For various reasons (not unconnected with the early days of aerial photography), the story of Neolithic and Bronze Age England is biased towards sites in Wessex, while the area around Stonehenge and Avebury is seen as the supreme example of a landscape written with ritual, religious, and funerary monuments. Perhaps that is why the archaeological establishment was slow to respond when campaigners in North Yorkshire established the Friends of Thornborough in 2002 to protest against plans by Tarmac Ltd to expand sand- and gravel-quarrying activities in the area.
The three massive Thornborough henges were never themselves under threat, being protected by their status as scheduled monuments, but the Friends argued that the henges were just the most visible components of a much wider monumental landscape, which most definitely was under threat of being turned into a series of flooded gravel quarries. Tarmac’s consultants at the time challenged this view, and said that there was little or no evidence of nationally important archaeological remains within the vicinity of the henges. It turns out that they were partly right; but it also turns out that this absence is archaeologically significant, and that it is a very important part of the story of the site.
Once the archaeological establishment was reluctantly dragged into the fray, it was quickly established that the real problem was ignorance: too little was known about the archaeology of this area for anyone to be able to stand up in a planning inquiry and speak out with authority in favour of its preservation. English Heritage therefore used some funding from the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund (set up to support community heritage projects in areas affected by the extraction of aggregates) to enable Archaeological Services WYAS to carry out a survey of a 100km² area that formed the setting of the henges.
Known as the Thornborough Henges National Mapping Programme, this project saw researchers examining existing aerial photographs, enabling the identification and mapping of sites ranging from a Neolithic cursus to 20th-century military remains. Their findings allowed new AMIE (Archives Monuments Information England) records to be created for some 153 monuments, while a further 41 records were updated. At the same time, Jan Harding, based in Newcastle University, led a programme of fieldwalking, test-pitting and limited excavation, as well as drawing together the results from fieldwork carried out in the 1860s, 1950s, and from the 1990s onwards.
As a result of this rapid research, English Heritage felt able to identify areas within the Thornborough henges landscape where sand and gravel extraction could take place without damaging what they now recognised as a nationally important prehistoric landscape. In 2007, a compromise was agreed whereby planning permission was granted for quarrying at these sites, while Tarmac agreed to fund further research and to work with English Heritage, North Yorkshire County Council, and other key stakeholders on the development of a wider vision and management strategy for the henges and their landscape.
One of those stakeholders is a new charity, the Thornborough Heritage Trust, which formally came into being in January 2012 to promote the conservation, preservation, and protection of the henges and their setting. The Trust says that the ‘unique cultural value’ of this landscape is currently under-appreciated because the land is ‘closed to visitors, lacks educational information, and sits in an extensively quarried landscape’. Using words that were once applied to Stonehenge, the Trust says ‘that this icon of Yorkshire and England is in such a poor state is a national disgrace’. This may soon change: Tarmac has promised careful restoration of the surrounding land, and full public access to parts of the landscape that it owns, including the central and southern henges.
The task of interpreting this landscape has been made easier thanks to a new account of the Thornborough monument complex, published as a Council for British Archaeology Research Report at the end of 2013. This report was written by a team of experts under Jan Harding, who is one of the three founder trustees of the Thornborough Heritage Trust. This has significantly increased our knowledge and understanding of the ‘most important prehistoric site between Stonehenge and Orkney’, showing that the three massive upstanding monuments that form the focus of the monument complex are just part of an landscape that was used repeatedly for ritual purposes and occasionally reorganised over many millennia, from the Mesolithic to the Middle Ages.
In fact, it is one of a small number of sites in the British Isles that, like Stonehenge, began as a relatively modest site, probably of purely local ritual significance, but that grew through the accretion of further monuments to become a regionally important sacred landscape of core importance for the later Neolithic and Bronze Age inhabitants of the wider region.
A bone-filled pit surrounded by three ditches and probably capped with large cobbles has been identified as Thornborough’s ‘founder monument’, and this was subsequently enhanced to create a triple-ditched barrow. Four bone fragments from the pit at the centre of the barrow date the monument’s first phase to between 3920 and 3530 BC. The barrow was thus broadly contemporary with the earliest long barrows and long cairns in southern England and other Neolithic round barrows in North Yorkshire. Significantly, the pit at the centre of the monument had been lined with gypsum.
The transformation of Thornborough into something more significant began with the construction of a cursus, in the form of two parallel banks and ditches, no longer visible above ground but traceable in crop-marks and aerial photography. It extends for 1.2km, its width varying between 38m and 66m. No radiocarbon samples have yet been obtained that can be used to date its construction, but this is a type of monument that has been dated elsewhere to between 3630 and 3375 BC, the early to middle part of the Neolithic. Next came the three henges: these are also undated but the south-eastern edge of the central henge overlies the northern bank of the cursus, and so must be later, and henges in general are usually associated with pottery of the Late Neolithic, the Chalcolithic, and the Early Bronze Age, around 3,000 to 2,500 BC.
