Thornborough Henges

Last month I wrote about Druid’s Temple, which, as you will have discovered in that article, despite looking like an ancient monument is actually a Victorian folly. This month, I thought I would write about a truly ancient monument in Yorkshire – Thornborough Henges, said to be the most important ancient site between Stonehenge and the Orkney Islands. Often named the ‘Stonehenge of the North’ it is in fact the largest ritual religious site in Britain!

In the north Yorkshire village of Thornborough, near Masham is the complex of three aligned henges dating between 3500-2500 BC. They are thought to be part of a Neolithic/Bronze Age ritual landscape which includes several large structures as well as the henges including a cursus, burial grounds and settlements. Thornborough Henges are in the Vale of Mowbray which is known for its concentration of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments. Within 10km of each other are six giant henges.

■ Wikimedia Commons image © Tony Newbould

The cursus is an ancient monument which we believe to have a ceremonial function, what that was we are not quite sure. They are normally comprised of two parallel ditches cut to create a cigar shaped enclosure and typically have burial mounds alongside them. At Thornborough, the cursus is the largest and oldest part of the complex running almost a mile in length from the village ending near to the River Ure. It runs under the central henge telling us that it was there first.

The three henges themselves extend more than a mile. Situated 550m apart they are almost identical, measuring 240m across the diameter and each have two large entrances directly opposite. The layout of the henges appears to mirror Orion’s Belt’s three stars suggesting an astronomical relationship. This would mean that the henges are possibly the first monument in the world aligned to Orion, predating the Egyptian pyramids by 1000 years! They are aligned in such a way that the western end points towards the mid-winter setting of Orion and the eastern end towards the mid-summer solstice. During archaeological excavations and studies, a double row of pits was discovered extending from the southern henge which is possible evidence of a timber processional avenue. Archaeologists also think that the banks of the central henge were covered with gypsum mined from the local area which would have created a white sheen visible for miles around. Although we are still unsure as to the purpose of Neolithic henges, finds suggest social and economic purposes as well as the more spiritual.

Today, the land is privately owned and there is no official public access. During the pagan festival of Beltane, it is possible to access the central henge. The area has been somewhat damaged due to quarrying for gravel, but the site is listed as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. They are best viewed from the air due to their large scale. However, the banks of the central and southern henges are still very visible from the ground. The best preserved henge of the three is the northern one and is in fact one of the best preserved in Britain. Unfortunately though it is overgrown with trees making it harder to see.

I really enjoy visiting Neolithic sites as still so little is known as to their true purpose. It makes you wonder exactly what they were used for, and just how important they were the people who must have put so much effort and time into creating them!

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