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Thornborough Henges National Mapping Programme

The Thornborough Henges National Mapping Programme (NMP) project mapped and recorded archaeology from aerial photographs. West Yorkshire Archaeology Service (WYAS) were partners in the project.

It was funded by the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund (ALSF). An area of 100 square kilometres within North Yorkshire was covered, a landscape which is under pressure from aggregates extraction. The project was carried out to inform English Heritage’s Conservation Plan for the setting of the henges.

Colour aerial photograph showing an arable landscape with some water filled quarries in the background.
Thornborough Henges, seen from the south and photographed on 27-AUG-1999. A double pit alignment is under excavation in the foreground. Water filled gravel quarries are visible close to the henges (NMR 17393/06). © Historic England

Archaeological and geographical context

The Thornborough henge complex comprises three Neolithic Class II henges. They are located on the low lying gravels on the northern bank of the River Ure.

The area has increasingly come under pressure from large scale gravel extraction. At the time of the project, a planning application had been submitted which encroached further into the henges’ immediate landscape.

Thornborough Henges sit within a wider group of seven henges lying between the Rivers Ure and Swale. These represent the largest group outside Wessex.

They form part of a broader ritual landscape including a cursus, probable mortuary enclosures, pit alignments and Bronze Age barrows. Limited excavation of the henges was carried out in the 1950s. Dr Jan Harding (University of Newcastle) has undertaken research-led work on the wider landscape.

Black and white aerial photograph showing arable landscape with road running through centre and a large circular feature
The central henge’s bank survives as an earthwork while the ditches are defined as cropmarks. The earlier cursus can be seen as parallel ditches on this photograph taken by Derek Riley on 10-JUL-1976 (DNR 983/12). © Crown copyright. HE Riley Collection

Mapping of the Thornborough landscape

The northern and central henges survive as substantial earthworks, although the north henge is covered by woodland. The southern henge has been largely flattened and is mainly visible only as a cropmark. An earlier cursus underlies the central henge and has partially been destroyed by gravel extraction.

However, the cropmarks of the cursus in these areas were mapped from historic photography taken before the quarrying took place.

Although the levelling of the southern henge severely reduced the earthworks, the resulting cropmarks revealed details about the henge’s construction.

The inner ditch was either re-dug or replaced an earlier feature and a possible scoop was visible around the bank. A previously unidentified feature was also seen as a cropmark just inside the north-western entrance of the north henge.

Other new discoveries include a possible Neolithic mortuary enclosure, similar in size and form to an excavated example nearby. There were also pit alignments with stone packing of the pits visible as a cropmark.

The NMP mapping has also placed the henges in their broader landscape over time. Other features mapped have related to the Bronze Age ritual landscape, Iron Age / Roman land division and settlement, and 20th century military activities.

An extract of NMP mapping of the henges. The cursus runs parallel with the modern road south of the central henge. © Historic England. NMR. © Crown Copyright and database right 2009. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100019088. 2009

The images used on this page are copyright Historic England unless specified otherwise. For further details of any photographs or other images and for copies of these, or the plans and reports related to the project please contact the Historic England Archive.

For further information on a project or any other aspect of the work of the Remote Sensing Team please contact us via email using the link below.

Thornborough Henges, Air photo mapping project ALSF 3897 MAIN. Management overview: Summary of resources and results

Thornborough Henges, Air photo mapping project ALSF 3897 MAIN. Management overview: Summary of resources and results

Published 1 March 2005

NMP report from the Thornborough Henges ALSF mapping project

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