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During the summer of 1998, shifting sands on Holme beach on the north Norfolk coast in eastern England revealed the remains of a unique timber circle dating back over 4,000 years to the early Bronze Age. This extraordinary discovery, on a modern beach, was originally built on a saltmarsh, some way from the sea. The discovery was of significant interest to archaeologists and caught the public imagination, both locally and nationally.


Above: The approach to and on Holme beach

The site soon became known as ‘Seahenge’ (it is also known as Holme I). The timbers were in the form of a circle 21 feet (6.6m) in diameter and comprised 55 closely-fitted oak posts, each originally up to 10 feet (3m) high. At the centre of the circle was a large upturned tree stump. Scientific dating techniques (dendrochronology - the study of tree rings and radiocarbon dating) showed that the circle was erected in the spring of 2049 BC. Whilst the exact purpose of the site will never be known for certain, it is quite possible that it was used for the burial of an important person, with a body laid out on the upturned stump. What is known, though, is that after only a short period of time, the entrance to the circle was sealed. The name ‘Seahenge’ came from the title of one of the national newspapers, although there is no concrete evidence to say that this timber circle is actually a henge. Just 100m east of the Seahenge site, another older ring was subsequently found (Holme II). This consisted of two concentric timber circles surrounding a hurdle lined pit containing two oak logs and dated to c. 2400-2030 BC, although the two sites may have been in use together. Although also threatened with destruction by the sea, a decision was made by English Heritage to leave it and not excavate/remove/preserve it.


Above: A full-size replica of the site as it is believed to have looked 4,000 years ago is on display at the Lynn Museum, alongside the original timbers

Although revealed on a beach, as mentioned above, the timber circle originally stood in a very different environment as over the last 4,000 years, the landscape around the North Norfolk coast has changed. The land where the circle was built, at the time, would have been saltmarsh, protected from the sea by sand dunes and mud flats. Mixed oak woodland lay close-by and the saltmarsh was probably used for grazing animals. In the early Bronze Age, the local area was becoming waterlogged. The oak trees used to construct the circle show signs of struggling o survive in the increasingly wet conditions. In the centuries following the time of the circle’s construction, the saltmarsh became covered by freshwater reed swamp, colonised by rushes and alder trees. This swampy area created a thick layer of dark peat, which would have covered the remains of the timbers, ensuring their preservation. Over the last 3,000 years, the sea has encroached on the land, as the protective barrier formed by the sand dunes moved steadily inland.


Above: Seahenge timbers on display at the Lynn Museum


The site would have eventually been covered completely by sand, killing the plants and trees. The protective layers sealing the timbers were gradually worn away by the action of tides and storms. As soon as the timbers were exposed to the air, they began to decay. Holme beach is located within a nature reserve, home to internationally important populations of migratory birds which are easily disturbed by people.

Timber 26, along with the central stump and half of the timbers in the circle was placed in the ground upside-down. It is probable that because trees become thinner, higher up the trunk, by placing half of them upside down, the circle did not lean inwards or outwards. The inversion of timbers also suggests that Seahenge was associated with death. At other Bronze Age sites, inverted objects are often accompanied by human remains, including upside-down urns placed over cremated remains.

Archaeology in Norfolk has produced strong evidence about people’s activities during the period when Seahenge was constructed (including from the nearby settlement at Redgate Hill, Hunstanton). Seahenge would have been constructed by people living and farming near the saltmarshes, 4,000 years ago in the early Bronze Age. The people here would have lived in small farming communities, growing crops such as barley and wheat and grazing sheep and cattle. Their homes would have been simple roundhouses with roofs made of thatch or turf and the walls made of wattle and daub. All members within a family unit would have contributed to the daily tasks one way or another and many of their everyday items, such as clothes, would have been homemade. Knives and arrowheads would have been made from flint, whilst carved wood, bone and antler would have been used to make tools and jewellery. Simple pottery vessels would have been used for storage and cooking, whilst finer intricately decorated beakers would most likely have been used only for special occasions. Metal tools would have been introduced from the continent just a few generations before the time when Seahenge was constructed, with bronze gradually replacing polished stone as the material of choice for axe-heads. Some of the earliest metalwork would have been seen in jewellery, as at the time, bronze objects would have been highly valued.

