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Chapter 6 – The Other Monuments of the Sacred Vale

Chapter 6: The Other Monuments of the Sacred Vale

Except for the henge alignment at Thornborough, very little is known about the other monuments within the Sacred Vale. The henge at Catterick is now almost totally removed, having been cut through in Roman times by the building of a road, later flattened and overlain by the Catterick racecourse, and more recently a significant part of its remaining structure has been removed by gravel quarrying.

Image: Hutton Moor Henge, Ripon. English Heritage.

The three henges of Cana, Nunwick and Hutton Moor have also suffered badly from the deprivations of the modern era. Cana and Nunwick remain as severely flattened crop marks. Hutton Moor is still visible in the form of a plough-smoothed earthwork. Both Cana and Nunwick are still under the plough.

The Devil’s Arrows are the remaining three upright standing stones in an alignment thought to have included up to five stones originally. These were positioned in an almost straight line running north-south. The remaining stones are 200 and 370ft apart. They are located off the side of an elevated section of the A1(M) trunk road at Boroughbridge.

The stones have heights of 18ft (northern stone), and 22ft. They are of millstone grit which was quarried at Knaresborough, 6.5 miles to the southwest and are heavily grooved with lateral cuts thought to be the product of natural weathering.

The name stems from a legend traced back to 1721, where the Devil was supposed to have thrown the stones, aiming at the next town of Aldborough. He stood on Howe Hill and shouted, “Borobrigg keep out o’ way, For Aldborough town I will ding down!” But he aimed not that good, and so they landed short of their mark.

Image: The Devil’s Arrows stone alignment at Boroughbridge, George Chaplin.

Image: The third and tallest of the Devil’s Arrows, George Chaplin

At their maximum of 22 feet in height, the Devil’s Arrows are the tallest standing stones in the United Kingdom except for the Rudston monolith and create one of the greatest stone alignments in Britain.

The construction of the Devil’s Arrows is thought to be around 2,400BC and would make them possibly the last major construction within the Sacred Vale. Considering that Boroughbridge appears to have been an important focus point for the Neolithic henge alignments, it is a little surprising that6 no earlier monuments have been identified here. There may remain to be found yet another long-since flattened henge or cursus here.

Located as they are, close to the confluence of the Rivers Ure and Swale, and given the importance of these rivers during the Neolithic period, as implied previously it is likely that this formed another important aspect of the ritual complex.

Scattered throughout the Vale are many burial mounds or barrows. The vast majority of these are plough flattened but around Hutton Moor Henge at least two barrows still retain prominence.

Given the importance of the monument complex in the Sacred Vale, it is hoped that further archaeological research can be done on all these monuments and the landscape as a whole, which undoubtedly has more secrets to reveal.

Image: Farmstead, Joanne.

Occupation and Settlement – Life in the shadow of the henges

The henge monuments of the Neolithic period are notoriously absent of remains from the period when they were used. This is one of the reasons for them being seen as religious in purpose; they were kept clean, no fires were allowed within the henges or near them, no rubbish pits were dug, and no settlements set up within what is seen as the ritual space of the henge.

This gives us a major problem when it comes to understanding even some of the simplest questions related to henges such as how many people came to them? How long did they stay? And what did they do?

To attempt to answer these questions, a wider view (of the landscape of the henges) has to be taken– if people did not live in the immediate vicinity of the henges, perhaps they lived at a more respectful distance?

As already mentioned, Newcastle University has carried out extensive field walking in a wide area around the Thornborough Henges to look for answers to questions such as these. This has provided a significant insight into the human activities in the wider landscape.

The field walking found that flints pertaining to the early Neolithic period were

relatively widely distributed around the entire area; that is from the time of the cursus monuments and before the building of the henges.

However, flint scatters from the Later Neolithic period, from the time when the henges were being built and used, show the situation changes remarkably. What is seen was a massive increase in numbers and distribution of worked flint across the site.

Image: Settlement evidence from flint concentrations (pink), and from confirmatory excavations (lime).

The interesting aspect of the Late Neolithic flint distribution around Thornborough, unlike that from the early Neolithic period, is that it is not random. The distribution reveals concentration patterns that are not unstructured. Like the monuments themselves, there is almost a plan or design about the distribution of this tool-sharpening debris.

At Thornborough the three henge monuments sit upon a sand and gravel plateau. The evidence from the flint scatters suggests that during the Later Neolithic period this sand and gravel plateau was a place that people did not go to for day-to-day business; it was a place where they would go to worship.

This is inferred due to most of the Later Neolithic flint being found away from the sand and gravel plateau, usually at distances of at least 600m.

There are a number of flint concentrations suggestive of potential settlement sites. These are shown on the above map as pink ovals. What can be inferred from this is that the plateau (that the henges sit on) was seen as part of the henge complex itself – part of the ritual space, shown the same respect as the henges. It was a special place, one that was not lived in.

A further piece of information that may be inferred from the flint collection evidence comes from the sorts of worked flint found and the level of wear of the tools found. Most of the tools found appear to have had relatively little use – this is perhaps indicative of them being used for a short time before being discarded. There may be many reasons for this Dr Jan Harding suggests that this was perhaps indicative of short duration of stay – flints being lost during the breaking of camp.

Away from the sand and gravel plateau at a distance of 500m or more from the henges there are settlement sites, places that people would live in during set times of the year when they went onto the henge site to perform rituals.

There was a structure to the way the landscape was used. Some areas were designed as being exclusive for purposes connected to the ritual life of the henges, others for the perhaps more mundane activities connected with day-to-day living.

