Thursday, 20 November 2014

Home and Seahenge by Francis Pryor, Nina's Author of the Month

http://www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk/Research/Collections/Archaeology_Collections/Seahenge/index.htm
Frances Pryor has a new book out   (Home: a Time Traveller’s Tales from Britain’s Prehistory), which I can't wait to read. He's written many books on his specialsit subject of the archeology of the east coast of Britain, and I particularly loved Seahenge, as it was so close to my own heart.
Francis Prior became an archaeologist in the early seventies, and is married to archeologist Maisie Taylor. He's best known for his marvellous work on Flag Fen, Flag Fen, a Bronze Age site developed about 3500 years ago, which has a wooden causeway about 1/2 a mile long  built  across the wet fenland. I created a similar Neolithic walkway for my first Shaman Mystery, In the Moors, as they are also found in Sabbie  Dare's neck of the woods, the Somerset Levels. Part way across the fenland structure is a semi-man-made a small island waswhich was most likely a site of religious ceremonies and significance. Prior reconstructed a lot of the site including a typical Iron Age roundhouse dwelling, and created a visitors' centre. The fens are redolent with Bronze Age workings,  the perfect high point being the discovery in 1998 of a spectacular timber sacred circle on the coast of the Norfolk coast – a strange phenomenon which suddenly seemed to be growing out of the Norfolk coastline. A dark circle with a central core; like an atom, like a cell.
The first people to see it emerging from the sea thought at first it was the rotting carcass of an old boat. But it soon became clear that this was a magical thing. It brooded like an eye, suddenly open and clear-sighted; a spectacular timber sacred circle.

This henge manifested itself from the coastal waters as they retreated, generation on generation. Constructed from wood blackened with two millennia of submersion, it had an upturned oak-bole in its very middle, the tapering fingers of the old roots pointing at the sea, the sky, the land. It emerged, from what might be considered its grave, like a benign vampire; mysterious and ancient.


I can imagine the excitement Francis Prior, a local archaeologist, felt as he came upon the henge... We walked for hours – or so it seemed – across tracts of sand, blasted from time to time by penetrating winds. At last we reached the circle. Three archaeologists from the Norfolk County Unit were clearing washed-in sand and debris from the gales of the previous day. As we arrived the sun came up, and I rapidly clicked off half a roll of film. The site was much smaller than I had imagined, but extraordinary, nonetheless. I was struck by its simplicity. It consisted of a rough circle or oval of oak posts, with what looked an upside-down oak in the middle. I can only guess at what this inverted tree meant, but I felt it had something special to tell...(Francis Prior, Seahenge, HarperCollins 2001)


Since hearing about Seahenge and subsequently reading Pryor's account, I had longed to visit the place and see the wood circle. When it first emerged, druids and ‘new agers’ clustered around it as if it was a rare flower and they were bees; they sat upon it, protesting the plan to uproot the entire henge and remove it from the place it had been built thousands of years ago. I had deep empathy for the protesters, who wanted this sacred monument to be left in peace, but I also had some sympathy for the case of the experts. As soon as the old wood emerged from the salt water, it was at risk – the air would rot it away to nothing. If it was left where it was, it would eventually be lost. Pulling it out felt rather like pulling teeth; like moving old bones from cemeteries; brutal and tactless. Even so, the druidical ‘sit in’ on the upturned tree roots also felt naive and insensitive in its way. The only way to preserve this amazing creation was to move it, and finally...inevitably...the archaeologists had their wicked way. Seahenge was taken south, so that the curators of the Lynn museum could learn how to care for it from the experts...the people who had worked on the Mary Rose after it had been dragged up from the sea bed.

Now, I have seen the Mary Rose, and I can remember my reaction to it clearly. It made my spine tingle. It stands – a hulking wreck of a ship – inside a perpetual shower. Water drains and runs and drips over it every second of its life. I seemed to me something between a form of torture and a form of giving life. I have never forgotten it, and since Seahenge erupted, I’ve longed to see that too.

Francis Prior set up the Fenland Archaeological Trust in 1987, allowing visitors to see the long history – natural and man’s history –of the area. I’d always wanted to see Flag Fen in the same way as I longed to see Seahenge. So when I had the opportunity to go to Norfolk to refresh my knowledge on keeping chickens, I decided to combine business with pleasure.

The dark history that separates the origins of Seahenge with the present day cannot be exaggerated. Thousands of years have passed. And to this day we don’t know what the henge was built to do. Sacrifice, is always people’s first thought; it’s always my last. I prefer to believe that it was used for sacred rituals more benign...the connection of man with the old gods. Nevertheless, there seems to be a black hole that stretches between me and the henge.

When we finally took a break in Norfolk we set out to King’s Lyn from Norwich quite early from our hote It looked a long way on the map – that proved the only correct assumption of the day. It was almost lunch time before we reached the city, so we ate first, and wandered around a bit, then went to the museum.

It was shut. Until future notice. No reason given.
I visualized the henge, locked up inside, perhaps happy to be alone again, and in the dark, beneath its constant torrent of water.
The plan had been to drive on to Francis Pryor's home and Flag Fen, but that wasn’t exactly around the corner either, so I phoned from the car.
I spoke directly to Francis Prior.
‘No,’he said, ‘we open at the end of the month.’
‘But it said on your website you opened on the 1st?’
‘Sorry,’ he said.
‘Lynn museum is shut too.’
‘Really? Why ever is that?’
‘I was hoping you’d tell me.’
I might, at that point, have asked...’would it be sensible of us to drive to Holmes-by-the-sea, just a short drive from Lynn, to see if we can spot the second henge that’s come up out of the sea? The one that has been left there to do its own thing? After the troubles of uprooting the first? The one you can see if you’re there at low tide?’
I didn’t ask any of that, of course. I didn’t even ask when low tide was. We just drove off, following the road to the east coast. We passed through the prettiest villages imaginable. Behind this was the sea, separated from us by low lying marshes of grass, creeks and dunes. A place of wild salt water birds and wild winds.
‘Even if we don’t find the second henge,’ I said, ‘we could have a lovely walk.’
‘I’ll park here, then, shall I?’
Even as we came to a halt, we knew we were stuck. Two wheels were deep in mud, skidding round, going nowhere.
We got out. My husband examined the mired tyres. I stared out to sea. High tide at Holmes- by-the-sea. A gull wheeled.
We stuck everything we had under the wheel; even the blanket from the boot. The tyre squealed and whizzed on its axel.
A lady came by. ‘Oh dear, your stuck,’ she said. ‘I’d help you if I could...’
‘Gosh, no you’re to do no such thing,’ I said.
‘Well, I am nearly ninety,’ she said. ‘But I go for this walk each day. I don’t believe one should just give up, do you?’
‘No,’ I said, staring at the tyre and the ripped, sodden muddy blanket.
She walked on. I kicked myself. I’d forgotten to ask her if she knew what directions I should give the RAC.
A family came a little later. Young couple, pushing a buggy; older man and wife. I stopped them to ask where exactly we were.
The men took charge immediately. They went home, collected their 4X4 plus a tow rope and we were out of the mire in minutes.
As we drove away, I contemplated on our wasted day. It was as if the henge had not wanted us to have any success. It had not wanted to be seen...twice over.
Maybe sacrifices were made, after all.

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