Big Rings Henge, Dorchester, Oxfordshire

Henge (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – SU 572 953

Archaeology & History

Very close to the once impressive Dorchester Cursus, this double-ringed prehistoric monument can no longer be seen thanks to the self-righteous arrogance of modern industrialists who care little for the ancestral monuments of the British people, destroying all traces of the site — an activity which, in this case, astonishingly started in more ancient times, as Jean Cook (1985) told: “The banks and the ditches had been levelled through agricultural activity, possibly in the Iron Age”!

Big Rings ground-plan
1938 photo of the Big Rings, by Major George Allen

The destruction of this environment continues to this day, destroying many important archaeological remains with little care.  Thankfully we we’ve got a good account of the site due to the archaeological excavations of R.J.C. Atkinson (1951) and his team in the late-1940s, from whom Cook and just about everyone else gets most of their data regarding the site.

The Big Rings Henge was probably built sometime in the middle of the second millenium BC.  It was an important prehistoric ritual site and, most likely, had some relevance to the adjacent cursus monument.  A number of important mortuary and ritual sites were also built close to the site over a period of nearly two thousand years, showing the importance this landscape had to our ancestors.

Jean Cook (1985) described the Big Rings henge as follows:

“The ditches, of which there were two, had opposed entrances on the NNW and SSE.  They were about 7.6m wide and 1.8m deep with flat bottoms.  Originally there seems to have been a broad low bank on the inner side of each ditch.  The southern entrance incorporated an existing monument, consisting of a ring ditch which enclosed a large four-post setting and contained a cremation and a stone axe.  Just outside the north entrance was a round barrow, containing a central oval burial pit which produced a crouched inhumation, together with a well-preserved beaker, two small copper or bronze knives and a rectangular wrist-guard of greenstone.  The Big Rings ditches themselves contained pottery belonging to the middle or late Beaker period.  Although the area within the ditches was trenched, there was no evidence of internal timber structures.”

References:

  1. Atkinson, R.J.C., “The Henge Monuments of Great Britain,” in Atkinson, Piggott & Sandars’ Excavations at Dorchester, Oxon (Department of Antiquities: Oxford 1951).
  2. Atkinson, R.J.C., Piggott, C.M. & Sandars, N.K., Excavations at Dorchester, Oxon, Department of Antiquities: Oxford 1951.
  3. Cook, Jean, “The Earliest Evidence,” in Dorchester through the Ages, Oxford University 1985.
  4. Harding, A.F., Henge Monuments and Related Sites of Great Britain, BAR 175: Oxford 1987.
  5. Harding, Jan, The Henge Monuments of the British Isles, Tempus: Stroud 2003.
  6. Wainwright, Geoffrey J., The Henge Monuments: Ceremony and Society in Prehistoric Britain, Thames & Hudson: London 1989.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Big Rings henge

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Big Rings henge 51.653924, -1.173294 Big Rings henge

Sonning Cursus, Reading, Berkshire

Cursus Monument:  OS Grid Reference – SU 7669 7599

Archaeology & History

Sonning Cursus & other ancient remains (after Ford 1987)

Barely visible nowadays, the site was described by archaeologist Steve Ford (1987) as, “a very convincing cropmark with markedly rectangular end with entrance gap” at its far eastern end.  This once impressive looking cursus aligns east-west and is found amidst a cluster of other neolithic and Bronze Age monuments.

It was first discovered by aerial surveying in 1959, but still remains unexcavated (I think!).  The dead straight neolithic monument,

“consists of parallel ditches 45 metres apart extending for at least 200m west towards lower ground.  The eastern end has a (flattened) terminal with a single entrance, whereas the western end is untraceable beyond a modern field boundary.”

In Roy Loveday’s (2006) survey, this cursus was stated as measuring 250m in length and 35m across.  Although the western end hasn’t been located, it’s highly probable that it reached to the River Thames a short distance away.  An excavation at one of the three ‘enclosures’ beyond the eastern end of this monument, revealed it have been built in the late neolithic period.

