Holme_I_timber_enclosure_with_central_inverted_oak_stump

Holme I timber enclosure with central inverted oak stump. Photo: Mark Brennand

ABERDEEN, Scotland — Around 4,000 years ago, a pair of mysterious timber circles were built on the coast of what is now Norfolk, England. Archaeologists have long puzzled over the purpose of these unusual monuments, known as Holme I and Holme II. However, a new study suggests they may have been part of an ancient ritual aimed at combating climate change by harnessing the power of the cuckoo, a bird revered as a symbol of fertility.

The two timber circles, dating to around 2049 BC, were constructed during a period of severe climatic deterioration that affected societies across Europe and Asia. Temperatures plummeted, leading to crop failures, famines, and the collapse of several ancient civilizations. Amid this turmoil, the builders of Holme I and II may have turned to magic and religion in a desperate attempt to restore the natural order.

According to researcher David Nance, whose findings are published in GeoJournal, Holme I was designed to resemble a cuckoo’s winter hideaway. The bird was believed to disappear into hollow trees or mystical realms at the end of each summer, taking the warm weather with it. By constructing an artificial “cuckoo’s nest” and placing a young cuckoo inside, the ancient Britons hoped to trick the bird into staying put, thereby extending the summer season.

timber formation of Holme 1
Plan of Holme I (from Brennand & Taylor, 2003)

The rituals likely coincided with the summer solstice, when the cuckoo’s call traditionally heralded the start of summer. Seen as a harbinger of fertile times ahead, the cuckoo’s silence may have caused great concern in a society dependent on agriculture. The orientation of the timbers in Holme I suggests the monument was aligned with the summer solstice sunrise, reflecting the cuckoo’s perceived role in the seasonal cycle.

Holme II, built around the same time, may have served a darker purpose. Nance believes it was a mortuary enclosure for the ritual sacrifice of a “sacred king” – a mythical figure tasked with maintaining cosmic harmony and ensuring the fertility of the land. If crops failed or catastrophe struck, the king was held responsible and put to death to appease the gods.

This gruesome ritual was possibly linked to goddesses associated with Venus and the cuckoo, worshipped by cultures across Europe. These deities were often portrayed as consorts of sacred kings, with the king’s fate intertwined with the goddess’s favor. The sacrifice may have taken place at Samhain, a festival midway between the autumn equinox and winter solstice when the veil between worlds was thought to be thinnest.

“Evidence suggests that they were ritually-sacrificed every eight years at Samhain (now Halloween) coincident with the eight-year cycle of Venus,” says Dr. Nance in a media release.

“The fixtures in Holme II that were thought to hold a coffin, are orientated towards sunrise on Samhain in 2049 when Venus was still visible. Both monuments are best explained as having different functions and associated rituals, but with a common intent: to end the severely cold weather.”

cuckoo
The common cuckoo showing zygodactylic foot arrangement © Mike McKenzie

Nance drew on a wide range of evidence to support his theory, including ancient mythology, astronomical alignments, DNA analysis, and parallels with Iron Age practices. While some aspects remain speculative, the study offers intriguing insights into the mindset of Bronze Age people grappling with a world in turmoil.

As we face our own era of climate upheaval, these long-vanished timber circles remind us of the deep and complex relationship between humans and the natural world. Though their methods may seem alien to us now, the builders of Holme I and II were driven by a desire to make sense of their changing environment and to find a way to set things right – an impulse that still resonates today as we confront the challenges of a warming planet.

“Dating of the Seahenge timbers showed they were felled in the spring, and it was considered most probable that these timbers were aligned with sunrise on the summer solstice,” Dr. Nance concludes.

“We know that the period in which they were constructed 4,000 years ago was a prolonged period of decreased atmospheric temperatures and severe winters and late springs placing these early coastal societies under stress. It seems most likely that these monuments had the common intention to end this existential threat.”

StudyFinds Editor-in-Chief Steve Fink contributed to this report.

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