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First visit to the Dorset Cursus


I am walking along the defensive earth wall called Bokerley Dyke, which in high summer feels like a causeway that snakes between a sea of Dorset maize on my right and open Hampshire grassland sloping gently down away from me on my left. It is noon and I can feel the sun already sizzling into my arms; I'll have to stop and get some Factor 60 sunblock on soon. Down on the right a slight bump in the height of the maize tells me the location of the Pentridge III long barrow. It's not obvious unless you know where to look; every season the plough is going straight over the top, scooping out some of the chalk heaped up around about 3300BC and spreading it across the field. I have read in Martin Green's book that small sarsen stones can be seen scattered by the plough around the barrow, and apparently Richard Colt Hoare visited it briefly and described it as surrounded by sarsens. Whether they were part of a chamber or decorative revetment is anybody's guess. I'm sure the farmer and his predecessors have been at pains to move them out of his way by now.

Pentridge III — Images

<b>Pentridge III</b>Posted by UncleRob

Little signs in front of me say this is private land and entrance is forbidden. I stop to drink some water and look over the field. Over on the left the land rises up gently to the pine tree clump on top of Pentridge Hill, or Pembury Knoll as it's also known. In front the land undulates gently away into the distance across a series of valeys and ridges, and that is the route of the cursus. It's pleasant but not spectacular land, and although the Dyke is the first point at which you get to look into this landscape, there is a more obvious psychological barrier of a ridge further East which I crossed on the way up from Salisbury, the point where you come out of the trees of the Avon valley and onto the flatter high open downland heading into Cranborne Chase. In the neolithic the trees might have been more in evidence up here, if they developed farmland by the river valleys and then gradually entered more of the dry uplands. And in doing so they would have found not only a strange landscape with pits where the ground had collapsed into caverns carved out by ice age meltwater, but also the relics of their own hunter-gatherer ancestors. Up on the download there are a lot of mesolithic sites, typically with a few microlith tools or shallow pits where these were prepared. Pembury Knoll is the most concentrated source of these finds.

The easternmost end of the cursus is in the field but there is no sign of it now. But the next site along the way, the Pentridge IIa/IIb bank barrow makes up for it. This is so long that it's hard to conceive of it as prehistoric, it just looks like a modern heap of earth, perhaps because some plonker has put a hut on it.

Pentridge 21 / IIa/b — Images

<b>Pentridge 21 / IIa/b</b>Posted by UncleRob
I'm not warming to this farmer as I descend into a gap in the dyke. Ow! Ow! Nettles! Maybe wearing shorts wasn't the best idea even if it is scorchio.

I turn west and start along the direction of the cursus. First attraction is a neolithic "mortuary" enclosure in the field to the left, which is marked on the map as open countryside access but has been ploughed and fenced off. Hmm. The enclosure is visible as crop mark on Google maps and turned up on geophys surveys of the area around the long barrows. To be fair it is slightly visible as a raised rectangle of land, but like Pentridge III, only if you know what you're looking for. I would have liked to stand in it and get a feel for the place, but all I can do is to have a look over the fence. The rectangle is aligned ENE-WSW, across the line of the ridge, and opened on the ENE side. No mention anywhere I can find of any internal features such as a shallow pit. And from down here you can't see into cursusland, suggesting this is really more focused on the gently sloping land to the West. There was a later round barrow tagged onto the west end of the enclosure, suggesting it stayed intact into the Bronze Age and had some funerary/ceremonial significance to them.

On the other side of the field is the Pentridge I long barrow known here as Bokerley Down. This is a whopper, I didn't spot it coming on the map and it impressed me greatly.

Bokerley Down — Images

<b>Bokerley Down</b>Posted by UncleRob
There's no doubt this ridge had great ceremonial importance to the neolithic inhabitants of the area. Why did they build here and do nothing to Pembury Knoll which is close by and much higher? Crop marks on google maps look like there once was a round barrow on the southern end of this long barrow, just as there still is on IIa/IIb.

