Seahenge, which is also known as Holme I, was a prehistoric monument located in the village of Holme-next-the-Sea, near Old Hunstanton in the English county of Norfolk. A timber circle with an upturned tree root in the centre, Seahenge was apparently built in the 21st century BCE, during the early Bronze Age in Britain, most likely for ritual purposes.
The site consisted of an outer ring comprising fifty-five small split oak trunks forming a roughly circular enclosure around 7 by 6 metres (23 by 20 ft). Rather than being placed in individual holes, the timbers had been arranged around a circular construction trench. Their split sides faced inwards and their bark faced outwards (with one exception where the opposite is the case). One of the trunks on the south western side had a narrow Y fork in it, permitting access to the central area. Another post had been placed outside this entrance, which would have prevented anyone from seeing inside. The timbers were set in ground to a depth of 1-metre (3 ft 3 in) from the contemporary surface although how far they originally extended upwards is not known. In the centre of the ring was a large inverted oak stump.
Although the henge's existence had been common knowledge amongst locals for several decades, Seahenge received its name from the press in 1998, who named it after the more famous prehistoric structure Stonehenge in Wiltshire, and was picked up by the local and national media, inducing a great deal of publicity around its excavation. This was only increased due to the protests held against the excavation by both locals, who wanted it to remain as a tourist site, and Neopagans, who believed that the removal of the structure was an insult to the religious beliefs of its original builders.
The name Seahenge come from the title of one of the national newspapers; there is no evidence to say that this timber circle is actually a henge.
Seahenge was constructed during the Early Bronze Age, a period of time that saw the increasing adoption of agriculture and sedentary living in Britain. Those constructing the monument made use of at least fifty different bronze axes,[Note 1] which were used to shape the timber to the desired lengths and shapes, at a time when, archaeologists believe, bronze tools were still relatively rare and had only been introduced to Britain a few centuries before.
Using a variety of scientific techniques, archaeologists have come to the conclusion that the trees used in the construction of the monument had all been felled in the same year, 2049 BCE,[Note 2] whilst the condition of the sapwood indicated that it had been cut down in spring or early summer. According to writer Charlie Watson, "Confirming that all the trees had been felled at the same time suggested strongly that the building of the circle was a single event. Further, a great amount of work would have been involved in felling, transporting, preparing and erecting the timbers, so it was likely too that the job was done by a large number of people - possibly an entire community or an extended family - working together."
Seahenge was originally constructed on a salt marsh, and over the centuries the area became a freshwater wetland, as an offshore barrier grew up, preventing sea water from getting access to the area around the circle. This in turn allowed alder trees to grow in the area, which eventually created a layer of peat above the mudflats. With rising sea levels in later millennia, the sea advanced, and eventually sand began to cover the peat. Through this process, Seahenge eventually found itself from once being inland to being on the beach, where it was revealed by the eroding away of the sand and peat by the late 20th century, four thousand years since its original construction.
Researchers were unable to determine activity at Seahenge in the centuries after it was built, and its purpose is consequently unknown. However, the presence of Middle and Late Bronze Age pottery at the site suggests that it became a focal point again several centuries after construction. Theories about the site have focused on the idea of inversion, as represented by the upside-down central tree stump and the single post turned 180 degrees from the others within the circle itself. The theme of inversion has been noticed in some Early Bronze Age burials. Not all the split posts can be accounted for and it has been suggested that another structure was built nearby using them.
Seahenge is so named by analogy with Stonehenge and does not possess an extant henge and appears to have had little functionally in common with its namesake. The contemporary ground surface associated with the monument has long since been washed away meaning no associated features survive and the silt Seahenge stood in when found considerably postdates the timber circle. It is thought that Seahenge was a mortuary enclosure for the use of excarnation rather than a henge.
Discovery, excavation and restoration
In early spring 1998, John Lorimer, a special-needs worker who was also an amateur archaeologist and beach comber, was on Holme beach with his brother-in-law Gary catching shrimps when he came across a Bronze Age axe head in the silt, but at the time did not know what it was. Intrigued, he revisited the same area on a number of other occasions, coming across a lone tree stump that had been unearthed on the beach, which he felt was unusual in that it appeared to be upside down. He decided to call up a friend of his who was a metal detectorist who was able to recognise what it was, and so they contacted the Castle Museum in Norwich. Archaeologists working at the museum examined the axe head, and noted that it was the second that had been found on the Holme Beach over the previous few months. Meanwhile, Lorimer had continued to monitor the lone tree stump on the beach, and when the gradual erosion showed that it was surrounded by a ring of wooden posts, he realised that it was definitely a man-made construction, and so contacted Castle Museum once more.
