Stonehenge Riverside Project: 2007 Excavation V

The Stonehenge Greater Cursus

Five trenches were dug into the ditch and interior of the west end of this enigmatic 3km-long x 100m-150m wide monument which runs east-west to the north of Stonehenge and southwest of Durrington Walls. The two trenches within the cursus´s interior were positioned to investigate geophysical anomalies but there were no archaeological features in them. This confirms the results from earlier excavations that the cursus interior was essentially a clean space set apart from the Neolithic activity areas to its north and south.

Antler pick lying on the base of the ditch

The cursus ditch is 1.6m deep along its west terminal and a 10m-long excavation trench towards its south side revealed a broken-off tine from an antler pick lying on the base of the ditch. This was deposited very soon after the ditch was dug and dates the cursus's construction to 3630-3375 BC.

A further clue to the cursus's date is provided by a sherd from a lugged bowl of Windmill Hill style, dating to the mid-late 4th millennium BC, which was found in the topsoil of the trench excavated into the north ditch. This trench was positioned here to investigate the relationship of the cursus to a NNW-SSE cross-ditch. Unfortunately the cross-ditch did not extend as far as the cursus ditch but excavation of its terminal produced Middle and Later Bronze Age pottery from two recut ditches within its fill. The lowest fill of the ditch is not dated. The north ditch of the cursus was U-profiled and only 1m deep. The 5m-long section investigated appears to be slightly off-line and probably formed one of many short segments which joined up to form the 3km-long ditch. The ditch was cut into by a small pit or hollow after it had silted up.

A 10m-long stretch of cursus ditch was excavated along its south side, immediately adjacent to the excavation in 1947 (Stone 1947) when a bluestone chipping (of sandstone) was recovered from its fill. That excavation had also produced an antler from what appeared to be an embayment on the ditch´s south side. The radiocarbon date of this antler places it within the period of Stonehenge's sarsen erection and the settlement at Durrington Walls. In 2007 we were able to show that the embayment was a later feature, cut into the filled-in, U-shaped cursus ditch. We also located another pit about 9m east of it. These and the pit into the north side of the cursus suggest that the monument's ditches were dug into in the mid-third millennium BC, many centuries after its construction. Later on, probably in the Early-Middle Bronze Age around 2000-1500 BC, this southern section of ditch was dug out to form a V-shaped ditch which filled with decalcified loessic soil. The origin of this sediment is not known but it may have derived from wind erosion off surrounding land where the grass cover was broken for the first time, either in stripping turf for building round barrows or in plough cultivation.

The excavations of 2007 not only provide a date for the cursus's construction but also provide evidence for its changing significance in the fourth and third millennia BC. The depth of its west terminal ditch, compared to the shallow north and south ditches, indicates that its east-west axis was the significant direction, corroborated by the monument´s alignment at this end on Beacon Hill to the east. In the mid-third millennium that emphasis shifted to a north-south distinction as the north and south ditches were re-dug first as small pits, and later a V-shaped recut was dug along part of its southern side. The pit line, dated by the 1947 antler, may have served to redefine the cursus as a boundary separating the Stonehenge area from the Durrington Walls area.