I head down through farm tracks towards the village of Pentridge, a rather quiet and well-heeled sort of place. The water table reaches the surface nowadays at Pentridge and some wells are marked on the OS map, at a surprisingly high point in the landscape (92m, compared with the famous seasonal pond under the river cliff which I reach later - that is at 64m above sea level). If it was higher 5200 years ago and rose through a spring on top of the ridge (the end of the cursus is about 111m), that would have been pretty remarkable. I am soon walking alongside a boggy stream and then crossing over it to go up the slope on my right, towards the Salisbury Plantation and the cursus. Pembury Knoll stays in view, looming over me on the right. A farm pick-up truck scuttles back and forth with a cheery wave. It's a busy time for them and the barley is being harvested under the plantation and over the cursus. There is still nothing to see of the cursus until I cross over on the right of way by the plantation, where the land rises slightly, about two feet, in the middle of the field, and that is all that remains here of the north bank of the cursus. The Pentridge IV long barrow is in the plantation, incorporated into the north bank. Perhaps I will go poking about in search of it in the winter when the vegetation has died back a bit. Now I cross the ridge and drop down towards Oakley Down. The enormous circus of the "Endorse It In Dorset" festival comes into view and for the next hour or so I am accompanied by drifting strains of punky ska.

I climb onto the Ackling Dyke and head west. I had seen many fine aerial photos of Oakley Down so the reality is bound to come as less impressive. The grass is long and there are butterlies and insects everywhere, a lovely bit of set aside at the moment. One to revisit in the winter I think - the only really obvious features are the big bell barrow and the disc barrow cut through by the Roman road. The clock is ticking for me to get back onto the cursus route and still make the last bus back to Salisbury so I sit on the stile and eat some of my luxurious bush tucker then get cracking up the long slope of Bottlebush Down.

The top of Bottlebush Down is marked by a surprisingly busy B road but most drivers give a walker a courteous wide berth. Berendes Beorh is quickly in view to the right, then another bowl barrow in the field (Wimborne St Giles 36 in Grinsell's numbering) then the Cursus bank to the left which is the site of the TMA photograph. This really looks like a hedge but is perhaps the best bit of cursus bank anywhere along the route.
<b>Dorset Cursus (North to Martins Down)</b>Posted by UncleRob

Further down the slope back towards Salisbury plantation, the farmer has grown a different crop on the cursus strip so you can see its route. At least he is not completely dismissive of the heritage on his patch of land.
<b>Dorset Cursus (North to Martins Down)</b>Posted by UncleRob

A little further down the road is the Wimborne St Giles 35 bowl barrow, where Dr Clay claimed to have been threatened by the ghost of a prehistoric horseman. I turn off at this point to look west down the field toward the original eastern end of the cursus, the point from where the midwinter sun is seen to sink into Gussage down long barrow. There is a bit more cursus bank to be seen on the field boundary though it has (grrr) been broken through in two places to facilitate agricultural egress.


I moved down the left edge of the newly ploughed field so as not to disturb the field or offend the owner while also exercising my self-proclaimed right to see the work of my ancestors. You can see the shape of the cursus now, moving away from you, bending to the right with the shape of the Drive Plantation trees and heading down into the Allen Valley, across Down Farm and up Gussage Down. The famous long barrow is now clear on the skyline ahead, higher on the left (south) end. A little way down the field a very small ridge in the ploughed ground comes into view. It rises across my path, about a foot higher than the surrounding ground, and cuts right to left across the field.
<b>Dorset Cursus (South to Thickthorn Down)</b>Posted by UncleRob

What a moment! This is the beginning of the original cursus, or the end, or errrrr neither. I think of it like a platform for watching the sun do its thing with the long barrow (see below...). I stand on the spot and look across the valley at Gussage. Brrr. I'm actually shivering because a really cold wind has suddenly come out of the north. A few minutes ago it was stinking hot. It certainly felt to me like there was something special and maybe a little forbidding about knowing I was on that spot. The other interesting feature is that from here, all the later bronze age barrows on the down behind you (Berendes & Wimb St G 35 & 36) are on the skyline. Surely they were placed there because this was the significant point of view.

I headed downhill and the sun comes out and the wind drops and turns back to the west. The landscape is gentle and welcoming. The Ackling Dyke cuts in from the left and soon cuts right across the cursus. Around here there was some sort of turf mound described by Martin Green in his book "A Landscape Revealed". What was the purpose of that? A mortuary house at the east end of the cursus like they made in the typically east end of long barrows? It is actually visible as a patch of darker and slightly raised earth some 8 metres across. No visible sign of anything else different about the surface of the field.

