Thornborough, North Yorkshire: Neolithic and Bronze-Age monument complex

Jan Harding, 2008

Data copyright © Dr Jan Harding unless otherwise stated


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Dr Jan Harding
School of History, Classics and Archaeology
Newcastle University
South Road
Newcastle upon Tyne
NE1 7RU
England
Tel: 0191 2227841

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Jan Harding (2008) Thornborough, North Yorkshire: Neolithic and Bronze-Age monument complex [data-set]. York: Archaeology Data Service [distributor] https://doi.org/10.5284/1000080

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Overview

Project Background

Sited across a gravel plateau which flanks the River Ure are three almost identical and equally-spaced henge monuments which all share the same north-west/south-east alignment. They are each placed approximately 550m apart and the alignment extends for nearly 1.7km. The regularity of their layout is complemented by the spatial integration of other monuments. The central henge is superimposed upon an earlier cursus which is 1.1km long and 44m wide, while a double pit alignment, known from aerial photography to extend for at least 350m, is located alongside the southern henge. A number of round barrows are scattered across the surrounding landscape including at each end of the double pit alignment.

Such a concentration is unusual, and the design of the henges also sets Thornborough apart from most comparable later Neolithic complexes. Their size is almost identical, each possessing a diameter of around 240m, while each henge is defined by a massive ditch and bank, interrupted by a pair of entrances, and an outer ditch which is both irregular and segmentary in outline. Recent excavations have demonstrated that the latter may have been associated with an outer bank. Their design is matched only by the three almost identical monuments a few kilometres downstream at Nunwick, Hutton Moor and Cana Barn, and the more distant site of Big Rings at Dorchester-on-Thames (Oxfordshire).

Despite the striking appearance of the Thornborough complex there had been little recent fieldwork across the landscape. Earlier barrow excavations were undertaken in the latter half of the nineteenth century (Lukis 1870), while the central henge and underlying cursus were both excavated in the 1950s by Nicholas Thomas (1955) and Faith Vatcher (1960). This work was on a small-scale and produced relatively disappointing results.

In 1994 a five-year research project was established to address two fundamental problems with interpreting the Thornborough complex. The first of these concernes the chronology of the three henges and other nearby monuments. There was no artefactual evidence or radiocarbon dates for these sites, and a targeted programme of excavation was initiated to establish a sequence for the complex. It was particularly important to explore any sites that may have existed prior to the construction of the henges, and address whether the latter were the product of a single phase of building or of more intermittent development. There was excavation at a small oval enclosure, a double pit alignment and the southern and central henges. The second major problem concerns the lack of evidence for contemporary settlement in and around the complex. Research undertaken in southern England, and in particular across the Wessex chalkland, suggests that Neolithic activity was often highly structured in the vicinity of monument concentrations. It was therefore decided to undertake a programme of intensive surface collection across the extensively ploughed Thornborough landscape. About 170ha were fieldwalked across a 4km by 3km study area.

In 2003 further funding was provided by English Heritage, from the Aggregate Levy Sustainability Fund. It has allowed the project to answer some of the questions posed by previous fieldwork, as well as increasing the public knowledge and understanding of the monument complex through media such as this website. A number of tasks have been completed as part of the project:

  • the production of a Desk top assessment of the monument complex
  • the production of an Archaeological Resource Guide for the complex and its landscape setting
  • the production of a report on the Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeology of the Ure-Swale Catchment

A programme of fieldwork was also completed in August 2003:

  • topographic survey, geophysical prospection and evaluative excavation of the round barrows at the complex
  • geophysical prospection of the Central and the Southern Henges
  • fieldwalking across another 80 hectares of the landscape
  • total surface collection, geophysical prospection and test pit evaluation of areas of Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement

Further information concerning the Thornborough project can be found on the project website

The Digital Archive

The project contains a series of fieldwork reports generated under the ALSF grant for which permissions have been given for dissemination:

  • Harding, J. 2003: The Neolithic and Bronze Age monument complex of Thornborough, North Yorkshire, and its landscape context. Desk Top Assessment. Unpublished Report. School of Historical Studies, University of Newcastle.
  • Harding, J. and Johnson, B. 2003: The Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeology of the Swale-Ure Catchment. Unpublished Report. School of Historical Studies, University of Newcastle.
  • Harding, J. and Johnson, B. 2004: Topographic Survey of the surviving round barrows at the Thornborough Monument Complex, North Yorkshire. Unpublished Report. School of Historical Studies, University of Newcastle.
  • Harding, J. and Johnson, B. 2004: Total Lithic collection and test-pit excavations at the Thornborough Monument Complex, North Yorkshire. Unpublished Report. School of Historical Studies, University of Newcastle.
  • Harding, J. and Johnson, B. 2004: Fieldwalking at the Thornborough Monument Complex, North Yorkshire. Unpublished Report. School of Historical Studies, University of Newcastle.
  • Harding, J. and Johnson, B. 2004: Evaluation excavation at two round barrows at the Thornborough Monument Complex, North Yorkshire. Unpublished Report. School of Historical Studies, University of Newcastle.

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