Seahenge:What Happens Now?

| 08 June 2001


In a few brief months the Seahenge circle seemed to capture the imagination of those who saw it in a unique way.

The remote Norfolk beach setting with spectacular sunscapes and wheeling seabirds captivated observers as the mysterious wooden structure gradually appeared from beneath the waves each day.

It was easy to see why one observer described it as looking like 'a hand reaching up from the underworld'.

For more than four thousand years a thick layer of peat had protected the timbers from the onslaught of man and the environment, but in recent years tidal action and storms began to expose the mysterious wooden posts.

In 1999 the decision was taken to excavate: so what does the future hold now for the timbers? As more of the surrounding ritual landscape emerges what happens to that? Should the wood be conserved and displayed? There are many questions to be asked, but as yet not too many answers.

The reasons for the excavation are well documented (see part one of this feature) and the results emerging from Maisie Taylor and her team's research are fascinating and hugely valuable.

But once the research is complete, we are left with fifty-five oak posts and one enormous tree stump in a series of carefully controlled water tanks.

The imaginative leap to an age when Seahenge was in its prime becomes much harder to make. The first problem archaeologists face is whether or not to conserve the timbers. At the moment the wood is being preserved rather than conserved.

Wetland archaeology specialist Maisie Taylor explains: "preservation is what we're doing: trying to keep them (the timbers) as near to the conditions they were buried in as possible. We can't make it perfect. So we keep them as dark as we can and as wet as we can. But the water we have to use is tap water and that's got oxygen in it, so it's not brilliant. We can slow down the process of deteriorating quite a lot. The snag is, that's not a long-term option."

Conservation involves treating the wood in some way to halt its deterioration. There are several options: including injecting the wood with a wax solution or possibly freeze-drying it. Once conservation is complete the wood would need careful curation to maintain its condition. This is a long-term option.

English Heritage is willing to fund the conservation of the timbers but as yet no body or organisation has agreed to take responsibility for them afterwards. The display and curation of a find such as Seahenge would be no small undertaking.

One organisation that has very successfully conserved and exhibited a large wooden Bronze Age find is the Dover Bronze Age Boat Trust based at Dover Museum. "We knew from the start the Bronze Age was a difficult time to market…It's not the sexiest period," said Mark Frost, Senior Assistant Curator at the museum. Frost is honest about the initial difficulties in perception that the project faced.

It took seven years from the 1992 discovery of the remains of a 3,550 year-old wooden boat before the Bronze Age Boat Gallery at Dover Museum was finally open to the public.

The display has been a resounding success. Winner of the British Archaeological Awards ICI Award 2000 for its contribution to archaeological knowledge the long process of research, conservation and fundraising has obviously been worthwhile.

As is the case with Seahenge, the value of the boat to archaeologists and historians was never in doubt. The difficulty lay in the interpretation of the find for the museum-going public.

Frost explains the approach of the Dover team: "We deliberately tried to make it entertaining. We kept the gallery top-heavy with interactive, multimedia games and exhibits. We also tried to create a very atmospheric and iconic effect in the gallery, which adds a sense of mystery and specialness."

In its natural element Seahenge was already atmospheric and its ceremonial purpose gave it a presence of its own. If a decision is made to conserve Seahenge and display it then the sense of mystery will somehow have to be reinstated.

The very nature of the structure makes this a challenge. To restore the posts to their original positions in relation to each other, in their conserved state, would be a real feat of technology.

The Dover boat was soaked in a wax solution for a year, freeze dried in batches, reassembled then sealed into environmentally monitored display cases. This process plus the construction of the gallery and its interpretative elements cost £1.6 million. Dover District Council meets daily running costs.

Below The Dover Bronze Age Boat Gallery

Even if funds and a home were to be found for Seahenge to be displayed along similar lines to the Dover Boat, what of the rest of the beach where the circle was originally found?

Dr Francis Pryor believes that over time more and more remains will be revealed. "I wouldn't be surprised if by the end of this century they don't find another ten or twelve. It wouldn't surprise me at all. That's what I expect because it's quite a big ritual landscape."

More questions then arise. Do we excavate each one, conserve and display it at vast cost alongside the first Seahenge circle, or do we let nature take its course and leave them to the tides?

Aside from the cost, the very strong feelings of those who recognise the sanctity of the site have to be considered too. One of the most abiding images of the Seahenge excavation saga must surely be the picture of New Age protesters astride the oak stump trying to get in the way.