The bark on all of the timbers, such as timber 30, is very well preserved. The timbers were mainly places with the bark facing outwards from the circle, so that from a distance, it would have looked like a giant tree stump. Timber 30, however, is one where its split bark-free surface was facing the outside. This may have been deliberate, in order to balance the pattern of bark visible on the inside of the circle, as some of the timbers close to timber 30 has bark all of the way around them. Alternatively, timber 30 may represent a feature on one of the trees that was used to create the circle – archaeologists think that one of the trees used may have been struck by lightning, which can result in a white scar on the bark. Another theory is that each timber in the circle represented a person or group involved in its construction, with timber 30 representing somebody important.

It is thought that perhaps up to 50 people may have been involved with building Seahenge, possibly a local tribe coming together to mark a special occasion, such as the death of an important member of the community. Many ceremonial monuments across Britain have survived from this period, some of which associated with burials, and others which would have been used for community ceremonies spanning centuries. Although it is unclear why exactly Seahenge was built, many archaeologists support the theory that the upturned stump in the centre supported the body of an important person. Birds and animals would have been allowed to pick the body clean, before the bones were removed elsewhere for burial. The circle at Seahenge may also have served as a simple astronomical calendar, marking the midwinter sunset and the midsummer sunrise, as is the case with many ceremonial sites of this period.

Timber 35/37 was originally given two numbers as it was thought to be two timbers, when only the tops had become visible. However, during subsequent excavation work, it was discovered that they came from a single forked timber, which may have provided the entrance to the circle. Timber 36 would have been use to bar this entrance. Timber 35/37 is positioned within a select group of roundwood timbers that have bark all of the way around them. The only other example is timber 63, which was directly opposite. Evidence suggests that the forked timber and timber 63 were amongst the first to be erected. These early timbers were aligned with the Midwinter sunset in the southwest and the Midsummer sunrise in the northeast.

In early Spring, 1998, John Lorimer, a special-needs worker, amateur archaeologist and beach comber, was catching shrimps with his brother-in-law Gary on Holme beach. They found a Bronze Age axe head in the silt. Unsure what it was, Lorimer continually revisited the site, eventually finding a lone tree stump that had been unearthed on the beach and rather unusual, in that it was upside-down. Not long afterwards, wave erosion gradually exposed a surrounding ring of wooden posts. This discovery of an unusual arrangement of timbers on Holme beach led to archaeologists quickly recognising the significance of the site and the threat posed by the sea. Following an initial investigation, a decision was made to excavate the circle and remove the timbers from the beach, so as to protect them. With funding from English Heritage, excavations by the Norfolk Archaeological Unit took place in 1999. Conditions for the archaeologists were difficult as the site was flooded by tides and only accessible for between two and four hours a day. During this limited time, tidal water needed to be removed prior to digging. There were also issues surrounding protestors on the beach by groups opposing the removal of the timbers, such as 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. However, had the timbers been left and exposed, they would have rapidly been destroyed by the elements. A wealth of information was gleaned from the excavations. The timbers for the posts were cut nearby, dragged to the site and lowered into a trench. Some of the posts would have been trimmed on arrival. When the circle was completed, all but one of the posts still had the bark attached on the side facing outwards. A few of the posts also had bark on the inside, including the post placed opposite the entrance to the circle. This entrance was blocked by a post shortly after the site had been constructed. As seen from the outside, the circle would have had the appearance of the bark-covered trunk of a very large tree. By contrast, the inside would have been bright in appearance, from the freshly-cut wood. At the centre of the circle, stood the large upturned stump. During excavations, when the central stump was finally lifted, there was no trace found of the body that some archaeologists thought may well have been found underneath. Instead, they found a twisted honeysuckle rope, which would have been used to drag the stump into place.

