Monday, December 15, 2008

An aerial view of the Dorset cursus. Its parallel ditches (marked by arrows) run for almost 10 km. (6.2 miles) across undulating downland. The Roman road Ackling Dyke is crossing the picture from top to bottom.

Cursus Long, narrow parallel-sided enclosure of the neolithic period.

Cursuses are in some ways the most unusual monuments of the neolithic period and the least understood. They consist of two long parallel ditches with internal banks, running for some distance across the countryside, and vary in length from the Dorset cursus at 9.8 km. (6 miles) to examples more akin to long barrows at around 100 m. (109 yd) (plate 12). They are never wide compared to their length; for example the Stonehenge cursus is 2.8 km. (1.7 miles) long and only 128 m. (140 yd) wide. The ends tend to be squared-off but rounded ones are not uncommon. High banks seem to be a feature of the sites, the ditches being mere quarries; entrances are few and often non-existent. Little is known about the interiors but at Springfield (Essex) a timber circle has been excavated at the eastern end, and a similar one may have existed at Dorchester-on-Thames (Oxon). Traces of fires are common, and pits containing burnt animal bones and pebbles at the Essex site may indicate sacrificial ceremonies.


Whilst a few cursuses are sited on the chalk hills many more lie on the gravel terraces of major rivers of southern Britain. In view of the great diversity of size their function may have varied considerably. It is a fact that some are connected with long and round barrows, mortuary enclosures and henge monuments. At least six long barrows impinge on the Dorset cursus, one being built into the bank of the monument and another on Gussage Down lying across its axis. There are suggestions that this cursus is sited upon the latter barrow, and that it post-dates it. The Stonehenge cursus terminates in a false long barrow at its eastern end. Round barrows concentrate around the southern end of the Rudston A cursus (Yorks) and close to that at Dorchester-on-Thames. The latter site, which is at least 1.2 km. (0.75 miles) long, was associated with three mortuary enclosures and a group of henge monuments. At Thornborough (Yorks) the central henge was not built until the ditches of the cursus over which it lay had silted up.


Most cursuses were very long, narrow, banked enclosures, often running through obscuring woodland and looking far from impressive. What went on inside was not for ordinary eyes; it was part of the ritual of the dead, perhaps controlled by a priesthood. It is possible that entrances were immaterial since the cursuses may have been processional ways and spirit paths for the exclusive use of the dead. As such they deserved the enormous communal effort involved in constructing them.


Linked to cursuses and earthen long barrows are a small group of late neolithic bank barrows found in Dorset. They are characterized by their length which varies between 180 m. (197 yd) and 550 m. (600 yd). The longest is at Maiden Castle where it overlies, and is therefore later than, a causewayed enclosure. In spite of its great size it seems only to have covered the remains of two small children.

Most henges occur on low-lying land close to streams or rivers. Often they form part of a cluster of related sites including cursuses and ring-ditches. The interiors are frequently empty, but any of them can contain settings of posts, stones or pits. A lack of domestic refuse suggests that they were sanctuaries used for some special purposes, most probably religious or ceremonial.



Seeing the cursus as a symbolic river



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