A henge is an earthwork of the Neolithic period (circa 4000BC), usually consisting of a roughly circular or oval-shaped bank with an internal ditch surrounding a central flat area. In Northumberland and the Scottish Borders, these ancient earthworks have been flattened by time and the plough so we have to rely on aerial photography to locate our henges. However, a number of interesting examples have been found to the north of the Cheviot hills and the Milfield plain contains one of the densest concentrations of henge monuments in Britain.
It is rare to find any evidence of occupation within a henge. It is thought that the henge was a special religious or spiritual space. Structures, such as stone or timber circles, coves, burials and pits, sometimes found within henges are thought to have had ritual rather than practical significance.
The use of bank and ditch is common as a means of providing a defensive structure. Attackers encounter an outer ditch with the bank raised up behind it creating a simple but effective barrier to their efforts. Henge ditches, though, are located inside their banks and so could not have been for defence. In 2005 archaeologist G J Barclay suggested that they are designed more to keep something in rather than out. Do the ditch and bank face something spiritually ‘dangerous’ inside the enclosure? It seems fair to suppose that whatever took place inside the enclosures was intended to be separate from the outside world and perhaps known only to select individuals or groups.
Henges vary in diameter and the number of their entrances that cut through the earthworks. Simple henges have a single entrance though some have as many as four. It is often thought that the entrances point toward certain heavenly bodies but, actually, the alignment of the entrances of the Northumbrian henges seems to depend more on local land features. The Milfield North henge, for example, had its entrances aligned with Yeavering Bell. In turn, the Yeavering henge has entrances aligned with a prominent monolith, known as the Yeavering Battle Stone, which, in all probability, pre-dates the Yeavering henge.
Avenues, sometimes indicated by lines of stones, often connect a series of henges. On the Milfield Plain wooden posts were used. It seems the builders wanted to control the approach to the henges. Movement within the henge was also regulated by sometimes placing those stone or timber uprights inside the earthworks. We imagine them now as bare uprights but, in reality, we have no way of knowing how the henges would have looked or have been used in their day. In the case of the timber structures, all we have today is a series of post holes. Did the posts stand bare, as the reconstruction of the Milfield henge pictured here suggest, or were there barriers, screens or wattle walls between them to hide what lay at the centre or to control the path through the henge?
Humans beings are rather fond of processions. We love to symbolically walk from here to there. We do this in celebration and as a protest. We use processions as part of our religious lives. We take short walks down the aisle to celebrate marriage. We undertake arduous pilgrimages to confirm our beliefs regardless of our brand of faith. The aligned nature of some of our henges and the very structure of the henges themselves seems to point to their involvement in some sort of processional behaviour. Some henges do, indeed, have stones or posts which can indicate the rising and setting of the sun on certain days. A number of henges are placed at 55 degrees north meaning the same two markers can indicate both the rising and setting of the sun on the equinoxes. Could this have been a way of confirming the exact days on which the processions were to take place?