Recent research on an ancient wooden circle uncovered on a Norfolk beach, known as Seahenge, suggests it was created during the Bronze Age in response to severe climatic deterioration at the end of the third millennium BCE. Dr. David Nance from the University of Aberdeen has published new findings in GeoJournal on Holme I, a 4000-year-old wooden circle revealed by shifting sands on Holme-next-the-Sea beach, North Norfolk, England, in 1998.

Seahenge, consisting of an inverted tree stump surrounded by 55 closely positioned oak posts, was originally constructed in a salt marsh, far from the sea. Specialists estimate the wood dates back to the spring of 2049 BCE. Positioned in a protected area away from the sea by sand dunes and mudflats, the marshland environment created a layer of peat that slowly covered the wood, preserving it from decay.

Dr. Nance also examined Holme II, a second adjacent circle dated to the same year, centered around two horizontally placed oak trunks. He analyzed the archaeology of both sites alongside climatic and environmental data, astronomical and biological evidence, regional folklore, and toponymy.

Location of Holme-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, England
Location of Holme-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, England. Credit: D.A. Nance

Previously, it was suggested that these structures, the only known British monuments erected together, might have marked the death of an individual or were used for sky burials, where the deceased were placed inside to be scavenged by birds. However, Dr. Nance proposes an alternative explanation: Seahenge and the adjacent wooden circle were constructed during an extremely cold period for rituals intended to prolong summer and ensure the return of warmer weather.

Dr. Nance explains, The dating of the Seahenge woods shows they were felled in spring, and it is likely that these woods were aligned with the sunrise at the summer solstice. He adds, We know that the period when these structures were built, 4000 years ago, was a time of prolonged atmospheric temperature decline, severe winters, and late springs, putting these early coastal societies under stress.

Dr. Nance suggests that these monuments were likely intended to end this existential threat but had different functions. The alignment of Seahenge with the summer solstice sunrise implies that its purpose was to emulate the ‘corral’ described in folklore for a featherless cuckoo, intended to keep the bird singing and thus extend summer. According to folklore, the cuckoo, symbolizing fertility, traditionally stopped singing and returned to the Otherworld at the summer solstice, taking summer with it.

Plate f of the Gundestrup cauldron
Plate f of the Gundestrup cauldron. Credit: Kit Weis / National Museum of Denmark

The shape of the monument seems to mimic two supposed winter abodes of the cuckoo remembered in folklore: a hollow tree or the ‘bowers of the Otherworld’ represented by the inverted oak stump at its center, Nance notes. This ritual is echoed in the ‘trapped cuckoo myth’ where a featherless cuckoo was placed in a thorn bush and ‘locked in’ to extend summer, though the bird always flew away.

For Holme II, Nance references legends of ‘sacred kings’ in Iron Age Ireland and northern Britain, who were sacrificed if misfortune befell the community, as happened in Holme-next-the-Sea, to appease the goddess Venus and restore harmony. Evidence suggests these kings were ritually sacrificed every eight years on Samhain (now Halloween), aligning with Venus’s eight-year cycle. Structures in Holme II believed to have supported a coffin are oriented towards the sunrise on Samhain in 2049 BCE when Venus was still visible.

A phalera from Galiche, Bulgaria
A phalera from Galiche, Bulgaria. Credit: Z. Boev

Dr. Nance concludes that both monuments had different functions and associated rituals but shared a common intent: to end the severely cold climate.


Sources

University of Aberdeen | Nance, D.A. Holme I (Seahenge) and Holme II: ritual responses to climate change in Early Bronze Age Britain. GeoJournal 89, 88 (2024). doi.org/10.1007/s10708-024-11088-5


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