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The Council for British Archaeology Yorkshire Group in association with the Yorkshire Archaeology Society staged an outstanding conference on the archaeology of the Thornborough Henges Complex on Saturday, 27 March, at the Golden Lion Hotel, Northallerton. Over 180 people were present to hear distinguished regional and national archaeologists speak on the current archaeology of the complex and the problems associated with quarrying in the vicinity of these important prehistoric monuments.

The morning session on the current archaeological position was chaired by George Lambrick, Director of the CBA national body, and the afternoon session by Professor Geoffrey Wainwright, past Chief Archaeologist of English Heritage, who was joined in the final open discussion by his current counterpart, David Miles. Dr Peter Addyman, President of the Yorkshire Archaeology Society, opened and closed the proceedings.

In his opening remarks, George Lambrick drew upon his considerable national experience of similar situations to show how the Stanton Harcourt Henge Complex in Oxfordshire had, over a period of 50 years, been completely destroyed by quarrying.

Mike Parker-Pearson, who is using new technology to interpret buried features near Stonehenge, showed how similar the two ritual landscapes are in their locations upon low-lying plateaux suitable for early agriculture and convenient to waterways for the transport of goods and people. The key difference is that the setting of Stonehenge is a protected landscape, whereas the setting of the Thornborough Complex is already considerably eroded by quarrying. In his view, the area of influence of the Thornborough site extended through the relict henges at Nunwick, Hutton Moor and Cana at least as far as the Devil’s Arrows megaliths at Boroughbridge.

Terry Manby emphasised that, although much is known about the prehistory of the higher landscapes of eastern and western Yorkshire, it is only in recent years that an understanding of early man’s activities in the Vale of York has started to be gleaned ~ and Thornborough is pivotal in this context.

Dr Jan Harding of Newcastle University, who has undertaken extensive research at Thornborough in recent years, described its regional importance as a sacred meeting place, together with its strategic location on a vital east-west routeway notable for the distribution of ceremonial stone axes from Langdale. He also illustrated the extensive traces of contemporary settlement in the vicinity of the henges.

George Chaplin of the Friends of Thornborough Henges presented his own compilation of the history of the complex and postulated a “Sacred Vale” stretching from the Devil’s Arrows northwards to the Catterick Henge and the Scorton Cursus, which have been destroyed by later activities. He described how North Yorkshire County Council and Tarmac had, until very recently, been less than helpful in communicating information on archaeological finds at Nosterfield to the public. The recommendations by Tarmac’s archaeologist in support of the company’s successful planning application for Nosterfield Quarry had been proved wrong by the plethora of finds from his own subsequent hurried excavations in advance of the diggers. The monitoring by the County Archaeologist of activities over the years of workings at this quarry had been less than vigilant.

Mike Griffiths, Tarmac’s site archaeologist, unexpectedly presented its case, having been brought back from holiday in Rome to do so. He was keen to develop the theme that modern deep ploughing had already done untold damage to the archaeology of the site and that quarrying was beneficial in recording the situation before further degradation occurred. He described recent investigations on the Nosterfield and Ladybridge sites without ascribing any value to the finds.

Simon Smales, Head of Planning and Policy at North Yorkshire County Council, sought to emphasise that the authority had now set up a Consultation & Working Group of stakeholders. This had had one meeting and would be inviting Tarmac to the next ~ but no independent archaeology bodies had been asked to participate. The archaeologists involved were either in the employ of the county council, or working directly for Tarmac or English Heritage. No mention was made of the substantial income received by the local authorities from quarrying or of their investment in restoration of the quarried landscape by means of nature reserves and recreational lakes.

Attendance at the conference by county council representatives was less than enthusiastic. No elected representatives were present (although all had been sent a personal invitation) and only four officers, with the official spokesman attending only the afternoon session. The Leader of the Council, John Weighell, had recorded his view in the “Darlington & Stockton Times” that to attend might constitute an “interest” under the code of conduct, while the Chief Executive and the Minerals Planning Officer had simply ignored their invitations.

English Heritage declared that it would resist any application for an extension of quarrying near the henges, and wanted to encourage arable reversion as well as increased public access and understanding. An important mechanism for this would be the implementation of a Conservation Plan for the setting of the henges. The Chief Archaeologist indicated that national support would be forthcoming for this regional initiative.

The day ended with a lively discussion led by questions from the floor. Hambleton District Councillor David Webster strongly defended the status of agriculture in that it had existed in the area for more than 4,000 years and he saw no reason why it should be supplanted by quarrying. Despite public opposition, it was clear that Tarmac intended to submit a planning application for the Ladybridge site in the near future. In answer to a direct question from the floor, Estates Manager Bob Nicholson admitted that Tarmac had already bought the land on which the central and southern henges stand with the intention of having it designated as a Preferred Area for quarrying in the Local Minerals Plan. It was evident that commercial initiatives were ongoing to maximise the profits that might be extracted from the henges complex.

John Sheehan, Honorary Secretary, CBA Yorkshire Group

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