Dorchester Cursus, Oxfordshire

Cursus:  OS Grid Reference – SU 569 958SU 581 948

Also Known as:

  1. Dorchester-on-Thames Cursus
  2. Overy Cursus

Archaeology & History

Dorchester cursus (after Atkinson)

Nowadays marked on modern Ordnance Survey maps as part of a ‘Neolithic Sacred Complex,’ this linear monument was part and parcel of the Dorchester Big Rings henge complex and was associated with a  number of other important prehistoric sites, many of which have been destroyed by ecological disfigurement projects in recent years.  In Gordon Copley’s (1958) description of the monument, not long after its initial discovery, he said that this “was a cursus which consists of parallel ditches some 4000 feet long with 210 feet between them.”  In more recent times Paul Devereux (1989) described how the cursus here,

“ran for three-quarters of a mile (1.2km) in a northwest to southeast direction on the north side of the Thames and was 210 feet (64 metres) wide. The cursus was part of a complex of crop marks, the most notable being” the henge. “The northwest end of the cursus remains unknown; the southeast end was rounded. The southeast segment…was on a slightly skew alignment compared to the rest of the feature, though it may have been the earliest part of the monument – bones found there were radio-carbon dated to around 3000 BC. The southern ditch of the cursus ran through and connected two earlier sites which shared a different alignment. Deposits of cremated bones, a stone arrowhead, fragments of pottery, a polished flint axe, and a circle of pits, probably the remains of a ‘woodhenge’ structure, were all found with the cursus.”

Dorchester cursus plan 1985

Jean Cook (1985) told that later excavations on the site in 1981, found that the shallow ditch which surrounded the entire cursus, “was interrupted by a central entrance on the southeast side.  The southeastern terminal ditch respected a small prehistoric monument which has been dated to approximately 2000 BC.”  This and other factors has led to the thought that the cursus may not all have been built at the same time.  And indeed excavations at other sites scattering the northwestern ends of the cursus (shown in the plan here, Ed.) proved that a D-shaped enclosure “pre-dates the rest of the structure.”  Other mortuary sites scattered the edges of the cursus that were added in the centuries which followed, but which need excavation work to uncover their secrets.  Although much of this was done in the Atkinson digs, they were summarised well by Jean Cook (1985), who told:

“Site VIII, excavated in 1948, was a monument known as a mortuary enclosure.  Sometimes such structures take the form of long barrows, but this one was a rectangular enclosure bounded on all four sides by a ditch with an internal bank.  There were narrow entrance gaps on the two longer sides and a wider entrance in the centre of the shorter southern side.  It is dated by the substantial sherds of Ebbsfleet ware (pottery) which were found in the upper filling of the ditch; part of a human jaw from within the enclosure helps to confirm the mortuary function.

“Site XI, excavated in 1949, consisted of three or more concentric ditches, of different dates, enclosing an incomplete ring of 14 pits.  The middle ditch seems to have surrounded an oval barrow or enclosure and to have then been converted to a circular plan.  Some of the pits contained animal bones, one contained an antler pick and one contained a complete human cremation, but there were no accompanying grave goods.

“Both these sites were in existence before the cursus was built. (my italics, Ed.)  This is shown by the fact that the southernmost ditch of the cursus cuts through Site VIII and abuts Site XI.  These two earlier sites seem to share the same alignment, but once the cursus was constructed it set a new alignment which may have been of significance until the end of the 3rd millenium BC.  Three monuments built after the construction of the cursus were located inside it, two of them being along the central axis, and two others were just outside the southernmost ditch of the cursus but shared the same general alignment.

“Sites IV, V and VI, which were also excavated in 1949, have a similar overall plan and all of them contained a number of cremation deposits suggesting that amongst other things they acted as cemeteries.  All three sites had a circular plan and consisted of an outer bank, to define the central area, and an inner ditch, the purpose of which seems to have been to provide earth for the bank.  In Site IV the ditch was made up of eight oval pits, enclosing an area of about six metres in diameter.  There was a broad entrance gap on the southeast side.  Inside the enclosed area there were 25 deposits of cremated bones.  An arrowhead was found with one of the cremations.  Site V was very similar in construction, except that the entrance gap was on the northwestern side and contained 21 cremation deposits.  No grave goods were found.  Site VI again had a similar plan with the entrance gap to the north.  There were 49 cremation deposits , one accompanied by a flint fabricator, an arrowhead and burnt flint flakes.

“Site 1 was excavated in 1946 and consisted of a small square ditch, enclosing another more or les circular ditch with an internal bank.  Inside this ditch were 13 holes, forming a ring with an entrance gap on the western side.  There were no entrances in the surrounding ditches.  A crouched burial was found within the entrance to the ring of holes but there were no accompanying grave goods.  Four cremations were found, two accompanied by fragmentary bone pins, in or besides four of the central holes.  At a later stage in the neolithic period, parts of the ditch may have been enlarged to make temporary shelters: it is not clear to which period of use the cremations belong.

“Site II, also excavated in 1946, consisted of a causewayed (interrupted) ring ditch which was enlarged on two occasions.  The third ditch had an internal bank in which were 19 cremation deposits.  Two more cremations were found at the centre of the enclosed area.  There was no evidence for any gap.  Bone pins were found with four of the cremations as were flint fragments.  In addition, antlers and other flint fragments were found, as well as pieces of pottery.

“In 1981 a small semi-circular enclosed ditch was excavated within the southeast terminal of the cursus.  Though sited off-centre, the ditch shared the same alignment with the cursus.  An antler (dated to c.2000 BC) was found close to the bottom of the ditch.  After the ditch had virtually filled up with silt, the surviving low central mound was used for cremation deposits, one of them associated with a heavily burnt flint blade.”

Paul Devereux (1989) pointed out how one of the archaeologists studying this site found that if the axis of the monument was extended southeast, across the river, it lined up perfectly with another set of perfectly straight lines which were thought “likely to be a Roman trackway.”  Unfortunately much of this area has been destroyed through the self-righteous ignorance of modern industrialism.

References:

  1. Atkinson, R.J.C. et al, Excavations at Dorchester, Oxon, Department of Antiquities: Oxford 1951.
  2. Barclay, A., Lambrick, G., Moore, J. & Robinson, M., Lines in the Landscape, OAU: Oxford 2003.
  3. Cook, Jean, “The Earliest Evidence,” in Dorchester through the Ages, Oxford University 1985.
  4. Cook, Jean & Rowley, Trevor (eds.), Dorchester through the Ages, Oxford University 1985.
  5. Copley, Gordon J., An Archaeology of South-East England, Phoenix House: London 1958.
  6. Loveday, Roy, Inscribed Across the Landscape, Tempus: Stroud 2006.
  7. Pennick, Nigel & Devereux, Paul, Lines on the Landscape, Hale: London 1989.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Dorchester cursus

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Dorchester cursus 51.653453, -1.169308 Dorchester cursus