“ This site of international importance, formed by 55 oak timber posts completely encircling an upturned oak tree, has generated much public and media interest since its discovery was announced in January 1999. It is located in Holme beach, Norfolk. „
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Seahenge is one of the most celebrated British archaeological finds of recent years. Excavated two years ago from Holme beach in Norfolk, the 4,000 year old monument has stimulated much interest, speculation and controversy and is currently the focus of an ongoing debate as to its future from a selection of specialists. The site itself is remarkable due to its outstanding preservation and setting – a circle of timber around an upturned oak stump, located in the midst of an ancient landscape on a coastal plain. Needless to say, it is very rare for wood to survive such long courses of time, but the mud that covered the timber thankfully excluded oxygen and inhibited decay. The site was revealed during freak weather conditions just over two years ago, and immediately sparked local interest. The name “seahenge” was attributed to the monument in the media attention that followed discovery, owing to the resemblance of the site to Stonehenge – this turned out to be something of a misnomer though, as seahenge is in fact not a henge at all and nor was it originally built by the sea. A henge is in fact a bank and ditch earthwork such as the one that surrounds the stone circle of Stonehenge; there is no evidence of there ever having been one at seahenge – the correct name of the site is therefore the Holme timber circle. Perhaps you can see why “seahenge” stuck! Inevitably, seahenge soon came to the attention of the powers that be at English Heritage. Despite the organisation’s prime directive being to preserve sites in situ, the decision was made (some would say arrogantly with little or no regard for local concerns) to excavate the timbers, with some vague idea to display them in a museum after conservation and study. This triggered anger that led to protests and even a Druid sit-in to try and prevent the removal of the timbers from what was perceived as being a “sacred landscape”, claiming
that they would loose all significance once out of context. Ignoring this outcry though, English Heritage succeeded in their mission to both remove a sample from one of the timbers for dendrochronological (tree ring) dating, and later to remove the items wholesale (following recording of their position and careful labelling, of course). Despite my cynical view of the way in which these decisions were made, in all fairness the excavation was a model of good archaeological practice, and Norfolk Archaeological Trust did an excellent job under difficult conditions. The timbers were also privileged to world-class conservation at the Flag Fen centre, the famous wetland timber site. All this may have been a wasted effort if something is not done soon to find a permanent home for the Holme circle, however. While English Heritage paid for the excavation, they maintained from the start that the future of Seahenge was with local authorities – given the arguments surrounding the site, it is perhaps no wonder that no money for long-term plans has been found. A Holme Timber Circle forum has been established, though, including nine archaeologists, a Leisure and Tourism Officer and a Druid (but strangely no conservator) and a lot of hot air has been forthcoming about the future of Seahenge. The best idea they have thus far come up with? Reburial of the (expensively) conserved timbers. As a Cambridge archaeologist has said, “I would rather it was reconstructed on the moon than reburied”. In favour of the reburial option, the people of Holme have voted in favour of returning the timbers to their original location, or to a more stable location nearby. The Archdruid of Britain has also been quoted (in New Scientist) as saying that “seahenge is where the very first ray of light enters the land, before journeying to Stonehenge” – this interpretation misunderstands the site though. Although I may be at risk of sou
nding like English Heritage, I have to say that I think the reburial option is nothing short of madness. The whole point of excavating and preserving the timbers was to firstly save them from the shifting coastline that would eventually destroy the site (reburial would just re-expose the circle to this danger) and secondly to study them (how do we know that future advances won’t give us new techniques to learn even more about the circle; reburial would exclude this option). So what about the future of seahenge? I think the two most important things about this site are for the public to be educated about it and for a permanent home and display to be arranged, where all the timbers are reconstructed into the complete circle. The timber circle is an extremely important site – archaeologists have spent years excavating sites and finding little more than holes in the ground; what we have at seahenge is what stood in those holes. This find has the potential to transform our understanding of early Bronze Age rituals, and it would be a great shame if this opportunity to increase our appreciation of this period was lost. Given the high visitor numbers that were generated at Holme beach while the circle was exposed, it is not unreasonable to suggest that a commercial heritage centre based around seahenge would be feasible or even successful, but such a venture would require a strong lead from the timber circle forum. Reburying the site will not solve these issues – a proper long-term solution must be found. For more information, visit: www.northcoastal.freeserve.co.uk Thanks for reading – I welcome any comments on this issue. © 2001 Collingwood21 UPDATE - DECEMBER 2001 A decision has finally been reached on the future of Seahenge. The most recent edition of Trench One has announced that the timbers are to be conserved for future generations, after the powers that be have come to t
heir senses and rejected the reburial option. The conservation programme will be funded by English Heritage and will take place at Flag Fen archaeological centre near Peterborough - it will take about five years. During this time, a decision will be reached on where and how the circle will be displayed.