Seahenge move defeats protesters

FINALLY, AFTER 4,000 years in the ground and almost two months of wrangling over it, the central oak stump of the Seahenge Bronze Age memorial was excavated from a Norfolk beach yesterday.

As the diesel engine of the 20-tonne digger brought in for the task throbbed, the upturned root was eased first one way,then another before eventually giving way to modern technology. Then it hung, like a massive, freshly pulled molar, beneath the digger's bucket as protesters continued to scream defiance.

The immediate rush was to see of anything had been buried beneath it to consecrate the site. Even as the timber was still being guided away from the edge of the excavation pit, archaeologists were diving into its hole with trowels and plastic bags to collect samples. Nothing obvious was found - instead the experts were baffled by how it had been placed there in the first place.

Dr Francis Pryor, director of archaeology at the Flag Fen Bronze Age site near Peterborough where all the wood from the circle is being removed for analysis and preservation, said there were no signs of a hole having been originally dug for it.

"This means somehow they forced this solid trunk into the ground, and that's rather extraordinary," he said. "It's a problem that has got to be addressed, and in its way is a bigger problem than how the stone of Stonehenge got there."

The final drama of this extraction came even as the diggers chains took the strain and a lone woman protester rushed at the pit screaming: "Leave it, leave it!"

She wound up on the ground after she tussled with the project manager before two police officers ran over to handcuff and restrain her. The woman continued to shout as her face was forced into the mud, while other objectors joined in the racket. "Stop hurting her. Hang your heads in shame. May God have mercy on your souls," shouted one man.

Dr Bill Boismeier, the project manager from Norfolk County Council's archaeology unit, threw his safety helmet to the ground, the frustration of so many weeks of uncertainty finally breaking through.

Work at the site has been halted repeatedly by demonstrators ranging from Druids to environmental protesters.

The issue has been the subject of a series of legal challenges since news of its discovery was first reported in The Independent in January.

At one point earlier yesterday it looked as though the whole operation was going to be called off again.

Mervyn Lambert, a prominent local objector who runs a large plant-hire firm, halted proceedings on Thursday by calling in the Health and Safety Executive.

Yesterday he made another last-minute effort to keep the wood where it was by raising similar technical questions about the digger's capability. After further delays and nervous mobile phone consultations, the official go-ahead was finally given at 3.30pm.

But it was not until an hour later, when the tide had already turned, that the digger's bucket was eventually swung into position over the timber, which was swathed in foam rubber to protect it from the lifting harnesses.

"Break. Go on, break," muttered Mr Lambert as it initially refused to budge. "The people who put it in there don't want them to do it."

He was not the only one who wondered if it would hold up to the punishment. Archaeologists had previously believed the solid one-and-a-half tonne timber could have been hollow and feared that it might disintegrate during the operation.

"My god, the tension," said Dr Pryor, afterwards. "But in the end, I am delighted, because the thing is now safe."

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