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The Thornborough Henges, located close to Ripon in North Yorkshire, are believed to have originated from 3500 to 2500 BC right at the end of prehistory. The site consists of three giant, circular earthworks more than 200m in diameter. Each of these earthworks is called a ‘henge’, which originates from an older version of the English word ‘hang’.
In February 2023, building materials company Tarmac gifted the Thornborough Henges site to Historic England, making it an integral part of the National Heritage Collection. Also known as the ‘Stonehenge of the North’, the land was previously part of the Nosterfield Sand and Gravel Quarry.
But what is a henge? According to Historic England, henge monuments are ‘enclosures where, unlike those with a defensive purpose, the ditch lies inside the bank’. Somewhat ironically, this description means that Stonehenge isn’t actually a henge because the ditch lies outside its perimeter mound.
Semantics aside, the bigger question is what were henges for, what was their purpose and why were they so significant? We’ve established that it’s unlikely they were used for defensive reasons, which means they were highly regarded as places with a different agenda. They may have been meeting points for trade, places of worship, or perhaps there were astrological connections. The latter is a popular theory applied to Stonehenge, but unlike Stonehenge, the upright structures that would have once marked out the Thornborough Henge are long gone.
The fundamental differences between the two henges, not to mention the difference in time which could be anything between 1,000 and 3,000 years, should serve as a reminder not to conflate theories because of the remaining physical similarities. Nor should we attempt to enter the mind of our prehistoric selves, so perhaps it's best to think of henges first and foremost as social places, designated sites where people met for a given purpose.
However, the Thornborough Henge is relatively isolated from occupation, which might have suggested that it could have been used as a sort of out-of-town graveyard, or a place where the dead were ritually buried. This theory is thrown into doubt because there is evidence that the Thornborough Henge is associated with a much older linear site with sacred overtones. Cursus monuments.
These ancient structures are long, relatively narrow enclosures dug from the earth and may well have astronomical pretensions. Many of these monuments align with celestial bodies and aren’t to be confused with other contemporary linear structures such as long barrows, which were more often than not used for human burial.
There is one final clue as to the true nature of the Thornborough Henge, maybe all henges, and that’s the ruins of a 12th century Norman church inside a henge at Knowlton, Dorset.
Throughout history, there is evidence of sacred spaces being appropriated by the next dominant culture, in this instance Christianity appropriating paganism. Customs and rituals don’t change overnight but take place over a period of time. Therefore, the church inside the henge at Knowlton suggests that the original site was also a place of worship.
With this in mind, we might tentatively assume that Thornborough Henge, which is closer in similarity to Knowlton Henge than Stonehenge and was also a sacred space. We’ll probably never know, but thanks to this brand-new national gift, it’ll be much easier to speculate at close quarters.