References:

  1. Ford, Steve, East Berkshire Archaeological Survey, Berkshire County Council 1987.
  2. Loveday, Roy, Inscribed across the Landscape, Tempus: Stroud 2006.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

 

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  51.477837, -0.897301 Sonning Cursus

Fimber Cursus, East Yorkshire

Cursus Monument:  OS Grid Reference – SE 893 610

Archaeology & History

Very little appears to have been written about this site, due no doubt to lack of archaeological investigation aswell as the destructive powers of intense agricultural practices hereby.  It was first described in the Yorkshire Archaeological Register and told about by a Mr. H.G. Ramm, who told us of,

“a probable cursus in the Scales, Fimber Grange and Fimber Station area. An aerial photograph taken by John Dent has entended parallel ditches previously known in fragmentary form and enabling them to be interpreted as a cursus running along the valley floor, the north ditch from SE 8939 6106 to SE 9075 6104 and the southern ditch from SE 8937 6103 to SE 9068 6102. The distance between the ditches varies from 18-27m west of Fimber Grange to 30-37m east of the Grange.  A trapezoidal enclosure, 30m by 15m, possibly a small long barrow, has been identified at SE 9008 6104, oblique to the north cursus ditch, which bends to take in account of it.  A group of five ring ditches, three of which are in the cursus, lies to the west of Fimber Grange, but indicate a wartime searchlight post.”

This makes the length of this monument pretty short, but the faint remains of this possible cursus are visible on aerial shots.  A number of other large ancient earthworks were charted here by the famous archaeologist, J.R. Mortimer (1905), though he made no mention of this particular site.

More info please!

References:

  1. Edmondson, T., History of Fimber, H. Smithson: Malton 1857.
  2. Gutch, Mrs. E., Examples of Printed Folk-lore Concerning the East Riding of Yorkshire, David Nutt: London 1912.
  3. Moorhouse, S., ‘Yorkshire Archaeological Register: 1976,’ in Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, volume 49, 1977.
  4. Mortimer, J.R., Forty Years Researches in British and Saxon Burial Mounds of East Yorkshire, Brown & Sons: Hull 1905.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Fimber cursus

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Fimber cursus 54.037706, -0.637339 Fimber cursus

Great Skirtful Ring, Burley Moor, West Yorkshire

Enclosure:  OS Grid Reference – SE 1415 4452

Getting Here

Follow the directions to reach the Great Skirtful of Stones giant cairn (very worryingly being encroached upon, illegally [it’s a protected monument], by employees of Bradford Council digging tracks into its edges).  Walk less than 100 yards to the east, down the slight moorland slope (Leeds & Otley Chevin are in the distance).  You’re here!

Archaeology & History

This is a very intriguing site.  Intriguing because we don’t actually know what it is!  It’s best seen at the end of winter, shortly after the heather-burning’s been done; but if there’s been no burning here, after a year or two it’s almost impossible to find!

Great Skirtful Ring on 1851 map
Colls’ 1846 plan

Despite it being only a short distance east of the Great Skirtful giant cairn, very little has been written about it (a surprise in itself!) – but this is down the failings of archaeological professionals  in the area, who still neglect this incredible prehistoric arean.  It was first described in Mr J.N.M. Colls’ (1846) survey of sites in the region, where he thought it to be a prehistoric camp.  Several years later the Ordnance Survey lads visited here and deemed it to be prehistoric barrows, which doesn’t seem true.  Nearly a hundred years later, the great northern antiquarian Eric Cowling (1946) who saw fit to describe it as an “enclosure” — so I’m copying his idea so I don’t get into too much trouble!  Thinking it to be a Bronze Age monument, he wrote:

“On the main ridge of Rombald’s Moor and about eighty yards to the east of the Great Skirtful barrow, is a small circular enclosure with a diameter of twenty yards.  There appears to have been an entrance on the eastern side, which is protected by a short length of banking to the east.”

Aerial image, 2002
Aerial image, 2009
Aerial image, 2009

The “length of banking” he described didn’t seem apparent when we visited the site yesterday (23.3.09), but we intend a further exploration of this and the adjacent monuments in the coming weeks and hope to locate it!

