By Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News
Aug. 27, 2004 — An ancient wooden carving of the bisexual Viking god Odin suggests the prehistoric timber circle monument Seahenge and another, even older, structure might have included totem pole-like carvings, according to archaeologists who have excavated the over 4,000-year-old British wood monuments.
Because Odin was a mythological figure in prehistoric religion, the possible link between the carving and the monuments could mean that the mysterious circles held religious, funerary, or magical significance for the late Neolithic people who constructed them on Holme beach in Norfolk, England.
Archaeologists connected the unlikely object with the circles after the idol, found several decades ago in the Thames Estuary, recently was radiocarbon dated to 2,250 B.C. This year coincides with the construction of Seahenge, a wooden monument built out of a giant, overturned tree stump surrounded by a circle of timbers.
At first, the carved object puzzled scientists, who could not determine if it was a man or a woman, or why its left eye appeared to have been mutilated.
Marie Taylor, Marketing Officer of the Colchester Castle Museum, which houses the Odin carving, told Discovery News, "Archaeologists now know that these distinctive features are deliberate, and that the idol is an early representation of the later Viking god named Odin. Odin could change his sex at will from man to woman, and he lost the use of his left eye so that he could see into the future."
Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology and the author of the book "Hengeworld," told Discovery News that the Odin idol and the timber circles all originate from a region in England known as East Anglia.
Pitts suggests the East Anglians who carved Odin might have been involved in the construction of Seahenge, which was removed from its beach home in 1999 due to erosion concerns.
According to a report published in the current issue of British Archaeology magazine, a second, older circle monument, named Holme 2, recently was found near Seahenge. This second monument has two central logs surrounded by a ring of rods and twigs. It remains at the beach site.
Because the idol indicates prehistoric East Anglians were representing humans through woodcarvings, Pitts thinks it is possible Seahenge and Holme 2 contained similar carvings, which since would have worn away.
"At Seahenge there was a thin pole just outside (its) entrance and five complete poles that seem to be significantly sited, and at Holme 2 there were four poles, in pairs at either end of a hypothetical bier or coffin that might have rested on the two dished logs that lay at the center," Pitts said. "These are all possible carved timbers."
While Pitts and Mark Brennand, who led the Seahenge excavation, liken the possible carved timbers to Native American totem poles, Pitts said this is due to "parallel invention," and not because of any kind of ancient cultural exchange.
It remains unclear how and why Holme 2 was built, but Pitts and Brennand believe cut marks on Seahenge's timbers indicate a group of 51 gathered at the site, raised Seahenge, and then may have "simply walked away, their obligations fulfilled, and the feat became history."
Brennand, author of the British Archaeology report, wrote that at Seahenge, "There may be references to builders and astronomical events, and the large number of people involved emphasizes the communal statement: but the main motivation seems to have been to place the tree stump in the right lace, in the right way, within its own wall of oak posts."
Seahenge now is in storage and is scheduled for public display at
King's Lynn Museum in England next year. Odin is on loan to a Danish
museum, but will return to Colchester at the end of November.