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Thornborough Henge

by Louisa Chisholm-Kelly





In February 2023, it was announced that Historic England and English Heritage had secured the future of two of the three henge monuments at Thornborough, near Ripon, in North Yorkshire. They are part of a Neolithic complex described as “the Stonehenge of the North”. The third Henge is owned by a private entity.


Since the 1950s, Tarmac have owned and operated the quarry site next to the Thornborough Henges. While the henges themselves have not been harmed by Tarmac’s activities (they are a designated scheduled monument), the protection of the surrounding landscape has long been a concern for historians and local people. In 2002, Tarmac expressed the intention to apply for planning permission to quarry on Thornborough Moor, bringing the quarrying activities right up the edge of the protected area. A huge public outcry generated a 10,000 signature petition against the proposal.


In February 2006, North Yorkshire County Council turned down a planning application from Tarmac to expand its quarrying to the Ladybridge Farm site, an area to the north of Thornborough Henges. Tarmac submitted a revised planning application later in 2006 that reduced the area of sand and gravel extraction from 45 hectares to 31 hectares, avoiding a disputed area of archaeological interest. The revised application was approved in February 2007. In December 2007, Friends of Thornborough Henge challenged the handling of the application by North Yorkshire County Council on eight counts. The county council reversed its decision and Tarmac submitted a fresh application with up-to-date archaeology, hydrology and environmental reports.


The prolonged campaign ultimately led to a November 2016 decision by North Yorkshire County Council's planning committee that allowed Tarmac to expand quarrying in return for preserving the site of the Thornborough Henges and 90 acres of surrounding land. This agreement also created a stipulation that the henges and surrounding land would eventually be handed over to a public body.


At the time, Malcolm Ratcliffe for Tarmac was quoted as saying “This quarry is vital to the North Yorkshire economy. We are well aware of the contentious history of this site. We have sought to mitigate the impacts of the open areas of water and loss of agricultural land, to promote understanding of the historic landscape and secure the future of the henges in perpetuity, while securing public access. The company has no doubt this site will be a treasured and valuable asset to the people of North Yorkshire.”


Two of the three henges at Thornborough are open to the public with free access. There is a small layby parking area nearby and the two henges can be accessed on foot via grassy footpaths. English Heritage advise that conservation works are ongoing and that parts of the henges may be inaccessible at certain times. They ask that people tread carefully as the ground is uneven and that people do not attempt to access the privately owned land.






HISTORY and GEOGRAPHY


Yorkshire hosts the largest group of prehistoric earthworks in Britain. Stretching from the standing stones at Boroughbridge in the south to the cursus already destroyed at Scorton in the north are the remains of dozens of monuments constituting a landscape that was sacred to our prehistoric ancestors. Considered together, these monuments are an archaeological record equal in importance to the World Heritage Sites of Stonehenge, Avebury and Orkney yet they remain virtually unknown to the wider public.


There are six huge henges sited within 12km (7½ miles) of each other along the River Ure, all with the same design. Three of them cluster together to the north of the site in a single ceremonial complex at Thornborough that was built about 4500 years ago. This is a rare triple-henge formation that makes up part of an internationally important site that also includes a cursus, a barrow with three concentric ditches, enclosures, various rows of single or double pits, and many later Bronze Age barrows. The triple-ditched barrow and the cursus predate the henges, indicating that the complex developed and increased in importance over time. Archaeological fieldwork has produced a large number of flint artefacts from the Mesolithic period onward. Although the wider site has been disturbed by the quarrying and the henges have also suffered damage from ploughing, these are still spectacular landscape features.



It has been suggested that the positioning of the three Thornborough henges represents the stars of Orion's Belt. Various other archaeoastronomical alignments have also been put forward including that the southern openings in all three henges framed the rising of Sirius. The massive henges, ranging in size from 238-244m (780-800ft), are aligned roughly northwest-southeast, each with a bank, an inner and an outer ditch, and two entrances. Gypsum deposits have been found, suggesting that the earthworks were deliberately whitened at one point.


The oldest structure at Thornborough is probably the triple-ditched round barrow, likely a funerary monument, which has been dated to 3790-3650BC. This is a very early date for a barrow.


The cursus, a long trench of unknown function, is visible as a cropmark. It is aligned northeast-southwest, is about 1.6km (1 mile) long and predates the henges, running partly beneath the central henge and across the henge axis.


A 350m (1,148ft) double pit avenue, associated with a barrow, runs NNE-SSW from between the central and Southern henges toward the River Ure.


Nunwick Henge, Hutton Moor Henge and Cana Henge sit in the middle of the site. All three are now barely visible from ground level, but can be seen from the air. All are of a similar size to those at Thornborough.



The Devil's Arrows, three stones between 5.5 and 6.7m (18 and 22 ft) tall, stand at the southernmost part of the site. It has been suggested that the three stones were heavily tooled before erection by workers who were used to dealing exclusively with timber. There are also said to have once been at least five Devil's Arrows. One is suspected to have been used for a bridge across a local stream but the whereabouts of the other remains unknown.


The Ure-Swale Plateau, where Thornborough Henge and all of the connected sites lie, is regarded as one of the UKs most important ritual sites. Its six henges, numerous barrows, earthworks, and the Devil's Arrows combined to provide the Ancients with an easily definable and huge sacred area. One river is likely named after the Great Goddess Ur. The importance of this Ure-Swale Plateau is most clearly revealed in the way that the Romans later subdued this area with the building of the Dere Street military road. It bisects the landscape and would have psychologically ruined the unity of the sacred landscape.


The recent news reports generated by the acquisition of two of the henges at Thornborough means that there is renewed interest in the area. Hopefully this will lead to more research, archaeological finds, and a greater understanding of the purpose of the site as a whole, along with the protection and respect this great site deserves.


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