How Britain's ancient sites are in the spotlight for 2022

From a blockbuster exhibition on Stonehenge to a reclaimed ‘lost’ village in Norfolk, our ancient ancestors’ fascinating past is in the spotlight this year. Here’s how travellers can get involved.

Around 4,500 years after its formation, the mysterious stone circle on Salisbury Plain still manages to captivate. 

Photograph by Historic England
By Connor McGovern
Published 10 Apr 2022, 06:09 BST

Stonehenge still manages to do it. Around 4,500 years after its formation, the mysterious stone circle of Salisbury Plain captivates the imagination in a way few other landmarks do. And now the Wiltshire wonder and the ancient world it represents are the focus of a new exhibition at the British Museum — with none of the traffic on the A303 to contend with.

Stonehenge might be the show’s headliner, but the exhibition goes beyond the landmark to explore the life and landscapes of pre-Roman Britain and Europe. This is one of the biggest exhibitions the British Museum has ever hosted, bringing together more than 430 objects from its permanent collection alongside artifacts from museums across the UK, Ireland and a handful of other European nations. The result is an astonishingly detailed portrait of our ancestors’ way of life and an archaeological showcase of our continent, spanning agriculture and hunting, combat and worship. There’s a millennia-old deer skull, worn as a shamanic headpiece by a girl whose skull suggests a neurological condition that induced trances, and 4,000-year-old oxen bones carefully lifted from German soil. There are shields, horns and early bronze cuirasses; a wall of expertly carved axe heads — including a complete axe preserved in Scottish peat bog, dating to around 3000BC — and giant monoliths from Aberdeenshire, carved with intricate, expressive patterns. There’s also a partial recreation of the mysterious, 4,000-year-old Seahenge, a timber circle of felled oaks with a sacred tree at its heart, excavated from a Norfolk beach in 1998.

Left: Top:

Nebra Sky Disc, Germany, about 1600 BC. 

Photograph by State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt, Juraj Lipták
Right: Bottom:

Lunula, 2400–2000 BC. From Blessington, County Wicklow, Republic of Ireland.

Photograph by © The Trustees of the British Museum

But the star artifact — quite literally — is the 3,600-year-old Nebra sky disc, a dazzling jade-green bronze plate inlaid with gold celestial symbols that were likely used to map the night sky. It’s the oldest depiction of the cosmos and this is the first time it’s been on display outside Germany, where it was found, in 15 years. In a similar, gilded vein is a 3,000-year-old pendant adorned with a stylised sun — a significant find from Bronze Age Britain. Discovered by a retired engineer in Shropshire in 2018, it’s on show for the first time.

Read between the lines and The World of Stonehenge reminds us that we have more in common with our distant ancestors than we might think. These people were ritualists, creators, innovators — always driven by the desire to possess and progress. A lot has changed in the thousands of years between us, but in many ways, so much hasn’t.

The show closes with a small but poignant collection of drawings from English idealist William Blake (1757-1827), who saw Stonehenge and ancient monuments like it as symbols for the old order of things, an embodiment of England’s ‘green and pleasant land’. After all, this is an exhibition about our enduring relationship with the natural world — how we’ve feared it, domesticated it, cherished and sanctified it. At a time where the bond between people and planet is more fraught than ever, our ancestors might offer us some valuable lessons. Until 17 July. Admission £20, under-16s go free.

Dagger from the Bush Barrow grave goods (with replica handle), 1950–1600 BC. Amesbury, Wiltshire.

Photograph by David Bukach © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

Four more way to discover ancient Britain in 2022

1. Spend the night in a ‘lost’ Norfolk village
For centuries, only sheep roamed the medieval village of Godwick, but it wasn’t always that way. First settled by Anglo-Saxons, the village was abandoned by the late 16th century, perhaps due to a succession of bad harvests. Today, the ruined foundations, crumbling church tower and sunken streets make it one of the best-preserved ‘lost’ medieval villages in Norfolk (largely thanks to the grazing sheep, who keep the grass in check). Now, guests can spend the night on the estate thanks to a restoration project involving Historic England, the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Godwick Hall. Accommodation includes the self-catering Old Stables, which sleeps up to six and starts at £450 per night, and the cosy shepherd’s huts, starting at £90 per night (both have a minimum stay of two nights).  

2. Celebrate the 1,900th anniversary of Hadrian’s Wall
The Roman frontier between England and Scotland — an icon of ancient Britain — is celebrating its 1,900th anniversary this year with the 11-month-long 1900 Festival. A busy calendar of events across the region will explore the role the wall has played throughout history, while championing local communities. Happenings include archaeological excavations at Vindolanda fort; the Northumberland-inspired Northern Tales, part of the Hexham Book Festival; exhibitions at Tullie House in Carlisle; and the lighting of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Beacons on 2 June — a highlight in every sense of the word.  

3. Follow a trail around historic Scotland
Connecting 13 UNESCO-protected sites, including World Heritage Sites and biosphere reserves, this newly launched trail brings together the best of Scotland’s ancient treasures. This is a wish list of locations for those looking to delve into the country’s fascinating past: waymarks on the trail include the Roman-era Antonine Wall and Orkney’s remarkable neolithic heritage, while less-ancient sites are also included on the route, such as arty Dundee, a UNESCO City of Design, and the Forth Bridge, which was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 2015.

4. Explore Roman Bath in greater detail than ever before
Bath is one of the few cities in the world to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its entirety, and visitors will be able to get a handle on its unique history with the opening of the World Heritage Centre this spring. Located at the Roman Baths, the centre will offer plenty of visitor information on the city’s Roman origins — including the hot springs that put it on the map — as well as the Georgians that turned the city into an elegant centre of high society centuries later. There’s also a Bath World Heritage app downloadable for free from the Apple store and Google Play.

Published in the May 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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