Neolithic (3000-2000BC)

Yorkshire's Stonehenge

thornborough henges

: M. Sanders

The Thornborough Henges

Did you know that Yorkshire hosts the largest group of prehistoric earthworks in Britain – and that their setting is threatened by opencast mining?

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.

The centrepiece of this impressive array is formed by three massive henges, each 240 metres in diameter, uniquely laid out in a straight line near the village of Thornborough. They attest to an exceptional level of planning and a mobilisation of labour on a par with the construction of the pyramids.

Jan Harding, the senior on-site archaeologist and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Newcastle, writes:

“The Vale of Mowbray contains a remarkable concentration of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments. There are no less than seven henges, at least two cursuses, and the stone settings of the Devil’s Arrows at Boroughbridge. The most impressive of these monuments are to be found at Thornborough, located some 10 kilometres to the north-west of the cathedral town of Ripon. This ‘sacred landscape’ is located on a gravel and sand plateau which flanks the River Ure and consists of three equally spaced henges which all share a north-west/south-east orientation. Each henge has a diameter of some 240 metres and a double entrance through a pair of ditches and banks. They are the largest such sites outside the Wessex chalkland and their number and structural complexity is unmatched elsewhere. The complex also consists of an earlier cursus and ‘long mortuary enclosure’, at least two double pit alignments and a number of denuded round barrows.”

The original submission by Tarmac, the quarrying company, to the NYCC was to expand their operations at Nosterfield Quarry in the vicinity of Ladybridge Farm to extract 2.2m tonnes of sand and gravel over an area of 45.7ha approximately 1km NE of the Thornborough Henges. In December 2005, a report on further archaeological evaluation of the site by English Heritage, County Council Heritage Section and Tarmac’s own consultants was presented. There were objections by several archaeological bodies, including English Heritage themselves. As a result, in February 2006, the application was refused. An appeal was immediately lodged by Tarmac. Detailed objections from the Friends of Thornborough Henges and conditions requested by the Environment Agency were submitted.

A meeting of the NYCC Planning and Regulatory Functions Committee held at Masham on 16 January 2007 discussed revised planning application submitted by Tarmac as a result of which on 23 October 2007 the NYCC Planning Authority granted Tarmac permission to extend their quarrying activities, subject to the following conditions:

a. work has to start by 22 October 2010 and the Council’s permission remains valid until 31 October 2014, by which time the mineral extraction and processing operations must have ended and the land restored

b. no development can take place within the site until tarmac has secured the implementation of a programme of archaeological works in accordance with a written scheme of investigation approved by the County Planning Authority as the site is of national archaeological importance, in accordance with Planning Policy Guidance Note 16 (PPG 16)

However, this consent was later quashed on technicalities. In March 2008, Tarmac made a further renewed application: subsequently, English Heritage withdrew their earlier objections but fresh objections were made by the CBA, YAHS, Friends of Thornborough, Heritage Action and the site archaeologist, Jan Harding.

Accordingly, at the meeting of the Planning Committee on 26th August 2008, the NYCC accepted that there were was now no reason for refusing the application on archaeological grounds and that the proposal met the requirements of both PPG16 and the Regional Spatial Strategy. Extraction had to be completed and the site restored by October 2014. However, the long term preservation of nationally important archaeological remains to the south of the application area remained uncertain and so it was recommended that any future planning approval is subject to an agreement covering the following issues:

a.. the development of a long-term management plan for the nationally important archaeological remains to the south of the application area at Ladybridge Farm
b. agreement on timetables for the investigation and publication of archaeological work in the Nosterfield area
Archaeological investigation has recorded archaeological deposits in the southern third of Ladybridge Farm. These comprise a dispersed pattern of shallow pits containing pottery and flint artefacts of an early prehistoric date and a scatter of worked lithics in the ploughsoil. These deposits have been substantially investigated and are the subject of a number of specialist archaeological reports. The pits that have been recorded are dispersed, shallow and have been heavily truncated by past agricultural activity. Their archaeological potential has been severely affected by loss of context. The pits have low environmental potential and do not contain well-preserved organic or waterlogged material. All the features excavated to date have exhibited evidence of modern disturbance from rootlets and have poor provenance for absolute dating. The significance of the features lies in their early date and proximity to the henges.

Lithics in the ploughsoil show a general distribution across the southern third of Ladybridge Farm and are a general indication of prehistoric activity across this area from the Mesolithic to the Bronze Age. There is, however, no recorded correlation of surface finds and below ground archaeology and there are a number of outstanding questions relating to the interpretation of this material.

On 25 June 2008, a public meeting was held in West Tanfield, near Ripon, North Yorkshire, on Wednesday, organised by consultants Atkins Heritage, commissioned by English Heritage and the Thornborough Henges Consultation Group, to prepare a conservation plan for a possible eight square mile ‘exclusion’ area around the henges in a bid to protect any archaeology surrounding the site. The area under investigation includes the villages of Nosterfield and Thornborough and extends to the outskirts of the villages of Well, Kirklington, Howgrave and West Tanfield. The plan, to be completed by March 2009, is intended to aid decisions on planning applications, archaeological research and landscape management. However, local farmers remain anxious about any effect such a plan might have on their livelihoods.

Mike Sanders, of the Friends of Thornborough Henges, the group campaigning for the protection of the ancient monument said “We can understand farmers' concerns. They are major stakeholders who must be consulted.” He said subsidies or compensation could allow farmers to offer access to the henges, with the area benefiting from tourism income if the henges were open to the public.

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