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Seahenge, the 'remarkable' Bronze Age discovery on a Norfolk beach

A circle of Bronze Age timbers stand above the waterline. This is Seahenge - named because its layout is similar to Stonehenge
Storms revealed the Seahenge timbers Picture credit: John Sayer at The Cereologist

One of the most remarkable archaeological finds in Europe was discovered on a remote North Norfolk beach.

It consisted of a massive 2.5 tonnes upturned tree stump, surrounded by a circle of 55 oak posts and was dubbed Seahenge because of its similar design to Stonehenge.

Seahenge, 7.5 metres in diameter, was built in 2049BC during early Bronze Age Britain. Its discovery was exceptional because it was created from wood preserved in peat.

It was discovered in 1998 after storms removed sand and shingle from the beach at Holme-next-the-Sea near Old Hunstanton.

Sir Jocelyn Stevens, chairman of English Heritage claimed it was ‘one of the most exciting and enthralling archaeological discoveries of our time’. Some archaeologists described it as being one of the most significant finds ever discovered. Many experts believe the circles were used for the burial of an important person, with the body laid out on the upturned stump in the centre.

Archaeologists said the trees used to build Seahenge were felled in Spring 2049BC. A team using at last 50 different bronze axes built the structure at a time when Holme beach was a salt marsh a mile inland, long before the encroaching sea covered the peat beds which were preserving the timbers. The timbers also revealed the oldest marks of metal axes ever found in Britain.

Experts excavated and removed the 55 Seahenge timbers and the central oak root by working between tides to complete the task while demonstrators, including druids and modern-day pagans, tried to disrupt the work because they considered it sacrilegious.

Experts in preservation, laser scanning and carbon dating worked on ensuring the timbers were restored at the Bronze Age Centre at Flag Fen near Peterborough and at the Mary Rose Trust in Portsmouth, where Henry VIII’s Tudor ship has been preserved.

The preserved remnants of Seahenge now at Kings Lynn Museum (Credit:
Seahenge's preserved timbers at Kings Lynn Museum Credit: Norfolk Museums Service (Lynn Museum, King Lynn)

Fifteen years later, in 2014, archaeologists revealed that a second wood circle called Holme 2 dated to the same time, had also been discovered and recorded on Holme beach. The two circles, which originally stood in boggy freshwater, were part of the same monumental complex connected with rites to honour the dead.

Professor Francis Pryor, who has appeared on Channel Four’s TV programme Time Team and worked at the Bronze Age site at Flag Fen near Peterborough said the Seahenge excavation was the most detailed study of a Bronze Age site that has ever taken place in Europe.

The second circle, which was nearby, had four elements – two oak logs laid flat in the centre and surrounded by an oval of oak posts with oak branches interweaved between them. Nearby was an arc of split oak timbers and surrounding everything was an outer palisade of split oak timbers.

Discovery of the second circle had been kept quiet following demonstrations and objections to excavating Seahenge. After dating, photographing and recording, it was left intact to the sea and weather. The woven branches had been washed away within four years. The storms of 2003 and 2004 washed away all trace of the logs.

The Bronze Age finds were made in 1998 by a local man John Lorimer. He found an axe head on the beach and, weeks later, what he thought was an upturned tree-stump some two and a half metres across.

Further visits to the beach revealed what are now known as the circle of oak posts around the tree stump. He informed Norwich Castle Museum and the excavation began.

Holme beach remains wonderfully remote and deserted. There is no sign of the exciting finds revealing its historic past built by people from small farming communities who lived in wattle and daub round houses.

We remain uncertain why they built these circles. But to get up close to them, visit King’s Lynn museum (tel: 01553 775001). It has a remarkable display of the timbers and the Bronze Age circle and a free audio guide about the people who created this monument.

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