The museum got in contact with Edwin Rose, who was then Norfolk Landscape Archaeology's Development Control Officer, who subsequently went and met with Lorimer, who took him to see the site on 12 August 1998. However, upon initially seeing it, Rose suspected that it was in fact a fish trap dating from the Anglo-Saxon period, which were relatively common in the area. Nonetheless, thinking it over, he began to suspect that it might be something different, and that it would be worth investigating, and so he contacted the government agency English Heritage, to see if they would fund an excavation. They duly agreed to do so, allowing the excavation to begin.
Excavation and controversy
Archaeological excavation into Seahenge began in October 1998, under the leadership of site director Mark Brennand with the Norfolk Archaeological Unit; they however found it to be a particularly difficult site to excavate because being on a beach, the incoming and outgoing tide meant that they could only excavate in their trial trenches for between one and four hours each day. Dendrochronological data that had been collected from the wood was sent for analysis at Sheffield University, who by January 1999 had developed their preliminary results, indicating that the monument dated from the Bronze Age. Following the trial excavation, English Heritage decided that whilst it would be very expensive, it would be worth financing a full excavation of the site, because it had begun to suffer from erosion after parts of it had been exposed to the oxygen in the air and the salt in the brine after millennia of being buried under the mud.
Initially, there was little media interest in the excavation, with it only being reported in archaeological publications like the Council of British Archaeology's British Archaeology magazine and a few local Norfolk-based media outlets. However, this changed when The Independent chose the story for a front-page headline written by their environment correspondent, Michael McCarthy, that ran "Shifting Sands Reveal 'Stonehenge of the Sea'" on Saturday 9 January, 1999. The Independent's article sparked off the publication of a variety of other articles in rival newspapers, with the Eastern Daily Press picking up the story for a two-page feature entitled "Our Stonehenge Beneath the Sea" on Monday 11 January. These stories cemented the idea of the monument being similar to Stonehenge, one of England’s national treasures, despite the many differences between the two sites, and eventually it gained the popular title of "Seahenge". Soon a great debate began in the media, with some adherents involved in the Neopagan and New Age movements arguing that they had "a kind of spiritual ownership of the circle", and they wanted it left in situ, and not disturbed by further archaeological excavation. Local tourist organisations also wanted it left in situ, believing that it would bring visitors to the area who would wish to see it. The idea of tourists visiting the beach to see the monument however brought criticism from local wildlife organisations such as the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, who noted how within the first three months of 1999, five thousand visitors had come to see the monument, disturbing feeding wader birds in what was the Holme Dunes National Nature Reserve.
Whilst the press were putting forward ideas of saving and preserving the monument where it was, something archaeologists noted as being impossible, English Heritage's chief archaeologist, Geoffrey Wainright, eventually gave the go ahead for a full excavation in March 1999. The procedure would cost £500,000, and the timbers would be conserved at the Fenland Archaeological Trust's field centre at Flag Fen in Cambridgeshire. Excavation began on Wednesday 26 May 1999, by a team from Norfolk Archaeological Unit led by Mark Brennand, and once again they found it to be a particularly daunting and difficult site: they were only able to excavate for a few hours a day due to the tides, and much of that was taken up with removing the water that had built up overnight, alongside the various fish and other animals that had set up residence there. The excavators also had to contend with protests mounted both by locals and by Neopagan groups, which were led by the Chairman of the Parish Council, Geoff Needham, a former fisherman. English Heritage had taken part in meetings with protest groups, but neither had agreed to change their position on the issue. One of the most vocal protestors, the Neopagan and conservationist Buster Nolan, informed a reporter from the Eastern Daily Press that "Seahenge has more meaning and power on the beach here at Holme than it does anywhere else… This is 60 grand being spent by archaeologists who are patting each other on the back, telling each other they're doing the right thing. It's a farce." Nolan went on to employ some local solicitors in an attempt to get the courts to intercede on the protestors' behalf, receiving donations from the Council of British Druid Orders and from a local businessman, Mervyn Lambert, who told reporters that "The people of Norfolk should have more balls… I'm amazed they're allowing it to happen." Nonetheless, the solicitors refused to take up the case, believing that they could not possibly win against English Heritage.
