We now travel back in time not this time thousands of years to around 3,500 BCE (Before Christian Era) to discover one of the most important ancient sites in Britain, this is the Thornborough Henges. They are located near the village of Thornborough which is in the Hambleton district of North Yorkshire near to Bedale. The henges consist of a series of three circular mounds with ditches and banks that were probably in use for over a thousand years. This site is often referred to as the ‘Stonehenge of the North’.
Thornborough Henge is the world’s only triple henge with the length of the three circles covering a distance of about one mile. The henges are aligned northwest to southeast, and laid out at approximately 550m apart. All are of similar size and shape, have a diameter between 240 and 275 metres, and stand some three meters in height. We cannot be sure why it was built some astro archaeologists think that Thornborough may have been a pilgrimage centre where people sought spiritual salvation and that it served an economic and social needs however there does appears to be a definite astronomical connection.
The Thornborough Henges align with one of the most famous star patterns in the sky, Orion’s Belt. The henges do not form a straight line but instead were intentionally shaped like a ‘dog leg’ to reflect the shape that the stars of Orion’s belt form in the sky. The constellation of Orion is very well known and is one of the two main signposts in the sky which help astronomers to find their way around while learning the positions of the stars in the night sky. The other is the Plough or Big Dipper as the Americans prefer to call it. The Plough is part of the constellation of Ursa Major the Great Bear, and while the Plough is visible all year around while in Britain Orion can only be seen in the winter sky.
Orion is one of 88 constellations recognised today be astronomers today. These are just like giant pictures in the sky and if you can find them it is possible to start reading the stories they are telling us. Of these 48 were designed by the Greeks and therefore by convention we tend to use the Greek myth and legends attached to them. Most other civilisations had their own versions of the ones we use here in the west. The other 40 constellations were added from the sixteenth century onwards by astronomers filling in the gaps between the main star groups in the northern hemisphere. When European explorers travelled into the southern hemisphere they saw stars that cannot be seen in Europe so created a series of constellation in the southern sky. Many of these are depictions of what were at the time newly invented scientific instruments. This explains why in the southern hemisphere we see constellations such as Telescopium the Telescope and Microscopium the Microscope. The vast majority of these modern constellations both in the northern and southern hemispheres are comprised of faint and obscure stars.
Orion on the other hand is a magnificent constellations easily recognised by four bright stars that form a large rectangle in the sky inside which are the three stars that form Orion’s Belt. The top left hand star of the rectangle is the famous red star Betelgeux which is often called Beetlejuice! As we look at the belt stars from left to right they are Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. The stars names may seem a little different to us this is because they are Arabic. When we translate the stars of Orion’s belt into English we discover that Alnitak means The Girdle, Alnilam the String of Pearls and Mintaka is the Belt.
This same astronomical alignment can be found in the great pyramids in Egypt, but the Thonrborough Henges are about 1,000 years earlier than the Egyptian pyramids. This could be the first known monument to align with the constellation of Orion. Was this co- incidence that the people of Yorkshire and those in Egypt created the same pattern on the ground or maybe people travelled around the world thousands of years ago exchanging thoughts, ideas and customs?
The structures of the henges were aligned so its western end pointed towards the mid-winter setting of Orion which also meant that the eastern end aligned towards the midsummer solstice.
Today we talk about light pollution and how difficult it is for people who live in cities to see the stars properly. We can be certain that the night skies were much darker when the henges were constructed over 5,000 years ago, there would be no light pollution at all. Today Orion is still an amazingly wonderful constellation to look at but with darker skies it must have looked even more impressive and this perhaps is one of the reasons why they had such a fascination for this one particular group of stars.
Today, all three of the Thornborough Henges, as well as the land connecting them together, are listed as Scheduled Ancient Monuments.