I followed the Ackling Dyke for a while, a peaceful path shaded under beech trees, and then looked through a gap in the bank and the trees at Wyke Down barrow cemetery. I had been thinking of walking up the path alongside this field and thence across Down farm to Gussage, but the barley was so ripe and bulging at the seams (and nettles likewise) that I thought it better to carry on by Roman then English roads. Here in Wyke Down is one later Bronze Age barrow inside the cursus, which seems a little presumptuous. Down onto the paved road and up the valley bottom, I soon passed the famous "Pleistocene river cliff" on my right. This is basically a steep bank now but it was carved into the chalk by floodwaters in the ice age and would still have been an impressive barrier in the neolithic. At its base was a seasonal pond and around here mesolithic tools have been found in the soil. The water would have attracted birds and deer and it would have made for good hunting. The cursus goes around either side, completely encompassing the cliff, leaving about 30m on the south side free, perhaps for passing by?
<b>Dorset Cursus (South to Thickthorn Down)</b>Posted by UncleRob

Up I go, saying hello to the sheep in the field and various members of the Down farm posse that I pass along the way. I am now going uphill to Gussage Down long barrow. It bacomes very hot unsheltered from the sun and the climb becomes very steep near the end, at which point the barrow disappears out of sight to reappear as I reach the top, clambering through the thistles and over a stile that has not seen many visitors in a while. Boom! There it is, the long barrow, quite a nice example, though its ditches have gone under the plough. The field is used for grazing at the moment so fingers crossed it is being well preserved.

Gussage Hill — Images

<b>Gussage Hill</b>Posted by UncleRob

From here you can turn round and see the crop marks of the cursus zooming away from you all the way back to Bottlebush Down, including all the doglegs and kinks, swallowing up the river cliff and the Wyke Down barrow.
<b>Dorset Cursus (South to Thickthorn Down)</b>Posted by UncleRob

No rest for me as the bus is coming and I need to get back to Salisbury and on the train home. My legs are well scratched by the time I get down onto the A road at Cashmoor, but I have fond memories to last a long time. I will be back in the winter.

One additional thought I had on the train home: who put the labour into this construction? Did they do so willingly? How many died or went hungry to make it and is the cursus possibly a monument to pompous authority gone over the top for the first time in this gentle landscape?


I wanted to test the idea that the walking the route of the cursus, or just being on it, focusses attention on the skies and therefore the change of the seasons. The original central section of cursus, from Bottlebush Down to Gussage Down, particularly caught my imagination from reading about it. If there was purpose to its placing in the land, it should be obvious in that shorter earlier cursus. This is also the section with the main cosmic attraction: the midwinter descent of the sun into the northern long barrow mound on Gussage Down, and that mound was my destination. To my mind that is one of the earliest solar alignments in Wessex so that long barrow must be among the most significant of them all in some way. In "A phenomenology of landscape", Tilley has this evocative description: "the rays of the dying sun move from the SE to the NW end of the barrow, with the last flicker of light at the end of the barrow". In other words, the sun descends INTO the barrow just as any other favoured visitor would have done, down the passge from the SE end and into the earth.

Apart from that, there is no overwhelming evidence for a reason in placing the cursus where it is. One thing that struck me was the way that the mesolithic hang-out of Pentridge Hill (or Pembury Knoll) appears from almost everywhere along this section of the cursus, the only exception being steep downhill stretches where it is obscured by the hill behind you. How important was that hill to neolithic cursus builders, considering they built nothing on top or on the sides?

