In the online video lecture, we learned that contrary to popular belief, Stonehenge is actually not an isolated site and that it is in fact a part of a much larger ritual landscape in Salisbury, England. In the online video lecture, as well as in class, we touched a little bit on the Stonehenge Cursus. We learned that this earthwork is north of Stonehenge, measuring 3 km long and 100-150 m wide. However, we did not go into more detail than that. This particular earthwork that is part of the greater Stonehenge landscape intrigued me, so I decided to do some more of my own research on this.
First off, a cursus is comprised of two parallel linear ditches with embankments, which are closed off at the ends. There are actually two cursus at Stonehenge. The main cursus is aligned with Woodhenge and can be viewed as astronomical because it is oriented along the path of the midsummer sunrise. The other cursus at Stonehenge is older than Stonehenge itself. While looking more into the Stonehenge Cursus, I learned that an 18th century antiquary, William Stukeley, thought the Stonehenge Cursus resembled a race track and he had imagined ancient Roman or British teams racing chariots along the length of the cursus. He named it the Stonehenge Cursus because “cursus” is the latin name for “racetrack.”
Stukeley wanted to identify the purpose of the cursus, but it is unknown. Some people described the Stonehenge Cursus as a landing strip for aliens. However, cursus monuments were later viewed as arenas for ritual and/or ceremonial processions. However, cursus monuments were also thought to be used for astronomical purposes, often showing alignments with astronomy. In fact, two discovered pits in the Stonehenge Cursus give indication that the cursus was a place of sun worship. The pits are positioned in such a way that would have marked the rising and setting positions of the sun during the summer solstice. Likewise, the pits discovered could have formed a procession route for rituals celebrating the sun during the midsummer solstice. These pit discoveries could suggest that the cursus were used as ancient centers of rituals.
It is believed, though, that these monuments may have influenced the surrounding landscapes. In addition it has also been observed that the cursus often include funerary monuments in their design. For example, many burial monuments were placed along the Stonehenge Cursus and at both ends of the cursus.
Overall, the purpose of the Stonehenge Cursus is still a mystery, however it is believed to play an important part in the Stonehenge landscape relating to either spiritual or physical movement or was cursed for some reason. Archeologists do not know exactly what the cursus was used for, but they do know that it encloses a pathway that is no longer accessible. Another possible theory I discovered while researching this cursus was that this earthwork could have been constructed by a ghost in the landscape for an unknown reason by some forgotten people in the past. Archeologists have discovered remains of cremated humans from Stonehenge. Burial cremation actually had been occurring at Stonehenge since 2900 BC and since the Stonehenge Cursus is about 500 years older than Stonehenge itself, this could suggest the cursus could have been related to the cremation of humans.
It is very interesting to research such a massive earthwork with so many different theories about its use and purpose in ancient times.
Sources: http://www.ancient-wisdom.co.uk/cursus.htm#purpose, http://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/article/?id=3719, http://www.archaeologyuk.org/ba/ba69/feat1.shtml, http://www.stone-circles.org.uk/stone/cursus.htm, http://www.livescience.com/22427-stonehenge-facts.html