26 Mar 2008, 11:34
Oak Tree - The Mystery of Seahenge
(Seahenge wooden circle, Norfolk ; Seahenge, Holme-next-the-Sea, Norfolk ; © Homer Sykes / Alamy)
In the spring of 1998, shifting sands revealed a 4,000-year-old secret on the beach at Holme-next-the-Sea in Norfolk. Nicknamed "Seahenge", it was a circle of 55 oak posts enclosing a huge central oak stump - a tree which had been uprooted and planted upside down in the ground, its roots stretching out like fingers.
Seahenge had been preserved by a blanket of peat, now washed away. Exposure to the air meant that it would soon begin to decay, so English Heritage decided to remove the structure, for preservation and tests.
The archaeologists took the timbers to the laboratories at Flag Fen, the Bronze Age centre near Peterborough. Here tree ring analysis revealed that the central stump was uprooted in the spring of 2049 BC, when it was already 167 years old. This dates Seahenge to the very beginning of the Bronze Age.
Laser scanning of the timbers showed that between 51 and 59 bronze axes had been used to chop them down, suggesting that Seahenge was the work of a whole community. Francis Pryor, director of Flag Fen, said, "It is remarkable that this tiny community was able to lay hands on such a large number of tools, only about 100 years after the knowledge of how to make bronze arrived in this country."
The purpose of Seahenge remains a mystery. For Arch-Druid Rollo Maughfling, it was an altar "where the skulls of important chieftains kept watch over the shoreline to protect us from attack". The archaeologists have suggested that it may have been used for "excarnation" - the practice of exposing dead bodies on a raised platform to be picked clean by birds, leaving bones for burial. Francis Pryor believes that the sea was thought of as the "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."
Over the next few years, the timbers will be conserved by the Mary Rose trust at Portsmouth. It is hoped that Seahenge may one day go on public display, perhaps in King's Lynn Museum.
Source : "Icons : a portrait of England" (http://www.icons.org.uk/)