Not all of the 'pagan' protest at the timbers' treatment took such a noisy form. Clare Prout, writing on the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids website has a more moderate, but still critical view.

Whilst supporting the original decision to remove the wood in the pursuit of knowledge, Prout berates the lack of communication between officials and lay people and the lack of respect accorded to the timbers by archaeologists and protesters alike.

She writes: "Even if we have no understanding of how people 4,000 years ago performed ceremony we must still respect their intent - reverence, fear, love - motivations that cause people to create symbolic structures."

That's fine, but no-one should forget that the archaeologists, especially Maisie Taylor, have done their best to allow access to the timbers for the Druidic community.

The emergence of an entire ritual landscape is going to impact upon local people, the wildlife in the area (already a site of Special Scientific Interest) and the Pagan/Druid lobby. The question of 'who holds the rights' to the sites will be hotly contested.

One way of combining the interests of nature, landowners, locals, archaeologists and those with a spiritual interest in Bronze Age remains appears to have been found in County Mayo in Ireland.

The Doon Archaeological and Nature Peninsula won the Interpret Ireland Award for the way it has interpreted its richly varied historic and prehistoric ruins with minimal impact on the environment.

The remains of up to thirty sites of Bronze Age habitation are spread out over this rugged nature reserve on the Irish coast. Kevin O'Sullivan describes it for the Irish Times: "an odyssey through 9,000 years compacted into an afternoon leaves one with a sense of how landscape and the past can be interpreted without tarnishing precious terrain. Builders of interpretative centres should be subjected to a mandatory visit to Doon. It's an unobtrusive yet evocative interpretation of our past and nature."

Closer to home and another Bronze Age site currently houses the Seahenge timbers. Flag Fen, a vast ongoing archaeological dig and visitor centre outside Peterborough, is one of the most important wetland sites in Europe. Archaeologist Toby Fox is the manager of Flag Fen and believes that putting an artefact into context is the key to public understanding of prehistory.

"When you first mention pre-history to people they tend to think of dinosaurs, to have a perception that people then were like cavemen." In his experience having the timbers at Flag Fen, despite their temporary display conditions, has provided them with a context.

Mark Frost at Dover Museum reiterates the importance of this. "We tell people the boat is older than Tutenkhamun and the same age as the later stages of Stonehenge: we try to pick things we think they will already know about."

Flag Fen dates to a later period of the Bronze Age than Seahenge and tries to tell a story for the visitor, so that they can build up a jigsaw in their mind's eye. This is partly achieved through involving the public with the process of discovery. There are always volunteers working at the site and only a fraction of the site has been excavated so far, so repeat visitors can see things progressing.

Fox believes strongly that "the public haven't been included enough - Flag Fen and Seahenge are part of our national heritage, people need to understand our own ancestry, it leads to a greater appreciation and gets them out to sites near their own areas."

An option that appears to have been ruled out altogether at the moment for the timbers is the idea of reburying them in a similar situation to the beach where they were found. The plan was put forward as a way of preserving them for a future generation with more advanced conservation techniques.

After a heated debate within the archaeological world English Heritage announced that reburial wouldn't take place for the time being. Some experts fear that it wouldn't be the failsafe preservation method that others believed it to be.

Maisie Taylor's team have recently been working with new digital and laser scanning techniques on the wood which make it possible to gather a highly accurate 3D image of the posts and the central oak. This refined technology means that whatever happens to the timbers in the future at least there will be an accurate record of them for research purposes.

The early days of the Seahenge saga were dogged by conflict as decisions were made on its excavation and this pattern seems to be repeating itself now that the next phase has to be decided upon. English Heritage has stated that they 'understand that the timber circle has deep significance at many levels for many people'.

We can only hope that they, along with the relevant councils, archaeological units and the local Norfolk community can reach a compromise that satisfies the need for understanding of our heritage as well as that of respecting its sanctity and wonder.

Anra Kennedy

Anra is a writer and teacher with a keen interest in our heritage and museums. This developed initially through her use of artefacts and historic sites as educational tools, particularly for young children in the UK, Athens and Sydney.

With grateful thanks to Dr Francis Pryor for the use of his photographs and the helpful co-operation of Maisie Taylor.

Thanks to John Byford for the use of a Flag Fen image from his excellent website

Be sure to look out for Francis Pryor's new book - Seahenge - published by Harper Collins in May.

And finally - thanks to the Canterbury Archaelogical Trust for permission to use their superb pictures of the Dover Boat.

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