ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 44, May 1999


Seeing the cursus as a symbolic river

Kenneth Brophy tries to make sense of some of Britain's largest and earliest prehistoric monuments

Cursus monuments are among the most impressive yet mysterious prehistoric sites in the British Isles. Their sheer size - gigantic even by today's standards - exceptionally early date, and apparently inscrutable function make them a particularly fascinating subject for study and speculation.

These long, narrow earthwork structures date from the Neolithic - many from the early part of the period about 6,000 years ago - and are thus some of the oldest monumental buildings in the world. They have been found across the country from southern England to north-eastern Scotland, and stand beside some of the most famous archaeological sites in Britain and Ireland, such as Stonehenge, Newgrange, and in Argyll's celebrated Kilmartin valley.

Cursus monuments are essentially very long and relatively narrow rectangular enclosures, with a near continuous boundary of an interior bank and an exterior ditch. The only breaks in this boundary are the `causeways', or possible entrances. The ends of a cursus are either squared-off or rounded. In Scotland, about half the known sites (which now number over 50) have a boundary of pits or post-holes which held large upright timbers, rather than earthwork perimeters. A few sites have a single mound running along their centre, rather like a bank barrow.

Size is perhaps their most amazing characteristic. Many cursuses are several kilometres long, while the largest known, the Dorset Cursus on Cranborne Chase, Dorset, is over 10km in length, and over 100m wide. Most are visible only as crop-marks, but there are exceptions, like the Cleaven Dyke near Blairgowrie in Perthshire, with 1.8km of its central mound still standing relatively intact. This `dyke' is one of the most awe-inspiring surviving relics of Neolithic monumentality left to us today.

Several cursus sites have been excavated, but these excavations have usually produced a frustrating lack of artefacts or internal features. Dating evidence, which points to the early Neolithic, has been derived largely from the relationship of cursuses to other monuments. Many are located close to other Neolithic monuments, while some have later Neolithic henges built on top, for example at Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire and at Thornborough in North Yorkshire. Springfield Cursus, Essex, had a timber circle built within one of its terminal areas, and a timber circle was built over the terminal of a pit-defined cursus at Upper Largie in the Kilmartin Valley. Long barrows seem to have been built close to some cursus sites, such as the Dorset Cursus, the Stonehenge Cursus and the Cleaven Dyke.

But what were cursus monuments for? Initially, they were regarded by antiquaries such as Stukeley as Roman circuses or race-courses. However, by the middle of this century Neolithic ritual explanations had taken root. Theories have varied around the theme of ritual processions (first suggested by Richard Atkinson in 1955), although there have been other ideas. These range from pathways linking a series of events in the night sky, and representations of snakes, to enclosures marking the pathways of prehistoric tornadoes!

In general, however, most ideas have developed the processional theory. Recently, some archaeologists have suggested that only certain people may have been allowed in the cursus to take part in such rituals, and that these sites may have represented planned-out pathways joining natural and ancestral places together to form a ritual experience.

One researcher who has tried to take these ideas further is Chris Tilley. In his 1994 book The Phenomenology of Landscape, he described a walk along the Dorset cursus, in which he took note of the changes in the landscape along the cursus, the other archaeological sites he came across, and what he could and coudn't see on the horizon at certain points of his journey. Tilley suggested that the cursus was used as a mysterious, exciting and frightening place for rites of passage ceremonies for young men.

In my own research in Scotland, I also decided to walk along some cursus sites, and to try to imagine what the cursus might have looked like when first built, and what it could have felt like to walk within the newly-built enclosure. The Cleaven Dyke, Perthshire, would have stood in a landscape which was fairly flat and had been mostly cleared of trees. New sections were added every now and again to the long central mound and ditches to increase their length.

Walking along beside the 6ft high mound, I could see the low hill on which the cursus ended. The wide ditch on my right-hand side and the mound on my left encouraged me to look, and walk, straight ahead. I could not see what was on the other side of the mound - but I could hear everything going on over there.

As I got closer to the end, the land beside the ditch began to rise up in a long natural spur, until I could see nothing on either side because of the mound and spur. It even became hard to tell which feature was natural and which artificial. Then I reached the hill-top and the end of the bank, and the view ahead stretched down to the River Isla ahead, and the mountains beyond.

