Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Dorset Cursus

One of the lesser known monuments in Dorset is The Cursus, running from Thickthorn Down to Bokerley Down, at just over 10kl and is the longest example in the UK. It is an average of 80m wide. The ditches are flat based and 3m wide by 1m deep. It was constructed in two stages, 5.8kl from Thickthorn to Bottlebrush Down and accommodates the long barrow on Gussage Down. The Midwinter sun sets behind the mound and is silhouetted on the skyline when observed from the Bottlebrush terminal. The second phase extends NE and another barrow is built into the N bank of this section. Not much can be seen on the ground, but surviving sections are still visible at this point and Thickthorn Down.

William Stuckeley called these large parallel lengths of banks with external ditches by the Latin name of cursus because he thought they might be Roman athletic courses. We now place them in the Neolithic.

Internal features are rare and mostly confined to the terminus. It is thought that they were used as processional routes during rituals, and some have the remains of wooden circles and/or fires located at the ends. Finds of arrowheads suggest hunting connections to some archaeologists, where young men (?) 'prove' themselves on their journey to adulthood.

Crop mark of the cursus terminal with long barrow

The structure will march across the terrain regardless of the landscape, with this example crossing a river and three valleys.

Marked crossing Wyke Down
As usual there can be no definitive answer to the function of cursus monuments, but they are some of the largest and most overlooked ancient structures in the UK.