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Museums can offer an insight into the past for those who take the time to look…and sometimes exhibitions can give a vivid glimpse of life thousands of years in the past.

The lucky guests at the launch of a new display called Gathering Light at Museum nan Eilean in Lews Castle, Stornoway, last night (Friday June 9) heard a sweeping, almost poetic depiction of how human life, fears and hopes were affecting a society dominated by fears over pandemic diseases and climate change…3,000 years ago. 

On show in the museum is one of the most significant Bronze Age gold metalwork finds in the UK in more than a century – available from the British Museum as a “Spotlight Loan” – along with a variety of other artefacts from across the Western Isles and down the UK as far as Cornwall.

Found in the Shropshire Marches in May 2018, the gold pendant dates between 1000–800 BC and includes a rare depiction of the sun not previously seen on objects found in Britain.

Solar symbolism was a key element of mythology and belief in the Bronze Age, which lasted from around 2150–800 BC in Britain. This pendant celebrates the life-giving power of the sun during the time of the earliest metalworkers.

The pendant also marks the end of an era as one of the final expressions of an art style and belief system that lasted for almost 1,500 years and which included the building of huge wooden and stone monuments across what is now the UK, including the Stones at Calanais.

The find came about when a metal detectorist working a patch of field in the Shropshire Marches heard the sound that made his heart skip a beat. Removing the soft, peaty earth, the daylight shimmered on a gold pendant exquisitely engraved with geometric patterns radiating from the centre like rays of sun at sunrise. He reported the find through the Treasure and Portable Antiquities Scheme. This identified it as a rare 3,000-year-old pendant of a type sometimes known by the Latin word bulla, meaning bubble or balloon, because it is hollow inside.

The Shropshire Sun Pendant is internationally important. Dating from a time when ancient traditions were changing, its decoration recalls the importance of sunrise and ceremony at monuments like Stonehenge and Calanais 4,500 years ago. Its findspot at the edge of a pond is thought to reflect a new age when people turned to the landscape to make offerings to the powers of nature or, perhaps, their ancestors.

The exhibition was opened by Councillor Duncan Macinnes MBE, Depute Leader of Comahairle nan Eilean Siar and Vice-Chair of the Policy and Resources Committee who said the Council had worked closely with the British Museum for many years and spoke of the economic value of such exhibitions in the development of the islands tourism industry.

Then Colin George Morrison, the Team Leader for Heritage and Culture at CnES, welcomed the guests from the British Museum, and thanked all those involved in installing and creating the display.

Maria Bojanowska,Dorset Foundation Head of National Programmes at The British Museum, told the guests how much the British Museum staff were involved with local museum staff who they found “were a joy to work with.” 

The next speaker was Jill Cook who is the Keeper of the Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory at the British Museum. She curates the collection of European Prehistory and is a specialist in Ice Age art and the archaeology of human evolution.  She spoke of her astonishment at seeing the Shropshire Sun for the first time, finding it difficult to initially accept that something so perfect, so little used, had survived for so long.  Found nearby was a ring, made similarly of sheet gold, which was light that had been thrown on to a pond, it would have floated – so it had been purposefully encased in lead so that it would sink. Like a range of objects found across the UK from this period, these items had clearly not been lost accidentally but purposefully deposited.

Jill sketched a picture of a society knocked off its axis by climate change; where once successful agricultural techniques had begun to exhaust the land; a society which felt threatened by outbursts of disease – the Plague or the Black Death is known to have started during the previous millennium – and so precious objects were being sacrificed to in some way gain relief from the threats to everyone’s existence.

The exhibition has appeared – with different content according to the locale – in Shrewsbury, Truro, Lincoln and Sunderland.

In Stornoway, it runs from 10 June – 16 September, five days a week.  The opening times from Tuesday to Saturday are 10am – 5pm.