Ornate, D-shaped gold pendant

Research project

Rethinking iconic objects at the time of Stonehenge

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

Key project information

Duration

1 April 2021 – 30 September 2023

Contact details

Email: nwilkin@britishmuseum.org

Partner

University of Reading 

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

Grant number

AHRC Research Grant AH/T007265/1

Using museum exhibitions to rethink established icons and to identify new ones that enable the telling of new narratives about the Late Neolithic and Bronze Age.

Why have certain objects taken on iconic status in accounts of Britain during the Late Neolithic and Bronze Age (c. 3000−800 BC). How are the finest and most important objects from this period defined? And how should recent finds be integrated into prehistoric narratives? This project, Icons in Context: Rethinking Symbols of Power at the Time of Stonehenge, aims to find out.

Using the British Museum’s The world of Stonehenge exhibition (17 February – 17 July 2022) as a testbed, this novel research project will explore the productive overlap between museum display and academic research. It will examine how artefacts may be ‘special’ or ‘unique’ while also serving as ‘exemplar’ objects for whole sites, periods, cultures and geographies. It will break new ground by reframing how prehistoric objects are presented, contextualised and experienced in museum displays and written accounts.

Find out about the latest project news

About the project

Impressive prehistoric objects have long been thought of as symbols of power that reflect social and political status rather than anything more personal or spiritual. And the importance of non-precious objects has often been overlooked. This project will examine what kinds of objects and contexts have been singled out as icons in narratives about the British Late Neolithic and Bronze Age. Are the same objects highlighted as icons in museum exhibitions and textual accounts? And how has the focus on particular icons shaped the narratives that are told?  

It will also explore how the process of developing museum exhibitions can be used to: 

  • Rethink the role of the unique or iconic object, or site assemblage (group of objects).
  • Develop new approaches to museum display and interpretation to help re-contextualise iconic objects from the Late Neolithic and Bronze Age – and for museum collections in general.
  • Identify new icons that enable the telling of different, more compelling narratives and that reflect contemporary knowledge about the Late Neolithic and Bronze Age. 
  • Find out if the significance of complex archaeological sites and site assemblages can be distilled into a number of objects suitable for display. 


 

Aims

By using museum exhibitions as sites for exploring new and emerging themes in later prehistoric studies, this project aims to challenge established thinking about iconic objects from the Late Neolithic and Bronze Age – and of iconic museum objects in general. It will explore the tensions between traditional approaches to museum exhibitions and newer, more contextual ways of understanding human-object relationships and materiality. This will drive a new agenda for how prehistoric objects are displayed in museums. 

This research will facilitate dialogue between museums, object specialists and general audiences, leading to new guidelines for how prehistoric and archaeological objects can be thought about in new, more interesting and creative ways. 

In addition to a major exhibition on The world of Stonehenge and accompanying book, this project will make an enduring impact through an international conference and two academic papers. 

Meet the team

Headshot of Neil Wilkin

Neil Wilkin

Principal Investigator
Department of Britain, Europe & Prehistory 
British Museum

Headshot of Duncan Garrow

Duncan Garrow

Co-Investigator
Department of Archaeology
University of Reading

Project supporter

Project supporter 

Supported by

AHRC logo

Outputs

The world of Stonehenge

EXHIBITION

Informed by ground-breaking recent archaeological and scientific discoveries, this British Museum exhibition offers new insight on one of the world’s great wonders, bringing the true story of Stonehenge into sharper focus than ever before.

Opened on 17 February – 17 July 2022

The world of Stonehenge

BOOK

A book to accompany The world of Stonehenge exhibition. 

Duncan Garrow; Neil Wilkin

Published in January 2022

Seahenge

VIDEO

A 4,000-year-old Bronze Age timber circle, dubbed Seahenge, is at the heart of The world of Stonehenge exhibition. This film, made by Rose Ferraby, explores the stories that emerged from her conversations with the community of locals and archaeologists involved in the discovery and display of Seahenge. Weaving together sound, landscape images and personal stories, it reflects the wonder of the discovery and what it tells us about the people who built Seahenge.