In the spring of 1998, a special-needs teacher called John Lorimer found a Bronze Age axe on the beach at Holme. Not that he knew what it was at first; the crescent-shaped blade required identification by the county archaeologists. While they were looking at it in Norwich, John returned regularly to the same spot on the beach to look for more artefacts. He noticed a strange piece of wood in the peat beds that the incoming sea was slowly eroding – strange because of its weirdly contorted branches. Then on later visits he realised that a neat circle of posts around the tree were becoming exposed – at which point it was clear the structure was man-made.
John called in the experts, who by this time had dated his axe.
It was when they realised that the ‘branches’ were strange because they were in fact the inverted roots of an oak tree buried upside down that the world stood up and took notice. Or, in Francis Pryor’s words, ‘picked it up, ran with it, tossed it around in the air and devoured it’.
- The wood had been preserved by the same peat that had kept Flag Fen causeway and the boats at nearby Must Farm quarry in such good condition. Wood can be accurately dated, unlike a stone circle. The date the experts came back with was 2049 BC, in the early Bronze Age.
The papers needed a catchy name. ‘Seahenge’ was obvious but misleading – for when it was constructed, it was not on the beach, but inland, and was not strictly speaking a henge. But no matter. The growth of the coastline had, over four millennia, brought the sea to the site. That it had exposed the circle now rather than at any other time over the past few thousand years – when it might well have been ignored or missed – was sheer luck. It was also an indicator that there might well have been many more such sites which have not survived.
One reason the press loved it was that the Druid and New Age community didn’t. As could have been foreseen, they objected strongly to the timbers from Seahenge being removed; for English Heritage decided the only way to save the circle from the incoming sea was to take it away for preservation.
Rollo Maughfling, the self-styled ‘Archdruid of Stonehenge and Glastonbury’, was just one of many who protested. He has described the first time he saw the circle, as the tide retreated over the wooden posts and they began to emerge from the waves with, at their centre, ‘the magnificent upturned central tree formation, seawater pouring off it and lapping around it. A shiver ran down my spine.’
Many of the archaeologists were affected as well. Francis Pryor described what it was like to enter the circle when Channel 4’s Time Team built a full reconstruction: ‘I can only say it was profoundly moving and peaceful. Somehow the thick timbers excluded nearly all sound from outside. I was also strongly affected by the strong smell of freshly split oakwood.
You could almost cut the tannin in the air. The cleft-oak interior harmonised with the de-barked tree trunk in an extraordinary way. It was as if this special enclosed space had truly been cleansed and purified...’
Some protesters tried to stop the archaeologists’ work by throwing away their sandbags; the police were called. A legal challenge in the courts to halt the removal of the circle, which the protesters argued should be allowed to stay in its natural and spiritual site, failed when it was clear English Heritage carried too much establishment and academic backing to be beaten.
The circle and the central oak were finally removed. After restoration at the specialist tanks in Flag Fen, they are now on display at the Regional Museum in King’s Lynn. The central inverted oak, in particular, retains all its power, even behind glass. The press controversy surrounding its removal, with photos of Druids bearing staffs confronting bulldozers and archaeologists, overshadowed the fact that Seahenge was such an extraordinary creative achievement.
For me, entering the mindset of those who made the circle was in some ways as challenging as anything contemporary art could offer.
Here was a tree that had been stripped of its bark - a cumbersome operation which Francis has described as ‘completely senseless and pointless’ – and then, even more oddly, planted upside down, an idea that was beyond the irrational. Around it had been positioned a dense circle of 55 oak posts, forming a palisade: these too had their bark stripped, but only on the inward-facing side. The bark had been left on the exterior, so that to an obserrver the original monument would have looked like an enormously wide tree trunk, which one could then step inside to find the inverted oak tree at its centre.
The only entrance was through one of the posts that had split, so offering a narrow V between which to slip; as a child, climbing in the oak tree-house that we built in a wood in Suffolk, I remember the feeling of getting stuck between such forking branches; and of the subsequent entrance to a special place. Because the bark had been stripped from the inside of the posts, the interior once gained would feel worked and cleansed. And inside this giant artificial tree, what would we have found? The trunk of another oak tree, but inverted so that its one-tonne mass disappeared into the ground and its truncated roots waved in the air. The world turned upside down.
We think of the oak as an image of our national stability. Our steadiness under fire. Hearts of oak. The French have their long lines of high, thin poplars, the Spanish their cork trees, the Italians their olive groves, the Russians wide forests of silver birch: all trees of great practical use, of value. We like our oaks for their steadfastness, their age and the way they spread about themselves with a wayward sense of ownership; that they also provide acorn-feed for pigs and our beloved pork is collateral benefit.
I find it intriguing that what archaeologists call ‘the Great Central Stump’ of an oak tree should have been used with such lightness, such finesse, although those seem to have been the trademarks of the Bronze Age.
The one-tonne trunk was lowered upside down into the ground using woven honeysuckle rope: not a natural choice of material.
We know, because some of the abandoned honeysuckle rope was found wrapped around and under the oak, preserved by the peat, the first such prehistoric rope ever to have been found. Maisie Taylor, Francis Pryor’s wife, had helped make the identification, and I had talked to her about it at their farm.
To give honeysuckle that tensile strength, it would need to be soaked first, and then woven with great skill. There are other naturally occurring materials that would lend themselves much more easily to making a rope. So the choice of honeysuckle was a symbolic one, just as was the oak, which might possibly have been brought some distance to the circle to transfer a sense of place, like the Stonehenge bluestones brought from Wales.
In 2049 BC, at the time the oak was lowered into the ground, the transition to a deforested Britain was beginning. The trees were starting to be felled. Bronze axes and tools could work the wood in a way impossible in previous Neolithic times. On just this one upturned trunk of oak, the marks from some 50 different axe-heads have been distinguished.
- Francis had suggested one possible explanation for the site, and one that made sense to me intuitively: that it was a mortuary ring. The tree, a symbol of life, had been turned upside down to show death; the body of the deceased was then placed on the upturned roots of the tree so that scavenger birds could descend to strip away its flesh – excarnation, as had happened to the skeletons of those found near the Iron Age hill-forts I had visited; the outer palisade created a private and hidden space within which this could happen. In his view, ‘The tree could have provided a superb excarnation platform, but I cannot prove it.’
Whatever the explanation, to see the great blackened trunk of the upturned oak tree at the nearby King’s Lynn Museum is a primal experience. As with Damien Hirst’s shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, the glass case the trunk is kept in only adds to the feeling that this is an emotion we once knew but have since anaesthetised.
- Wendy George and her daughter Alexandra one day wandered to the beach to see what all the fuss was about. As luck would have it, they arrived at the circle just when the light was absolutely perfect: a glint of sun just hitting the water and the wood at the perfect angle. As luck would also have it, Wendy had with her a disposable camera that she had used on holiday, with just one shot left.
That one picture she took has become the iconic photo of Seahenge. No professional was ever able quite to get the same judicious angle at just the right moment. Sadly, Wendy passed away in 2012.