To walk along a cursus in this way may well have been a rare experience for Neolithic people, and perhaps some were never allowed in this strange enclosure, which had been extended again and again by the ancestors. It could perhaps have been a mysterious experience, where the outside world was blocked out to one side, or even both. These enclosures leave you with the impression of being in a special place, removed from the world.

Just as cursus monuments were special or sacred places, some natural features such as hill-tops, boulders, and woodland clearances may also have been special. On this page last month, David Field described the proximity of many Bronze Age barrows to water (`Bury the dead in a sacred landscape', April); and many of my walks along cursus sites also seem to end up looking over rivers and valleys, just like at the Cleaven Dyke.

Across Britain, there seems to be a close connection between cursus monuments and streams and rivers. The majority lie on flood-plains or river-terraces, close to the river. The Dorset Cursus and the Eskdalemuir bank barrow in Dumfries and Galloway are amongst several possible cursuses which cross, or are crossed by, rivers. Some sites are completely surrounded by waterways, like Maxey Cursus in Cambridgeshire. Old Montrose Cursus in Angus sits on a raised area of a valley floor which, in the event of flooding, could become an island. Other sites may have had seasonally flooded ditches, creating a powerful visual image when sunlight reflected off watery ditches stretching across the landscape.

Rivers are both life-giving and dangerous places. They provide water, and food, and a means of transport; they also drown, and flood. The effect of a flood can be double-sided, destroying crops, but leaving nutrient-rich soils behind when the waters subside. I would suggest that cursus monuments were perhaps built as a response to this paradox of nature.

Worries about fertility, about life and death, about the continuation of their society, could have been concentrated in these special enclosures which, in some regards, so mirror rivers. Maybe Neolithic people saw the cursus as a type of river under their control, not under nature's; as a place in which they could cleanse themselves of their existential worries through rituals, and allow themselves to return to their everyday lives with more confidence in the future.

Kenneth Brophy is the aerial photographic liaison officer with the Scottish Royal Commission (RCAHMS). He contributed to The Cleaven Dyke and Littleour, by GJ Barclay and GS Maxwell, which was published recently by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and is available from Oxbow Books (£28.00)

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Tolerating pagans for the sake of trade

Paganism may have survived for centuries after the arrival of Christianity, says Paul Blinkhorn

The spread of Christianity has long been a favourite subject within Anglo-Saxon research. Cemeteries have been excavated and mapped, with grave-goods and the orientation of burials minutely studied, to produce an image of the seemingly inexorable progress of the new religion across the land from the 7th century AD.

The survival of paganism, however, has received far less attention. This is odd, because the historical literature makes it clear that paganism continued to flourish in Saxon-controlled areas throughout the 7th, 8th and even 9th centuries. Now, in a new development, 7th-8th century pottery is beginning to be recognised in eastern England that may have been designed specifically for use in pagan ceremonies. The evidence perhaps suggests a greater de facto tolerance of paganism in this period than is suggested by church pronouncements alone, or by a literal reading of historians such as Bede.

The early church certainly went to some lengths to absorb paganism into its own ceremonies, as if in recognition of the strength of popular feeling. Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History, quotes Pope Gregory's letter to Abbott Mellitus, an envoy sent to join Augustine in England in AD601, in which the pope demanded that altars were set up in pagan shrines, and pagan sacrifices and feasts replaced by Christian festivals.

Many scholars regard Christmas as one example of replacement, seeing it as perhaps a memory of an earlier winter-solstice celebration.

We also know from Bede that idols continued to be destroyed in Kent decades after the conversion of Aethelbert at the beginning of the 7th century. Moreover, the traditional robes of the Christian cleric may reflect an adoption of the costume of pagan priests, according to archaeologist Tim Taylor in his book, The Prehistory of Sex. They, according to Tacitus, dressed as women - at least in Germany.

