Seahenge at Flag Fen
Flag Fen
BRITAIN'S BRONZE AGE CENTRE   Peterborough | England
 
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Seahenge - ancient wooden circle
Please Note: The Seahenge timbers are now being conserved in Portsmouth by the Link to Mary Rose Trust Mary Rose Trust
to ensure that they will be preserved for the future.

In the Spring of 1998 a circle of prehistoric timbers, exposed by the receding tide, was found projecting from the sands at Holme-next-the-Sea in Norfolk. The site, soon to become known as 'Seahenge', would prove to be the most remarkable controversial and highly publicised archaeological find in Britain for many years.

Map. Holme-next-the-Sea and Flag Fen  

What is Seahenge?

Seahenge is a unique early Bronze Age timber circle with an upside down oak tree stump at its centre.
The oak stump, with its roots in the air, was first spotted in spring 1998. As the sea eroded the land, a complete circle of timber posts gradually became visible around it.
The findings were reported to the Castle Museum in Norwich, who passed the news to the Norfolk Archaeology Unit, who were fascinated to know what had been found.


The local environment

In January 1999 a marvelously evocative photograph of the circle appeared on the front page of The Independent. Thousands of people headed for the beach at Holme.

This caused problems as the beach is part of the Holme Dunes National Nature Reserve, one of the most important sites in Britain and Europe for over-wintering birds. It is a vital refuge in particular for Bar-tailed Godwits, Grey Plovers and Knot. Virtually the entire migratory population of Knot - 220,000 birds – were recorded in Holme one November.

Crowds of visitors to Seahenge were a potential threat to the safety of the birds – an issue often overlooked by the press.

  Seahenge by Francis Pryor 
Seahenge by Francis Pryor

The Seahenge Stump being preserved at Flag Fen - Photo © John Byford
The Seahenge Stump being preserved at Flag Fen


The excavation

The Norfolk Archaeology Unit undertook initial fieldwork in late 1998. They showed that the circle was probably early Bronze Age. The timber circle was, in fact, egg-shaped, made of 55 split oak timbers with a maximum diameter of 6.78 metres. It was a unique 4000 year old survivor from the time of Stonehenge.

Surveys confirmed that the beach on the soft Norfolk coast was eroding rapidly. The blanket of peat, which protected the timbers from the elements that could destroy it - microbes, wood boring snails and the force of the waves - had virtually disappeared.

 

It is English Heritage’s job to protect archaeological sites. Wherever possible these are left in the ground and cared for in situ. Seahenge was different: it was in danger of being lost altogether.

After a lot of thought by English Heritage, the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Norfolk Archaeology Unit and the owner of the beach, the Le Strange Estate, it was decided to excavate and remove the timbers.

The debate

Some people objected to the excavation – some local people felt they had not been consulted about ‘their’ Seahenge and that it should be left alone; some neo-Druids objected on religious grounds; and some people were not convinced that the circle was really at risk from the sea.

Most archaeological excavations do not attract much public attention or controversy but Seahenge became the subject of a very public debate. Who owns the past? How do you weigh up science and spirituality? How should difficult decisions be made in the face of conflicting opinion?


Seahenge Timber 031 -- Toolmarks closeup and timber
Photo © Archaeoptics




The timbers at Flag Fen

After several months of excavation, which involved bailing the encroaching tidal water out the circle for at least 5 out of the 7 digging hours a day, the timbers were removed to the safety of Flag Fen.

They were brought here so they can be properly stored to stop them decaying and the staff here have the skills to help the English Heritage scientists conserve the timbers for future generations.

 


Conserving the timbers

The timbers look solid but most of the cellulose, which gives wood its strength, has been lost. If the timbers dry without proper treatment they will eventually disintegrate because the force of the evaporating water is stronger than the fragile wood.

Over the next few years some of the water will be replaced with wax and the rest will be removed by freeze drying. The wood is frozen, and the ice turned to water vapour without becoming liquid so the wood is not damaged.

 

Scanning a Seahenge timber with the Minolta VI-900 3D Laser Scanner at Flag Fen. ©Archaeoptics
Photo © Archaeoptics

Experts at Flag Fen have made a very detailed record of the timbers using a new laser scanning system. The laser is so accurate that the record can be used to show up and compare the different Bronze Age axe marks used to create Seahenge. The laser data will also be the enduring record, in digital form, of the timbers at the time they were found.


What have we learnt so far?


Dendrochronological analysis – or tree ring dating – by experts at the University of Sheffield has shown that the tall, slender trees used for the circle and the inverted oak were all cut down during the spring or early summer of 2049 BC.

The trees were felled with bronze axes and then split with wooden wedges. Measurements of the axe-marks show that between 51 and 59 axes were used. If each person only owned one axe, it suggests how many people must have worked together to create Seahenge.

 



Some Useful Seahenge Links

Seahenge in the Bronze Age

The excavation of Seahenge has shown that even the smallest Bronze Age religious structures were constructed with enormous care and by large numbers of people. They were intended to tie communities together by means of communal projects. Beyond the timber circle lay the North Sea, which was seen as the realm or dwelling place of the ancestors. Seahenge was deliberately placed between the ancestral world – the sea – and that of the living – the land, tying the two together.

The future

Over the next few years the Seahenge timbers will be conserved in Portsmouth, by the
Link to Mary Rose Trust Mary Rose Trust to ensure that they will be preserved for the future.

English Heritage is now exploring avenues for future display of the timbers but it is believed that one possibility is Kings Lynn Museum. In the meantime a temporary display about the project will be installed here at Flag Fen and also toured to Norfolk venues.

The Norfolk Archaeological Unit continues to monitor and record the beach. Already other important prehistoric and Anglo-Saxon finds have appeared as the beach erodes.


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