Attempting to rid themselves of the problem of the protestors, English Heritage gained an interim injunction banning a series of the most prominent protestors from the vicinity of the site, including Des Crow, Geoff Needham, Buster Nolan and Rollo Maughfling, the self-declared "Archdruid of Stonehenge and Glastonbury", who at one point climbed on top of Seahenge to declare an eight-point proclamation. Needham and Maughfling however successfully contested the ban, as the court agreed that neither of them had attempted to obstruct the archaeologists' work. The publicity and controversy surrounding the excavation led the British television company Channel 4 to commission a special documentary episode of their archaeological series Time Team in which the excavation at Seahenge would be documented and a reconstruction of what the site would have originally looked like built. After several weeks work, the excavators decided to physically remove the main timbers from the site, an event for which the media had been tipped off, and so a wide variety of protestors turned up, along with a group of police officers to ensure that they did not cause trouble for the excavators. However, as the central tree stump was being pulled out by a digger, a young female protestor ran under the rope cordoning off the site and headed towards the excavation until she was restrained by excavators and then by police.
With Seahenge excavated, the timbers that it had been built out of were transported fifty miles away to the Fenland Archaeology Trust's field centre at Flag Fen in Cambridgeshire, where it immediately underwent conservation by being immersed in fresh water. The timbers were then cleaned of all the mud that had attached itself before being placed into permanent storage. A new laser-scanning technology developed by Alistair Carty and his company Archaeoptics was then employed by English Heritage that developed accurate three-dimensional records of the timbers, allowing archaeologists to create a virtual model of the whole site.
At Flag Fen, it was then continually soaked in wax-emulsified water to slowly (over years) replace the moisture in the wood with wax. It was later transferred to Portsmouth where maritime archaeology experts at the Mary Rose Trust continued the programme at their purpose-built site. Conservation work is complete, with a recreated Seahenge near its original site, at the Lynn Museum in King's Lynn and opened to the public in April 2008.
One hundred metres east, another older ring has been found, consisting of two concentric timber circles surrounding a hurdle lined pit containing two oak logs. Known as Holme II, it dates to the centuries before Holme I (c. 2400-2030 BCE) although the two sites may have been in use together. Although also threatened with destruction by the sea, this site has been left in situ and exposed to the tidal actions of the sea. Archaeologists have suggested that this decision by English Heritage relates to the controversy over digging Holme I.
Seahenge provides the inspiration for a timber circle depicted in Catherine Fisher's 2005 novel Darkhenge. Fisher discusses a prehistoric monument featuring an upturned oak tree surrounded by 24 timbers, each symbolising one of the characters of the ogham tree alphabet. This circle, known as Darkhenge, is described as being located at Avebury in Wiltshire and is portrayed as being the portal to Annwyn, the underworld of Welsh medieval mythology.
- The fact that over fifty different bronze axes were used in the construction of Seahenge was discovered through 3-D imaging which allowed archaeologists to measure the exact axe curvature and width of each blade that had made a cut in the timber. This revealed that 59 different blades had been used.
- Dendrochronological evidence provided by Cathy Groves indicated that the trees had to have been felled in either 2454 BCE, 2049 BCE or 2019 BCE whilst radiocarbon dating displayed a date range of between 2200 BCE and 2000 BCE for their felling. Using Bayesian estimation, however, an English Heritage team led by Dr Alex Bayliss combined the dendrochronological and radiocarbon dates to reveal that the trees had been felled in the year 2049 BCE.
- Watson 2005. p. 63.
- Watson 2005. p. 62.
- Watson 2005. p. 01-04.
- Watson 2005. p. 13-14.
- Watson 2005. p. 17-21.
- Watson 2005. p. 24-25.
- Watson 2005. p. 26.
- Watson 2005. p. 27.
- Watson 2005. p. 30.
- Watson 2005. p. 31.
- Watson 2005. p. 33-34.
- Watson 2005. p. 39.
- Watson 2005. p. 40-41.
- Watson 2005. p. 42-43 and 47.
- Watson 2005. p. 54-55.
- Watson 2005. p. 53.
- Watson 2005. p. 61.
- Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service: Seahenge is coming!
- Bramwell 2009, pp. 188–189.
- Further reading