This strategy of conversion by stealth cannot have been entirely successful, because the church later turned to the use of law - and force - to stamp out pagan survivals. The later 7th century Penitentials of Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, proscribed practices including `sacrificing to devils', augury, eating food offered as sacrifice and burning grain for the wellbeing of the dead. Interestingly, burnt grain is occasionally found in pagan Anglo-Saxon graves - for example in the cemetery at Portway in Hampshire. The Penitentials also required heathens to be baptised, and existing pagan marriages to be solemnised by a Christian ceremony. Penalties were listed for Christian clerics who performed pagan divinations.

Documents continue to indicate the survival of paganism in the 8th century. In AD747, one of the canons of the Synod of Clovesho - an unknown location somewhere in England - stated that every bishop should go round his diocese each year and forbid pagan practices such as divination, soothsaying, and the use of augury, omens, amulets, and spells. As late as AD786, papal legates admonished the English for dressing `in heathen fashion' and slitting their horse's nostrils in the pagan manner. Laws proscribing pagan practice were still being introduced in the 9th century, under Alfred, and again in the 10th.

If paganism survived, it ought to be possible to find some traces of it in the archaeological record. Personal possessions were used to signal social and cultural affiliation, and the archaeologist Julian Richards's work on pagan Anglo-Saxon cremation urns in eastern and central England has shown that the stamped and incised designs, and the size and shape of the pots themselves, may have reflected the age, gender, social status, and, in some cases, religious affiliation of the deceased. T-runes, for example, may indicate the god Tiw, and swastica-runes the god Thor. Other objects, such as brooches, transmitted similar information.

The practise of stamping and incising pottery was mainly used on cremation urns, and when cremation fell from use from the early 7th century, the decoration of pottery virtually ceased. There was, however, one exception: Ipswich Ware. This type of pottery first came into production in Ipswich around AD720 using stamped and incised decoration. Overtly pagan designs such as swastikas or runes were not used, but there is one Ipswich Ware vessel decorated with stamped face-masks.

The face-mask - a stamped representation of the human face - is commonly found on objects of the pagan period. It has been suggested that it was a symbol of Anglo-Saxon identity, and may represent one of the pagan gods. The symbols are known on cremation urns from both England and the continent, and on coins, drinking cups, brooches and buckets. The Sutton Hoo helmet has been thought to be a ceremonical mask, an indicator of the Saxon king's mythological descent from the gods; while face-mask decorations are also found on the Sutton Hoo ceremonial whetstone sceptre.

The Ipswich potters used a limited suite of stamp arrangements, including pendant triangles, the staple decorative arrangement of 6th century cremation urns in East Anglia. Pendant triangles do not appear solely on pots. The silver-gilt mounts of the Sutton Hoo drinking cups and the rimbands of some drinking horns are hung with pendant triangles, as were many buckets. Thus, the only objects apart from pots which had pendant triangle decoration were containers for liquids or food - but not all containers for food were marked with pendant triangles.

Since the eating of food offered as sacrifice was proscribed by the church, are we looking at vessels that were specially marked for use in pagan ceremonies?

Certainly, there is good reason to suspect that drinking horns were intrinsically pagan objects. The papal legates of AD786 condemned the use of horn for communion chalices and patens, and it is likely that goats were venerated by the pagan Anglo-Saxons. A burial at Yeavering in Northumbria, thought to be of a pagan priest, contained a metal staff which terminates in what appears to be a stylised goat, and the remains of a goat's skull were found at the foot of the grave.

Yeavering, the most important royal and ceremonial centre in the north of England in the 6th century, had the Saxon name of Ad-Gefrin, the Hill of the Goats. The Christian portrayal of the anti-Christ was often a goat-like figure with cloven hooves and horns. This is traditionally explained as being a memory of the classical god Pan; but a reflection of a Saxon veneration of goats is perhaps a more likely explanation.

Intriguingly, images of goats are rarely found on pagan Anglo-Saxon objects. Does this mean that they were taboo, and only priests, such as the possible example at Yeavering, were allowed them, perhaps as a badge of office? We know from Bede that pagan priests were affected by taboos. For example, they were not allowed to carry weapons (there are no weapons in the Yeavering burial) and could only ride mares, not stallions. Depictions of goats remain unknown throughout the 8th and 9th centuries, suggesting that, like swastikas and runes, their potency survived.

