Golden age: Ancient possessions of Stonehenge worshippers go on display

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Golden treasures from prehistoric Britain’s Stonehenge era, most of which have never previously been on public display, are today being unveiled at a small provincial museum.

The exhibition is the largest collection of early Bronze-Age gold ever put on public display in England.

It was impossible to exhibit most of the gold treasures before because of security concerns. Up until now the closest the public got to them was by seeing photographs.

Housed in a new, high-security and humidity-controlled series of galleries inside the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes, 15 miles north of Stonehenge, the gold treasures and other objects are being used to reveal the remarkable cultural story behind the world famous prehistoric stone monument.

The new Stonehenge-era galleries will feature at least 500 Neolithic and Bronze-Age objects from Wiltshire, many of them from the once sacred landscape around the monument itself, including a beautifully decorated golden cloak fastener, a magnificent bronze dagger with a gold-covered hilt, a gold decoration from a dagger sheath, the golden tip of a ceremonial sceptre and gold necklaces, earrings and pendants – as well as other high- status precious objects made of jet, amber and stone.

“These and other spectacular treasures from the age of Stonehenge were unearthed by antiquarians and archaeologists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but until now it’s never been possible to give the public permanent access to them,” said the museum’s director, David Dawson.

“Stonehenge is an iconic monument – but this is the first time that such a wide range of high-status objects from the spectacular burials of the people who used it, has ever been put on permanent display”.

They will tell the story of the people who lived in and around the Stonehenge landscape when the monument was one of the great religious centres of Western Europe.

“Many of the items may well have been worn by Bronze-Age priests and chieftains as they worshipped inside Stonehenge,” said Mr Dawson. Axes and daggers on display in the new purpose-built galleries are identical to images of weapons carved into the giant stones of Stonehenge itself.

“We believe the new displays are a major step forward in helping to explain the extraordinary sophistication of the remarkable people who used the world’s most famous prehistoric monument,” said Mr Dawson.

Over the past few years, an unprecedented amount of new research has been carried out on Stonehenge and its ancient culture – and the new galleries reflect that new knowledge, especially an increased understanding of how the different prehistoric artefacts were made and what they were originally used for.

 Around 30 gold objects, made by craftsman between the 2200 and 1800BC, will be on permanent display along with hundreds of other Stonehenge-era treasures.

The creation of the new high-security Stonehenge-period galleries puts Devizes’ Wiltshire Museum into a totally different league in terms of exhibits and their interpretation.

The new galleries have cost £750,000 to build – with funding coming from, among others,  the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage and Wiltshire Council.

Devizes has its magnificent collection because it is the home of one of Britain’s oldest local archaeology organisations – the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society which has been collecting Wiltshire archaeological material since its foundation 160 years ago.

Over that period it has conducted more than 50 excavations which have provided the museum with more than 50,000 archaeological finds. The town itself is located between prehistoric Britain’s two top monuments – Stonehenge and the Avebury stone circles.

The launch of the new permanent display at the town is part of a wider display of Stonehenge-era archaeology. On 18 December, just one and half miles from Stonehenge itself, English Heritage will open its new Stonehenge visitor centre, complete with around 300 Stonehenge-period exhibits – while, next spring, Salisbury Museum will unveil newly redesigned archaeological galleries including material of a similar age.

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