandson. We know about the physical complaint which was the Bad Dürrenberg shaman’s blessing and maybe her curse. We can accurately date the three children found with the Agnes Burton drum.

It may sound silly but I found Wilkins’ words very moving. He was indicating the way that the exhibition may well document the big social changes over this huge range of time, and the awesome human effort involved in creating the henge, and the cosmological beliefs associated with it; it certainly gives exhaustive scholarly explanations of the hundreds of objects on display – all done in what you could call the traditional museological style.

But at the same time it introduces us to a number of long-dead individuals who, although we don’t know their names or ethnicity or lives or histories, doesn’t make them any the less human and valid. They lived their lives in this country, among family and friends and community, struggled to find food, to survive in an often hostile environment, crafted religious and domestic objects, created communal buildings and edifices, had deep experiences, laughed, cried, got sick and died.

And I found this idea, that transcending the information and the countless objects it contains, this exhibition enables personal encounters with people dead nearly 10,000 years, far more moving than any of the more obvious symbols of neolithic and bronze age spirituality. Call it the religion of humanity.

Stonehenge at dawn © English Heritage


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Peru: a journey in time @ the British Museum

This is a magnificent exhibition. I think the British Museum is my favourite museum/gallery in London, not only because of the beauty of the building, its sense of size and spaciousness, the awesome breadth and range of its holdings – but because it also combines two of my favourite subjects, art and deep history: art in the widest sense, from the high art of imperial courts to the folk art of Inuit or African tribes; and ‘history’ meaning 50 or 100 years ago, but 5,000 or even 50,000 years ago, the full depth and breadth of all human history.

Copper and shell funerary mask, Peru, Moche, AD 100 to 800. Museo de Arte de Lima, Peru. Donated by James Reid

What

In fact the quality of the objects on display in this exhibition is one of its most striking points. I’ve been to scores of exhibitions about ancient cultures and often the curators are forced, through lack of archaeological evidence, to display shards of pottery or fragments of swords and so on and reconstruct their appearance.

By striking contrast, I don’t think I’ve ever been to an exhibition where the quality of every single piece on display was so high. Peru: a journey in time is an exhibition of physically complete, highly finished and dazzling masterpieces!

Kero drinking vessel with a painted scene showing a human figure wearing both Western and Inca attire, Colonial 18th century. © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

I was fascinated to learn that this is in large part because of the dry desert conditions of coastal Peru where a lot of its ancient cities were sited meant that all objects, even rugs and tapestries, remained beautifully preserved in the sand for centuries. Apparently these deserts are among the driest in the world, and the exhibition opens with a huge 4-minute video projected onto the wall showing aerial shots of (presumably a helicopter) flying over Amazon jungle, then the breath-taking Andes mountains, through winding river valleys and then, finally across the beautiful bone dry deserts and so to the sandy shoreline. I sat and watched the whole thing several times. It’s awesome.

The exhibition brings together over 40 objects transported from nine museums across Peru to join 80 other pieces from the British Museum’s own collection, many of them rarely if ever exhibited before, including beautiful pots and ceramics, gold headpieces and gauntlets, highly decorated fabrics used to wrap royal corpses and much more.

So it really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see such an extensive exhibition of such wonderful, beautiful objects from remote and ancient cultures most of us have never heard of.

Where

So where are talking? Right at the start the show features a big map showing the borders of modern Peru. I can’t find it anywhere online and this is the least worst available alternative. In the centre is the modern state of Peru with key archaeological sites highlighted. To the north is Ecuador, the north-east Colombia, to the east Brazil, to the south-east Bolivia.

Map of ancient sites in Peru

But the point is that, until a few hundred years ago, until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the 1530s, all the South American states didn’t exist, in fact the modern state of Peru didn’t come into existence until 200 years ago (and the Museum does point out that the exhibition is by way of celebrating Peru’s bicentennary).

Before the 1530s the central part of the west coast of South America was ruled by a succession of native states and empires, the mountains of the Andes were more sparsely populated, though containing some towns and holy sites, and the Amazon rainforest was inhabited by countless indigenous tribes who have left little or no trace.

