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The Cursus, the lesser Cursus, long barrows
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The Cursus, the lesser Cursus, long barrowsBuilt before the first Stonehenge was the unusual monument known as the Cursus. This is an elongated earthwork enclosure with a ditch and bank that define an area more than 100 m. (330 ft) wide and 2,7 km. (1,7 miles) long. It runs east-west across the downland to the north of Stonehenge, crossing a shallow valley towards its central part.

The ditches on its long sides are small, little over 1 m. (3 ft) deep, but both ends appear to have been defined by larger ditches and correspondingly larger banks. Its eastern end stops just short of a levelled Neolithic long barrow.

It was first noted by the early XVIII century antiquary William Stukeley, who decided it was Roman in date and had been built for racing chariots or horses (hence the names he gave it, Cursus or Hippodrome, both Classical words for racetracks). He was wrong about the date: it was built in the early Neolithic period in about 3500 BC, but its function still remains uncertain. The few finds from the ditches suggest that it may have been laid out as a special or sacred space, perhaps for processions or as a barrier across the landscape. The entire length of the Cursus lies on National Trust open access land. The western end has been partially reconstructed.

The lesser Cursus

Considering that they are rare monuments, it is remarkable that there is a second Cursus within the Stonehenge landscape, just to the north-west of the western end of the main Cursus. This one is much smaller, only about 400 m. (430 yds) long, and is known as the Lesser Cursus. Excavations carried out in 1983 revealed that when first built, it was only half this length, but was extended shortly afterwards. Strangely, at its eastern end the ditches simply stop, leaving an open end, as if it was never completed. The newly dug ditches were then quickly filled in again, in one area covering a collection of antler picks neatly laid out in a line on the ditch floor. Radiocarbon dates from these picks suggest that the Lesser Cursus was also built in about 3500 BC.


Long barrows

There are also many Early Neolithic long barrows in the Stonehenge area. These are elongated burial mounds, often flanked by ditches that acted as quarries for the chalk to build the mounds. Long barrows often contain the remains of many individuals, sometimes lying within wooden structures: symbolic houses for the dead. These are the tombs of the ancestors, raised not simply to contain bones, but as a way of establishing a claim to the land on which they stand. A large and well-preserved example can be seen in the Winterbourne Stoke Crossroads Barrows.


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