Interestingly, the archaeologists Faull & Moorhouse (1981:1:103), in their otherwise fine survey, actually doubted this place as having any prehistoric status, without giving any reason why—which was a big mistake. No doubt they spent too much time in offices and board meetings instead of getting out a bit more!  Unless evidence to the contrary can be strongly presented, this site must be classed as undoubtedly prehistoric in nature (Bronze Age or Iron Age certainly) and almost certainly had something to do with rituals of the dead.

Great Skirtful Ring embankment
Great Skirtful Ring embankment
Southern edge of the ring
Southern edge of the ring

From outer edge to outer edge the ‘ring’ measures 102 feet across, N-S, and with a rough maximum 101 feet E-W, being diameter, being some 300 feet in circumference.  When you look at the site at ground level it appears to be an almost perfect ring, consisting of an embankment little more than 2 feet high at the most, with entrances both east and west. However, as the aerial images show, the perfect circle aint quite so perfect!  But at ground level, there’s a certain uniformity about it.  The embankment is in very good condition around much of the ring, with only slight damage in certain parts.  The western opening strongly implies a direct relationship with the Great Skirtful cairn — which would infer this monument to have more of a ritual nature rather than the simple domestic enclosure, inferred by Colls and Cowling.  Adding to this we find a tumulus 100 yards east and the remains of several other cairns nearby, making the site almost hemmed in by death-sites.  A prehistoric cemetery is a short distance further down the moorland slopes to the east. Add also the fact that the Burley Moor stone avenue runs immediately south and the death-motif has to be increased.

What do I think it is? Not sure! The thought that it’s a previously unrecognized henge has crossed my mind…but henge monuments aren’t things that I’m very clued-up on, so wouldn’t like to say for sure.  If there are any university archaeology students out there who are into getting their feet dirty, give this site a look-over.  It’s intriguing, in very good condition, and could do with an accurate ID!

References:

  1. Bennett, Paul, The Old Stones of Elmet, Capall Bann: Chieveley 2001.
  2. Colls, J.N.M., ‘Letter upon some Early Remains Discovered in Yorkshire,’ in Archaeologia, volume 31, 1846.
  3. Cowling, Eric T., Rombald’s Way, William Walker: Otley 1946.
  4. Faull, M.L. & Moorhouse, S.A. (eds), West Yorkshire: An Archaeological Survey – volume 1, WYMCC: Wakefield 1981.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian 

Great Skirtful Ring

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Great Skirtful Ring 53.896662, -1.786157 Great Skirtful Ring

Drayton Cursus (north), Abingdon, Oxfordshire

Cursus Monument:  OS Grid Reference – SU 490 941SU 492 950

Drayton Cursus alignment (courtesy Paul Devereux)
Drayton Cursus alignment (courtesy Paul Devereux)

Archaeology & History

This minor cursus monument was etched into the landscape in neolithic times.  Found to the south of Abingdon and close to the River Thames, one report showed finds from the site dating from 2900 BC.  There is also a neolithic henge monument very close to its northern terminus and a plethora of other Bronze Age remains all round.  Paul Devereux (1989) described how crop marks revealed,

“a substantial former cursus immediately to the east of Drayton: its crop marks extend southwest to northeast for a little over a mile, and are 225 feet (68 metres) wide. The cursus has a squared south end, but the northern terminus has not been found. The crop marks are not evident in the middle portion of the cursus, as it was formerly overlaid by a Saxon village. There is a plethora of other crop marks within and around the cursus… The northern section…which has a slightly different orientation to the southern segment, points squarely to the ancient heart of Abingdon.”

References:

  1. Ainslie, R. & Wallis, J., ‘Excavations on the Cursus at Drayton, Oxon’, in Oxoniensis 52, 1987.
  2. Barclay, A., Lambrick, G., Moore, J. & Robinson, M., Lines in the Landscape, OAU: Oxford 2003.
  3. Loveday, Roy, Inscribed Across the Landscape, Tempus: Stroud 2006.
  4. Pennick, Nigel & Devereux, Paul, Lines on the Landscape, Hale: London 1989.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Drayton (north) cursus

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Drayton (north) cursus 51.648755, -1.290825 Drayton cursus

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