The Date of the Greater Stonehenge Cursus

By Thomas, Julian; Marshall, Peter et al. | Antiquity, March 2009 | Go to article overview

The Date of the Greater Stonehenge Cursus

Thomas, Julian, Marshall, Peter, Pearson, Mike Parker, Pollard, Joshua, Richards, Colin, Tilley, Chris, Welham, Kate, Antiquity


The Greater Stonehenge Cursus was first identified in 1723 by William Stukeley, who famously supposed it to have been a Roman chariot-racing track (Stukeley 1740: 41). As well as the first cursus monument to have been recognised, it is also one of the largest. At nearly 3km in length, it is only eclipsed by the Dorset and Stanwell cursuses, and it remains the largest prehistoric structure in the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site (Figure 1). Despite this, it has never been satisfactorily dated, and consequentially its place in the development of the Stonehenge landscape has been obscure. While pit and post cursuses in the Scottish lowlands probably date to the centuries between 4000 and 3600 BC, cursus monuments defined by banks and ditches are more likely to have been constructed between 3600 and 3000 BC (Barclay & Bayliss 1999: 29; Thomas 2006). However, the only existing radiocarbon determination from the Greater Stonehenge Cursus, taken on deer antler recovered from the ditch in 1947 by J.F.S. Stone, falls in the earlier third millennium cal BC (see below). This might either mean that the monument is very late for its kind, or that the date is not primary, and relates to intrusive material.

In this paper members of the Stonehenge Riverside Project describe the new (2007) investigations and argue for a revised date and context for the monument.


Shape and setting

Morphologically, the Greater Cursus is unusual in that its side ditches do not run parallel with each other, for the southern ditch has a pronounced 'kink' outwards in its western portion, so that the width of the enclosure varies between 100 and 150m along its length (Darvill 2007: 89). The northern ditch is generally straighter, but aerial photographs reveal that at a smaller scale it follows a comparatively uneven and meandering course. The cursus runs roughly east-west linking two areas of higher ground, at Fargo Plantation and the King Barrow Ridge respectively, and dips into Stonehenge Bottom between them. In this respect it conforms to the common pattern amongst cursus monuments of incorporating seasonally wet ground, or even watercourses, into their fabric (Brophy 2000).

At the western end it is notable that the cursus spans the top of the Fargo ridge, and the terminal faces westward towards Airman's Corner and Winterbourne Stoke Down. From the terminal, much of the rest of the cursus is invisible, and Beacon Hill rises up above the near eastern horizon. The Lesser Cursus crests the northern skyline, with the Robin Hood's Ball causewayed enclosure beyond it. Perhaps intentionally, then, the western end of the cursus seems to relate to a quite different set of landscape referents from the rest of the monument. At the eastern end of the cursus the situation is quite different, for the terminal ditch runs parallel with the long barrow Amesbury 42, which occupies the crest of King Barrow Ridge. This long mound was excavated by Thumam, who describes encountering an ox skull in a primary position, but only secondary human burials (Thumam 1869: 180). Further investigations by Julian Richards (1990: 98) demonstrated that the mound had been flanked by two successive sets of side ditches, the later and outermost of which were considerably wider and deeper. The implication of this is that at some point in its history the barrow had been enhanced, to form a massive structure dominating the ridge-top. At this point the cursus terminal falls short of the barrow by around 30m. The character of the bank and ditch has never been investigated archaeologically, but it is possible that the elaboration of the long mound was related to the construction of the cursus, forming a definitive terminal point for the complex as a whole.

Eastwards from the King Barrow Ridge, the axis of the cursus runs through Woodhenge and the Cuckoo Stone. Burl (2006: 92) argues that the latter was originally a massive monolith, standing 5m high, and that the cursus was oriented upon it.

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