When

As to when, the big, big revelation of this show is that the Incas, who most of us have heard about, were only the last and relatively short-lived of a whole series of empires which rose to eminence and ruled various parts of the mountain and coastal regions of what we now call Peru for centuries, the first empires dating from thousands of years BC.

As the co-curator of the exhibition, Cecilia Pardo, puts it:

‘While the Incas are one of the most well-known civilisations from Peru, they were actually relatively recent in terms of the long history of this region. We’ll be taking visitors back many thousands of years earlier.’

The Museum provides an illustrated timeline:

And the exhibition is arranged in simple chronological order, with a room (or, since the spaces are actually marked off by fine bead curtaining) a ‘space’ assigned to the six most important empires or cultures. Each one is introduced by a wall label giving a brief overview of the culture’s dates, rise and extent, cultural practices, a map showing that particular culture’s centres, ritual sites, and one or more big big photos of a key site.

The wall labels are just the right length, but it still requires an effort to get the timeline clear in your head, to try and remember the names of the successive cultures and then to remember the cultural practices associated with each.

Pottery vessel in the shape of a contorted body, Peru, Cupisnique,1200 to 500 BC. Museo de Arte de Lima. Donated by Petrus and Verónica Fernandini. Photo by Daniel Giannoni

The timeline can be summarised as:

  • 15,000 BC first humans arrive in South America
  • 2,500 to 1,800 BC first pottery remains
  • 1,200 to 200 BC Chavin culture
  • 900 to 200 BC Paracas culture
  • 200 BC to 650 AD Nasca culture
  • 100 to 800 AD Mosca
  • 600 to 900 AD Wari
  • 900 to 1400 AD coastal kingdom of Chimú
  • 1400 to 1533 Inca Empire

So the Inca ‘room’ is the last one in the show (well, there’s a kind of epilogue showing how some of the practices, patterns and designs of the earlier cultures linger on among peasants or high-end artists in modern Peru), and it goes heavy on the famous ruined city of Machu Picchu, with the usual breath-taking photos, architectural diagrams showing its structure and layout and so on. But we know about Macchu Picchu sitting atop its mountain, 8,000 feet above the tropical forest and the spectacular views which we routinely see in screensavers or travel brochures. (I’m always disappointed to be reminded that Machu Picchu, from the Quechua Indian language, simply means ‘old mountain’. As so often, the foreign words are so much more evocative than the bald English translation.)

But it’s the other spaces, devoted to the other cultures, which are the real revelation. Here they are in order with a few of the outstanding highlights.

1. Living landscapes

Introduction to the breath-taking but challenging environments of Peru, rainforest in the east, high Andes mountains, and desert down to the coast. Introduces ideas from the various cultures, suggesting how the peoples lived in tune with nature, developed agriculture, commerce and art, and their own theories of time and history, and of death and the afterlife.

2. Early cultures and the Chavin (1200 to 500 BC)

3. Life and death in the desert

How the Paracas and Nasca peoples lived along the south coast of Peru, one of the most arid places on the planet. the most outstanding achievement of the Nasca people couldn’t be included in the exhibition because it is the huge ‘geoglyphs’, outline shapes of animals which they carved in the desert. They did this by removing the top layer of earth and exposing the lighter sediment beneath to create stylised depictions of animals and other natural objects. And there aren’t just a handful: to date between nearly 100 new figures had been found with the use of drones and archaeologists believe there are more yet to be discovered.

The Monkey geoglyph, Nasca, Peru. ©Walter Wust / PROMPERÚ.

As to the Paracas, the standout thing here was their cult of severed heads. One of the biggest exhibits is a big tapestry aid flat in a case which you can stroll round. At first I took that busy pattern to be of stylised figures, a bit reminiscent of  the early video game, Space Invaders.

Mantle depicting mythical beings holding severed heads. Museo de Arte de Lima. Prado Family Bequest. Restored with a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project.

It was only when I looked closer that I realised every single one these figures was carrying in their hand a severed head. At first I thought this was a gruesome proof of human sacrifice comparable to the Aztec cult of cutting human hearts out of the defeated in battle. This seemed to be confirmed when in realised several of the pots in this section also depicted figures holding a rope tied to the top of a severed human head.

