Into The Bronze Age Underworld

| 26 May 2001


By Anra Kennedy

All pictures by Francis Pryor.

Two years ago a stunning archaeological discovery made on a windswept and stormy Norfolk beach hit the headlines in all the national media. Erosion of a peat layer on the shoreline revealed a ring of wooden posts encircling the upturned stump of a big oak tree.

It was local man John Lorimer's discovery of a bronze axehead on the beach close to the Seahenge site that first alerted archaeologists to the idea that the sea could be hiding something of interest.

The subsequent discovery of fifty-five oak posts arranged in an egg-shaped ring around an enormous upturned tree stump thrilled the archaeological establishment.

The remains have now been dated to 2050BC, the early Bronze Age, and have proved to be an invaluable source of information on the period.

For a number of neo-pagans and druids however, the excavation and removal of the timbers was seen as the destruction of a sacred spiritual site. Their protests attracted considerable publicity during the painstaking excavation process over the summer of 1999.

"The reason that the timbers were important to dig up was partly the fact that on waterlogged timbers most of the data is actually in the ground," said Maisie Taylor, wife of Francis Pryor, author of a new book about the structure.

She's in no doubt that removal was the only option for Seahenge. It was clear that if the timbers were to be left in situ they would be worn down to nothing by the action of the tides in a very few years.

Maisie's detailed study of the wood has revealed more clues to the Bronze Age way of life than she had dared hope for in the muddy, early days of the Seahenge project. The first of these clues was to the original appearance of the oaks.

Initial photographs of the great circle of posts suggest they were spaced apart from each other.

Excavation proved this to be wrong: 'There was a wall of timbers and they were set edge-to-edge. They were split timbers with bark on the outside and the wooden surface on the inside: so from a distance it would have looked like a giant tree, a great tree stump."

The preservation of the timbers under the beach was remarkable due to the gloopy consistency of the clay that surrounded them. "It's got into every crevice and it's excluded all air," said Maisie Taylor.

"So no oxygen's got at them, no light has got at them, and of course if you haven't got light or oxygen nothing will live, so you haven't got woodworm, mould or fungus, so they absolutely look like the moment they were put into the ground.

It is thought that there would have been around a metre of timber below ground level, with the structure reaching a height of perhaps three metres - obscuring an external view of the central feature.

Imagine then, the haunting sight the structure must have presented to visitors four thousand years ago. "In those days it would have been freshwater marsh or swamp but perfectly dry enough to walk around on, and just water a few inches below the surface," said Francis Pryor.

"It would have been a very mysterious place, and I think it would have been a place that was deliberately kept rather mysterious."

"Then, it was separated from the sea by a ridge of dunes - and that ridge of dunes over the past four thousand years has gradually eroded back. The site would have been a quarter of a mile from the sea and you wouldn't have been aware that the sea was there at low tide: at high tide you would have heard the waves just beyond the dunes." Pryor believes that this setting tells us much about the significance and purpose of Seahenge.

"One of the reasons that it was positioned where it was, in a wet, cold place, was that it was deliberately a marginal, isolated place on the edge of the inhabited world, but it was also on the edge of the world inhabited by the ancestors."

"So when you were bidding someone farewell, which is what these places often were all about, then it made sense to do that at the edge of their world, adjoining ours. "

In his new book, Seahenge (Harper Collins, May 2001) Pryor expands on this odd idea of the landscape inhabited by ancestors: he calls it a 'liminal' place, (as opposed to 'subliminal') meaning a landscape on the brink of the real and the spiritual.

Pryor colours in his theory with details of his experiences digging a Bronze Age site at Etton, near Flag Fen. At Etton Pryor and his team found extraordinary evidence of a community living in an intimately spiritual way - every aspect of daily life appeared to be conditioned by the necessity to respect the rule of the ancestors.

Druids and archaeologists seem to be in agreement at least that Seahenge was intended as a place of ceremony. It now seems likely to be part of a 'ritual landscape' or a collection of burial mounds, shrines and monuments that are arranged across the landscape as a way of bringing communities together.

"Societies were much more separated than they are today and you had to have some reason to get people to come together and usually that's when someone dies," said Pryor. "So the whole family would come together and celebrate that person's passing."

"The interesting thing about Seahenge is that for the first time ever we've got some idea of scale in the Bronze Age," Francis explains. Close scrutiny of the timbers has shown no less than thirty-eight different bronze axes were used during the construction of the circle.

"There must have been a whole community and possibly in that community every family or every person was allowed to produce one tree or had to produce one tree," said Maisie. "There's no other explanation for why there would be so many tools cutting down trees for such small numbers."

The most striking element of Seahenge is the central upturned oak.

Francis's theory on why the tree has been placed in this position has its roots in Finland. He believes the Saami people there hold a very ancient, possibly pre-historic, belief in a parallel universe.

"It's a world which is an exact mirror image of our world and they believe that there are people below our feet mimicking or mirroring our day-to-day activities. What they saw as transferring life from our plane to their plane was to cut a tree down and then bury it upside-down. The life forces of the tree would then be transferred from this world to the next world."

Seahenge is now thought to be part of an extended ritual landscape - as the remains of a Bronze Age revetted burial mound have come to light a hundred metres away from the original circle.

"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. There was another hoard found about quarter of a mile away so I wouldn't be surprised if there weren't several dozen sites waiting to be found. It's one of the highest energy beaches in the country and it's being smashed at an incredible rate."

Francis is totally matter-of-fact about this. He and Maisie think the conditions for preservation of these artefacts are so ideal, and the coast's erosion so inevitable, that it is only a matter of time before the clay gives up more of its four-thousand-year-old secrets.

Seahenge has given Francis Pryor, Maisie Taylor and their colleagues many solutions to the mysteries of the Bronze Age. It has also thrown up a multitude of challenging questions that are reverberating throughout the archaeological world. Meanwhile, on the windswept Norfolk coast, the waves are working on uncovering a little more of our ancient past.

In part two of our Seahenge feature (coming soon) we look into what the future holds for Seahenge - preservation, display - or reburial?

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

COPYRIGHT NOTICE We'd like to thank Francis Pryor for the kind use of his images. All images copyright Francis Pryor. No unauthorised reproduction, copying or storage in any form.

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