Romancing the Stones

Who built the great megaliths and stone circles of Great Britain, and why? Researchers continue to puzzle and marvel over these age-old questions

One of the most striking arrays of Neolithic monuments in Britain, the Ring of Brodgar is on the Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland. Dating from about 2500 B.C., the ring's stones form a perfect circle 340 feet in diameter. (The tallest of the surviving stones is 14 feet high.) A ditch surrounding the ring, dug out of bedrock, is 33 feet wide and 11 feet deep. Archaeologist Colin Renfrew, who partially excavated the site in 1973, estimates the ditch would have required 80,000 man-hours to dig. (Macduff Everton)

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Four years ago, in Norfolk, the county that juts like a fat paw into the North Sea 120 miles northeast of London, a local beachcomber, John Lorimer, stumbled upon one of the great prehistoric finds of the century— and touched off a furor. Walking the beach near Hunstanton, Lorimer noticed a huge, upside-down tree trunk sprouting from the sand, halfway between the high- and low-tide mark. Then, 25 feet from the stump, he picked up a metal object. A self-taught antiquarian, Lorimer guessed he had found a Bronze Age ax head. An archaeologist proved him right, dating it to 1600-1400 b.c. A few months later, Lorimer noticed that the upside-down tree trunk had company: three posts sticking several inches out of the sand. On subsequent visits, he found more posts, and soon recognized that they were laid out in a circle, with the tree trunk at the hub.

Lorimer had discovered what the press soon dubbed Seahenge. The first archaeologists to visit the site, scholars from the Norfolk Archaeological and Environment Division in Norwich, knew at once that the post circle was ancient and important. But precisely what it was perplexed them. As early as 1925, evidence of henges made of wood—entirely vanished today—was discovered from the air by patterns of posthole rings in the ground. (Stonehenge itself, experts later concluded, had been made of timber a thousand years before the stone trilithons were raised.) Never before, however, had any original timbers been found. Seahenge was that rarest of things—an apparent wooden henge with wood intact, miraculously preserved by the deep bed of peat that lay above it. A dendrochronologist cut a wedge out of the central inverted oak and, using the most advanced radiocarbon dating techniques, came up with a date that is stunningly accurate—the central oak and posts were felled in 2049 b.c.

Evaluating the site in 1998, the Norwich team determined that Seahenge was in immediate danger due to the erosion of the protective peat. Though the policy of English Heritage is to leave artifacts where they are found, the urgency of the perceived threat led to a decision to remove the timbers. But as archaeologists prepared to do so in May 1999, all hell broke loose. Some of the same New Agers and neo-Druids who would celebrate the solstice with me at Stonehenge flocked to the Seahenge beach, determined to block the excavation. They were joined by locals who also felt that the timbers should be left in place. "There was lots of verbal abuse," Maisie Taylor, a specialist in waterlogged archaeological sites, recalls. "The young archaeologists took the worst of it. We had hate mail and even death threats. Eventually we had to have police protection." Ultimately, the excavation went forward. Slowly, as each high tide brought with it muck and sand, the team, led by archaeologist Mark Brennand, made some intriguing discoveries. Bronze Age axmen (or women) had cut notches into the trunk of the giant oak stump, most likely to keep it from slipping when maneuvering it with a rope. Indeed, rope fragments, unbelievably still in place, proved to be braided of honeysuckle; nothing like them had ever before been found. As for the ellipse of timbers, from 15 to 18 feet across, it turned out not to be a henge at all. There was no trace of a surrounding ditch, and the timbers stood tight to one another like a palisade, with no apparent doorway. (Brennand thinks a single forked post may have served as the entryway; initiates would have had to clamber through the forked V to get inside.) Finally, in August 1999, the last post was taken out of the sand. Each timber was carried by military stretcher to a trailer and driven to Flag Fen laboratory in Peterborough, where all 55 of them were submerged in preservation tanks filled with constantly moving water.

Archaeologist Maisie Taylor gave me a tour of the Flag Fen facility, which is open to the public. Delicately, she lifted one six-foot log out of the water and held it for my perusal. I was instantly struck by the ax marks that had trimmed it—the first evidence of tool use ever found in Britain. "What little Bronze Age woodworking we've ever seen demonstrates an amazing sophistication," Taylor said. Using state-of-theart laser-scanning techniques, experts identified the "fingerprints" of some 38 different axes that, remarkably, had been used to hew the timbers of Seahenge.

Taylor invited me to touch the log. It felt like a cooked mushroom. "You could take it out with your fingernail," she said, putting it back in the water. Once the timbers have been studied, they will be sprayed with fixative chemicals.

In the meantime, the Seahenge discovery underscores the notion that for all the permanence of stone monuments, equally magnificent monuments crafted out of wood once spread from one end of Britain to the other: wooden tombs, timber circles, standing timbers carved with intricate designs—all vanished but for their vacant postholes.

Almost a year after Taylor and her group excavated Seahenge, I drove up the Norfolk coast to talk to local villagers about the excavation. "I played on that beach when I was 8 or 9; I'm 68 now," retired builder and fisherman Geoffrey Needham told me between sips of lager at the Whitehorse Pub in Holme-nextthe- Sea. "As long as I can remember, that big oak stump has been sticking out. They should have left it. The shifting sands would have covered it up. It would come and go as always." Needham showed me a postcard of Seahenge made from a photograph taken by his sister Wendy George that he said many of the protesters still carry with them like a talisman. Back in London, I told English Heritage's David Miles about my conversation in the pub. Miles said he thought it unlikely that Needham could have seen the oak stump as a child; the timbers were exposed only a few years ago. (In all likelihood Seahenge had been built some distance inland. Four thousand years of eroding, crashing waves had brought the seashore to the monument.)

"I see it as a sacred space," Miles went on. "There are anthropological parallels in which an upside-down tree serves as a channel into the underworld and the heavens. Trees blasted by lightning were said to be ‘chosen by the gods.' " Miles looked at the postcard, then smiled a rueful smile common to archaeologists confronted by mysteries about the past. "But of course we really don't know.


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