On an open, windswept beach of Norfolk, something truly unexpected can be found amidst the shingle and mud. The remains of the prehistoric wooden structure known as “Seahenge” date back at least 4,000 years.
Much about this structure is mysterious. We may know roughly when the residents of Norfolk created the oak circles on the shore near the town of Holme-next-the-Sea, but for the longest time we never suspected their existence at all.
Seahenge remained a mystery till 1998, when it was discovered by two brothers catching shrimp. This unique prehistoric construction is a sign that humans in the area prehistoric times worked together to build sophisticated structures.
But what made people live so close to the sea and build circles and houses near it is still a mystery. What was Seahenge for, and why was it built here?
Discovery of Seahenge
Seahenge was discovered in 1998 by John Lorimer and his brother-in-law. The pair had been out on the beach catching the local shrimp, but were keeping an eye out for anything more unusual. The pair had found a bronze axe head in the area, and this intrigued John to draw him back to the place time and again.
John found an upturned tree root on the beach, and thought it strange that it should be upside-down. But when local archaeologists looked at the axe head they realized the site must be of great importance.
The upturned tree root turned out to be at the center of a circle of oak timbers, all from trees felled in the spring of the same year. As many as fifty bronze axes were used in the construction at the time when bronze tools were rare: whatever the circle was for, it was very important.
But more than 25 years after the Seahenge circles were discovered, historians are still not sure why the circles were made and what purpose they served to our ancestors. Norfolk’s coastline is prone to windy storms, and the sands of the beach often shift.
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On one such occasion, the sands near Holme shifted and revealed underlying peat. Stumps of timber and stone also arise out of the beach sands during low tide. It was likely these shifting sands which helped to preserve the wooden structure, and to hide it for so long.
Scientists have tried excavating the place’s relics and are attempting to piece together what the site was like. The villagers who have lived near the circle, as well as local druids, have tried to prevent digging as they believe that the Seahenge is a place of ancient magic.
Disturbing the formation with digging will only ruin the spot and cause mishaps due to disturbance in the magic energy of the area, they say. The residents have also tried to protest at the site by sitting on the stumps and trees. However, scientists have nevertheless proceeded to excavate timber out of the circles and conduct research on it.
The timber was carried for studying under lab conditions and then sent to King’s Lynn Museum to be preserved for the future. The studies carried out on the timber can even pinpoint the exact year the trees for Seahenge were all felled: 2049 BC.
The posts of Seahenge were built by a community, showing the marks of more than 50 different axes. From this, we know that the people who created Seahenge had sophisticated tools that were used to craft the henge.
The society who built Seahenge must have been more organized than has been speculated before. Several other pieces of evidence point out that Seahenge had residents who used to live in a civilized way.
However, the exact tools and technologies used to create Seahenge are still unknown. The purpose of building the Seahenge is also not easy to find out. We still cannot know what happened at the Seahenge and why a community was built around it.
What is Seahenge?
Seahenge is not a henge in complete reality, and differs in many ways from the more famous Stonehenge. Stonehenge is however a few centuries older than Seahenge.
The name “Seahenge” itself results from a debate between two journalists who visited the site early on before the archaeologists. It was debated what to call the site in the news. Finally the resemblance to Stonehenge won the day and the site was officially named Seahenge.
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But this resemblance is only superficial. Seahenge is not the same as Stonehenge, although it doubtless held ritualistic importance in prehistoric times. With its characteristic circles and burial mounds, that might be places where the people of the bygone era practiced rituals and ceremonies. However, the culture of Seahenge was so old that historians are not able to establish concrete links between it and the civilizations that we know existed more recently.
Apart from the principal site at Holme, a site called Holme 2 was also discovered, revealed by the shifting sands. The circle was like the Holme circle with timber ends, but it was bigger.
Historians could never properly study the remains of Holme 2 however, because it was again lost to the sea due to waves and tidal currents. Therefore, a part of the history and existence of Seahenge will always remain unanswered. The sea might reveal Holme 2 again, but we do not know when that will be or if we will get the same remains that surfaced then.
The site of Holme 2 was mostly seen as a burial ground within concentric circles. The timber posts on these circles were different from other timber posts on Holme as they had intertwined branches. Scientists were able to date the timber of Holme 2 before it disappeared again.
From the studies, it was found that the formations of Holme and Holme 2 were made in the same period. The two sites must have been created for the same purpose and using the same techniques. Seahenge might have been a burial ground, a memorial or some other kind of ritual ground. There are many possibilities, and scientists are not sure what is its true purpose.
It is possible that Seahenge was part of a bigger civilization who lived in the area, which was eventually lost in the sea. Under the sea, part of the picture has likely been lost forever to the erosive seawater. Therefore, the tale of Seahenge will not make complete sense to us.
Scientists claim that an ancient walkway may also form part of the Seahenge formation. However, this is still up for debate, as fragments are all that remain apart from the Holme site.
Lying so close to the sea, there is a chance that Holme will also be lost again with time. However, scientists may take on further investigations to find new truths about Seahenge and the people who lived there.
Whatever they built here, it was important. But the ultimate reason behind the construction of Seahenge might remain forever elusive.
Top Image: Seahenge shortly after its discovery, with the upturned tree root in the middle. Source: Picture Esk / CC BY-NC 2.0.
By Bipin Dimri
Bishop, C, 2021. Will we ever know why Seahenge was built? Available at: https://www.edp24.co.uk/news/why-was-seahenge-built-in-norfolk-8562776
Sheldon, N, 2022. Seahenge: Discovering a Unique Henge Monument. Available at: https://historyandarchaeologyonline.com/seahenge-discovering-a-unique-henge-monument/
Lynn Museum, 2021. Seahenge. Available at: https://artsandculture.google.com/story/seahenge-lynn-museum/pwVhBxecshzaMQ?hl=en