What is ‘Seahenge’? Bronze Age worshipers may have used the structure to try to extend the summer

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Happy Summer Solstice! Today is the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, where those of us below the Arctic Circle see an average of 15 hours of sunlight. Those closer to the poles will experience a dizzying 24 hours with the sun above the horizon. People have been celebrating this important day for millennia – with bonfires, dances, festivals, stone circles and more to commemorate the changing of the seasons. A 4,000-year-old circle of wood on the beach in Norfolk, England, nicknamed ‘Seahenge’, also corresponds to the summer solstice. Although the exact reason why Seahenge was built is still debated, a recent study published in GeoJournal states that it was constructed as a way, as locals believed, to extend the summer after a period of extreme cold when the third millennium BC ended. (Related: Newly Discovered ‘Stonehenge of the Netherlands’ Is 4,000 Years Old) What is ‘Seahenge’? Holme 1, also called Sehenge, is a 4,000-year-old Bronze Age timber circle. It was first revealed to modern eyes in 1998, when the sand on the beach at Holme-next-the-sea in Norfolk began to shift. In the center of the circle is an inverted tree stump, surrounded by 55 closely fitting oak posts. Archaeologists believe it was originally built on the salt marshes, away from the sea, and estimate it was built of timber from the spring of 2049 BC. The circle would probably have been in an area protected from the sea by mudflats and sand dunes. Over time, a peat layer slowly formed in this swampy area, protecting it from decay. Holme I wooden enclosure with central inverted oak stump. CREDIT: Mark Brennand Nearby is another Bronze Age building referred to as Holme II. This second, adjacent ring of wood dates from the same year and is centered on two flat oak trunks. The climate connection Previously, some scientists suggested that both structures may have been built to mark the death of an individual. Others suggested that they were used for air burials, as practiced in Tibet to this day. During a celestial funeral, the deceased is placed indoors to be eaten and carried away by birds, in the belief that body and soul are now dispersed to heaven. In this new study, archaeologist David Nance from the University of Aberdeen proposes an alternative explanation. Seahenge and the adjacent timber circle were built during an extremely cold climatic period for rituals intended to prolong the warmer weather of the summer. “The dating of the Seahenge timbers indicated that they were cut in the spring, and it was considered highly likely that these timbers aligned with the sunrise on the summer solstice,” Nance said in a statement. “We know that the period in which they were built 4,000 years ago was a prolonged period of lower atmospheric temperatures and harsh winters and late springs, which put pressure on these early coastal communities. It seems very likely that these monuments had the common intention to put an end to this. existential threat, but they had different functions.” The Myth of the Cuckoo Seahenge’s alignment of the sunrise on the summer solstice suggests that it mimicked a ‘pen’ to hold in an important summer symbol. In ancient folklore from that time, the cuckoo symbolized fertility. The bird stopped singing at the summer solstice and brought the summer weather back to the Otherworld. This ritual is remembered in the ‘Myth of the Pent Cuckoo’. In this story, a young cuckoo was placed in a thorn bush and ‘walled in’ to extend the summer. But the bird always flew away. Seahenge may have been used as a loft for the immature cuckoo bird to sing, prolonging the summer and its warmth. “The shape of the monument appears to imitate two supposed winter homes of the cuckoo remembered in folklore: a hollow tree or ‘the bowers of the Otherworld,’ represented by the inverted oak stump in the center,” Nance said. The Sacrifice of Holy Kings Holme II has a potentially deadlier origin. Numerous legends of ‘sacred kings’, described in Iron Age Ireland and Northern Britain, were sacrificed when misfortune befell the community. This happened at Holme-next-the-sea, in an attempt to please Venus to restore harmony. (Related: DNA suggests ancient Celtic royalty was matrilineal.) “There is evidence that they were ritually sacrificed every eight years during Samhain (now Halloween), coinciding with the eight-year cycle of Venus,” says Nance. “The fixtures in Holme II thought to contain a coffin are aimed at (the) sunrise on Samhain in 2049, when Venus was still visible.” Both monuments had different functions related to separate rituals, but are connected with the common goal of putting an end to the bitterly cold winter weather ahead. According to Nance, these types of studies demonstrate the importance of using regional folklore, along with archaeological, ecological, climatic, astronomical and biological data to paint a more detailed picture of the past.

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