Visit date: 9th October 2011
Weather: grey and overcast, fairly cold.
The route of the field trip took us from the Stonehenge carpark towards the Cursus Barrow Group and along the line of the Greater Cursus toward Fargo Plantation. We then walked east, following the fenceline (and the northern bank of the Greater Cursus) to hunt for Amesbury 42 long barrow in the patch of woodland east of the cursus terminus. We then walked to King Barrow Ridge and then followed the Avenue back towards Stonehenge. Risking life and limb, we crossed the road and proceeded to the Normanton Down barrow cemetery.
Grid Reference: From SU 1094 4290 to SU 1375 430 (Grinsell 1957 : 28)
The Greater Stonehenge Cursus presents as a narrow linear bank enclosing a roughly-rectangular strip of land approximately 100m across and 3km long (Barber 2011 : 2).There is a ditch outside the bank, both of which can still be seen, at least on the southern side as shown in Figure 1. The cursus terminals are on higher ground at either end and the centre section straddles the valley bottom. Stukeley attributes this to the requirement for viewing the activities within the enclosure from either end (Stukeley 2007).
|Year||Investigation type||Investigation Details|
|1723||Observation||Cursus ‘discovered’ by William Stukeley and published in the 1740 edition of Stonehenge, A Temple Restor’d to the British Druids (Thomas et al. 2009). Stukely took pains to measure and describe the cursus, and to justify his interpretation as a site for games or events, based on a possible position for spectators as well as access to the circuit (Stukeley 2007).|
|1917||Excavation||Farrer noted that in his excavation towards the eastern end of the Cursus, it appeared that rather than silting up gradually, the ditch fill was a single event (Thomas et al. 2009: 43)|
|1947||Excavation||JFS Stone excavated an area of the southern ditch to the east of Fargo Plantation (NMR SU 14 SW 42) and discovered chippings of bluestone and sarsen within the fill. He also discovered what Richards (1990: 96 cited in Thomas et al. 2009: 43) interpreted as a later cutting into the ditch, yielding an antler crown which subsequently was radiocarbon dated to 2890–2460 cal BC (OxA-1403; 4000 +− 120 BP) and some Late Bronze Age pottery (Thomas et al. 2009: 43).|
|1959||Excavation||Christie (1963) excavated the far western end of the cursus, taking in the terminal end. She discovered that the western bank was enormously substantial, perhaps reminiscent of a long barrow, and a deep flat-bottomed ditch and wide berm between the ditch and bank, and a further berm and bank beyond (Christie 1963 :370). In contrast, she found the north and south sides of the Cursus to be far less substantial but still with flat-bottomed ditches of considerable depth.|
|1983||Excavations||Julian Richards excavated not far from J F S Stone’s 1947 trench and found similar evidence but determined the intrusive vut to be later (Thomas et al. 2009: 44)|
|2007||Geophysical Survey||English Heritage conducted a geophysical assessment of the western end of the Cursus, prior to the investigations of the Stonehenge Riverside Project (Payne 2007). This showed up previously-known earthworks as well as demonstrating where plough damage had reduced the bank of the Cursus.|
|2007||Excavation||The Stonehenge Riverside Project excavated several trenches across the cursus including a reassessment of the western terminal. The results broadly agreed with Christies assessment of the gradual fill, especial as the knapping evidence found was spread throughout the fill and consistent with several events over time (Thomas et al. 2009: 45).|
|2009 (pub’d)||Petrological Analysis||Ixer and Bevins analysed the bluestone chips that JFS Stone had found in 1947 and determined them to be of a type also found in the Preseli Hills, but slightly different to those already known at Stonehenge (Ixer & Bevins 2009).|
Chronology and Current Interpretation
The Greater Cursus was possibly first written about by Stukeley (Amadio & Bishop 2010) and interpreted as having been used for chariot racing or games (Stukeley 2007 :27), a somewhat simplistic analogy, but one given a reconsideration by David McOmish as a form of trial or ordeal of passage (McOmish 2003).
In view of the difference in construction of the north and south sides compared with the western terminal end, Christie considers that they were perhaps constructed at different times (Thomas et al. 2009, 44). Both Farrer and Stone noted in their excavations that a single fill event was consistent with the ditch fill they excavated (Thomas et al. 2009 :43). In contrast, Christie notes the terminal end fill to be consistent with sequential turf lines formed from the gradual collapse of the edge of the ditch, rather than a single event (Thomas et al. 2009, 44).
In terms of dating, the antler crown from J F S Stone’s intrusive cutting gives far too late a date for a monument of this type (Thomas et al. 2009: 43) and so the 2007 excavations were required to produce further evidence to clarify the situation (Thomas et al. 2009: 45). These produced a date of 3630–3370 cal. BC for samples taken from the terminal ditch.
As Christie was speculative about the terminal and long edges of the Cursus representing different phases owing to the difference in architecture, more evidence may be required to date the structure as a whole. Owing to the seeming alignment of the Cursus on Amesbury 42 long barrow (see below), it is suggested that this predates the Cursus (Thomas et al. 2009: 51). It would be interesting to see if the suggested elaborate long-barrow-like western terminal end to the Cursus predates the middle section. Thomas et al. seem to think that the alignment on the eastern barrow indicates that the southern section of the cursus was completed first and the northern side laid out using offsets (Thomas et al. 2009: 51), with presumably the terminal as an afterthought, although it’s not clear why this explanation is preferred and how the offsetting would explain the variety in width is not made clear.
