Thursday, 10 July 2014

Seahenge: diggers, druids and a long forgotten past...

So Seahenge has a sister. The Bronze Age timber circle found on the North Norfolk coast, and excavated amongst scenes of tense confrontation, wasn’t alone. For those of you in the UK the news has been spread all over various media platforms for the last few weeks. Those in Norfolk trumpeting the fact that yet another major archaeological discovery has been made in the region (they’d have appropriated the Staffordshire hoard given half a chance) where the past forms such an integral part of the present. The new timber circle was ‘discovered’ only a short distance from the original circle and this time, much to everyone’s relief, it is to be left to gradually erode away and fall prey to the cycle of erosion and renewal that makes the North Norfolk coast the dynamic landscape that it is.

Now I’ll let you all in on a little secret. The circle isn’t actually a new discovery at all. The timber trunks at its centre, flattened on one face, were clearly visible at the time that the original circle was excavated, and sections of the outer palisade had been exposed to the air only a few months before the original Seahenge became the centre of such a media driven confrontation. In short, we’ve known it was there, along with a whole range of other artefacts, for nearly two decades. How do I know this you may well ask? I could after all just be saying this now to look incredibly wise and intelligent after the fact – nodding sagely when anyone mentions timber circles eroding from the peat beds of Holme. What the hell does the graffiti guy know about Bronze Age Norfolk? Well, here I’ll let you in to another little secret – which isn’t really a secret – just part of my past I’ve tried (with little success) to put behind me.

You see, back at the end of the last millennia, I wrote a little book – Seahenge: a contemporary chronicle – that documented the whole sorry story from the initial discovery, through the media shit-storm to the eventual excavation and confrontation. It wasn’t a great book. One of the main drawbacks was that I knew absolutely sod all about Bronze Age archaeology. I’ve always been a medievalist at heart, and my knowledge of the Bronze Age was largely confined to generations old books handed down from Wiltshire archaeologist A. D. Passmore (but that’s another story). However, putting aside the dodgy archaeology, the book turned out to be rather an interesting exercise in the study of archaeology and conflict – not something you usually get to study in this country.

For those of you who didn’t follow the original story, or where busy being born or potty trained at about that time, the basics are this. Back in the late 1990s a local man, John Lorimer, became fascinated with various timber structures that keep appearing and disappearing on the wide open stretches of Holme beach. John wasn’t an archaeologist, but he was fascinated by history and recognised that these structures were unusual. After the discovery of a Bronze Age axe head nearby John reported all his discoveries and findings to the local archaeology unit. Archaeologists came out to investigate and the general consensus was that the timber monuments were early – most probably Bronze Age. The decision was taken to record the site – but then leave it to gradually erode away with the passing years and tides. So this is what happened. Limited excavation took place, samples were taken for dendrochronological dating, and a short press release was issued. Local radio covered it briefly. Everyone agreed it was a fascinating site – and back to the site hut for a cuppa!

And then the storm broke! Michael McCarthy, the environmental correspondent for the Independent stumbled across the story and decided to follow it up with a bit of background research – in particular with a chat to one of Britain’s leading experts on the Bronze Age, Francis Pryor. Pryor described the discovery to McCarthy as one of “the most extraordinary archaeological discoveries” he had ever seen and that “it must be preserved”. The little story that had filled a few minutes air time on Radio Norfolk suddenly found itself splashed all over a national newspaper (one of the ones that people tended to believe) under the title ‘Shifting Sands reveal Stonehenge of the Sea’. Well you can imagine what happened next. Every other newspaper and TV news channel rushed up to the Norfolk coast to catch a glimpse of this ‘internationally important’ discovery – largely to genuine disappointment by the journalists that it was so small and rather uninspiring. However, that didn’t stop the trickle of news reports which, egged on by a campaign by a local regional newspaper, soon became a flood – and the ‘Stonehenge of the Sea’ soon became ‘Seahenge’. *

And questions were being asked too. Well, one question in particular. If this site was so important, if it really was of international significance, then why wasn’t it being excavated? Why wasn’t it being saved for the nation? Who had made the decision to let it simply slide into the waves and be lost forever? Distinct signs of embarrassed mumbling, red faces and shuffling of feet amongst certain local and English Heritage archaeologists took place. Finally, pressured by the media, the decision was reversed – and it was decided that Seahenge would be fully excavated and preserved forever for a grateful population! A mistake had been made – but now it was to be rapidly rectified. What could possibly go wrong with that???

