The three 'Folkton Drums', 2600–2100 BC, chalk decorated with carved patterns and stylised faces, found in Yorkshire in 1889. H. from 8.7cm.

Patterns of prehistory

An exhibition entitled Making Connections: Stonehenge in Its Prehistoric World, which is a collaboration between English Heritage and the British Museum – has opened at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre. It includes some 20 spectacular Neolithic and fine Bronze Age objects from their collections as well as artefacts from Wiltshire Museum and Salisbury Museum.

One of the highlights is a remarkable polished green axe, made of jadeitite from the French-Italian Alps, which was already old when it was brought to the British Isles by some of the first farmers at the beginning of the Neolithic period circa 4000 BC. Found near Canterbury in Kent, the axe was polished for hundreds of hours to give it an intense sheen because it was not used as an ordinary tool but was a ritual object that gave these farmers a tangible sense of connection to their homeland.

During the late Neolithic period (circa 3000–2400 BC) people living in the British Isles were closely culturally connected to one another. They built similar monuments, stone circles and henges, and made objects with shared patterns of decoration. One example of this is found on three carved chalk cylinders, known as the 'Folkton Drums' (above) that were found in 1889 in a child's grave inside a Neolithic barrow in Yorkshire. The distinctive patterns of spirals and lozenges on these chalk cylinders are similar to designs seen on megalithic monuments, Grooved Ware pottery and other portable objects found across the British Isles, where people were sharing ideas, styles and ritual practices – but not found at this time on Continental Europe.

Another stunning object on show is the Ringlemere cup, 1700–1500 BC, found in a field in Kent in 2001. Made of a single sheet of gold, its now rather crushed appearance is thought to have been caused by ploughing. One of several early Bronze Age 'precious cups', made of gold, amber and shale, found in southern England and northern France, it shows that communities living on either side of the Channel were by now in contact.

During the later Bronze Age (1500–800 BC), societies across Western Europe became even more closely connected and appear to have held similar beliefs They used increasingly sophisticated bronze-working techniques to make ceremonial objects such as flesh-hooks, used in feasting and other ceremonies to lift meat from large cooking cauldrons; later they became just ceremonial objects. Found submerged in a bog in Northern Ireland, the Dunaverney flesh-hook has a family of swans and two ravens on its shaft. From clues in later Irish literature, it is thought that these birds could represent Bronze Age ideas of opposing forces and elements: white versus black, water versus air, life versus death.

• Making Connections: Stonehenge in Its Prehistoric World (www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stonehenge/things-to-do/) will run until 21 April 2019.
Lindsay Fulcher

 



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