Cursus monuments are often considered a ‘processional way’, an interpretation suggested by the paucity of finds within the enclosed area (Barber 2011). Josh Pollard, in a paper entitled ‘Where spirits walk: an archaeology of (dis)embodied non-corporeal movement’ suggested to the audience at the TAG conference in 2011 that such processional ways may not be for corporeal beings at all, and may be intended for the gods or ancestors to traverse. In the case of Cursus monuments, it is not at all clear that they were intended for procession; why go to the effort of creating a flat-bottomed ditch of such depth? In reality, there is no evidence for how the Cursus was intended to be used, if it were ‘used’ at all, and therefore the current interpretation as ‘processional way’ is as valid as any other.
Thomas et. al. (2009 :52) point out that the Cursus predates Stonehenge itself in the landscape, and that the pit-like feature J F S Stone found cut into the side of the Cursus may have been a remodeling of the monument at the time Stonehenge was being designed: a re-ordering of the architecture within the landscape according to some new rules. It might be that the internal area enclosed is set apart, not intended to be encountered (Parker Pearson et al. 2008) therefore perhaps Josh Pollard is right about it being for non-corporeal beings.
Amesbury 42 (Goddard)
Grid Reference: SU 1374 4318
Situated 20m east of the terminus of the Greater Cursus, Amesbury 42 (as listed by Goddard) (NMR SU 14 SW 3) presents as slight earthwork remains, partly within the trees of a plantation and partly under arable cultivation, with the centre of the mound covered by a track (Richards 1990 :96). Stukeley and Colt-Hoare both considered the mound to be part of the Cursus (as seating arrangements) and not a barrow (Cunnington 1914 :383).
|Year||Investigation type||Investigation Details|
|1866||Excavation||Dr Thurnam excavated this barrow and encountered what he deemed to be secondary interments in the monument and was unable to locate a primary interment. He also discovered the head and hooves of domesticated ox within the mound. He notes the ditches of the barrow as being discernable at this point in time (Cunnington 1914 :383-384).|
|1990||Excavation||The remains of the mound were excavated again by the Stonehenge Riverside Project to re-examine the part of the barrow that was under cultivation. This showed that most of the traces of the mound and the soiled buried beneath it had been ploughed away, but that which remained was sampled for environmental evidence. This was consistent with the land surface at the time of the mound construction having been under grass for quite some time (Richards 1990 :98).The excavation showed that the flanking ditch to the east of the barrow had a two-phase construction, with the first being a causewayed ditch, with a larger, deeper ditch cut further to the east as a second phase (Richards 1990 :98).Evidence for (presumably) later use of the site is provided by Beaker and Collared Urn –type pottery in the phase two ditch in the later fill(Richards 1990 :99).|
Chronology and Current Interpretation
Despite the antiquarian doubts, from Thurnam onwards, this monument has been considered a long barrow, and Thomas et al. (Thomas et al. 2009 :51) considered it to pre-date the cursus (based on the idea that the cursus is aligned on it), but there does not seem to be any direct dating evidence for this as a primary interment was not located. Paul Ashbee suggested that this may have been owing to incomplete excavation (Ashbee 1984 :58), although Thurnam particularly emphasised that he made every effort to locate it (Cunnington 1914).
The monument then had later burials inserted in it from the Beaker period and Ashbee wondered if this was a different class of monument – burials on the peripherary of an otherwise empty mound, placed along its axis (Ashbee 1984 :69). One wonders how, so much later in time, it would be known to be empty, perhaps.
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Ashbee, P., 1984. The Earthen Long Barrow in Britain 2nd ed., Norwich: Geo Books.
Barber, M., 2011. Introductions to Heritage Assets: Prehistoric Avenues and Alignments, Swindon: English Heritage.
Christie, P.M., 1963. The Stonehenge Cursus. The Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, 58, pp.370-382.
Cunnington, M.E., 1914. List of Long Barrows In Wiltshire. The Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, 38, pp.379-414.
Grinsell, L.V., 1957. Archaeological Gazetteer. In The Victoria County History of Wiltshire Volume 1 Part 1. London: Oxford University Press, pp. 21-279.
Ixer, R.A. & Bevins, R.E., 2009. Stilpnomelane-bearing rhyolites/rhyolitic tuffs at Stonehenge are most probably from the Preseli Hills region [online]. British Archaeology, 109. Available at: http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba109/news.shtml [Accessed May 20, 2012].
McOmish, D., 2003. Cursus: solving a 6,000-year-old puzzle. British Archaeology, (69). Available at: http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba69/feat1.shtml [Accessed March 17, 2012].
Parker Pearson, M. et al., 2008. The Stonehenge Riverside Project: exploring the Neolithic landscape of Stonehenge. Documenta Praehistorica, 35, pp.153-166. Available at: http://arheologija.ff.uni-lj.si/documenta/authors35/thomas35.pdf.
Payne, A.W., 2007. Stonehenge Greater Cursus, Western Terminal, Wiltshire : Report on Geophysical Surveys, May and June 2007. Research Department Reports Number 61/2007, English Heritage. Available at: http://research.english-heritage.org.uk/report/?14572.
Richards, J., 1990. The Stonehenge environs project, London: Historic Buildings & Monuments Commission.
Stukeley, W., 2007. Stonehenge, A Temple Restor’d to the British Druids, Forgotten Books.
Thomas, J. et al., 2009. The date of the Greater Stonehenge Cursus. Antiquity, 83(319), pp.40-53. Available at: http://antiquity.ac.uk/Ant/083/0040/ant0830040.pdf [Accessed December 30, 2010].