Ipswich, one of the most important towns in 8th century England, may then have been a centre of pagan survival. We have as yet no positive evidence for a church in Ipswich in the 8th century (unlike, say, at Southampton and London), and objects with Christian symbols are unknown - although a number have been found at Brandon, some 16 miles to the north-east. The only burial in Ipswich containing grave-goods with cross motifs is from Boss Hall, about a mile outside the Saxon town. The cemetery, recently excavated by the Suffolk Archaeological Unit, appears to have been disused for about 100 years when the deceased was interred in the early 8th century.

So why, at a time when the historical record suggests that churchmen were beginning to counter pagan practices, were Ipswich potters allowed to continue making `pagan pots'? The answer may be that Christian power-holders turned a blind eye for the sake of trade. Ipswich was the main redistribution centre for imported goods on the east coast of England; and while the two other major ports of southern England, London and Southampton, were mainly supplied by Frankish merchants, who were Christian, Ipswich is likely to have been mainly supplied by Frisians, who were, by and large, pagan. Thus, a clamp-down on paganism in Ipswich may have affected trade.

The evidence for the extent of the survival of paganism is tentative and inconclusive; but it is likely that we have traditionally overestimated the impact of Christianity on most people for the first two centuries after St Augustine's arrival. Paganism did not go down without a struggle; we might almost say that, with the church's adoption of many of its festivals and practices, it never died at all.

Paul Blinkhorn is an independent specialist in ceramics

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Turning a cave into home sweet home

`Cavemen' lived in Britain as recently as this century. Chris Tolan-Smith reports

In popular culture, cave-dwelling is a defining symbol of `stone age' life, and many people use the term `caveman' as a catch-all phrase - like `Neanderthal' - to denote brutish, uncivilised behaviour that belongs in the distant past.

Certainly, for most people, the thought of spending more than a few moments in a dark, dank cavern is appalling. Even archaeologists who dig in caves usually feel a palpable sense of relief when they emerge into the sunlight.

However, people have used caves for habitation, storage, burial and ritual throughout most of human history, in most regions where such natural shelters are found. The practice of cave-dwelling in fact continues in some regions to the present day, and in the British Isles to within living memory.

One better-known example of a pair of recent cave-dwellers is Joe and Jeannie Wilson of Camusfearna in western Scotland, whose lifestyle was affectionately described by Gavin Maxwell in Ring of Bright Water, a book written only some 40 years ago.

When I began my archaeological fieldwork in the caves of western Scotland in 1985 I was struck by the fact that many showed clear signs of having been used in the recent past. It struck me that a better understanding of this could help me to a clearer picture of how the same sites were used in more remote times. After all, weren't the people involved essentially similar to us, in their need for shelter, warmth, light and space in which to move or lie down? This led me into collaboration with Roger Leitch, an ethnographer based in the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University who had been independently studying the use of temporary dwellings.

Scotland has a rich ethnohistorical record of cave dwelling. Sources range from myths, legends and traditions to official government statistics and reports. The more colourful legends include Sawney Bean, whose legendary cave-dwelling family lived a few hundred years ago by attacking travellers and then eating them; or Robert the Bruce and his study of spiders; or various caves in which Bonnie Prince Charlie is supposed to have sheltered.

It is the government reports, however, that generally provide the more fascinating information. The Census Returns for 1881, for example, record that the Keil Cave in Kintyre, a site also occupied in the Roman period, was at the time the home of John McFee, aged 22, a tinsmith, Margaret his wife, aged 21, and their one-year-old son Andrew. They shared the cave with John's cousin Alex McCallum, aged 45, a basket-maker, Mary his wife and Bella their daughter.

After a visit to the Tinker's Cave at Wick in 1866 Dr (later Sir) Arthur Mitchell, one of the founding fathers of Scottish ethnography, recorded that there were 24 `inmates' in residence, comprising four families and their `numerous and vicious dogs'.

The beds on which we found these people lying, consisted of straw, grass and bracken, spread upon rock or shingle, and each was supplied with one or two dirty, ragged blankets or pieces of matting. Two of the beds were near the peat fires which were still burning, but others were further back in the cave where they were better sheltered.

Oral tradition is another important source and the School of Scottish Studies has a number of tape recordings with cave dwellers and people who knew them.

