Has the mystery of Seahenge been solved?

Seahenge, shortly after it was uncovered by the tides in 1998 <i>(Image: Wendy George)</i>
Seahenge, shortly after it was uncovered by the tides in 1998 (Image: Wendy George)

Did the ancients build Seahenge in a desperate bid to reverse climate change?

Until now, archaeologists have believed the upturned tree-stump surrounded by 55 closely fitted oak posts were constructed for sky burials, where the dead would be placed inside to be pecked and carried away by carrion-eating birds.

Now new research into the 4,000-year-old timber circle which was found at Holme, near Hunstanton, in 1998, suggests it may have been created in response to Norfolk's changing climate.

Eastern Daily Press: The timbers are excavated from the beach in 1999 - the dig was met with protests from druids and villagers, who wanted them left where they were
Eastern Daily Press: The timbers are excavated from the beach in 1999 - the dig was met with protests from druids and villagers, who wanted them left where they were

The timbers are excavated from the beach in 1999 - the dig was met with protests from druids and villagers, who wanted them left where they were (Image: Newsquest)

David Nance, a researcher at the University of Aberdeen, says Seahenge and an adjacent timber circle were constructed during a bitterly cold period for rituals intended to extend the summer and bring back warmer weather.

"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," he said.

"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.

Eastern Daily Press: Seahenge pictured shortly after it was discovered
Eastern Daily Press: Seahenge pictured shortly after it was discovered

Seahenge pictured shortly after it was discovered (Image: John Hocknell)

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

READ MORE: Will we ever know why Seahenge was REALLY built?

READ MORE: Scans shed new light on mysteries of Seahenge 

READ MORE: Tides reveal remains of ancient forest off Holme Beach

Dr Nance said the structure was built to align with sunrise on the summer solstice and believes its function may have been to mimic an enclosure described in ancient folklore for an unfledged cuckoo, 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," he said.

Eastern Daily Press: Was Seahenge connected to ancient mythology surrounding the cuckoo?
Eastern Daily Press: Was Seahenge connected to ancient mythology surrounding the cuckoo?

Was Seahenge connected to ancient mythology surrounding the cuckoo? (Image: Archant)

"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 [Penned] 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 believes a second circle found nearby, dubbed Holme II, was built to carry out human sacrifice if misfortune fell on the community.

RIDDLE OF THE TIMBERS

Eastern Daily Press: A second timber circle which remains on the beach at Holme
Eastern Daily Press: A second timber circle which remains on the beach at Holme

A second timber circle which remains on the beach at Holme (Image: Chris Bishop)

Seahenge is believed to have been built in the spring of 2049BC and has been hailed as one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century.

The large number of axes used to work its posts and central stump showed Bronze Age people were more advanced than had previously been believed.

But while the modern-day science of dendrochronology - tree ring dating - can establish almost the exact date the timbers were felled, we still do not know why.

Eastern Daily Press: A second timber circle which remains on the beach at Holme
Eastern Daily Press: A second timber circle which remains on the beach at Holme

A second timber circle which remains on the beach at Holme (Image: Ian Burt)

We know it stood on what was originally the edge of salt marsh some distance from the shore.

As the wetland became freshwater, trees grew and formed a peat bog when they died.

That in turn was covered in a layer of sand as sea levels rose over the centuries, protecting the peat from the waves until they were uncovered by a storm in late 1998.