Unique Henge Landscape Must Be Preserved Intact Say Archaeologists

By David Prudames | 04 September 2003
Shows a black and white aerial photograph of the area of Thornborough Henges - the three circular monuments run diagonally from top left to bottom right.

Photo: viewing the henges from the air, it is easy to see how they are part of a larger archaeological landscape. Courtesy Friends of Thornborough Henges.

Plans for further gravel extraction around a unique complex of henge monuments have led archaeologists to call for ancient landscapes to be preserved intact.

Comprised of three linked henge monuments, the 5000-year-old site at Thornborough, North Yorkshire is believed by archaeologists to be one of the most important ancient sites in the country.

Dr Mark Horton, Head of the Dept of Archaeology at the University of Bristol, and a recent visitor to the site told the 24 Hour Museum why the wider context is key to understanding ancient sites.

"Essentially, the problem is that these monuments can't just be sat in isolation, here is a henge lets draw a line around it and everything else can go," he said.

"The fundamental thing about a henge is that it's part of a landscape. Once you've destroyed a landscape you have taken it away and you can never get it back."

As reported by the 24 Hour Museum on Tuesday September 2, Tarmac Ltd is currently proposing to submit two planning applications to extend Nosterfield Quarry in North Yorkshire.

shows a photograph taken from ground level of the Thornborough Henges.

Photo: the central henge in a unique complex of three, which lie on top of a cursus. © David Raven.

While the ancient henges, as Scheduled Ancient Monuments, cannot be damaged or altered in anyway, quarrying would put the wider archaeological landscape at risk.

"Over the last five years our understanding of what a ritual landscape is has been transformed," explained Dr Horton.

"You can't just say 'X marks the spot, this is the henge sitting there isolated'. It is actually part of a complex landscape."

While Dr Horton maintained that Tarmac is a responsible company that would carry out the necessary evaluations and excavations, his concern was that the policy would be one of preservation by removal and recording, rather than preservation in situ.

He pointed out that at the rather more famous Stonehenge site in the south of England recent road plans have been altered at considerable cost to preserve the site's wider archaeological context.

"Everyone accepted the sensitivity of it and the need to preserve the archaeology in situ around it because it is such an important place," he said.

"From my perspective, for the landscape around Stonehenge, which is of equal importance to the landscape around Thornborough, the Government is happy to spend £183m to preserve it in situ, but when it comes to Thornborough, it's a case of lets just leave the lot."

Shows an aerial photograph of the three Thornborough Henges.

Photo: quarrying activities have slowly eroded the area around the henges since the 1960s. Courtesy Friends of Thornborough Henges.

Director of the Council for British Archaeology, George Lambrick explained just how important the surrounding landscape is in understanding henge monuments.

"By analogy with Avebury or Stonehenge, you can't really understand these key monuments without understanding everything else that's going on around them," said George.

"There is a lot of burial evidence, some small evidence of domestic activity, small but completely significant and we know that these things almost always exist around large sites."

Furthermore, as archaeologist and prehistoric expert Maisie Taylor asserted, the existence of such ancient sites in places where gravel is found, is a well known fact.

"These ritual landscapes, because of the nature of historic settlement, often are on gravel tracts," said Maisie. "So where you get a great river, the whole of it is scattered with these amazing sites and of course they are unbelievably heavily quarried and huge amounts of stuff has gone into the quarries over the years."

"In the past these landscapes have gone and people could plead ignorance, but the problem now is that I don't see how they can plead ignorance. We know these sites are on gravel and they have to acknowledge that they are."

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