England’s Mysterious ‘Seahenge’ Monument May Have Been Built to Prolong Summer

One researcher thinks the structure was used for ancient rituals during a period of bitter cold

Seahenge museum
Components of Seahenge, or Holme I, were displayed at the British Museum in 2022. Daniel Leal / AFP via Getty Images

Some 4,000 years ago, builders arranged a circle of tall timbers on an English beach. This ancient structure—known as “Seahenge”—has long mystified archaeologists. A similarly mysterious monument dating to the same period lies some 300 feet away.

Now, one researcher thinks he’s determined the structures’ purpose: According to a study recently published in GeoJournal, they were an attempt to reverse a bout of climate deterioration.

Ancient communities may have built these structures as “ritual responses” to lengthy periods of cold weather, as David Nance, a researcher at Scotland’s University of Aberdeen, writes in the paper.

Seahenge, which is also called Holme I, was found at Holme-next-the-sea beach in Norfolk on England’s east coast. The monument’s center was an upside-down tree stump, buried with its roots facing the sky. It was surrounded by a fence of 55 oak timbers that were up to ten feet tall, arranged in an oval measuring over 22 feet across.

“Originally, the circle would have stood on a salt marsh away from the sea, in an area protected from the sea by sand dunes and mud flats,” writes Newsweek’s Aristos Georgiou. “Peat present in this swampy area gradually covered the timbers, preventing them from decaying.”

Nearby lies Holme II, another timber circle built at the same time. One popular theory is that the two structures hosted “sky burials,” during which dead bodies were placed inside to be scavenged by birds.

Remnants of the ancient monument on a beach in Norfolk, England Roger Tidman via Getty Images

However, Nance’s study proposes that Holme I and II were actually built for rituals, which ancient communities believed would help bring warmth to the region. The researcher came to this conclusion by combining archaeological analysis with “climatic and environmental data, astronomic and biological evidence, regional folklore and toponymy,” per a statement from the University of Aberdeen.

“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,” says Nance in the statement. “It seems most likely that these monuments had the common intention to end this existential threat.”

Seahenge’s timbers were cut in the spring of 2049 B.C.E., and researchers think the monument may have been built to align with the summer solstice—the longest day of the year.

“Summer solstice was the date when, according to folklore, the cuckoo—symbolizing fertility—traditionally stopped singing” and returned to another realm, says Nance. “The monument’s form appears to imitate two supposed winter dwellings of the cuckoo remembered in folklore: a hollow tree or ‘the bowers of the Otherworld’ represented by the upturned oak stump at its center.”

The study suggests Seahenge may have “mimicked the ‘pen’ described in folklore for an unfledged cuckoo to keep singing and extend the summer,” as the Independent’s Vishwam Sankaran writes.

Meanwhile, Holme II may be connected to legends of “sacred kings” who were sacrificed during periods of suffering in order to “restore harmony,” per the statement.

“Both monuments are best explained as having different functions and associated rituals, but with a common intent: to end the severely cold weather,” says Nance.

Holme I’s “Seahenge” moniker comes from its shape, which is similar to that of Stonehenge, the famous ancient monument in southwest England. But unlike Stonehenge, Seahenge no longer stands: After its discovery, the structure’s remains were removed, studied, conserved and put on display at the Lynn Museum in Norfolk.

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