Engines of Change
Lord of the Hrungs
Editor Simon Denison
Everyone’s invited to the Neolithic party
John Lewis on the moment he realised the Stanwell cursus was a political statement
My favourite discovery was working out what the Stanwell cursus near Heathrow actually looked like in the Neolithic period - and what this meant about the nature of society in the area.
The discovery came about during rescue excavations on Thames Water's sludge works at Perry Oaks. This charming spot was where London's processed sewage has been pumped since the 1930s onto vast gravel beds to dry before being turned into organic agricultural fertiliser. New technology has now condensed that operation, so most of the site was being cleared.
Initially I worked as a project manager for MoLAS (the Museum of London Archaeology Service) during the first season's excavations in 1996, and later came back to dig the site more thoroughly for Framework Archaeology in 1998-99. It was a colossal site covering about 60 acres (25 ha) in all. Just walking around the site took most of the day. We also had to shout a lot because of the Heathrow aircraft constantly flying overhead.
But it was an amazing excavation because beneath all these acres of drying beds we found a fantastic landscape dating from the Mesolithic through to the end of the Roman period. But the major monument was the Stanwell cursus, which is at least 2.5 miles long and is the second longest in the country (after the Dorset cursus). The site had been known for some time from aerial photographs and earlier excavations. On our site it appeared as two parallel ditch-lines in the ground.
However the ditches were only about 22m apart - making it about three or four times narrower than a normal cursus. So what did it look like originally, and how was it used? Did it have the normal pair of banks flanking a processional pathway, or was it just a single bank between the two ditches?
I had the plan of the cursus on my wall, showing how it was crossed by a network of Bronze Age field ditches. And as I stared at it, and thought about it, I noticed that one of these ditches narrowed as it began to cross the cursus, and opened out again when it emerged from the other side, in a sort of 'hourglass' shape. This was really puzzling until I suddenly realised that the Bronze Age farmers in 1500 BC must have dug their ditch right over the top of the still-existing cursus bank.
Although they maintained the relative depth of their ditch, it didn't penetrate as deeply into the ground as it crossed the bank. Later, as we looked at other Bronze Age ditches crossing the cursus we found the same 'hourglass' pattern again and again. The result of all this was to show that the cursus had always been a single, banked-up pathway between ditches - in other words not really a cursus at all, more a ceremonial causeway or dyke.
I was really excited about this because of what it suggested about Neolithic society in the area. Generally cursuses are interpreted as formalised ceremonial paths from one important place to another. Before they were built, the processions took place on an ordinary pathway, with whole communities able to take part - perhaps meeting at certain points, singing, dancing, drinking, breaking a few pieces of pottery, or knapping a piece of flint.
Then as time went on the ceremonies became more exclusive. Typical cursuses, like the Dorset cursus in Wessex, were built on the route of the ceremonial path with high flanking banks to prevent outsiders seeing what was going on within. In many areas, this social stratification increased in the Bronze Age with the elite buried in single tombs with all their finery.
But the west London area seems to be different. There were ceremonial processions in the landscape, and one of these pathways was formalised into the Stanwell cursus. But instead of two flanking ditches you have a raised path. Instead of secret ceremonies, you have processions that were designed to be seen. Then in the Bronze Age, there is no sign of the social differentiation that you get in Wessex. There are no large henges, and virtually no rich burials. It all fits together. The Early Bronze Age of the west London area was not occupied by an overtly stratified and exclusive society - and I believe this reflects the sort of community that a few hundred years earlier built the Stanwell cursus with its 'socially inclusive' raised central bank.
John Lewis is the Director of Framework Archaeology. Pictures: diagram and reconstruction of the cursus, showing the visibility of someone walking on top.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005