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New research on Neolithic Astronomy released:
Importance of Thornborough Henges confirmed

Few aspects of archaeology are as controversial as the debate over whether the Neolithic peoples of the British Isles, living between 4000 BC and 2000 BC, were astronomers. The famous site of Stonehenge has long been seen to demonstrate that celestial bodies like the sun were integral to the period’s religious beliefs and practices, but it has always proved difficult to say whether Stonehenge was unique or actually part of a broader pattern of people observing the sky.

Now a new study recently completed by Dr Jan Harding, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at Newcastle University, provides important new information, suggesting that the sky was fundamental to the Neolithic way of life. This innovative research focuses upon the spectacular monument complex of Thornborough, in North Yorkshire, described by English Heritage’s Chief Archaeological Advisor, as “the most important prehistoric site between Stonehenge and the Orkneys”.

The study used cutting-edge technology to consider whether the Neolithic monuments at Thornborough were aligned upon the sun, moon and stars. A three-dimensional virtual reality model was built by Glyn Goodrick of the Museum of Antiquities at Newcastle University. Over this was draped images, generated by the computer programme SkyMap Pro v6, of the sky as it would have appeared in Neolithic times. The result is a virtual world in which you can position yourself to consider the reconstructed view of both the monuments and the sky.

“This study”, reports Dr Harding, “provides detailed insights into Neolithic religion and the values placed on favoured celestial phenomena. The same objects in the sky are being picked out as important for a period of around 1500 years ~ a length of time equivalent to that between the end of Roman Britain and the present day. This tells us that religion was complex long before the arrival of beliefs like Christianity and Islam”.

One of the earliest monuments, a giant elongated enclosure or cursus, about half of which has been destroyed by quarrying, was most likely built between 3500 BC and 3000 BC. This appears to have been deliberately orientated towards the midsummer solstice sunrise, to the east, and towards the setting of the three stars which make up the well known constellation of Orion’s Belt, to the west. This early monument was replaced after 3000 BC by three giant circular earthwork enclosures or henges, each around 240 metres in diameter. All three henges are interrupted by a pair of entrances, all on a shared axis and aligned on the midwinter solstice sunrise. The entrances also frame the rising of Sirius, the sky’s brightest star, and again, the associated constellation of Orion’s Belt.

The study argues that these results make sense if considered alongside the possible roles of the Thornborough monument complex. As Jan Harding explains, “Thornborough was a sacred landscape, a place of religious worship, and we should try to interpret these astronomical orientations within that context. People congregating within the henges would have been segregated from the outside world by the monument’s imposing banks. These huge earthworks mask any view of the surrounding landscape, channelling people’s attention to the sky above. This astronomical association was emphasised by the banks being coated in gypsum, a locally available substance whose whiteness added an unnatural brilliance. The drama of this scenario must have been intense. People surely felt they were at the centre of the very cosmos as they worshipped the heavens above.”

The Thornborough monument complex is also sited on what is thought to have been an important routeway linking Cumbria, the central Pennines and eastern Yorkshire. “It is known that polished stone axes from Langdale and flints from the Yorkshire Wolds were transported along this routeway on a regular basis. Accordingly, it may be appropriate to see Thornborough as a pilgrimage centre ~ a place where people sought spiritual salvation. Importantly, the movement across the heavens of celestial bodies like the sun and Orion’s Belt could be used to determine the most propitious times for seasonal festivals or celebrations. In such a way, the skyscape and people’s life cycles would be in harmony.” This recently completed research, which was funded by Newcastle University, will be included in a major new report to be published on the Thornborough monument complex in 2007.

Much of this sacred landscape has already been lost to open-cast gravel mining and Tarmac now owns the land upon which two of the henges were constructed by our ancestors. Tarmac Northern has recently appealed against North Yorkshire County Council’s refusal to allow it to extend its quarrying operations on to Ladybridge Farm, where the remains of Neolithic settlement occupied by the henge builders and users is located, so a public enquiry is now expected.


For further information, contact:

Mike Sanders, Press Officer, The Friends of Thornborough Henges ()
Dr Jan Harding, School of Historical Studies, University Of Newcastle (0191-222-7966)

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