Science & Tech

Scientists finally solve 4,000-year-old mystery behind ‘Seahenge’

Scientists finally solve 4,000-year-old mystery behind ‘Seahenge’
Scientists finally solve 4,000-year-old mystery behind ‘Seahenge’
Scientists finally solve 4,000-year-old mystery behind ‘Seahenge’

Stonehenge is one of the UK’s most iconic monuments, but its coastal cousin – dubbed, perhaps unsurprisingly, “Seahenge” – gets a lot less press.

And yet, the strange Bronze Age structure holds just as many secrets as its megalithic Salisbury counterparty and, for decades, experts have been scratching their heads over why it was built.

Now, archaeologist David Nance of the University of Aberdeen, has finally come up with an explanation for the prehistoric landmark’s existence – and it feels painfully timely.

Seahenge, which is officially known as Holme I, was only discovered in 1998 when tidal erosion exposed its various components which had lain buried for millennia.

Beachcomber John Lorimer is credited with finding it, after spotting a Bronze Age axe head poking out of the sand. Then, over the course of numerous return visits, he watched in amazement as the tree stump and wooden ring eventually revealed themselves.

The monument, which was uncovered on a beach in Norfolk, consists of an upturned oak stump encircled by 55 split trunks of the same wood, spaced out in an oval formation.

The ancient oak circle emerged from the shifting sands at Holme-next-the-Sea in Norfolk in 1998(PA Images)

Just 100 metres (328 feet) away, a similar structure was found – now known as Holme II. The rings on the trees at the neighbouring sites suggest they were both built around 2049 BCE – just a few hundred years after the iconic sarsen stones were installed at Stonehenge, around 250 kilometres (155 miles) away.

When it was built, Seahenge was at no risk of tidal erosion. It was constructed away from the shore on salt marshland, shielded by sand dunes and mud flats. Furthermore, the tree trunks were nestled into peat, which would have protected them from decay, as Science Alertnotes.

However, as the centuries passed, silt and sand piled up, eventually swallowing up the mystic circle.

It has previously been suggested that both Holme I and Holme II were created in hommage to a prominent figure, such as a warrior or a local chieftain, IFL Sciencereports.

But other researchers have speculated that the structures were used for sky burials, in which bodies of the dead would be placed to be carried away by carrion-eating birds.

Now, Nance has come up with a new theory, published in GeoJournal, suggesting the monuments were created for climate rituals in an attempt to combat the severe winters that plagued the region at the time.

"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," the archaeologist said in a statement.

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

Seahenge was moved from its original beach location to Lynn Museum in West Norfolk(PA Images)

Nance used climatic, environmental, astronomic and biological data, as well as regional folklore, to draw his conclusion.

He also pointed out that the timbers were felled in spring, and arranged to align with the sunrise on the summer solstice.

"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," Nance explained.

He believes that Seahenge and its twin were designed to “capture” the cuckoo and thus extend the summer. In other words, they were a desperate attempt to put off the arrival of a long, punishing winter.

"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," Nance said.

"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."

He also posited that Holme II, which is suspected to have contained a human body, was built to "house the ritually sacrificed body of a mortal consort of the Venus deity” – a person who had been charged with ensuring the community's wellbeing and fertility, but who was perceived to have failed.

"Evidence suggests that they were ritually sacrificed every eight years at Samhain (now Halloween) coincident with the eight-year cycle of Venus," he added.

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

Pagans and archaeologists alike acknowledge the spiritual significance of the Holme sites(Mark Brennand)

And whilst both monuments had different specific functions and associated rituals, he is convinced that their common purpose was to end the severely cold weather.

Holme I was first excavated in 1999 when it was christened Seahenge by the media. Pagan and local groups demanded that it be kept in situ but it was eventually moved to the Lynn Museum in King's Lynn, West Norfolk, where it remains on display, preserved in wax.

Holme II, meanwhile, remains in its original spot. However, exposure to the sea's tides has already washed much of it away.

And if the intention of both sites really was to encourage warmer weather, current climate data suggests they worked a little too well...

Sign up for our free Indy100 weekly newsletter

How to join the indy100's free WhatsApp channel

Have your say in our news democracy. Click the upvote icon at the top of the page to help raise this article through the indy100 rankings

The Conversation (0)