The trouble of course is that tides of opinion, like the real waters of the coast, ebb and flow. When the decision was announced that the site was to be excavated, and the timbers removed from Holme beach, the media storm of the previous month paled into insignificance when compared to the storm of outrage and protest that suddenly crashed upon the archaeological world. The local people of North Norfolk, and a large section of the New Age movement (as well as the odd archaeologist), simply didn’t want this to happen – and were prepared to stop it by any means possible. What was worse was that the local media, once so supportive of the excavation idea, read the way public opinion was leaning and began to quietly drift away from the archaeological side. After all, the New Age druids, chanting on the beach and blowing trumpets across the central oak, was a far better story than a simple archaeological excavation.

The senior archaeologists, isolated and pressured, then went on to make a catalogue of media and public relations errors that are actually too numerous to repeat. Court cases, exclusion orders and media own goals cast them in a pretty poor light. The locals were even describing senior archaeologists (not from Norfolk I might add) as bully-boys. Not too many miles from the truth. Perhaps the best example that I came across was when a certain senior EH archaeologist called a meeting of all sides in the village hall, to supposedly discuss the future plans for the site – and whilst all the protestors were gathered there used the opportunity to move all the heavy equipment down to the beach! What was worse was what was being experienced by the actual diggers on the site. None of the mistakes had been theirs and yet they were subject to intense pressure and, it must be said, intimidation and hostility each and every day. They were, after all, just trying to do their (badly paid) jobs. Particularly difficult as archaeologists tend to view themselves as the good guys (and girls - well mostly girls these days) used to fighting to protect our heritage. To find themselves cast into the role of villain really didn't sit too well with most of them. They were used to having the public on their side - not in their face. All in all it was a superb case study of how not to handle an archaeological excavation in the face of public hostility. Oh, and don’t even TALK about the trauma of Time Team getting involved!

So was it right to excavate the original Seahenge monument? Well, looking back after nearly 20 years there were, and still are, arguments for and against. To begin with the archaeological community was actually happy to leave the site to be eroded - and only changed its standpoint after strong media pressure. However, the timbers of Seahenge, or Holme1 as it is known in archaeological circles, have allowed us to discover a great deal more about how it was constructed and the numbers of people involved; knowledge that would have been lost if the site had not been excavated. But there are always two sides to every story. There are people who believe that the circle represented a sacred boudary; a boundary better life and death, land and sea - and that perhaps we should have let seahenge slip over that boundary one last time...

So that is how I am spending my Day of Archaeology. Revisiting Holme beach and revisiting some old memories and old beliefs. The landscape on this part of the coast is ever changing. The storm surge that took place just before Christmas has altered things once again. Large areas that were once sand and shingle now see the black mass of exposed peat showing through; the peat that has aided in the preservation of these four thousand year old timbers. The site has change a great deal since 1998, but then again, so has archaeology.


*It isn’t a henge. Never has been, never will be. It also wasn’t a fish trap, beacon for ships crossing the wash, lunar observatory – or any of the other weird and wacky ideas that anybody comes up with after a few pints and a few idle moments. It was, most probably, an excarnation site. A place where the dead were laid out so that the flesh could deteriorate from their bodies, with the help of our charming local seagulls, before the bones were collected together later. The word ‘ritual’ is probably involved. Makes you think twice before feeding chips to the gulls on Wells quay doesn’t it…**

**Oh, and it wasn’t built by the sea either. Local erosion is such that it was probably nearly a mile inland when first built, in the salt marshes that sat behind the coast.

So, bit of a silly name on both counts really…

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