Dendrochronology has shown that timber 44 was taken from the same tree as timber 50, so archaeologists expected their bases to look quite similar. However, they are quite different, suggesting that two separate pairs of the same tree trunk were used. When excavated, the timbers of Seahenge were found to be buried 1m deep in the peat below the sand of the beach and this helped preserve the wood that was below ground, whilst any wood above ground would have rotted away. The depth that the timber posts were sunk into the ground suggests that they could have stood originally three to four metres high. Evidence from timbers (e.g. 44 and 50), which were cut from different parts of the same tree, suggests that the circle was likely to be approximately three metres in height.

As soon as the timbers were exposed from their preserved state underneath the sands of Holme beach, they began to decay. Originally surrounded by a thick layer of peat, they were now vulnerable to a number of damaging effects, such as seawater salts, wood-boring molluscs and worms. The timbers also suffered from the effects of wetting and drying twice daily, caused by the tidal water.


Once removed from the beach, the timbers were taken to the Bronze Age Centre at Flag Fen, near Peterborough, where they were placed in freshwater tanks, the beach mud cleaned off and most of the salts removed. The timbers were then laser-scanned, in order to record every detail on their surface - a non-destructive technique which would enable a complete 3-dimensional model of the structure to be maintained.

Above: One of the samples taken from the original timbers for studying. Dendrochronology (the study of tree rings) helped with dating the structure and learning more about the local environment.

The study of the timbers performed at Flag Fen revealed a great deal of information. The posts and stump all came from between 15 to 20 oak trees felled in the spring of 2019 BC and a number of the posts came from the same tree. The oak trees had been cut down and shaped with bronze axes. The marks left by up to 50 individual axes were preserved on the surface of the wood and this came as a surprise to archaeologists, since at the time, metal tools had only been in use for a few generations and were thought to be rare. In 2003, the timbers of Seahenge were transferred to the Mary Rose Trust in Portsmouth. Here, a complex conservation project was undertaken, which started with them being placed in clean water, to remove any remaining salts, followed by immersion in polyethylene glycol (PEG), which gradually reinforced the cell structure of the wood. The timbers were then vacuum freeze-dried to remove any remaining water.


The upturned stump (shown above) which stood in the centre of the circle weighs well over a tonne and is 2½m in both length and width. Dragging and lowering the stump into position would have been quite a feat, using the simplest of technologies during the Bronze Age. Many people would likely have been involved with felling the large oak tree from which it came, before digging and hauling its stump out of the ground. Towering holes were then cut, before it was dragged into its final position using woven honey suckle rope. As mentioned earlier on this webpage, pieces of this rope were found underneath the stump during the excavation work. The surface of the stump was shaped and trimmed using axes made of bronze and on close examination, it is possible to see individual chip marks left by these tools, which were used over 4,000 years ago. Each axe left its own unique ‘fingerprint’ and in the construction of Seahenge, archaeologists have inferred that over 50 individual axes were used. The exact purpose of the stump is unknown, although many archaeologists believe that it was used to lay out the body of an important person (such as a chief or priest) on the top of it, for animals to pick clean, before it was buried elsewhere. Another theory is that the upturned stump itself was simply a symbolic representation of the fruits of the earth and the magical powers of trees, or perhaps a gateway to the underworld.


Today, Seahenge is on display in a dedicated area of the Lynn Museum (Shown above, and located at Market St, King's Lynn PE30 1NL, United Kingdom). The main part of the museum is situated in a former Union Baptist Chapel, built in 1859. It was converted into a museum in 1904. Taking photographs of the timbers in the museum proved a little difficult, due to reflections from glass. Some more photos of the Seahenge exhibit are shown in the thumbnail gallery below (click on an image to enlarge):

[Text and Photographs: February 2019]

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