Cursus and five associated ring-ditches at Biggleswade Common

Overview

Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
1473383
Date first listed:
11-Jan-2021
Statutory Address:
South of Furzenhall Farm, Biggleswade Common, Biggleswade, Bedfordshire

Map

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Location

Statutory Address:
South of Furzenhall Farm, Biggleswade Common, Biggleswade, Bedfordshire

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

District:
Central Bedfordshire (Unitary Authority)
Parish:
Biggleswade
National Grid Reference:
TL1935446593

Summary

Neolithic cursus and five associated ring-ditches visible as cropmarks.

Reasons for Designation

The Neolithic cursus and five associated ring-ditches are scheduled for the following principal reasons:

* Period: the cursus is a recognised religious or ceremonial monument type from the Neolithic period (about 4000-2500 BC) which, as one of the oldest and rarest site types found in England, offers important insight into the religious or magical beliefs and ritual practices of this period.

* Rarity: the cursus is a very rare Neolithic monument type with only around a hundred definite or likely examples recorded in England.

* Diversity: the buried remains of four ring-ditches clustered at the south-east end of the cursus and a further ring ditch to the south suggests the continuing importance of the cursus into the later Neolithic and/or Bronze Age.

* Survival: the cursus and ring-ditches are clearly visible as cropmarks on aerial photographs taken at intervals from 1970 onwards. Cropmarks on a 2020 aerial photograph demonstrate that sub-surface remains survive showing the extent of the cursus, except for the part of the ditch under the extension of the sewage works, and the ring ditches .

* Potential: the sub-surface remains will retain archaeological and environmental evidence relating to the monuments’ construction, development, longevity, function, chronological relationship between features, ritual practices and overall landscape context.

* Group value: the sites of religious and ritual focus found close to the River Ivel near Biggleswade Common have strong group value that enhances our understanding of this area as a prehistoric ritual landscape. These include the probable Romano-Celtic temple and the Bronze Age barrow and associated settlement (Scheduled Monuments).

History

The Neolithic (about 4000-2500 BC) cursus is a recognised religious or ceremonial monument type found throughout the British Isles. They fall into a category of site noted for their length that includes avenues and stone alignments but cursus monuments or enclosures are the more widely distributed and numerous. They have been defined as parallel sided sites closed by at least one terminal and defined by ditches or pits/ posts. Although the term ‘cursus’ was used to refer to this monument type by William Stukeley in the early C18 it was only really in the early C20 that sites began to be discovered in great numbers (usually from aerial photographs), and discussed as a category. The date range is thought to be around 3600 to 3000 BC with recent evidence ranging from 3600 to 3300 BC. The cursus at Biggleswade is therefore an example of one of the oldest and rarest site types found in England.

As far as function is concerned, the scarcity of finds from excavations is unhelpful, but generally cursus monuments have been thought of as paths or processional ways, although whether they represented the enclosure or monumentalisation of an existing path or route, or marked something new in the landscape is open to debate. However, they generally appear to have been closely integrated with the landscape that they were constructed across, both in terms of the natural topography and pre-existing monuments. They could, also, have served to demarcate or even act as a barrier between different landscape zones. It is also clear that celestial alignments could have been of some significance – the earliest section of the scheduled Dorset Cursus appears to have been orientated on midwinter sunset, for example. Consequently, understanding of individual sites needs to draw considerably on an understanding of their local setting.

Loveday and others have developed theories on the significance of the distribution of cursus monuments in eastern England (Malin 1999, Last 1999, Loveday 2016). They mainly, but not exclusively, cluster along the river valleys, with a recognisable concentration along part of the Great Ouse river valley. These cursuses, and the associated monuments, have a great variety of forms, sizes and arrangements suggesting that their layout is less important than their location and distribution. It is likely that the Biggleswade cursus, on a tributary of the Great Ouse, forms part of this regional tradition of early Neolithic monument building. This position was probably chosen because of its location at the confluence of the River Ivel and Potton Brook and surrounded by low-lying land on all but the south side. The River Ivel would probably have been a major communication route, linking to the Great Ouse valley, as well as having a religious significance in itself.

The longevity of the Biggleswade cursus is shown by the two phases of ditch cut and the weathering of the second ditch. It appears to have been a discernible feature in the later Neolithic or early Bronze Age when a cluster of four ring-ditches, revealed as cropmarks, were placed by the south-eastern terminal. These suggest the continuing importance of the cursus into the later Neolithic and/or Bronze Age. Another cropmark of a ring ditch is situated just to the south. It is likely that these are the remains of later Neolithic and/or Early Bronze Age round barrows although evidence of a central mound is no longer discernable.

Barrows – mounds of earth and/or stone of various shapes and sizes – are characteristic earthwork monuments of the prehistoric periods from about 5,800 until 3,400 years ago (3800-1400 BC). A small number are later, the practice ending around AD 800. While barrows are often isolated, many occur in groups, sometimes of just two or three, but occasionally of up to thirty or more. Groups of barrows are sometimes found in association with other monuments that are also often assumed to have served a ceremonial or ritual purpose during the Neolithic and Bronze Age. Round barrows have a considerable pedigree with origins dating to before 5,000 years ago (3000 BC), and which cover similar complex sequences of activity to that of long barrows. Size varies quite dramatically from examples of only 5m or 6m across to those that take on monumental proportions of over 50m diameter and 6m in height.