In one area of Nosterfield Quarry, near Ladybridge Farm, were found 70 pits, most of which contained pottery and flints that have been interpreted as the remains of short-term settlements – evidence that the henges were a destination for large numbers of people for short durations. People were travelling to the henges perhaps only a few times per year – they were setting up temporary camps in clusters away from the ritual area but still within the landscape of the henges.

This interpretation of the evidence would seem to make sense. The size of the henges, particularly at Thornborough, would indicate that a number of people were travelling quite a distance to attend rituals. Back in the Neolithic there were no hotels, so the Neolithic equivalent of camping was the only option.

Grooved Ware – Neolithic Party Ware?

Image: Grooved-Ware. Joanne.

During the Neolithic period ceramic pottery vessels were produced for the first time in the British Isles.

Perhaps another clue as to the activities that happened around the henges within the Sacred Vale may be inferred from the finding of fragments of one particular type of pottery. Grooved-ware pottery fragments were found buried in pits to the north of the Thornborough Henges in an area seen as being the remains of short stay visits by people to the henges.

Grooved –Ware has been noted as being unusual in that some examples have been particularly large – capable of holding several kilograms of goods, perhaps grain or other food items. These pots may have been suitable for holding the large quantities of food needed during a large festival or gathering.

Grooved-Ware has been found at ritual monuments extending from Orkney to Wessex. This widespread distribution is in itself quite remarkable, as is the fact that it was in use for the millennium the henge were known to have been important ritual sites.

Grooved-Ware is recognised as being used, though not exclusively, in a ritual context. In fact, examples have been found not only at henge sites, but also in relation to other ritual communal events. Recent analysis of Grooved-Ware found at a ritual site in Belfarg, Fife, revealed the presence of poisons and hallucinogens.

In fact, the lack of Grooved-Ware finds associated with normal domestic sites has led archaeologists to suggest that many of these pots were made specifically for cult purposes. Current thinking is that Grooved-Ware pots were potentially a key part of the paraphernalia of ritual practices at henges. They were part of a “ritual package” that extended across the whole of the British Isles.

There is a suggestion that these settlements may have only been allowed in places that were out of view of the main activities at the sacred complex, but this is not proven at Thornborough, where most settlement locations may well have been visible from the henges. Of course, we have no way of knowing the exact nature of tree cover at the time when the henges were used by these settlements, but one suggestion is that it was noise pollution that was being avoided by placing the settlements so far from the henges.

So far, there has been no evidence of a permanent camp in the Thornborough region; however, it is likely that there will have been at least one. Perhaps the most likely candidate is the area closest to the River Ure – possibly the landing zone of

the earliest traders as they crossed the river or disembarked from canoes. Another possibility – Thornborough Village cannot be ruled out since it is an ancient settlement that sits an appropriate distance from the henges, although the possibility that it may sit on top of the cursus tends to reduce the likelihood of this.

Image: Thornborough’s Southern Henge. George Chaplin.

Bull’s Eye Effect of the Henges

Based on the evidence at Thornborough, there is the possibility that people who came to henges as part of a regular event tended to settle a certain distance away from the henges, and that this formed a pattern that may be helpful in our understanding of henge life.

The “Bull’s Eye” theory comes from the notion that people who came to henges followed a system of rules in choosing their dwelling locations, and that the final location of each settlement was the outcome of a complex interchange between social rule-sets that considered social, geographic, ritual and ethnic needs.

It is possible to infer that each henge had its own “ritual area”. Here only activities related to the henges and associated rituals were allowed. We can see this as an “exclusion circle” around each henge, but one that may be distorted because of proximity to other ritual sites (including those that we can no longer see) and other factors such as social convention and the natural geography of the area.

Image: The henge settlement ring. After Harding.

This creates an exclusion ring around the henge that defines its ritual area – the first ring around the bull’s eye of the henge.

Around this ring is a further “settlement ring” – the participants of the henge rituals would tend to cluster in those areas best suited for settlement, as close to the ritual area as possible.

It is likely that the decision to settle at a particular preferred spot will also have been affected by other factors, such as tribal or trade similarities.

This observation provides additional credibility to the notion of the importance of the river to the building of the henge mentioned earlier. The new map of the sacred area for Thornborough, for example, shows that the site was constructed as close to the river as possible whilst maintaining the maximum settlement space around the henges for those that came to visit.

This adds a new dimension to our understanding of the way ritual sites such as henges may have been planned and operated. Any major site such as Thornborough will have had to consider the need to house quite a number of “foreign” visitors during rituals.

Looking at the plan on page 51, one can see that the henge site is much closer to the river then may have first appeared simply by looking at a map.

The settlement evidence tends to support the notion that the henges at Thornborough operated as a single ritual site – the settlements circle all three. This also suggests that the henges were built at the same time -they are unlikely to have been the product of a gradual evolution of the site. They appear to have been designed to be used simultaneously.

If, as is currently assumed, the three henges at Thornborough were built at the same time, this indicates provision for a huge number of visitors – possibly the largest such space of all the henges in Britain.

It is possible that this “bull’s eye” principle may be applied not just to other henges, but also to other monuments of similar purpose. In fact, at Thornborough there way well be evidence of this, perhaps for different reasons.

It is noticeable that each of the settlement areas sits in a concentrated space a similar distance from the other settlements as it is from the henges. This may well indicate that the respect granted to the henges was also given to other settlements. It is noticeable that these are not random campsite scatters.

This infers that people within each settlement possibly recognised a common bond that may not have been shared with those at other camps. This may well reflect tribal differences, but also there is the possibility that each settlement had its own ritual space; a number of axe finds close to some settlements may be indicative of this.

Image: Langdale Axe found at Thornborough (P. Yates)

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