In August this year, within the rugged southwest of Scotland’s Isle of Arran, researchers began excavating an ancient ceremonial monument dating back to between 4000 and 3000 BC. With its original purpose shrouded in mystery, the ancient Neolithic cursus whispers of the forgotten rites and cultural traditions of Scotland’s first farmers.
The remarkably well-preserved Arran cursus measures approximately 1.1 kilometers [0.69 miles] in length. The sacred monument is located at Drumadoon, near the Neolithic stone circles at Machrie Moor.
Steeped in folklore and archaeological artifacts, Neolithic cursuses across the UK remain a mysterious facet of ancient history. However, it has long been believed that these cursuses held substantial ceremonial significance for Neolithic farming societies . Sprawling across farmland, Neolithic cursuses are most often found leading to megalithic structures , like for example at Stonehenge and Avebury in England, where ritual offerings have been discovered.
On Monday I head over to Arran with many amazing colleagues & a team of students to resume excavation of Drumadoon cursus, the most complete Neolithic cursus in the UK. Watch out of updates via #Drumadoon2023 & a blog launching next week. #ScotlandDigs2023 pic.twitter.com/ztOcLHaUTr
— Kenny Brophy (@urbanprehisto) August 4, 2023
Digging into the Neolithic Cursus: “A Highly Unusual Combination”
Dr. Kenny Brophy is a senior lecturer in archaeology at Glasgow University and specialist in Neolithic cursuses. Brophey told The National that the Neolithic cursus discovered on the Isle of Arran “was strategically located.” He said it was deliberately oriented to channel people approaching standing stones of Machrie Moor, from the coast.
An article in The Guardian says Dr. Nicki Whitehouse, professor of archaeological science at Glasgow University, said the site was initially discovered over half a decade ago. At that time, archaeologists revealed “a highly unusual combination of ceremonial alongside farming landscape.”
The Arran cursus was first discovered by Historic Environment Scotland, who conducted a LiDAR laser survey in 2018.
Excavation of the eastern bank of the Drumadoon cursus in summer 2021. ( University of Glasgow )
Neolithic Cursus on Isle of Arran Was Phenomenal Social Glue
Dr. Brophy said that so far, around “1% of the cursus bank has so far been excavated.” He explained that the Neolithic people who shaped the monument, “used only sticks and bone tools” and that constructing the Neolithic curses “involved a crazy amount of labor.”
Dr. Brophy speculated that perhaps the monument was constructed over decades, by small local groups. The Neolithic cursus could also have been created “by visiting teams of workers as part of a pilgrimage,” similarly to the act of building a cathedral in the medieval period, where the act of building in stone was deemed as working in the service of god.
Brophy said that the building project was likely based on a religious or political leader’s vision and that it would have bound people together. He concluded that the act of building the Neolithic cursus “must have been a phenomenal social glue.”
— Kenny Brophy (@urbanprehisto) August 11, 2023
Excavating the Sacred Path: Arran’s Neolithic Cursus
The climate on the Scottish Isle of Arran is influenced by its coastal location in the North Atlantic Ocean. It experiences a temperate maritime climate, characterized by mild temperatures and high levels of precipitation throughout the year. Arran is known for its lush, green landscapes due to the frequent rainfall, and the island’s varied topography creates microclimates, with the east coast often drier than the west.
What this means is that many of the island’s Neolithic monuments have been well-preserved. Because the Arran Neolithic cursus is located upland, it has avoided 5,000-years of intrusive farming, meaning the monument was well-preserved.
Dr. Nicki Whitehouse said the Neolithic cursus is “part of a continuum that likely linked to the ritual site at Machrie Moor.” This suggests the entire Drumadoon landscape is probably “much more extensive,” added Whitehouse.
Situated in the southern part of the Isle of Arran, the Drumadoon Neolithic landscape is a remote Neolithic treasure trove boasting a spectacular array of megalithic structures dating back over 5,000 years. Stone circles, standing stones and burial cairns, speak of the Neolithic people’s deep reverence for the land, their advanced architectural skills, spiritual ceremonies and celestial observations.
Top image: The Neolithic cursus has been uncovered leading to the Isle of Arran’s complex of stone monuments, including the Machrie Moor standing stones. Source: dropStock / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie