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Yorkshire's Holy Secret
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Editor Mike Pitts
Yorkshire's Holy Secret
One of ancient Britain’s greatest ritual landscapes is also one of the least known. Jan Harding and Ben Johnson tell the remarkable story of the Thornborough henges
Twelve km north of Ripon is Britain’s best kept prehistoric secret: the three giant Thornborough henges, circular ritual earthworks each about 240 m across. They receive few visitors and have often been ignored by archaeologists. Yet they represent one of the largest earthmoving projects undertaken in Neolithic Britain and are at the heart of a remarkable ‘sacred landscape’ in use for over 2,000 years.
Between 1994 and 1999, we conducted geophysical prospection and excavation at the southern and central henges and other monuments, and fieldwalked 80 ha of the surrounding landscape. Last year, with £145,000 from the Aggregate Levy Sustainability Fund administered by English Heritage, we returned to evaluate settlement evidence and round barrows (burial mounds). Many questions remain, but it is now possible to chart the development of the monument complex and its surrounding settlements, and to understand why this unassuming gravel terrace became a major centre for religious worship during the third millennium BC.
People may have first been drawn to Thornborough by the River Ure, a route between the Pennines to the west and Yorkshire’s low-lying vales to the east. This is no modest watercourse, but a powerful natural symbol, and a possible focus for local religious belief. An Early Neolithic rectilinear ditched and banked enclosure, or cursus, at least 1.1 km long and 44 m wide, was built across the highest part of the terrace, its rounded western terminal aligned on a major bend in the river. We found a palisade trench parallel to the southern ditch and many stake or post holes.
There is a possible second cursus to the north, at right angles to the first. These enigmatic monuments, well known from river valleys elsewhere, may have been ceremonial procession-ways across a plateau bounded to north and south by patchy marshland and braided stream channels. The eastern end of the main cursus is aligned on the midsummer sunrise, whilst its western terminal would have framed the three setting stars of Orion’s main belt c 3300-3000 BC.
Dead left to decay
The best evidence for linked funerary practices is a triple-ditched round barrow about a kilometre south-east of this cursus. Our excavation revealed a small gypsum-lined oval pit with disarticulated and incomplete human remains typical of the 4th millennium. These included skull fragments and parts of a jaw from one, but possibly more, individuals. The pit had later been re-dug and a complete skull and lower jaw inserted. Bones had been selected for deposition here, suggesting that the bodies were left to decay elsewhere.
We can only guess where that might have been, but there is a further small oval enclosure near the cursus’s eastern end, originally with an inner bank and broken by a number of entrances. Its date and role remain a mystery. Its layout, however, is typical of Early Neolithic ‘long mortuary H enclosures’, seen by some as places where the dead were left to decay before the bones’ deposition in other monuments.
Image of stars
Worked flints from the ploughsoil demonstrate the exploitation of the wider landscape. Locally available flint and chert were well-used, and a number of scatters were created by everyday knapping at small, and most likely, temporarily occupied camps. People also used flint from the Yorkshire Wolds and the coast to make more specialised items, like two leaf-shaped arrowheads found at the triple-ditched round barrow.
The Early Neolithic complex was superseded by the far grander three henges. These almost identical and equally-spaced earthworks, sharing north-west/south-east alignments, were built on the plateau, the central site deliberately located over the earlier cursus. Their scale and complexity demonstrate a massive commitment of labour and an impressive degree of planning.
The northern henge, under woodland, is less damaged, but our investigations at the central and southern mean these are better understood. They have two circular ditches and two banks, nested within each other. There is little dating evidence, but comparison with other Neolithic monuments suggests to us that the outer pairs – discontinuous ditches with outer banks, which at the southern henge were enlarged and a low fence or palisade added – were built first. The flat bottom of the central henge’s outer ditch was cleaned out at least once.
When the massive inner earthworks were added, with only two entrances, they enclosed an arena separated from the outside world by an imposing barrier. Our excavations showed ditches still survive to over 15 m wide and 2.6 m deep, while banks are as much as 18 m across. Further investigation would likely add to the impression that these were complex and impressive monuments.
The henges were positioned to establish a corridor for movement and ceremony. The banks block all but the view above. In plan the henges are an exact mirror-image of Orion in its highest position. This, of course, could be fortuitous, but the southern entrances framed these stars as Sirius, the sky’s brightest star, appeared above the horizon. The effect must have been striking—particularly if the banks were originally coated in gypsum (as is suggested by the results of small excavations in the 1950s), making them shimmer silvery-white in moonlight.
In contrast to earlier times, the plateau was kept clear of everyday occupation as people undertook celebrations and commemorations: we found a sharp decline in the amount of Later Neolithic worked flint and chert in the immediate vicinity of the henges. This was more than matched by finds typically over 600 m away, of which the most noticeable is a concentration of artefacts on the facing slopes of a low till knoll known as Chapel Hill, some 900 m east of the central henge. These patterns suggest a landscape with zones of different meanings and activities. The small, temporary camps of the third millennium were elsewhere, towards the terrace edge and across the ridges which surround the plateau.