The way that the ditches and banks of the central henge incorporate those of the cursus suggests a deliberate intention to accommodate or harvest some potent aspect of the earlier structure. The intersection between the two monuments occurs at the mid-point of the cursus, which also happens to be its highest point. Magnetometry and excavation at the junction have found evidence that the cursus originally had a platform or low mound at this point, while stakes, posts, and small circles of stone suggest a variety of other platforms or features. It is not possible to say whether or not such features occur anywhere else along the length of the cursus (for example, at the terminals) but it does look as if this mid-point might have had a special importance, particularly given that it overlooks the surrounding land in all directions.
The homogeneity of the three henges suggests that they were built over a short period of time as parts of a single monument. At 244m, 238m, and 244m in diameter from north to south, they are almost identical in size; unusually, their banks and inner ditches form almost perfect circles. Agriculture, quarrying, road construction, and disturbance by grazing sheep and burrowing rabbits have all eroded the scale of the inner ditches and outer banks, but the best-preserved sections have ditches up to 3m deep and 18m wide, followed by a level berm of about 13m in width, and then a bank some 18m wide and 3m high. In scale, this makes the three Thornborough henges the fifth largest henges in the British Isles.
The alignment of these monuments is emphatic: they form an equal-armed cross, with the cursus running roughly south-west to north-east for at least 1.2km across the flattest and widest part of the site, while the henges all have double entrances aligned north-west to south-east, thus running at right angles to the cursus. The siting of all four monuments makes good use of the landscape’s subtle topography, all occupying the elevated points on a narrow shelf of limestone and marl that lies between the River Ure and the rising Pennines to the west, and the Vale of Mowbray to the east. Jan Harding says that ‘the arresting monumentality of these earthworks cannot be exaggerated… forming an alignment some 1.7km long, they would have visually dominated the plateau and orchestrated movement and activity across the largely flat terrain.’
Not all of the monuments fall into this neat pattern, and some are difficult to interpret. The triple-ditched barrow or ‘founder monument’ lies about 750m to the south-east of the southern henge, and does not obviously share an alignment with the other features, nor does an enigmatic double pit alignment that runs across the landscape just to the west of the southern henge, suggestive of a processional way similar to the cursus but much shorter. Sherds from Bronze Age vessels, a radiocarbon date of around 1,700-1,500 BC, and another three from the period 1,200-800 BC provide a clue as to the date: these are relatively late monuments, but are evidence of continued ritual use of the landscape. In addition, there are at least ten Bronze Age round barrows clustered around the henges, representing the apparent desire (seen in other parts of Britain) for prestige burials to be placed in a sanctified landscape, associated with older monuments, ancestors, and the distant dead.
The clustering of so many monuments from various periods adds considerably to the significance of Thornborough. Similar clusters or successions of earlier, middle, and later Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments are found in the Thames valley or the river corridors of the Midlands, but they are much rarer this far north. Various theories have been put forward to account for the way that some monuments attract others and develop into clusters, or ‘concentrated embodiments of group history and sacred belief’.
Some archaeologists think that the addition of new monuments is a sign of political change. New polities emerge wanting to claim continuity with the past, or to signal a fresh start and make their own mark on the landscape. The association of monument clusters with rivers or streams could be religious, but it could also reflect the fact that these natural features serve as boundary-markers between different groups. The construction of new monuments could be seen as a statement of new ownership, a claim to possession that trumps earlier claims.
A good case can also be made for the exact opposite: monument clusters could be the mark of societies that have achieved long-term stability. Adding new monuments in the architectural repertoire of the day to an ancestral landscape indicates continued and active respect, a constant re-sanctioning of this part of the landscape as neutral territory, a focus for social, religious, and ritual life, a meeting place, a communal asset, not to be privatised or subverted to support the territorial claims of any one group.
That the latter might be the case at Thornborough is suggested by the striking absence of settlement evidence or for industrial or agricultural activity in the immediate hinterland of the major monuments. It is this absence that has perhaps misled some into thinking that much of the landscape was empty of archaeology. Instead, fieldwork shows that occupation does occur, but at the fringes of the landscape, where a mosaic of specialised flint-knapping sites and short-term settlement sites has been found.
These provide a further clue to the site’s significance, for Thornborough lies on a major route between the flint-bearing coastal regions of East Yorkshire and the polished stone-axe producing heights of Cumbria, with evidence that both types of stone were worked, traded, used, and ritually deposited here. Thornborough’s conspicuous location along this route, which follows a narrow band of magnesian limestone, avoiding the arduous Pennines to the west, and the wooded floodplains to the east, provides a context for the monuments. The site is, to use terms favoured by archaeological theorists, both liminal – being sited on the boundary between upland and lowland landscapes – and a socially neutral staging-point along the long- distance route for trade for the essential materials (flint) and the prestige materials (polished green stone) of the Neolithic.
