Two huge and fascinatingly mysterious ancient monuments, part of a complex considered the Stonehenge of the North, have been given to the nation and will be removed from England’s Heritage at Risk register.
Thornborough Henges, near Ripon, North Yorkshire, are three huge, man-made, closed earthen circles. Each is over 200 meters in diameter and dates back to 3500 BC. to 2500 BC, making them Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age monuments.
Exactly why the circles were created is a matter of debate. What is agreed is that they are a true wonder of the North, part of one of the UK’s most important ancient sites.
Historic England and English Heritage have announced, after years of concern, that they have secured the future of two of the henges and parts of the surrounding landscape.
English Heritage will manage the site and said it was welcoming visitors to the henges, which, despite their importance, are not widely known, from Friday.
Joe Savage, senior director of interpretation at English Heritage, agreed that they were not well known – “for now”. He said: “I live in Yorkshire and have a good understanding of the landscape and the area, but when I first started looking at the site a few years ago, it was a surprise to me.
“It’s an incredible series of monuments. They are awe-inspiring… so it’s fantastic that they are now in national care.”
The circular earthworks are believed to be part of a ‘ritual landscape’, comparable to Salisbury Plain, home of Stonehenge.
There are three rows running from north to south over a mile in length. Two have been given to the nation by construction company Tarmac. Lightwater Holdings, a local company, has donated parts of the wider monument.
These two Thornborough Henges were added to Historic England’s register of heritage in danger in 2009 due to erosion caused by livestock and rabbits. The new deal, which makes Historic England the legal owner, will see the two henges, the central and southern, removed from the register.
The human effort to build the henges would have been enormous, comparable to Stonehenge or the standing stones at Avebury. The banks of earth around the circles would have been about 5 meters high and there is evidence that they would have been coated with bright white plaster.
“They would be pretty visible monuments and epic,” Savage said. “Who knows how they were used, but if you stood in the middle of them and looked around, all you could see was the sky and this incredible vast white wall surrounding you.”
There’s a magic about henges even today when the experience is more pastoral, Savage said. “When you walk among them, you are walking in the footsteps of people 5,000 years ago. You take the same route, experience the same skies. There’s something that puts you in deep history when you’re in the spaces.”
The gates, near the A1, are in the Richmond constituency of the Premier, Rishi Sunak. He welcomed the announcement and the opportunity to help the site tell the story of ancient Britain.
“Relatively few people are aware of its importance – both locally and nationally. I hope many others will appreciate this little-known gem of our history and in doing so provide a welcome boost to the local visitor economy.”
The deal means the two henges will become part of the National Heritage Collection, joining the likes of Stonehenge, the Iron Bridge, Dover Castle and several fortifications on Hadrian’s Wall. The third henge is privately owned and not on the at risk register.
Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, said the henges and the surrounding landscape “form part of the most important concentration of Neolithic monuments in the north of England. It is a link to our ancient ancestors, through thousands of years, inspiring a sense of wonder and mystery. We are excited.”
Kate Mavor, chief executive of English Heritage, echoed his sentiments: “Thornborough Henges is one of the most important ancient sites in Britain and yet almost completely unknown. We look forward to sharing its significance, its stories and its secrets with the public.”