Why did this landscape become so important? Henges are often close to rivers, indicating, it has been said, their links with communication and movement, particularly the exchange of polished stone axes. The case is especially well made for Thornborough, for high quality ‘Group VI’ axes from Great Langdale, in the Lake District, would have likely followed the Ure as one of the most accessible routes across the central Pennines into Yorkshire’s low-lying vales. Some of these axes were even deposited in a marshy basin immediately north of the henge complex.
If sited on an important routeway, Thornborough would have been well placed to attract a wide range of visitors. Nunwick, Hutton Moor and Cana Barn—three other henges identical in size, design and orientation to those at Thornborough—are not far downriver.
Fieldwalking revealed a wide range of lithic materials used for cutting tools, including local gravel, Pennine chert and flint from the Wolds and coast. While some of this could have come by exchange, the existence of low-grade Pennine chert, in an area with abundant local material, does suggest the variety also partly reflects the arrival of distant peoples.
Perhaps the area attracted pilgrims, who, like their historical counterparts, travelled to seek spiritual guidance and salvation. A pilgrimage route would certainly explain the similarity of other nearby henges: such centres of worship tend closely to resemble each other by replicating the key site or shrine. The name ‘Ure’ may be derived from the Celtic ‘isura’ meaning ‘holy one’.
Bronze Age fields
The ‘sacred landscape’ continued to change. It is not yet possible to say when the henges went out of use, but in the Early Bronze Age at least ten round barrows were built close by, including the Three Hills cemetery. Two double pit alignments were dug, one east of the northern henge, the other west of the southern. The latter (1800-1 600 BC) extends for over 350 m—the longest known such alignment in Britain—and was our largest excavation. We found 88 sub-circular pits, varying greatly in diameter and depth. Post ‘voids’, ‘pipes’ and stone packing show that many once held substantial timber uprights, removed before they rotted.
Thornborough then became an agricultural landscape. We can see this important change at Nosterfield Quarry, immediately to the north, where Bronze Age field ditches and single pit alignments were discovered. Nonetheless, three ring ditches, one definitely a barrow, and cremation and inhumation burials—some placed deliberately in the pit alignments—were found amongst the fields.
Public outreach is a significant part of the current project and we are improving our web site (thornborough.ncl.ac.uk/index.htm), preparing a publicity leaflet, and compiling a resource guide to enhance the awareness of those who farm and manage this fragile landscape.
Jan Harding is senior lecturer and Ben Johnson is research associate at the School of Historical Studies, University of Newcastle
Thornborough encapsulates UK archaeological history – and modern dilemmas. The Rev W C Lukis dug into prehistoric barrows in 1864 (his map opposite shows a landscape without quarries). Occasional small excavations or surveys followed, air photography making major contributions in the mid 20th century. Systematic study or a concern for conservation, however, did not begin until the professionalisation of archaeology and strengthening of planning law in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Mark Horton, taken from Bristol to Ripon by the BBC, said: ‘Along with most of British archaeology, I had never heard of the Thornborough henges’. Had they been in the south, perhaps he would have done. In World War II the central henge contained a munitions store; parts of the bank were removed. Later much plough damage occurred, and the southern henge was partly bulldozed.
When permission was granted for gravel extraction in 1955, archaeology was not considered. Now conservation interest focuses on wildlife, almost ignoring archaeology. By creating new habitats, it is believed, quarrying and restoration can add landscape value.
In 1995, 14 organisations were consulted about proposed new quarrying. Of these, seven deal with farming and environment, one with archaeology – the county archaeological officer. He imposed one significant condition: the Flasks (an area of peat) had important palaeo-environmental promise requiring investigation. Otherwise ‘… the remainder of the site displays little potential for contributing to archaeological studies even of a local nature’.
Reporting Tarmac’s plans to quarry another 100 ha in November 2002, the Yorkshire Post, beside a photo of geese in a quarry lake, noted that ‘exhausted workings have been turned into a prize-winning nature reserve’. Said Tarmac (2003): ‘There are no plans to dig up or destroy the henges’. The proposals would, however, destroy almost all that remains of the landscape that gives them meaning.
Friends of Thornborough (http://www.heritageaction.org/thornborough.html) claim planning decisions have been influenced by vested interests. ‘This is not a nature reserve, but a managed [bird] shoot’, says one member. Neither are they impressed with archaeological procedure. ‘Past history’, they report, ‘indicates that, by conforming to PPG16, undertaking comprehensive archaeological excavations and building a museum … Tarmac will be permitted to destroy this ancient sacred landscape for short-term economic gain’.
English Heritage have said: ‘Until … the archaeological value of the landscape … is better understood, [we are] firmly opposed to any further gravel extraction in the vicinity of the scheduled site’. Mike Pitts
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005