And then saw a set of wood carvings (rare survivals from the period which have been in the British Museum vaults for over a century, apparently, and never before been put on public display). These were of naked figures (we know they are naked because they had prominent wooden penises) again with thick rope around their necks.

The curator explained it all. In most societies war means unbridled violence between large armies, all too often rampaging across territory and considering it a valid war aim to kill all civilians, destroy all buildings and agriculture. Not so the Paracas. According to the curator, if conflict arose between groups, representatives were chosen to take part in something more like the games in the Roman amphitheatre. The losers were not killed there and then but submitted to this ritual of abasement and execution. The penises are important not as symbols of fertility but because they emphasise the captors’ naked status.

The losers were taken by boat to a holy island just off the coast, where were priests or religious officials who performed the beheading according to rituals. This explains why this section of the exhibition included a beautifully complete and detailed ceramic of a boat being sailed, with a fully dressed sailor at the tiller and several naked captives on deck, all with the stylised short thick rope round their necks.

To return to the funerary wrapping, the curator now explained that the 70 or so figures depicted are gods or protective spirits of the afterlife, and the head each one is holding by a rope represents an ancestor of the person being wrapped in this covering. So, by the end of his presentation, I realised what a precious object this was and how highly charged with religious and ritual symbolism.

(The exhibition features half a dozen or so videos, each devoted to particular exhibits, and this funeral cloth was accompanied by a video showing exactly how it would have been used to wrap the body of its high status owner.)

4. The Moche (AD 100 to 800) and the Chimu (AD 1000 to 1400)

These two cultures dominated along the coast and inland valleys of northern Peru. The outstanding artefacts from the Moche period were the stunningly finished and lifelike pottery heads and figurines.

Painted pottery vessel in the form of a warrior holding a club and a shield, Peru, Moche AD 100 to 600. © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

This is what I meant when I said that the exhibits are in astonishing condition. If these pots were from ancient Greece or Rome, you’d put up with half the decoration being scratched off, chips and fragments. But all the pottery heads and figurine included in the exhibition were in immaculate condition. They looked like they’d been made and glazed last month instead of two thousand years ago.

You might have expected that the portrait heads and figurines were stylised and stereotyped or standardised. But the curator  pointed out that archaeologists have discovered a set of pottery heads depicting a man with a distinctive facial disfiguration, and the three pots clearly show him as a youth, a mature man and an old man. In other words, these ceramic heads are portraits of real people. I found that breath-taking.

5. The Wari (AD 600–900) and Inca (AD 1400–1532)

The two great empires of the highlands of the Central Andes, this part of the exhibition overshadowed, as mentioned above, by stunning images of Machu Picchu.

6. The Andean legacy

The final part of the Inca space shows Western influences impinging on native traditions, Christianity apparently wiping out native religions and rituals, books written entirely by Spanish clerics (all the cultures listed above were illiterate so we can never know the detail of their beliefs or practices) giving a very one-sided account of the native peoples, often misunderstanding or distorting their beliefs and traditions.

Kero drinking vessel with a painted scene showing a human figure wearing both Western and Inca attire, Colonial 18th century. © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

But then the final (small) space is devoted to a more optimistic vision, showing how many of the native traditions, despite Spanish attempts at obliteration, survived and went underground, emerging centuries later in enduring traditions of arts and crafts, in native words and traditions kept alive in rural areas..

Why

Why go? Because it is a magnificent exhibition. All the exhibits are in stunningly good condition. The photos of the Peruvian landscape are breath-taking, made me want to jump on a plane and go see for myself. The sense of history it gives, of how deep history works, of the growth and overlap and intermingling of distinct cultures over long periods of time on similar or adjacent territories, fire the historical imagination.

If you like images of severed heads, this is the exhibition for you! And I haven’t even mentioned the frequency of other images and motifs taken from the natural world, such as the recurring motifs of pumas or panthers, and the sly presence of snakes in many images. For example, the stunning 2,500-year-old gold headdress and pair of ear plates decorated with embossed motifs of human faces with feline fangs and snakes’ appendages, part of an elite burial found at Kuntur Wasi.

It’s a feast for the eyes and the mind. Go.

A video review

Here’s a rather home-made but accurate depiction of what the exhibition looks like, made by Visiting London Guide.


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