Inscribed Across the Landscape: The Cursus Enigma by Roy Loveday
The lack of a book focussing specifically on cursus monuments has been evident for some while, and it is appropriate that this gap in the literature should now have been filled by Roy Loveday, who has been studying these structures for several decades. As Loveday’s sub-title implies, cursuses are almost as difficult to write about as they are to investigate in the field. These Neolithic linear enclosures are sometimes extremely large, but they often contain nothing at all. While they have sometimes been conjectured to have been ceremonial avenues, they generally don’t lead to anywhere in particular. When excavated, they often provide little or nothing in the way of finds, and in some cases they may have deliberately been kept clean. Further, the depth and breadth of their ditches appears to be unrelated to the size of the area enclosed, suggesting that they were not intended to impress the onlooker by their massiveness. They seem to represent the imposition of form onto the landscape, and yet they mostly proved transient, to the extent that most of them can now only be recognised from the air.
Loveday approaches his subject as a mystery, which he proceeds to unravel step by step. He begins with an excellent potted history of cursus studies, starting with William Stukeley’s discovery of the Great Stonehenge Cursus in 1723. As Loveday points out, by 1740 Stukeley was to modify his original observations and depict the cursus as a Roman chariot racetrack with a curved terminal. In describing this fabrication, Loveday echoes the conventional view that Stukeley was at first an impartial fieldworker, who later imposed grandiose interpretations on his material, having adopted certain mystical and religious beliefs. This neglects the reality that Stukeley had already written his treatise on the ‘music of the spheres’ in 1720 (arguing after Newton that the deity had arranged the heavenly bodies in such a way that their respective orbits defined a series of musical harmonies), and that his unpublished manuscript on Celtic temples (which already contained many of the ideas that would inform his works on Stonehenge and Avebury) dates to 1722. Loveday fulminates a little over the contemporary prevalence of interpretive archaeologies, but it may be that Stukeley provides a case in point of the difficulty in prising observation and interpretation apart. These points aside, Loveday’s account of the exponential growth of the numbers of cursus monuments known to archaeology since the pioneering work of Crawford and Major Allen makes absorbing reading.
Loveday’s overall approach to cursus architecture is formal and typological. Rather than structures that emerged contextually, out of practice and engagement, he sees the monuments as the manifestation of an abstract ‘ritual grammar’. This case is best supported by his ‘Class Bi’ cursuses, precisely rectilinear in form and laid out with scant regard for topography (with more accuracy, it is noted, than some modern football pitches!). Loveday relates this formality of design to the status of cursuses as the first pan-regional monument style in Britain. While the same might perhaps be said of causewayed enclosures, he suggests that cursuses and Peterborough Ware together represented a Middle Neolithic cultural complex, spread not by group migration but by the sporadic movement of pilgrims between emerging religious centres. In this respect, the ‘cursus complex’ anticipated the spread of Grooved Ware and henge monuments in the Later Neolithic. That cursuses were important and even venerated in prehistory appears to be demonstrated by the way that they were respected by later structures such as field systems. Yet, as Loveday points out, this sits uneasily with the likelihood that their ditches would have silted up relatively quickly, especially in the sand and gravel lowlands of southern and eastern England, the heartland of the cursus distribution. His suggestion is that in some cases the plan of a cursus bank may have been preserved (whether by accident or design) in the form of a hedge, which might then have survived for hundreds of years.
In discussing the derivation of the cursus tradition, Loveday breaks with the orthodoxy which sees a close connection with earthen long barrows. He provides a compelling argument that free-standing rectilinear palisaded enclosures were not a normal element of long barrow architecture, and that the foundation trenches that have been interpreted in this way are more likely to have represented mound revetments. Indeed, while there are spatial and structural relationships between long barrows and cursuses in Cranborne Chase and the Stonehenge area, this is not the case in all regions, and arises principally from the veneration of existing monuments. According to Loveday, the coincidence of form between long barrows, long enclosures and cursus monuments can be attributed to their common derivation from long house architecture. Loveday’s discussion of the relationship between cursuses and the timber halls of the earliest Neolithic in Scotland is one of the high points of the book. Just as buildings like those at Claish Farm and Balbridie were transformed over time into the roofless timber structures at Balfarg and Carsie Mains, so cursus monuments monumentalised the form of the hall (with either squared or convex terminals) to create a gigantic ‘house’ set aside for the use of deities, ancestors, or members of a social elite. Whether the Claish and Balbridie halls were really encased within timber and turf enclosures before they were burned down, as Loveday proposes, is a moot point, but the connection between timber buildings and at least the early, pit-and-post defined cursuses of lowland Scotland is undeniable. He goes on to suggest that bank barrows like those at Maiden Castle and North Stoke were derived from continental traditions such as the Breton tertre tumulaires and the Kujavian long mounds. Perhaps, in this, Loveday is attempting to preserve too clear a typological distinction between monument styles, as he wishes to see each material form as the manifestation of a distinct ‘idea’. We might prefer to acknowledge that the reality was somewhat messier, and that structures like Scorton and the Cleaven Dyke combine elements of different traditions.
Equally, we could question whether the post-defined and bank-and-ditch cursuses, which can be argued to have barely overlapped chronologically, were not different in kind. Here again, Loveday is adhering to the view that the cursus was primarily an idea, which was then put into practice in a variety of ways. This perhaps explains his apparent expectation that there should be upland equivalents for the cursuses – but could cursuses not be associated with activities and events which were characteristic of the lowlands?
It is one of the great virtues of the book that Loveday does not stop at describing cursus monuments, but attempts to place them in the social context of their times. He describes them as ‘opulent rather than monumental’, and argues on this basis that they may have been intended to be viewed by spirits and deities rather than by mortals (rather like the Nazca lines). However, he does not entertain the alternative possibility that it was the act of construction rather than the finished form that was of social significance, and that social integration or competition were achieved through the gathering of people to labour rather than to use the structure. Loveday’s interpretation of cursuses as symbolic houses that separated elite persons from the rest of society, providing supernatural sanction for a form of individualised authority also observed in single grave burials, draws on analogies in a rather promiscuous manner. Ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, pre-Columbian South America and Early Medieval Europe all provide examples of sanctified social power. How appropriate these early state societies are as parallels for Neolithic Britain is an open question, and Loveday’s suggestion that the multiple burials at Duggleby Howe represent the sacrificed retainers of a paramount king is one that will raise some eyebrows.
One does not have to agree with every word that Roy Loveday has written in Inscribed Across the Landscape to judge it an invaluable addition to the literature. It is packed with the kinds of insights that come from the sustained investigation of a particular phenomenon, and while I have chosen in this review to take issue with some of his conclusions, this is only possible because of the wealth of information and argument contained in the book. It will be required reading for anyone remotely interested in the cursus phenomenon.
Review Submitted: January 2007
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those
of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
|The Prehistoric Society Home Page|