Have you heard of seahenge?

Timber enclosure with central inverted oak stump known as Sea henge, found in Norfolk.
Timber enclosure with central inverted oak stump known as Sea henge, found in Norfolk.
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The summer solstice occurs on June 20 or 21 in the Northern Hemisphere and no site is more popular to see the sunset than Stonehenge in England. But did you know that there is also another structure known as “Seahenge”?

Discovered in 1998, Seahenge is a 4000 year old structure, revealed by shifting sands on the North Norfolk Holme beach on the north Norfolk coast. Archaeologists have estimated it to have been built around 2049 BC.

John Lorimer stumbled upon the upturned tree stump and a Bronze Age axe. He informed Norwich Castle Museum, after which the henge was excavated.

It got the moniker “Seahenge” because it resembled the more famous Stongehenge in Wiltshire, although it was built on the beach. During the Bronze Age, this beach was not a sandy beach, however, but a salt marsh. The mysterious structure was positioned in such a way that the surrounding dunes and mud flats protected it from sea intrusion. Gradually, over the course of 4000 years, the sea has risen, encroaching into the land upon which Seahenge stood, eventually covering the peat that was preserving the Seahenge timber pillars, protecting it from natural decay.

The structure comprises of an unturned tree stump encircled by 55 closely fitted oak posts. There is a second ring adjacent to it, centred around two oak logs laid flat, also from the same time period. The first structure is Holme I and the second is Holme II.

Local and national controversy surrounded the Holme I when English Heritage decided to fund the Norfolk Archaeological Unit to remove the timbers from the beach. This was done to avoid damage that the sea could cause to the timbers. Basically, experts were of the view that if it had been left in situ, it would have gradually deteriorated. Furthermore, its location next to the Holme Dunes Nature Reserve meant that crowds arriving to see Seahenge would cause damage and disturbance to protected birds and other wildlife.

Though the timbers had been protected by the peat they immediately began to decay from sea water and the effects of tidal drying and wetting once they were excavated. They were quickly transported to the Bronze Age Centre at Flat Fen in Peterborough and cleaned in fresh water tanks. After details were recorded using laser scanning technology, they were moved to the Mary Rose Trust in Portsmouth, where again they were again cleaned and vacuum freeze dried.

No one really knows what Seahenge was used for, although some researchers have indicated that the site was erected to mark death of individuals. It was surmised that dead bodies were laid upon the upturned tree stump so that birds and animals could eat the flesh and bones. 

A new study published in May 2024 has concluded that Seahenge and the adjacent circle could have been constructed during an extremely cold period, as part of a ritual to invite back warmer weather.

University of Aberdeen researcher Dr David Nance, who conducted the study, “considered the archaeology of the sites together with climatic and environmental data, astronomic and biological evidence, regional folklore and toponymy“.

Dr Nance explains: “Dating of the Seahenge timbers showed they were felled in the spring, and it was considered most probable that these timbers were aligned with sunrise on the summer solstice.

“We know that the period in which they were constructed 4,000 years ago was a prolonged period of decreased atmospheric temperatures and severe winters and late springs placing these early coastal societies under stress.

“It seems most likely that these monuments had the common intention to end this existential threat but they had different functions.”

He also suggests that the alignment of Seahenge with sunrise on the summer solstice indicates that “its function was to mimic the ‘pen’ described in folklore for an unfledged cuckoo with the intention to keep the bird singing and thereby extend the summer“.

“Summer solstice was the date when according to folklore the cuckoo, symbolising fertility, traditionally stopped singing, returned to the Otherworld and the summer went with it,’ Dr Nance added.

“The monument’s form appears to imitate two supposed winter dwellings of the cuckoo remembered in folklore: a hollow tree or ‘the bowers of the Otherworld’ represented by the upturned oak-stump at its centre.

“This ritual is remembered in the ‘myth of the pent cuckoo’ where an unfledged cuckoo was placed into a thorn bush and the bird was ‘walled-in’ to extend the summer but it always flew away.”

For Holme II (the second adjacent ring) “he points to legends of ‘sacred kings’ described in Iron Age Ireland and northern Britain who were sacrificed if misfortune fell on the community, as happened at Holme-next-the-sea, in an attempt to appease the goddess of Venus to restore harmony.

He said: “Evidence suggests that they were ritually-sacrificed every eight years at Samhain (now Halloween) coincident with the eight-year cycle of Venus.

“The fixtures in Holme II that were thought to hold a coffin, are orientated towards sunrise on Samhain in 2049 when Venus was still visible.

“Both monuments are best explained as having different functions and associated rituals, but with a common intent: to end the severely cold weather.”

No matter what their purpose, the two structures sure are enigmatic. Hopefully, the timbers will give up more information with further research. The original tree stump and timbers, as well as a life-sized replica, can be found at Lynn Museum.

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I am a Chartered Environmentalist from the Royal Society for the Environment, UK and co-owner of DoLocal Digital Marketing Agency Ltd, with a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University, an MBA in Finance, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. I am passionate about science, history and environment and love to create content on these topics.