All  

Iraq Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Seahenge timber enclosure with central inverted oak stump, thought to be used for rituals intended to influence the climate.

Seahenge Was Built To Combat Harsh Climate, Finds Study

Print
Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

With all the focus on the iconic Stonehenge and its relation to the Sun and the Moon, England’s east coast Seahenge perhaps receives less historical attention than it deserves. A brilliant new study has shed light on this other prehistoric monument, re-investigating its purpose for being built over 4,000 years ago. The study has found that the monument was in place to conduct certain rituals aimed at prolonging the summer during the periods of extreme and bitter cold changes of the 3rd millennium BC. 

University of Aberdeen researcher Dr David Nance has published new findings in GeoJournal on Holme I (Seahenge) – a 4000-year-old Bronze Age wooden circle, revealed by the shifting sands of Holme-next-the-Sea beach on the north Norfolk coast in 1998. 

Seahenge during sunset, after some of the timber had been removed by archaeologists for testing and preservation.

Seahenge during sunset, after some of the timber had been removed by archaeologists for testing and preservation. (Historic England) 

Extending the Summer: Fighting a Bitterly Cold Climate  

The circle, consisting of an upturned tree-stump surrounded by 55 closely fitted oak posts, was originally built on the saltmarsh away from the sea and specialists estimate it to have been built of timbers dating from the spring of 2049 BC. 

The structure would have been positioned in an area protected from the sea by sand dunes and mudflats. This swampy area created a layer of peat that slowly covered the timbers, preserving them from decay. 

Dr. Nance also examined Holme II, a second, adjacent ring centered on two oak logs laid flat and dated to the same year. He considered the archaeology of the sites alongside climatic and environmental data, astronomical and biological evidence, regional folklore, and toponymy. 

Dr. Nance posited in a statement to the University of Aberdeen: 

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

Previous theories suggested the structures might have marked the death of an individual or been used for sky burials, where the dead were placed inside to be pecked and carried away by carrion-eating birds. However, Dr. Nance proposes an alternative explanation: Seahenge and the adjacent timber circle were constructed during a bitterly cold climatic period for rituals intended to extend the summer and bring back warmer weather. 

Emulating Nature: Symbols of Renewal and Lore 

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. 

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, reports IFL Science 

Evidence suggests these kings were ritually sacrificed every eight years on Samhain (now Halloween), aligning with Venus’s eight-year cycle.  

“Evidence suggests that they were ritually-sacrificed every eight years at Samhain (now Halloween) coincident with the eight-year cycle of Venus. The fixtures in Holme II that were thought to hold a coffin are orientated towards sunrise on Samhain in 2049 [BC] when Venus was still visible. Both monuments are best explained as having different functions and associated rituals, but with a common intent: to end the severely cold weather,” concludes Nance. 

Top image: Seahenge timber enclosure with central inverted oak stump, thought to be used for rituals intended to influence the climate. Source: Mark Brennand/GeoJournal 

References 

Georgiou, A. 2024. Ritual May Solve Mystery of 'Seahenge'. Available at: https://www.newsweek.com/ritual-may-solve-mystery-seahenge-1907013 

Hale, T. 2024. Forget Stonehenge, Why Was "Seahenge" Built Over 4,000 Years Ago? Available at: https://www.iflscience.com/forget-stonehenge-why-was-seahenge-built-over-4000-years-ago-74465 

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

 
ancient-origins's picture

Ancient-Origins

This is the Ancient Origins team, and here is our mission: “To inspire open-minded learning about our past for the betterment of our future through the sharing of research, education, and knowledge”.

At Ancient Origins we believe that one of... Read More

Next article