Burial with the Romans
Editor Simon Denison
Cursus: solving a 6,000-year-old puzzle
Antiquaries thought they were ancient race-tracks. Later they were seen as processional routes. But cursuses might have been both these things and a whole lot more, writes David McOmish
Few monuments, from any period in history or prehistory, are as enigmatic as cursuses. These long - often ludicrously long - Neolithic enclosures have turned the concept of 'mystery' into an art form. Few have been properly excavated, and those that have, generally produced pitifully little by way of internal features, artefacts or dating evidence.
But despite this mystery, most archaeologists think they know a thing or two about these strange monuments. William Stukeley, the 18th century antiquary, famously thought the cursus at Stonehenge looked like a race-track - which is how cursuses got their name - and nowadays we all confidently scoff at that theory. Instead, we generally think of cursus monuments as 'arenas for ritual processions', referring to their invariably 'massive scale' and 'permanence' within the landscape.
But these fashionable theories don't really add up either - at least, they cannot be generally applied. Some cursus sites are unlikely to have been used for processions. Some had rounded or squared off ends, others were open-ended. Some were very short-lived. Some were even fairly short. There are no rules.
There isn't even a single model for what these monuments looked like. Some had flat central areas enclosed by a bank and ditch either side. Others had a pair of ditches flanking a single central mound, making them resemble extra-long bank barrows. Some Scottish examples replace banks and ditches with lines of pits. We may call all these various monuments by the same name, but they were probably used in a range of different ways.
At English Heritage, a project is now underway which aims to sort out all of this confusion. We plan to examine and reassess all known cursuses (and bank barrows) in England. There are over 150, most of them known only as cropmarks but with a few surviving as earthworks. So far we have looked at 50, and it has already become clear that some of our cherished views need to be rethought.
First, the question of scale within the landscape. The largest cursuses do indeed extend for miles. The longest, the Dorset Cursus near Blandford, is about six miles long (9.75km), and several others are one to two miles long (about 2km-4km). These monuments give the impression of being substantial undertakings requiring a massive investment in terms of construction and maintenance.
But this need not always have been the case. Many sites are less than 250 metres long; and some might have deliberately not been maintained. Excavation at the 400 metre-long Stonehenge Lesser Cursus, for example, seemed to suggest that some of the ditches were filled almost immediately after being dug. Similar hints emerged from investigations on the eastern flank of the Dorset Cursus. The evidence is not clear-cut, but some cursuses may have fallen out of use within a very short space of time.
On the other hand, these monuments - even the transient examples - sometimes influenced the layout of the surrounding landscape for centuries. Many later burial monuments were placed, for example, along the flank of the Stonehenge Cursus and at either end. Bronze Age ditched field systems were aligned on the Stanwell Cursus at Heathrow, while a number of field ditches ran up to the central mound (ba, June 2002), proving that the cursus survived there for at least 1,000 years and possibly much longer. Similarly, the Drayton Cursus in Oxfordshire - which was radiocarbon dated to between about 3635-3385 BC - survived long enough as an earthwork to be respected by a Roman field system.
Much is often made of the technical expertise displayed in the construction of these monuments, but closer inspection shows that some cursuses are decidedly irregular. The Dorset Cursus, for example, has a bank on one side that is prominent and fairly straight, while the opposite bank is less pronounced and follows an irregular course.
Richard Atkinson noted this many years ago, explaining the inferior side as secondary, built with less care than its neighbour. Our view, now, is that the imbalance was intentional, with one side deliberately built on a more monumental scale. Many other sites display a similar disparity, including the Woldgate Cursus at Rudston in Yorkshire, the Drayton Cursus in Oxfordshire and the Springfield Cursus near Chelmsford in Essex.
Few cursus banks are completely straight. Some 'wiggle' in order to incorporate an existing monument into the cursus structure, such as where the Dorset Cursus incorporates an earlier long barrow as it climbs a hill on Thickthorn Down.
But some crooked sections of cursus bank merely reflect the difficulty of laying out a precise course over a long distance using rudimentary survey equipment. The banks of the Woldgate Cursus at Rudston change direction, for example, where they lead up and over the high ground between two river valleys. It looks as though the banks approaching either side of the summit were built from opposite directions, but failed to quite meet in the middle.
When Francis Pryor excavated the cursus at Maxey near Peterborough, he explained its ephemeral nature and varied appearance as a 'project in progress' rather than a structure built to a pre-determined plan.
His idea was that people may have visited the site on a seasonal basis, adding new bits to the structure year after year. The activity, in other words, was more important than the architecture. Similar ideas have been applied to the Neolithic Sanctuary at Avebury (BA, February 2000).
It has been suggested that many cursus enclosures represent the formalisation of sections of long-established paths or routes. If so, the episodic construction, irregularities in alignment and disparities between the two sides may reflect compromises between an ancient pathway and the demands of monumental design.
The ends or 'terminals' of a cursus appear to have been the most important parts of the enclosure. Some terminals enclosed contemporary structures, like the probable timber circle at Springfield Cursus in Essex. At other sites, such as the Dorset Cursus, the squared-off terminal banks were built on a much more massive scale than the banks on either side - so much so, in fact, that they survived longer than the flanking earthworks and were mistaken for years as freestanding long barrows. Often, indeed, one end appears to have been more important than the other, as at Springfield or at Dorchester-on-Thames.