Jan Harding and his colleagues have also ventured into more contentious areas and explored the alignments of cursus and henge using SkyMap, a computer programme that shows the movements of the sun, moon, planets, major star groups, and constellations at any time in the past. The results are rather suggestive: not only do the henge entrances align on the midwinter solstice sunrise during the later Neolithic, but all of the monuments, including the triple-ditched barrow and the pit alignments, seem to be related to the rising and setting of Sirius and the three stars forming Orion’s belt.
Harding wisely says that such alignments could be accidental, and that identifying a possible connection between monument and celestial phenomena is not the same as proving that is why the monument was built, nor that these alignments were integral to the religious beliefs and practices of the monument-builders. And yet they are consistent with the alignments of some other recently studied sites – the Dorset cursus, the passage graves of Newgrange and Maes Howe, and Durrington Walls are all aligned on the midwinter solstice sunrise.
Orion’s appearance in the northern night sky in mid-August marks the end of summer, and its disappearance in mid-March marks the start of spring, while the midwinter solstice marks the turning point of the year from growing dark to increasing light. Arguably, autumn and winter are the seasons to go in search of stone, when there is less vegetation to hamper travel and fewer agricultural tasks to perform. But, Harding argues, Neolithic people did not need calendric monuments in order to regulate their activity or keep track of seasonal transitions. Instead, these monuments perhaps served more as a symbolic link between heaven and earth, connecting human activity with celestial phenomena.
If there is one aspect of human heritage with which the modern world has largely lost touch, it is the night sky in all its majesty and mystery. What is virtually invisible to us today was once a hugely important part of human experience and imagination. We can only guess what thoughts the night sky might have evoked in the past, but there is one final clue at Thornborough that serves to lock all the monuments together in one fascinating narrative. The siting of these monuments at Thornborough, rather than anywhere else along the route between the east coast and Cumbria, may have to do with the abundant deposits of gypsum in this landscape. This soft white form of calcium sulphate is soluble: its dissolution by underground water leads to the formation of caves, which then collapse to create the area’s many subsidence hollows and sinkholes.
Thornborough’s three henges are built on the most subsidence-prone part of the region’s gypsum belt. Excavated sinkholes have produced Mesolithic and Neolithic flint tools – evidence that gypsum was being quarried – and there are pits in this landscape containing deliberately burnt gypsum, prepared, one assumes, for use in connection with one or another of the monuments.
Earlier, it was noted that gypsum had been deliberately incorporated into the small pit containing human bone at the centre of the triple-ditched barrow that is perhaps the founder monument. It is also present in some of the Early Bronze Age round barrows. But what attests most vividly to the use of gypsum at Thornborough is its presence within the excavated banks of all three henges. This occurs as a ‘white substance with the colour and consistency of cotton wool deep within the make-up of the henge banks’. Analysis suggests that the gypsum once lay on the surface of the banks, and has since been dissolved by rain and washed deep into the soil, to be re-deposited and re-crystallised on top of the gravel layers within the bank.
The henges of Wessex would have gleamed white with fresh chalk when they were first constructed, and perhaps in Yorkshire gypsum was used to create the same effect. It is very tempting to speculate that the colour of gypsum had some symbolic importance. Its brilliant whiteness links it to the moon, stars, and to human bone. Perhaps gypsum and bone were regarded as the same substance, the material into which humans turn when they die; perhaps people turn to stars when they die and gypsum’s whiteness is a symbol of death, purification, and transformation into stellar material.
What Jan Harding can say with confidence is that all the major monuments at Thornborough are sited in ways to suggest that ‘a carefully planned vision, or sacred geometry, was at play’, and that whatever rituals were practised in this landscape were ‘highly choreographed’. This was ‘first and foremost a landscape where the air was thick with religion… spiritual energy and sacredness… evoking the powerful forces responsible for the cosmos’. Let us be grateful, then, that this most intriguing landscape was saved through the persistence of a bunch of trouble-making archaeologists who would not take ‘no’ for an answer. Let us also hope that in time the Thornborough Heritage Trust succeeds in bringing back something of the magic that this landscape once had.
Jan Harding (2013) Cult, Religion, and Pilgrimage: archaeological investigations at the Neolithic and Bronze Age monument complex of Thornborough, North Yorkshire, CBA Research Report 174, £25.00, ISBN 978-1902771977. Visit www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/thornborough-henges-nmp for more information on the Thornborough Henges National Mapping Programme.