Stonehenge Landscape Snippets – The Stonehenge Cursus

Stonehenge is  one of the most iconic prehistoric sites  on the planet. But magnificent as it is there’s a whole lot more to the Stonehenge half of the World Heritage Site. So in the spirit of exploration and discovery this is the first in an occasional series of Stonehenge Landscape Snippets, dipping into some of the other famous (and not so famous) sites and discoveries that have been made in the Stonehenge landscape over the centuries.

We’re starting today with one of the most extraordinary monuments in the whole landscape. It predates even the earliest parts of Stonehenge by at least 300 and possibly as much as 600 years. Its the Stonehenge Cursus, also sometimes called the Greater Cursus – you’ll find out why later.

The Stonehenge Cursus stretches 1.7 miles from end to end, finishing (or starting) between the gap you can see in the trees in the distance. ©National Trust / Katherine Snell

The Stonehenge Cursus stretches 1.7 miles from end to end, finishing (or starting) between the gap you can see in the trees in the distance. ©National Trust / Katherine Snell

What is a Cursus I hear you ask? Well its a giant elongated enclosure. They vary a little in how they were constructed but in our part of the world, on the Wessex chalklands, they consist of a roughly parallel pair of linear ditches with a bank thrown up on the inside. The banks and ditches continue round at the ends to create a very long enclosed space. The longest cursus in the country is the Dorset Cursus on Cranborne Chase dwarfing our Stonehenge example at ten kilometers long. Sadly little survives of the Dorset Cursus above ground today but you can still see the banks and ditches of the Stonehenge Cursus for much of its length and you can walk it’s entire course.

The banks and ditches of the Stonehenge Cursus were dug during the Earlier Neolithic using simple picks made of red deer antler (archaeologists have  found the remains of these discarded in the bottoms of the ditch). Its thanks to radio-carbon dates from  these that we’re able to date the building of the Stonehenge Cursus to between 3600 and 3300 BC.

The Greater Cursus isn’t alone in the Stonehenge Landscape, another much smaller monument known as the Lesser Cursus lies just a short distance to the north-west.  It seems to have been built at roughly the same time as its big brother. So both would already have been centuries old by the time the first parts of Stonehenge were being built.

It was the eighteenth century antiquary William Stukeley who gave the name cursus to our monument, choosing the Roman word for a racecourse thinking that to be its purpose. Theories still abound about what Cursus monuments were used for (if anything!) but that’s for another day…

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About Dr Nick

Dr Nick Snashall is Archaeologist for Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site. She is fascinated by prehistoric stones, large and small, and their potential for unlocking the secrets of our past. Nick is co-director of Between the Monuments (a research project investigating landscapes of residence between the 4th and 2nd millennia BC in the Avebury region) and Ground -Truthing Stonehenge’s ‘Superhenge’ (excavations at Durrington Walls) .

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