Archaeologist and artist Rose Ferraby was commissioned by the British Museum to create an artwork about Seahenge for The world of Stonehenge exhibition. Here she recounts the wonder of exploring and capturing its archaeological stories.
At the heart of The world of Stonehenge exhibition stands an oval of 15 timbers. These are some of the 55 split oak trunks that form the circle of an Early Bronze Age funerary monument: Seahenge. Their gnarled forms stand silent vigil on the prehistoric wonders that surround them, yet the crispness of the oak belies Seahenge’s age. At 4071 years old, the archaeological and contemporary stories of this remarkable henge are magical and inspiring. In its timbers we see traces of actions that speak of community, humanity and empathy.
The timbers of Seahenge were first spotted on the beach at Holme-next-the-Sea in North Norfolk in 1998. Just the tops were visible, worn like old teeth by the sea. They were reported to archaeologists and, in 1999, an excavation was carried out by the Norfolk Archaeological Unit, led by Mark Brennand. This was the first excavation of its kind, and a rare opportunity to excavate a preserved wooden monument from the Bronze Age.
The discovery of Seahenge
The timbers were discovered half-way up the beach, between the high and low tide lines. The archaeologists had to work in small four-hour windows while the tide was out. They had to bail out the seawater every day before starting to dig, often finding crabs and other creatures inhabiting the circle. Everything was mud and water. Amid it all, the archaeologists had to see and feel changes in the sediment to understand the archaeology. Each timber had to be carefully recorded before it was removed, all before the tide came back in. It was extraordinary work.
The excavation revealed an egg-shaped circle of timbers set around an upturned stump of oak. Oak trunks had been sliced in half and placed snuggly next to each other with the bark side facing outwards. The final effect would have been like a huge tree trunk. The oak stump in the centre had been dragged from nearby woods and placed in the hole using honeysuckle rope. Remarkably, strands of this rope were found still laced around holes cut into the stump. It is thought a body may have been lain on top of the stump – a funerary monument firmly grounded in ideas of the natural world and surrounding landscape. The inverted stump is a powerful form. It inspires ideas of the regenerative power of trees and natural cycles of life and death. To lie amid the roots of the great oak, a body might have been part of both the earth and sky at once – perhaps unifying life and death.
The monument was originally constructed on the edge of a tidal saltmarsh. The flat landscape would have been in a constant state of flux. The tide would creep in and out up muddy creeks, and with it the coming and going of birds, and the reflected light. Saltmarshes are strange places. They seem to fall between worlds. And beyond the marsh the sea and horizon marked an edge, an otherness. It is this saltmarsh setting of Seahenge as much as the timbers themselves which gives us a real sense of the feeling and atmosphere of this ancient monument.
Over time, peat formed around the monument, preserving the lower portions of the wood. As a result, archaeologists were able to identify axe marks that revealed the process of felling the trees and working the timbers. Archaeological wood specialist Maisie Taylor was able to see that 51 different bronze axes were used. This gives us an extraordinarily detailed view of a process of making that we rarely see. More detail is found in the dating. Dendrochronology (using tree rings) showed the trees were cut down in late spring of 2049 BC. It’s amazing to be able to place this monument in time with such clarity, to be able to pinpoint its creation practically to the month.
Seahenge also gives us insight into how people may have felt. Enfolding the dead into the landscape shows a sense of care. The excavation reflected this too. As the archaeologists carefully deconstructed the henge, they were relating their experience and knowledge to those who constructed it over 4,000 years before. The wood seems to act as a repository for memories, memories that allow us empathy with others.
How then to capture all this through art? How might my own creative practice explore and communicate these complex stories and deep senses of place and emotion? I wanted to capture the sense of the unseen, the material particularities of the wood and coast. How could these be drawn out in the context of the Museum?
I visited the area of saltmarsh and coast around Holme-next-the-Sea in May and November of 2021. Armed with my camera and sound recording equipment, I began a slow process of gathering recordings. I dropped hydrophones into marshy pools, listening to the alien creaks and tappings made by invisible plants and creatures. I lingered by muddy creaks recording the cackle of black-headed gulls and the bottle-blowing hoot of bitterns. Down at an old boat house I attached contact microphones to a floodgate and listened to the eerie moans of the wind hitting metal. Nearby I found weathered timbers in the mud and spent hours filming. Through these processes of attentive looking and listening, I began to create a lasting mental image of Seahenge in its landscape.
To draw out the more recent stories of the discovery and excavation of Seahenge, I talked to some of those involved. The conversations were magical. Each person brought their own perspectives and memories, bringing the excavations vividly back to life. I was struck by how personal the work was – how much effort had gone in and what strong bonds had been formed. This is what archaeology is all about – shared endeavour and forged knowledge bringing a sense of connection with other people.
Excerpts from those conversations created the narrative of a film about Seahenge. The film captures the landscape of the marshes and beaches of North Norfolk, and a sense of the hazy, often fleeting views that we are given of the past.
Watch Rose's film here:
I also created a painted collage, building on the paper layers of colour and form to somehow capture the emergence of the Seahenge timbers within that fluid, fleeting landscape. It also folds in imagery from the conversations with the archaeologists and reflects my own archaeological imagination.
I collaborated with artist Rob St John to create a sound installation for the exhibition. Rob used the recordings from North Norfolk and variously warped, eroded and abstracted them. He used techniques of granular synthesis (which offers different ways of distorting sound) and environmentally altered tape loops, burying recordings in the ground to bring ecological chance into the composition. The 10-minute sound piece shifts through time and environment, beginning on the beach before plunging back into sediments and peat to finally re-emerge in the saltmarsh. It is installed across multiple speakers around the timbers of Seahenge, creating a subtle sonic environment throughout The world of Stonehenge exhibition.
Between them, it is hoped that these artworks bring new ways of imagining Seahenge, of how we might understand the world it was built in, all those years ago.