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The Dorset Cursus
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On Hallowed Ground

The cursus and the culvert

A very short distance to the West of the Knowlton henge complex, in Dorset, lie the remains of one of the most mysterious of all sites, The Dorset Cursus. The Cursus is one of the most famous of prehistoric monuments. It runs from Bokerly Dyke to Thickthorn Down, crossing Ackling Dyke at Old Sarum. To the north of Pentridge it appears as 2 parallel banks stretching for 6 miles, 4 miles of which are well preserved and make a delightful walk across the Chase. Both banks are flanked with barrows suggesting it may have been a ceremonial route to a more important long barrow. Similar to the Great Cursus near Stonehenge, a pair of parallel banks and ditches, spaced roughly 100 metres apart, run for a distance of roughly six miles (9.6 km). Its course is mostly straight and seems to take little account of hill or dale. Unlike the Stonehenge example very little is visible from the ground and the feature can only truly be appreciated from the air. The most obvious remains of the cursus are the terminal bank-barrows at the southern end and the long barrow approximately half way along its length. Nearby the remains of a small settlement have also been discovered. The extensive Bronze Age barrow cemetery at Oakley Down also lies close to the western edge of the cursus, roughly half way along its length. Many more barrows were located close to the cursus which have since been "ploughed out" by modern agricultural activity. At the northern end there is evidence to suggest that a second cursus may once have existed, running at a near right angle to the east along an alignment marked out by two nearby barrows. The purpose of the Dorset Cursus, (and, indeed the Greater and Lesser Cursus at Stonehenge) is unknown although it is widely suspected that it may have been associated with funeral games or races. It is possible that the function of the cursus has some association with the nearby Knowlton Henge complex and the recently discovered henge at Wyke Down. Whatever the purpose of this site it clearly took some dedication and coordination to build. Over six million cubic feet (170,000 cubic metres) of chalk were removed in its construction. Research has suggested an alignment on certain stars. In John North's book, "Stonehenge, Neolithic Man and the Cosmos" there is a fascinating theory concerning the observation of two stars from the Great Cursus at Stonehenge and the processions which would have been possible in the time between the setting of one and the rising of the other. His research has shown that similar observations would have been possible from the Dorset Cursus. Alignments with the rising of the Sun and Moon at around 2,500 BC have also been suggested.

  The Dorset Cursus
 
When Stukeley to the Cursus came,
Low down in Hallowed ground,
A Roman race-track gave its name,
Low down are secrets found
 
For six long miles it stretches west,
Low down in Hallowed ground,
And ancient warriors take their rest,
Low down are secrets found.
 
A barrow marking either end,
Low down in Hallowed ground,
And one will see the sun descend,
Low down are secrets found.
 
A thousand years - no human sound,
Low down in Hallowed ground,
No living soul disturbed this mound,
Low down are secrets found.
 
There stands a priest within the mist,
Low down in Hallowed ground,
He shakes his head and waves his fist,
Low down are secrets found.
 
"Who comes to wake our weary bones?"
Low down in Hallowed ground,
"Now leave us be", the warrior groans,
Low down are secrets found.
©Ashley Hutchings/Chris While

The setting sun shows the Dorset Cursus

some high quality photographs of
The Dorset Cursus
to be found on the

Kenneth Brophy tries to make sense
of some of Britain's largest and earliest
prehistoric monuments.
an article originally published
in British Archaeology
Issue no 44, May 1999

1687-1765
antiquarian and illustrator
 
 
further writings

"a ritual passage"
introduction
In Phenomenology of Landscape,
Christopher Tilley takes the
reader for a walk down
the Dorset Cursus, describing the
phenomena that would have been
experienced by someone undertaking
the journey in the middle
Neolithic period
 
landscape setting
from the same source as the
above link

English Heritage

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