The Stonehenge Cursus
Neolithic Earthwork
North of Stonehenge, Wiltshire  OS Map Ref SU123430 (Centre)
OS Maps - Landranger 184 (Salisbury & The Plain), Explorer 130 (Salisbury & Stonehenge)


Stonehenge Cursus - Looking East
Picture taken from the western terminal of the Cursus looking east. The almost parallel course can be seen as the line of bushes and trees to the centre left and the line of hedges 100 metres away to the centre right.

Like the Stonehenge Avenue this monument was first recorded by the 18th century antiquarian William Stukeley. He imagined teams of Romans or Ancient Britons racing chariots along its length and so gave it the name 'cursus', the Latin for racecourse, a term which is now applied to all monuments of this type. It is now known that cursus monuments are much older than Stukeley believed and are thought to have been constructed in the middle to late Neolithic so it may be the Stonehenge Cursus is contemporary with the first phase of construction at Stonehenge itself which lies about 700 metres to the south of the central section of the cursus.
What can be seen on the ground today is very faint but its course and size can be clearly seen from the air. It consists of a pair of nearly parallel banks and outer ditches varying between 100 and 150 metres apart and traveling for a distance of around 2.75 km (1.7 miles) in an almost west to east direction across the northern Stonehenge landscape. Now just a low grass covered monument, when built these banks and ditches would have been cut from the underlying chalkland creating striking bright white gash across the landscape. Just beyond the eastern end of the cursus was a long barrow oriented north-south (i.e. at a right angle) and it could be speculated that the cursus was built as a processional trackway leading to this barrow while just within the western terminal were a pair of later round barrows, only one of which now remains (shown below). When traveling in a west to east direction it is curious that the site of Stonehenge is initially not visible being blocked from view by a ridge of land crowned by the barrows of the Cursus Group cemetery. It is only once past this low ridge that the stones come into view and remain on the local horizon as the cursus dips into the northern section of Stonehenge Bottom before rising up again to its eastern terminal close to the modern Strangways estate.
What the purpose of the Stonehenge Cursus was remains a mystery, it seems it played an important role in the early story of the Stonehenge landscape perhaps relating to either physical or spiritual movement through a sacred landscape that would later become the focus of much barrow building activity in the Bronze Age. Studies of other cursuses suggest that they had fallen out of use by this time and it could be that by the time the mighty trilithons we see today at Stonehenge were erected the cursus had already become a largely ignored monument, a ghost in the landscape constructed
for an unknown purpose by a forgotten people of the past.
There was once a second narrower and shorter cursus a short distance to the northwest known as the Lesser Cursus but this has now been completely destroyed by ploughing.


Round barrow within the western terminal of the cursus.

Google satellite image of the Stonehenge Cursus (zoom and pan to view)
The Cursus starts just to the left of the gap in the trees (to the left of picture) and runs east to the line of trees on the right. Stonehenge is near the bottom centre.


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