The practice formally came to an end in 1915 when, under the provisions of the Defence of the Realm Act, cave dwelling was declared strictly prohibited. A warning was issued by the Chief Constable of Argyll to persons `dwelling in or using as an habitual abode caves or hollows along the shore' - presumably because cave fires might attract enemy submarines. However, these restrictions were only partly successful and a 1917 government census of travelling people recorded 55 individuals still living in caves.

During the course of my fieldwork in the mid-1980s several sites were found to be still in occasional use, though the regular use of caves as part of a wider settlement pattern by whole families did appear to be a thing of the past.

What light does this fascinating body of material shed on the issue of cave-use? First, we can gain some insights into the importance of cave-use in the annual subsistence cycle. Many caves appear to have been used on a regular but intermittent basis. Before the widespread advent of motorised transport, travellers tended to confine their movements to traditional, or ancestral areas, and within these areas natural shelters were used on a regular basis, particular caves becoming associated with individual families or clans. Caves could be used at any season, but one firsthand account refers to their use being a summer activity, less draughty tents being preferred in the winter.

Recent cave-dwelling can also suggest the range of uses to which these natural shelters were put. These included both residence and storage. As many travellers were also itinerant craftsmen, especially tinsmiths and basket makers, many caves were workshops as well as homes.

We can also gain some understanding of the way in which the space available might have been used. Many sites were rudely equipped with furniture discarded by house dwellers, and beds, tables, screens and windbreaks are commonly cited. Some caves were walled across from side to side, perhaps for protection against animals, and all had hearths. One informant recorded that a hearth should be near the entrance but to the right in order to light but not impede access.

In addition, we can glimpse the kind of social organisation that developed among cave users as a way of minimising conflict over the use of restricted facilities. Some caves were large enough to accommodate several families, who in recent times were usually of the same kin such as McPhees, McNiells or Williamsons. A leader or cave `chief' was appointed to enforce compliance with the unwritten code of cave conduct. Each family had its own hearth and an analogy with a tenement house is made more than once.

The habitual use of caves appears to have been part of the accepted way of life of travelling people in Scotland down to the early decades of the present century. For people unburdened by much in the way of material goods they were `convenient cavities' to be made use of as circumstances dictated. But few people occupied caves permanently and most made use of a range of facilities including tents. Some even occupied houses on a short-term basis.

The attitude of non-cave dwellers was not always entirely condemnatory. A Dr George Dick is quoted in the Minutes of Evidence of the 1917 Royal Commission Report on Housing as commenting that a cave in Caithness was much cleaner than any house he had ever seen occupied by tinkers - a somewhat backhanded compliment perhaps. One cave-dweller, Davy Hutchinson, who was recorded in 1955, recalled how he had spent the first few years of his life in a cave but commented that some of the caves he had known as a boy had been `condemned' by the authorities as being too damp for human occupation - a judgement passed by a society for whom the concept of cave-dwelling was wholly alien.

Indeed, people who knew Gavin Maxwell's pedlar Joe Wilson, a deserter from the army, seemed to tolerate his activities well enough:

He used to come round here collecting rabbit skins, sold onions and things like that. His wife was called Jean, a big heavy woman who sold children's clothes, laces, and all these things to women. Joe used to live in a cave right down by the shore . . . where they used to hold the old cattle sales or fairs away back in the early 1900s. It didn't please them so they shifted to a cave further along the coast . . . He lived there for years and used to gather whelks when the tide was suitable. (John MacAskill, born 1900, recorded in 1982.)

To what extent can this model of cave use in recent centuries be applied to more remote times?

The cave dwellers we have been able to study were living at a time when most of the population was settled. Some informants certainly thought of the caves as the equivalent to tenements, and to some extent it seems they were trying to reproduce conditions found in the homes of their contemporaries.

While I do believe this evidence helps us understand how caves were used in the distant past, the pattern of cave-use - not only who uses caves but also how they are used - is affected by culture and society at large. We cannot imagine that caves were used in just the same way 10,000 years ago as they were at the start of this century.

Dr Chris Tolan-Smith is a Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Newcastle. His book, The Human Use of Caves, edited with Clive Bonsall, was published by BAR in 1997 (£40.00)

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