Seahenge - ancient wooden circle
Please Note: The Seahenge timbers are now being conserved in Portsmouth
by the Mary
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
The Seahenge Stump being preserved at Flag
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
Photo © Archaeoptics
The timbers at Flag Fen
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
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
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
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.
Photo © Archaeoptics
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
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
Some Useful Seahenge Links
in the Bronze Age
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 next few years the Seahenge timbers will be conserved in Portsmouth,
Mary Rose Trust to ensure
that they will be preserved for the future.
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.
Norfolk Archaeological Unit continues to monitor and record the
beach. Already other important prehistoric and Anglo-Saxon finds
have appeared as the beach erodes.