Shifting sands yield `Stonehenge of the sea'

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The Independent Online
IT IS one of the eeriest and most mysterious ancient monuments discovered in Britain.

A massive oak tree, stuck into the ground upside down with its great spread of roots pointing skywards, stands surrounded by a palisade-like circle of oak trunks. And it has just emerged from the sea.

A wooden relative of Stonehenge, thought to be some sort of altar, it has been revealed by the shifting sands of Norfolk, where it had lain buried and preserved for thousands of years. A beachcomber alerted archaeologists, who started excavating in October.

The site, on the lonely coast at Holme-next-the-Sea near Hunstanton, is almost certainly ritual and probably to do with death. Within its oval ring of 54 posts is the inverted oak tree with its roots, "like a table with fingers", says Dr Francis Pryor, president of the Council for British Archaeology. He believes it is very likely to have been some form of altar.

The tree-temple - if that is what it is -has been uncovered by tidal erosion. It is thought to have been constructed in the early Bronze Age, between 2,000 and 1,200 BC, which would make it almost a contemporary of Stonehenge.

The site, says Dr Pryor, is the most extraordinary archaeological discovery he has ever seen and it must be preserved.

However, unless difficult decisions are taken soon about preserving it, it is likely to be destroyed by the action of the tides within two years. No decision can be made until the site is precisely dated. Carbon- dating of the wood is being carried out.

An excavation led by Mark Brennand of Norfolk County Council's Archaeology Unit suggests that the tree-temple was constructed on swampy ground some way inland, which the sea covered at a later date.

Mr Brennand believes the purpose of the site was probably excarnation - the practice of exposing the bodies of the dead so that the flesh rotted more quickly, thus, it was thought, speeding the spirit on its way to the afterlife.

Dr Pryor added that for our ancestors oak was a special wood : "The inverted oak is not just utilitarian, a simple way of making an altar. It is a very complex symbolic statement. Perhaps a little sinister. It is the world turned upside down."