The cursus on Biggleswade Common was partly excavated in 2004, in advance of an extension to the southern end of the sewage works, when a 33m section of the southern ditch of the north-western part of the cursus was explored. No direct dating evidence was recovered during excavation but this is not unusual for this type of monument and for the limited area explored. A quantity of charred material was found in the deposits of the upper fills of the later ditch but their significance was inconclusive. The environmental evidence implied a surrounding landscape of ungrazed grassland, abandoned pasture or arable land.

Details

A Neolithic cursus and five associated ring-ditches visible as cropmarks to the south of Furzenhall Farm.

DESCRIPTION

The Neolithic cursus and associated monuments are situated in arable fields to the north of Biggleswade town and surrounded on three sides by Biggleswade Common. The cursus extends across level land that is between 25m and 30m above Ordnance Datum (nominal sea level). The western end of the cursus is about 500m east of the current course of the River Ivel, a tributary of the Great Ouse river.

The buried remains of the ditches defining the cursus are revealed as intermittent cropmarks defining an enclosure measuring 70m by at least 720m aligned north-west to south-east along its long axis. The south-east end is defined by intermittent cropmarks that form a convincing terminal. The north-west terminal of the cursus did not show on any available aerial photographs. It may sit under, or have been destroyed by, construction of the railway (opened in 1850) or the sewage works (c1960s) although it may have extended further towards the river. Cursus monuments may also have deliberate gaps in the ditches but on sites revealed as cropmarks it can be difficult to distinguish these from breaks in the cropmarks. Therefore, some of the gaps in the cropmarks of the Biggleswade cursus, possibly the narrower ones, may be original features. Most of the surviving features are recorded as cropmarks on 2020 Google Earth aerial photographs demonstrating that there are still sub-surface remains of the cursus ditches and associated monuments.

Excavations in 2004, in advance of an extension to the southern end of the sewage works explored a 33m section of the southern ditch of the north-western part of the cursus (Abrams 2010). Excavation revealed an earlier cursus ditch, 0.98m deep and 1.7m wide, which had partially silted up before it was cut by a later ditch measuring 0.42m to 0.78m deep and 1.10m wide. A 0.45m thick stony deposit on the north side of the earlier ditch was felt to be remnants of a possible internal bank. The excavators felt that the earlier ditch had silted up potentially over a considerable time. The upper fills in the later ditch were considered probably to be the result of weathering and infilling over a considerable timespan rather than the monument having been deliberately backfilled. This strongly suggests more than one stage in the development of the monument and its long use, although it is unclear over how long a period this occurred.

Airborne laser scanning data (lidar) shows that the south-east terminal of the cursus is partly crossed by a medieval or post-medieval headland bank that stretches north-south for almost 900m. This pre-dates the 1838 Biggleswade Tithe map and probably relates to a former open field system. The buried remains of four ring-ditches revealed as cropmarks are clustered at the south-east end of the cursus. Another cropmark of a ring ditch is situated just to the south. It is likely that these are the remains of later Neolithic and/or Early Bronze Age round barrows although none have evidence of a central mound. The largest ring-ditch, and closest to the cursus terminal, measures 30m across. Within this there is a possible part ring-ditch measuring 10m across. This may indicate this barrow had a more complex form and/or multiple phases. The other three ring-ditches, and the southernmost, each measure 20m across. This is a typical size compared to barrows found elsewhere in Bedfordshire. Although no traces of central mounds were recorded from the air, the base of the mounds may survive below the plough soil, as found at some excavated examples elsewhere in Bedfordshire. It is possible that there are further funerary remains, possibly flat graves, or other small features not visible from the air, near the south-east cursus terminal. This may also have been the case at the other end of the cursus. EXTENT OF SCHEDULING

The area of protection includes the site of the cursus monument and five ring ditches. Any post and wire fences, wooden fences or modern tracks and surfaces are excluded from the scheduling although the ground beneath them is included.

Nationally important archaeological remains may lie outside the protected area.

Sources

Other
Abrams, Joe 2010 ‘Aspects of a prehistoric landscape in the Ivel Valley, north of Biggleswade’. Bedfordshire Archaeology 26 41-54
Albion Archaeology 2004 Land at Biggleswade Sewage Treatment Works, Biggleswade, Bedfordshire Archaeological Field Evaluation. Unpublished Document 2004/57 Project BSW997 (source Bedfordshire Historic Environment Record)
Last, Jonathan 1999 ‘Out of line: cursuses and monument typology in eastern England’ in Pathways and Ceremonies, The cursus monuments of Britain and Ireland. Neolithic Studies Group Seminar Papers 4 Oxford: Oxbow
Loveday Roy 2006 Inscribed across the landscape, The Cursus Enigma Stroud: Tempus
Loveday Roy 2016 ‘Monuments to mobility? Investigating cursus patterns in southern Britain’ in Moving on in Neolithic Studies: Understanding mobile lives Neolithic Studies Group Seminar Papers 14 Oxford: Oxbow
Malin, Tim 1999 ‘Cursuses and related monuments of the Cambridgshire Ouse in Pathways and Ceremonies, The cursus monuments of Britain and Ireland. Neolithic Studies Group Seminar Papers 4 Oxford: Oxbow

Legal

This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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