Seahenge at Holme Beach ©EDPLynn Museum
In the summer of 1998 the shifting sands of Holme beach on the north Norfolk coast revealed something extraordinary. Preserved in the sand were the remains of a unique timber circle dating back over 4000 years, to the Early Bronze Age. Although discovered on a modern beach, the circle was originally built on a saltmarsh, some way from the sea. The site became known as ‘Seahenge’.
Seahenge at Holme BeachLynn Museum
The timbers were arranged in a circle 6.6m (21 ft) in diameter, comprising 55 closely-fitted oak posts, each originally up to 3m (10 ft) high.
The central stump on display at Lynn MuseumLynn Museum
The Central Stump
At the centre of the circle was a great upturned tree stump. It weighs well over a tonne and is 2.5m (8ft) in height and width.
To move the stump a tow hole was cut and woven honey suckle ropes were used to drag the piece into position.
The surface of the timber was shaped by axes made of bronze.
Fenland 3,000BC by Steve CaleLynn Museum
The Changing Landscape
Although revealed on a beach, the timber circle originally stood in a very different environment.
Over the last 3000 years, the sea has encroached on the land as the protective barrier formed by the dunes moved steadily inland. The site was eventually covered by sand, killing the plants and trees. The protective layers sealing the timbers were gradually worn away by the action of tides and storms.
Reconstruction of Bronze Age manLynn Museum
The Builders of Seahenge
Seahenge was built by people living and farming near the saltmarshes.
In the Early Bronze Age, people would have lived in small farming communities. Their homes were simple roundhouses. The things they used and owned would have been homemade.
Early Bronze Age axe headLynn Museum
Everyday equipment such as knives and arrowheads were made from flint, a naturally sharp stone. Bronze Age people also carved wood, bone and antler to make tools and jewellery. Simple pottery vessels were used for cooking and storage, whilst finer pots such as the intricately decorated beakers were probably used for special occasions, including burial. Metal tools were introduced from the continent just a few generations before Seahenge was constructed. Axes previously made from polished stone were now produced in bronze.
Holme Timber Circle also known as 'Seahenge' (1999)Lynn Museum
What Was Seahenge For?
Up to 50 people may have helped to build the circle, possibly a local tribe coming together to mark a special occasion – perhaps the death of an important member of the community. Across Britain, many ceremonial monuments survive from this period. Some are associated with burials, whilst others were used for community ceremonies spanning centuries.
Although we can never be certain why Seahenge was built, many archaeologists think that the upturned stump supported the body of an important person. Birds and animals would have been allowed to pick the body clean, before the bones were removed elsewhere for burial. As with many ceremonial sites of this period, the circle may also have served as a simple astronomical calendar, marking the Midwinter sunset and Midsummer sunrise.
Seahenge during excavationLynn Museum
Conditions for the archaeologists excavating the site were difficult. The area was flooded by tides and only accessible for between two and four hours a day.
There were also a number of protests on the beach by people opposed to the removal of the timbers.
Excavating one of the timbers ©EDPLynn Museum
The excavations revealed a wealth of information. The timbers for the posts were cut nearby, dragged to the site and lowered into a trench. Some posts were trimmed on arrival. When the circle was completed, all but one of the timber posts still had the bark attached on the side facing out. A few posts also had bark on the inside, including the post placed opposite the entrance to the circle. This entrance was blocked by a post soon after the site was built.
The central stump being excavated from the beach ©EDPLynn Museum
At the centre of the circle stood the upturned stump. When the stump was finally lifted, they discovered a twisted honeysuckle rope used to drag the stump into place.
The central stump undergoing conservation treatment at Flag Fen, Peterborough ©EDPLynn Museum
As soon as they emerged from the sands of Holme beach, the timbers began to decay. Originally preserved by a thick layer of peat, they were now exposed to a number of damaging effects including sea water salts, wood-boring molluscs and worms. The timbers also suffered from the twice daily wetting and drying by the tide.
Once removed from the beach, the timbers were taken to the Bronze Age Centre at Flag Fen, near Peterborough. Here they were placed in freshwater tanks, the beach mud cleaned off and most of the salts removed.
Scanning of the timbers ©EDPLynn Museum
The timbers were laser-scanned to record every detail on their surface.
The study of the timbers undertaken at Flag Fen revealed a wealth of information. The posts and stump all came from between 15 to 20 oak trees felled in spring 2049BC.
A number of posts came from the same tree. The trees had been cut down and shaped with bronze axes. The marks left by up to 50 individual axes were preserved on the surface of the wood.
In 2003 the timbers were transferred to the Mary Rose Trust in Portsmouth. A complex conservation project started with them being placed in clean water to remove any remaining salts. They were then immersed in the special wax, polyethylene glycol (PEG), which gradually reinforced the cell structure of the wood. The timbers were then vacuum freeze-dried to remove any remaining water.
The excavation, conservation and study of the Seahenge timbers were funded by English Heritage.
Seahenge gallery at Lynn Museum (2015)Lynn Museum
In 2008, half of the timbers and, two years later, the central stump were put on permanent display in a dedicated gallery in Lynn Museum.
You can visit the Seahenge gallery in our virtual tour.
Holme II ©John Lorimer by John LorimerLynn Museum
In 1999, during the excavation of Seahenge, a second circle was discovered on Holme Beach. Named Holme II, this circle was found about 100 metres away from the original site. The second circle was much bigger measuring 13.2m (43ft) in diameter.
Holme II central setting ©John Lorimer by John LorimerLynn Museum
It had a central setting of two oak logs, posts and a wickerwork fence with outer palisade surrounding it. Archaeologist dated the second structure to 2049BC, the exact date as Seahenge. This is the only know case in British pre-history where two monuments were built at the exact same time.
The second structure was studied by archaeologist but the decision was made not to excavate.
Holme beach is located within a very sensitive nature reserve that is home to internationally important populations of migratory birds. These are easily disturbed by people. No archaeological remains can be seen at the site today.
Eastern Daily Press
Arts Council England
Norfolk County Council
Norfolk Museums Service
Oliver Bone, Curator
Melissa Hawker, Learning Officer
Dayna Woolbright, Assistant Curator