'Stonehenge of sea' will be left to ravages of tide

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The Independent Online
ENGLISH HERITAGE, the Government's guardian of ancient monuments, has no plans to preserve the "Stonehenge from the Sea" found in Norfolk.

The circle of oak trunks, with an upside-down tree in the centre, is likely to have been a death-temple erected 4,000 years ago. It cannot be preserved in situ on its sandbank, said Geoffrey Wainwright, English Heritage's chief archaeologist. If a museum wanted to lift it out and reconstruct it, it could be done, perhaps for pounds 50,000, but English Heritage has no plans to save the monument. "For us it is a recording exercise, not a preservation exercise," Dr Wainwright said. An English Heritage spokeswoman added: "We feel it is sufficient to record what's there before it is eroded." They were criticised by senior archeologists who feel the ,site on the foreshore at Holme-next-the-Sea, near Hunstanton, is unique and the most important ancient discovery made in Britain for many years.

The president of the Council for British Archaeology, Dr Francis Pryor, who last week said it was the most extraordinary archaeological discovery he had ever seen, said yesterday: "I have to say with a site of such importance, it is not enough just to record it. I think they ought to have another look at what their attitude to it is.

"If English Heritage say they've got no plans to preserve it, then the question must be asked, who is responsible for preserving a site of such international importance?"

The council's deputy director, Dr Mike Heyworth, said: "Preserving it would obviously be expensive but it strikes me that for a site of this importance, and it is unique, it would be worth it."

Norfolk County Council's archaeology unit thinks that within two years, the action of the sea will destroy the tree circle. It has been preserved by being buried under sand and silt, which coastal erosion has now removed.

A principal difficulty is that a decision on the future of the tree circle cannot be made until archaeologists know exactly what they are dealing with - which requires a precise dating.

At the moment the structure, which was probably used to expose dead bodies so the flesh would rot and speed spirits on their way to the afterlife, is thought to be early Bronze Age, from about 2,000 BC - which would make it almost a contemporary of Stonehenge.

Sections from the timbers are now being sent for radiocarbon dating to the school of archaeology and palaeo-ecology at Queen's University, Belfast. This technique will give a precise date for the tree circle to within about 20 years, but it will take three to four months, according to the head of the school, Dr Gerry McCormac.