The western end of the cursus.
The cursus is a strange and enigmatic structure, unique to British prehistory, and with a purpose which still eludes archaeologists.
Cursuses are ditched and banked enclosures, around 100m wide and extending for several kilometres across the landscape. Their shape gave rise to their name: an early suggestion, now refuted, was that they were racecourses.
The Stonehenge Cursus is three kilometres long and 100-150m in width, and stretches east-west across the plain a few hundred metres north of Stonehenge. It was built in the early Neolithic period, between 3600-3300BC, several hundred years before Stonehenge itself was begun, and is perhaps the oldest creation in the Stonehenge complex.
The location of the Lesser Cursus.
A second cursus was also built to the north, 60m wide and 400m in length, along a ridgeline which has a commanding position over the surrounding area. It had been extended at some point, and the fact that it simply stops at its eastern end suggests it may not have been finished.
The eastern end of the Great Cursus was formed by a now-ruined long barrow which dates to a broadly similar time, although it is unclear whether it was built before, after, or at the same time as the cursus. Many cursuses incorporate long barrows and other ritual structures.
It’s possible that this cursus too was unfinished, and the long barrow was simply a convenient ‘stop’. It’s also possible that they were never intended to be ‘finished’: they were simply extended continuously according to rules we can only guess at, rather like Stonehenge itself and the nearby timber monuments were continually remodelled. It’s becoming more and more apparent that the process of creating monuments was more important to our prehistoric ancestors than the finished structure itself.
Supporting this theory is the Cuckoo Stone, a standing stone which became a shrine a few hundred metres from the ‘end’ of the cursus and on the exact same alignment. Perhaps this would have in time been incorporated into the cursus. Further on the same alignment is Woodhenge, another standing stone called the Bulford Stone, and then the prominent Beacon Hill. Surely this cannot all be coincidence?
The view east along the cursus. The ditch aligns on the distant Beacon Hill.
The most accepted explanation for cursuses is commemoration and movement: perhaps they were a memorial of a processional way or a corpse road or spirit road. This could explain why many are linked to long barrows. Cursuses in other places seem to be transferring power from an older ritual monument to a newer one.
The Stonehenge Cursus begins at its western end on a ridgeline, which offers views in all directions, then rapidly drops to eventually reach Stonehenge Bottom, once a watercourse. The hillside quickly obscures the view behind, leaving the walker with nothing but the route ahead which remains visible, with the cursus ditch aligned on the distant Beacon Hill, until the midpoint when that too is swallowed.
The view behind is swallowed up as the traveller journeys east.
In the bowl of the valley, nothing remains of the outside world and the journeyer is left with a sense of isolation and disconnection. Was this a key part of this symbolic journey? Were people, perhaps the living or perhaps the dead, ritually and spiritually scoured clean here, aided by the flowing spring water, before continuing their journey back into the world? From this point, the walker climbs up the opposite slope, the views of the plain reappear, and the high point of the ridge appears where the long barrow stood and the cursus ends. A long journey is complete.