Ancient sites used in rites of passage

Archaeologists say earthworks were processional routes, writes STEPHEN STEWART

COLOSSAL 6000-year-old earthworks across Scotland have puzzled experts for centuries, but new research has revealed that the structures were used in mystical rites of passage rituals.

Antiquaries thought the cursuses, enigmatic neolithic enclosures, were simply race tracks but archaeologists Peter Topping and David McOmish now believe the sites were processional routes used by young men to symbolically mark their path to adulthood.

The Scottish countryside is littered with more than 50 of the huge enclosures but few have been properly excavated, leaving question marks over internal features, artefacts and dating features.

Both the Scottish Royal Commission and English Heritage now have embarked on separate projects to catalogue and explain the mysterious monuments.

Peter Topping, operations manager at English Heritage's archaeology department, said: "There are a number of very interesting cursuses all over Scotland such as Holywood in Dumfries and Galloway. They usually consist of a long rectangular enclosure made up of a series of ditches and banks.

"The structure creates a long avenue which is where they got the idea that it was a race track. Some of them are linked to early monuments such as burial mounds and some seem to be focused on high points of local topography.

"Some sites have been built with celestial alignment in mind and many cursuses are associated with waterways and may be linked to some sort of water cult."

Recent work on cursuses promotes the hypothesis that they may have been used as a type of processional route to act as proving grounds for young men among neolithic tribes.

The tracks would have acted as assault courses for adolescents, with finds such as arrowheads suggesting that hunting or archery may have been part of the test.

Good ethnographic evidence already exists for similar rites of passage events elsewhere in the world.

Mr Topping said: "A lot of work remains to be done as so few of the structures have been fully excavated. One big problem is to understand what the environment was like when they were built.

"There is very little evidence for the monuments serving any real functional purpose such as cooking but they were definitely considered as very special sites.

Cleaven Dyke, Scotland's longest cursus, is one-and-a-half miles long and can still be seen as a large earthwork located in woodland in Perth and Kinross.

Dr Gordon Barclay, attached to the department of environmental science at Stirling University, has worked on the massive site. "Some cursuses were built on the edge of settled land and may have acted as a barrier between domesticated and wild land," he said,

"They were certainly religious sites and didn't serve any practical purpose but involved a lot of time and effort. Cleaven Dyke was built in segments and each year or so a bit more was added. It was about bringing people together. It is only in retrospect that we view it as a finished monument."

- March 28th


Stone Circle reveals ancient secrets of rising and setting sun

Published on:  March 27, 2003


THE archaeologists at Biggar Museum have been trailblazing yet again with the ancient history of Lanarkshire.

Last weekend saw the culmination of a completed bastle house excavation, the consolidation of one which was excavated several years ago.

And, to cap all that off, they have just witnessed an event last recorded some 4000 years ago!

Tam Ward, of the museum, explained: “Our Clydesdale bastle house project has been going since 1981.

“Since that time, we have discovered the remains on nine of these defensive farmhouses in Lanarkshire and which date to around 1600. They were built by tenant farmers to protect their families and their new found wealth through their flocks of sheep and herds of cattle, against the infamous Border Reivers.

“These houses, with walls one metre thick, were the most substantial rural houses of their day and were as much a statement of their occupants wealth and self importance, as they were to defend them.

“The walls of Wintercleuch bastle have been re-pointed with lime mortar, exactly the same as the original. This will protect the remains against the hostile weather of the Daer Valley where it lies.”

Tam continued: “Across the valley, the latest excavation has revealed Smithwood bastle house with walls surviving to around three metres high.

“As with most of these sites, Smithwood was abandoned in the mid-18th century, leaving a time capsule for our archaeology team to unravel.

“We found fantastic evidence of the last occupants, around the time of the first Jacobite rebellion in 1715. Dozens of broken pots, jugs, plates and even tea cups of decorated Delft and Staffordshire pottery were salvaged by the diggers. Perhaps more surprisingly, were the equally high numbers of broken wine bottles, one even had the original cork in the neck !

“The remains of Smithwood, lying beside the Southern Uplands Way, will also be repaired, and we hope to install a panel explaining the site to passing hill walkers.

“However, the biggest excitement was when the sunrise and sunset of the spring equinox was witnessed and filmed at the Wildshaw Burn Stone Circle, near Crawfordjohn,” added Tam.

“This major megalithic monument was built at the beginning of the Bronze Age between 4000 and 4500 years ago, and has slowly been giving up some of its secrets over the last 13 years since its discovery by the local time team archae-ologists. They now know that the builders of the circle could have worked out the longest and shortest days of the year by watching the rising and setting sun make alignments over pairs of stones in the circle.

“Now, after a very long and patient wait, we know that the ancient people could also work out the equinoxes, the mid point in time between the winter and summer solstices.

“We were not surprised to see the sun make perfect alignments over the stones, but even more spectacular was the sun setting beside the summit of Auchensauch Hill where there is a pre-historic burial cairn.

“We believe these alignments can never be described as co-incidence, but are a testament to the knowledge and skill of our Bronze Age ancestors.”

Said Tam: “This year will certainly be another one of major discovery for us as we have an exciting programme of work ahead. This will include a Bronze Age cemetery and hunter gather camps dating to over 6000 years ago.”



By Staff Reporter

Published in The Hexham Courant on 28/03/2003

YOU carried a story about known facts of the Roman bridge at Corbridge (Courant, March 14).

Your source has omitted much recent information provided by The Northern Archaeology Group of County Durham.

Part of the southern abutment of the Roman bridge still exists opposite the mouth of the Cor Burn. There were five piers spanning the River Tyne and the bases of four of these can be seen on the riverbed.

The central one is completely missing. Much of the Roman stone was robbed about 100 years ago to build the watermill at Dilston.

Recently a Roman dam has been found by archaeological divers of the Northern Archaeology Group, 50m upstream from the remains of the Roman bridge.

The remains of the Roman dam form a solid structure right across the river and the large stones contain lewis holes for the lifting by Roman cranes and opus revinctum holes for the locking of stones together with iron cramps. Roman artefacts have been recovered from the dam structure.

In the vicinity of the dam, on the north side of the river, a map by Fryer of 1779, shows the expected by-pass canal of the Roman dam.

Also 50m downstream from the Roman bridge is the so-called Saxon watermill. This has been inspected by divers, and Roman pottery and artefacts have been recovered. The structure is a Roman jetty.

On the bed of the river a twisted plank is of Roman oak and is very close to much iron pyrites (fools' gold). The Romans used iron pyrites in the manufacture of sulphuric acid and it seems that the pieces of this substance had been spilled overboard from Roman barges during their unloading.

Geologists inform us that the nearest known location of iron pyrites is up the South Tyne, near Whitley Castle.

South of the Roman bridge, a Roman road was observed by Foster in the 19th Century. The road went from Corbridge to Hexham.


Education officer and archaeologist,

St Cuthbert Avenue,