Terminals acted as a long-lasting focus for ritual activity, and excavation at the Woldgate Cursus at Rudston and at the Stonehenge Greater Cursus showed that they were rebuilt on a number of occasions. At Rudston, two flint cairns were built over the terminal in the early Bronze Age, and fieldwalking here also showed large numbers of 'special' artefacts, including finely made flint arrowheads ranging in date from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age. A number of later burials were also placed within the terminal enclosure.
What, then, were cursuses for? The dominant theory continues to be that they were processional routes - which is more likely, of course, to be true for the longer examples.
Despite the occasional wiggle, these enclosures do not 'snake' through the countryside. They are almost obsessively straight. This does, of course, encourage the idea of movement from a starting point to a finishing point - perhaps typically in one direction only, given the frequent ritual and architectural focus on one end.
However, alignment is also significant. Springfield Cursus, 700 metres long, is aligned on a smaller enclosure some 300 metres away. The alignment of the Dorset Cursus suggests that processions may have moved from the north-east to the south-west, which plausibly reflects an interest in the midwinter sunset.
A preoccupation with the solar calendar is also seen at the western end of the South Dorset Ridgeway - a natural ridge of chalk - close to the village of Long Bredy. Here we find a concentration of Neolithic monuments including at least two cursuses, a long barrow and a massive bank barrow that incorporates an earlier long barrow. Both cursuses are aligned on a knoll, which hosts the bank barrow, and which marks the end of the Ridgeway.
The Ridgeway itself is naturally aligned roughly north-west to south-east; and the bank barrow, carefully positioned at right angles to the ridge, not only marks its physical end but also serves as a theatrical backdrop to the two cursus enclosures. It seems likely that ceremonies here were held to celebrate the setting sun at midsummer. When viewed from the south-east, the bank barrow, approached via two cursus enclosures, formed a false horizon behind which the sun sank out of view.
Many cursuses were planned, in addition, with topography in mind. The majority occupy low-lying positions, running alongside or across valleys and streams, and often linking two water courses. As Kenneth Brophy of Glasgow University has pointed out in this magazine (ba, May 1999), rivers are both life-giving and dangerous places. They provide food, water and transport; but they can also flood crops and drown the unwary. Cursuses, 'symbolic rivers', may have been built as responses to this paradox of nature.
Many cursuses were sited at transitional places, not only rivers but also at the crossover points of different types of geology. Confluences of two rivers seem to have been particularly favoured. It is notable that at Buscot, near Swindon in the Thames Valley, the relationship between the two cursus enclosures - in terms of relative size and orientation - mirrors that between the River Thames and the River Cole.
Overall, the varied settings and alignments of cursuses - linked to rivers, ridges, astronomical features, and the rest - seem to suggest a desire among Neolithic people to enmesh these monuments and the events taking place within them with prominent features of the natural world. Similar links are found in the settings of some long barrows and panels of rock art.
It may be that social groups or individuals used these monuments to make statements about land use or tenure - and that they intended their claims to seem indisputable because they were part of the natural order.
The subject of power raises the question of who may have been allowed to use cursus monuments, and who was excluded from them. Some cursus sites, particularly those forming part of a complex of monuments such as at Dorchester-on-Thames, may have been places where large groups of people congregated - perhaps even for some form of pilgrimage. But wherever cursus enclosures were built over traditional paths, they would inevitably have restricted previous free access to the route for day-to-day tasks.
In many respects, cursuses and bank barrows seem more representative of communal cooperation than of exclusion. John Lewis has argued (ba, June 2002) that the Stanwell Cursus was a 'socially inclusive' monument, as ceremonies took place in full view of all on its raised central bank. However, ceremonies in the Dorset Cursus may have been obscured from outsiders because they took place behind its high flanking banks.
But what exactly was going on inside? Some cursuses may indeed have been used as processional routes, but orderly processions would have been difficult, or impossible, at many sites which include various ground-surfaces and types of vegetation cover, or which are cut by flowing rivers. How do you process across a river?
It appears instead that movement along the entire length of some cursuses would have been something of a trial, particularly during the winter months when wet and boggy ground would have added to the discomfort.
So could such sites have served instead as proving grounds for young men, where the main focus was on a race from one end to the other? This may explain the emphasis on the terminals, while an association with artefacts such as arrowheads might suggest that hunting or archery was part of the test. Good ethnographic evidence exists for such rites-of-passage events elsewhere in the world.
So perhaps when the old antiquary, William Stukeley, called these monuments 'cursuses', he wasn't quite as mistaken as many archaeologists have liked to believe.
David McOmish is a Senior Archaeological Investigator at English Heritage in Cambridge. He directs the cursus survey jointly with Jonathan Last, an archaeologist at English Heritage's Centre for Archaeology near Portsmouth. The first phase of the project will be completed later this year, with a summary of progress provided on the web. Follow the links from www.english-heritage.org.UK/ archaeologicalinvestigation
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005