Although I'd come to get to grips with the cursus, I came up with more thoughts about long barrows. The cursus is just so opaque. Is the cursus a bridge between earth ceremony and sun ceremony? Perhaps quite literally as the original section of cursus has the long barrow at one end and a view of the sun descending into it at the other. It also crosses the seasonal pond in the Allen Valley so there is a water element to it too. Now one thing does occur to me though. I have seen it written that the obvious journey to take along the cursus is east to west because you have the destination of Gussage Down long barrow (and then Thickthorn, though I didn't go that far) and the features of the land are more spectacular. But IF it is intended as a walk, and IF that is combined with watching the sun sink into the long barrow, then you need to set off while it is still light and head west so you can turn around and see the sun sink. It certainly wouldn't take all day unless you were pretty decrepit. Along the way you definitely have to cross the pond and river cliff and at midwinter that would be no small feat. The cliff is much eroded today but it would have been a bugger to get up in them days. I am not convinced that one walked along the cursus. I think its monumental size covering the landscape and sweeping away from the viewer is more the point. They had a thing about elongated rectangles in the landscape. Are these roofless houses for ancestors and other spirits?

Is the fertility of the land dependent on sun, earth and water being ensured through some ceremony or some special place set aside from farming activity? On the other hand, if a visit to all the top ritual sites of the area happened to take people in a straight line, a path would soon become evident through the grass and trees and then it is a matter of prestige to the society to show its wealth and heritage by solidifying that in the shape of the cursus.

On long barrows though, the long "mortuary" enclosure at Pentridge makes me wonder if long barrows are really long mounds which happen to cover some of these enclosures and their structures. Perhaps the bones were added just before the mound as a ritual act of closing them up - but that makes little sense considering the stone chambered ones stayed open until the bronze age at earliest. Because of the lack of big stones in this area, they built any chambers out of turf and/or wood, and they have since rotted away, so we have few clues. Why did the Pentridge one not get covered by a long mound? Maybe it's too long, maybe it served a different purpose - it certainly has the opposite orientation to the long barrows nearby. Some of the long mounds are clearly different though, such as the southern one at Thickthorn Down which apparently is comprised of heaping up chalk and household waste. Now that waste food and chips of pottery is rubbish to us now but it was fertiliser then. Maybe that is also linked to the earth fertility connection. At the Gussage Down long barrow, a chalk carving of a phallus was found in the ditches. You could view the mound as having the ancestral dead return to and repose in the womb of the earth. And if the sun setting into Gussage Down is the same as the sun entering Maes Howe at midwinter, then together they make the crops fertile, turn the year around and give birth to the harvest nine months later. The only element missing is the water supply to the farmland downstream, which is incorporated by means of the cursus. One more thing to add - we know about the midwinter sunset, and in fact the midsummer sunrise happens a little to the right of the cursus as you look back NE from Gussage, but not quite out of the sumit of Pembury Knoll (what an elegant theory that would be). The midwinter sunrise however is not far off being straight SE down the axes of the Gussage barrows.

It all becomes so complex and uncertain that I can see the attraction in believing it's a landing strip for UFOs.

At any rate, I do wonder if the ditches are more important than we would think of them now. We dig and make big structures without thinking of it, but back then it would have been a very significant act. You were making a permanent mark on the landscape and they had never before had such marks that gave some sense of immortality to the makers. This is land art of a sort. And you started by entering the earth and digging into it. When they came to these uplands circa 3500BC they would have seen the marks left by the meltwater as well as the pits of the mesolithic hunter-gatherers, and perhaps they are imitating that in the ditches of the barrows and the cursus and also in the pits at the surface under the long mounds. Perhaps they even re-used some.
UncleRob Posted by UncleRob
19th August 2009ce
Edited 15th September 2009ce

UncleRob's TMA Blog

Comments (2)

Love your descriptions UncleRob, but I am curious about your methods. Do you take a dictaphone with you, or make detailed written notes, or just take many photographs to prompt your memory? I look forward to your next installment. MartinStraw Posted by MartinStraw
23rd August 2009ce
Funny you should ask - I did sort of take a dictaphone in the form of my mobile phone which allows me to record fairly long sound files. No good as a field recording microphone of course, but fine for capturing my voice to remind myself of the order of things and impressions later. Listening back a few days later brings all the impressions back to me and writing this blog up took half a day out of my holidays! Ah but it was worth it!

I've done a load of field recordings in the past but since then I've gotten into prehistoric sites and I don't have the equipment any more. Maybe one day I'll try it again though I'm not sure how interesting the results would be. They would serve more as document of the sound environment / birdlife / noise pollution at various sites. A recording of trucks roaring past Stonehenge would make its point nicely, I think!
UncleRob Posted by UncleRob
28th August 2009ce
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