Lesser Cursus, Larkhill, Wiltshire

Cursus Monument:  OS Grid Reference – SU 1056 4350

Also Known as:

  1. Small Cursus
  2. Stonehenge Smaller Cursus

Archaeology & History

James Fergusson’s drawing of both cursus monuments

Just like its much larger companion, the Stonehenge Cursus earthwork a short distance to the south, this Lesser or Small Cursus is generally deemed by archaeologists to “speak of a clear religious or ritual aspect to this patch of downland that…reaches back generations before the first Stonehenge was built.” (Pitts 2001)  The monument was aligned roughly east-west, showing possible relationships with the rising and setting of both sun and moon. (though I wouldn’t get too carried away with that misself…)

When Fergusson (1872) described this and its larger cursus companion a few hundred yards away, he thought they may have been dug to mark out lines of battle in prehistoric times, denouncing the horse-racing course hypothesis that was still in vogue at the time.  His theory drew evidence from the numerous prehistoric tombs scattering this area of Salisbury Plain, but seemed more influenced by notions of prehistoric barbarism and warfare than ideas relating to a cult of the dead — which was yet to reach it heights in the archaeological minds of Victorian England.  But, like other cursus monuments all over the British Isles, this one also seemed to have a distinct relationship with monuments of the dead: for at its western extremity (until being ploughed out of existence) was a large round barrow, catalogued as the “Winterbourne 35” tomb.  Tim Darvill (2006) tells its wider tale:

“Levelled by ploughing between 1934 and 1954, the Lesser Cursus was investigated in 1983 as part of the Stonehenge Environs Project… Three trenches were cut into different parts of this large monument, showing that there were at least two main phases to its construction.  Phase 1 comprised a slightly trapezoidal enclosure 200m by 60m, whose ditch may have been recut more than once and in part at least deliberately back-filled.  In Phase 2 this early enclosure was remodelled by elongating the whole structure eastwards by another 200m.  This extension comprised only two parallel side ditches, making the whole thing about 400m long with a rectilinear enclosure at the west end with entrances in its northeast and southeast corners giving access into a second rectilinear space, in this case open to the east.”

Lesser Cursus aerial view
Ground-plan of the Lesser Cursus (after Richards 1990)

The entire structure had finds dating from the periods between 3650-2900 BC; and the aerial imagery showing an oval-shaped structure near the eastern end was confirmed by geophysical surveys — though precisely what this is has yet to be ascertained.

It seems likely that this and other cursus monuments were, to a very great degree, not only related to mortuary practices but — as their development occurred at the same time as the destruction of Britain’s great forests began — to be monuments to the gods themselves.  This seems very evident at a couple of cursus monuments where animal deposits were made in some of the great mounds at their terminii, where archaeologists had previously assumed— incorrectly — the mounds to have been human burial mounds.  More about this in due course…

References:

  1. Darvill, Tim, Stonehenge: The Biography of a Landscape, Tempus: Stroud 2006.
  2. Devereux, Paul, The Haunted Land, Piatkus: London 2001.
  3. Fergusson, James, Rude Stone Monuments in all Countries, John Murray: London 1872.
  4. Loveday, Roy, Inscribed Across the Landscape, Tempus: Stroud 2006.
  5. North, John, Stonehenge, Harper-Collins: London 1997.
  6. Pitts, Mike, Hengeworld, Arrow: London 2001.
  7. Richards, Julian, The Stonehenge Environs Project, English Heritage: London 1990.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Lesser Cursus

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Lesser Cursus 51.190700, -1.850138 Lesser Cursus

Stonehenge Cursus, Wiltshire

Cursus Monument:  OS Grid Reference – SU 1095 4292 to SU 1370 4319

Also Known as:

  1. The Cursus
  2. The Greater Cursus, Stonehenge

Archaeology & History

Stukeley’s Stonehenge Cursus

Not far south of the smaller Lesser Cursus monument, this huge linear earthwork was the very first cursus to be described, by William Stukeley no less, who thought it to be an old race-course for charioteers and the like!  He stumbled upon this: a curious gigantic linear earthwork feature, stretching for nearly two miles roughly east-west and as wide a football field, cut into the Wiltshire Earth, betraying all notions of ‘primitive’ histories as proclaimed by the ‘intellectuals’ of his day.  They were clearly wrong!  This immense enigmatic structure, still baffles the same creed of intellectuals to this day — but at least our old ancestors have been granted greater abilities than previously believed.  In his book on Stonehenge in 1740, Mr Stukeley described this,

“most noble work, contriv’ed to reach from the highest ground of two hills, extended the intermediate distance over a gentle valley; so that the whole cursus lies conveniently under the eye of the most numerous quantity of spectators. To render this more convenient for site, it is projected on the side of more rising ground, chiefly looking towards Stonehenge. A delightful prospect from the temple, when this vast plain was crowded with chariots, horsemen and foot, attending these solemnities with innumerable multitudes.”

Sir Norman Lockyer propounded its function as astronomical, aligning with the Pleiades around 2000 BC — a date we now know to be inconsistent with its construction, although as John North said in his Stonehenge (1997):

“Lockyer’s chronology was certainly better than the general archaeological consensus at the time.”

But further archaeological alignments and leys have been suggested running eastwards from here.  And as Paul Devereux pointed out, “In the case of this cursus, archaeology got there first.”  J.F.S. Stone, who carried out some excavations at the cursus in 1947, noted that

“its axis, if projected 1500 yards east, strikes Woodhenge and passes the Cuckoo or Cuckold Stone by the way.”

This was endorsed in 1981 by archaeologists John Hedges and David Buckley:

“In addition to aligning upon Woodhenge, the Greater Stonehenge cursus also sights upon the Cuckoo or Cuckold Stone.”

Alignment to Beacon Hill

In Roy Loveday’s (2006) survey of cursus monuments he told how this alignment goes much further, telling how it aligns “on the lower, northernmost prominence of Beacon Hill 8km away”, crossing Woodhenge on its way.  Such suggestions used to bring outcries of derision from the archaeological fraternity, but it seems archaeologists themselves are making such claims more and more these days.  At the forefront of modern alignment research in previous decades was Paul Devereux — and it was he who first noted the line-up with the distant Beacon Hill from the Great Cursus, telling:

“The course of the alignment can be extended eastwards a few miles beyond Woodhenge to cross the barrow-dotted ridge of Beacon Hill — a perfect example of a Wakins-style ‘initial point.’ The ridge is highly visible from Woodhenge.  It disappears from view as one walks westwards down the cursus, but reappears clearly as the west end is approached.  Indeed, the west end is so placed that it is at about the furthest point from which the Beacon Hill ridge , and the intermediate on which the eastern end of the cursus fall, can be seen together.”

…to be continued…

References:

  1. Burl, Aubrey, A Brief History of Stonehenge, Robinson: London 2007.
  2. Hedges, John & Buckley, David G., The Springfield Cursus and the Cursus Problem, Essex County Council 1981.
  3. Loveday, Roy, Inscribed Across the Landscape, Tempus: Stroud 2006.
  4. North, John, Stonehenge, Harper-Collins: London 1997.
  5. Pennick, N. & Devereux, P., Lines on the Landscape: Leys and other Linear Enigmas, Hale: London 1989.
  6. Stone, J.F.S., ‘The Stonehenge Cursus and its Affinities,’ in Archaeological Journal, 104, 1947.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Stonehenge Cursus

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Stonehenge Cursus 51.186467, -1.824964 Stonehenge Cursus