`Stonehenge-on-Sea' may be saved for the nation

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THE MYSTERIOUS "Stonehenge from the Sea" found in Norfolk may be saved. A plan to preserve the circle of oaks with an upside-down tree in its centre, thought to have been a shrine, will be discussed by English Heritage, the Government's archaeological advisory body.

It may decide to remove the timbers from the shore at Holme next the Sea, near Hunstanton, treat them and reassemble them elsewhere. The matter is urgent, because erosion of the coastline, which uncovered the tree circle, is threatening to destroy it.

Carbon dating at Queen's University, Belfast confirmed it is 4,000 years old, dating from the early Bronze Age. The site is thus contemporaneous with the late phase of Stonehenge. "At the moment we place, with 95 per cent confidence, the cutting down of the trees that make it at between 2202 and 2036BC," said Gerry McCormac, director of the School of Archaeology and Palaeoecology. More work may produce a precise date.

The tree circle is almost certainly a ritual site, and was perhaps used for excarnation - the practice of exposing bodies so that the flesh rotted more quickly and the spirit was thus speeded on its way. It was originally on dry land.

It is regarded as one of the most remarkable British archaeological finds of the past century. But the initial reaction of English Heritage was that it should merely be recorded and not preserved.

Protests by figures in the archaeological establishment who consider the site of immense importance, and the confirmation of its date, brought a change of mind.

A full meeting of English Heritage commissioners a week tomorrow, under the chairman, Sir Jocelyn Stevens, will discuss plans to save the circle by removing it from the shoreline. "They will be looking at a range of options, including preservation," said John Birchall, of Norfolk County Council, which is responsible for the site.

"In broad terms they can just leave it on the site, try and preserve it on the site by covering it, or preserve it elsewhere. But trying to preserve it being swept away by the sea ultimately is impossible."

More than 5,000 people have visited the site since its existence was disclosed in January, Mr Birchall said. The number of visitors is causing concern. "The peat in which the trees have been preserved is eroding faster than it would naturally do because of visitors, and breeding birds in the nature reserve along the shoreline are being disturbed," he said. "We would ask people to stay away."