The new Wessex Gallery of Archaeology showcases Salisbury Museum’s spectacular collection of artefacts from Stonehenge and the surrounding area.
The area around Salisbury boasts an almost incredible wealth of archaeological sites, from immediately recognisable monuments such as Stonehenge, to spots like the Blick Mead Mesolithic homebase (CA 293), where ongoing research is still revealing their exciting potential. The story of this unique historic landscape forms the focus of a new £2.4m gallery – two-thirds funded by an HLF grant – which has recently opened at Salisbury Museum. Gone are the old Pitt-Rivers and Early Man galleries, and in their place, visitors can explore an airy open space spanning half a million years of history that places Stonehenge in its wider chronological and regional context. The building is also intended to host exhibitions about the World Heritage Site, put together with the co-operation of the new Stonehenge visitor centre, which opened earlier this year (CA 288).
With over 2,500 objects on display, many exhibits feature highlights from the museum’s Stonehenge and prehistory collections. These include the Wardour Hoard – a spectacular cache of over 100 Bronze Age objects, mainly spearheads, chisels, and sword fragments – as well as objects associated with Stonehenge itself, such as a gneiss macehead recovered from a cremation burial by Colonel William Hawley in 1923, and a bronze axe and dagger that match prehistoric graffiti identified on ‘Stone 53’ by Professor Richard Atkinson in 1953 (CA 273).
The work of other pioneering figures whose research has helped to bring Salisbury’s prehistoric story to light once more, from the 18th century antiquarian William Stukeley (the first to suggest that the stones were erected by Druids) to General Augustus Pitt-Rivers, is also celebrated – but visitors can also ‘meet’ individuals who travelled to the Stonehenge area rather longer ago. At the heart of the new displays lie the remains of the Amesbury Archer, who was laid to rest some 4,400 years ago in an exceptionally rich Beaker burial on Salisbury Plain, hundreds of miles from his Alpine home (see our news story on p.6 for more on this individual).
Moving beyond things prehistoric, the new space is also home to relics of the region’s Roman and Anglo-Saxon past. Formerly hung on a wall but now laid horizontally as it would have originally have been seen, the 4th century Downton mosaic is a colourful addition to the objects on display, its intricate tessellated patterns depicting a drinking cup with handles shaped like dolphins. From the world of the Anglo-Saxons, one of the star artefacts to be seen is the Warminster Jewel – an enigmatic item that has been interpreted as an aestel, a kind of manuscript pointer described by Alfred the Great in his translation of Pope Gregory VII’s Pastoral Care.
Previously something of a hidden gem despite its location close to Salisbury Cathedral, the museum is sure to become a must-see addition to the to-do lists of the 1million-plus tourists who flock to the area every year to visit Stonehenge.
Address: The King’s House, 65 The Close, Salisbury, SP1 2EN
Hours: Mon – Sat, inc. bank holidays: 10am – 5pm. Sundays (June – Sept) 12pm – 5pm