The Purpose of the Cursus.

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Plate 1. Bing image showingthe earthworks on Keadeen mountain


Cursus, 1838. [L., f. currere run.] The Latin word for COURSE; occas. used for a. A running ground or drive; b. A stated order of daily prayer. (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1973)

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Plate 2. Image from the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, 2005 imagery.


Over the past six or seven years, the range and quality of aerial imagery available has increased exponentially. Prior to the release of Google Earth and Bing, aerial archaeology searches were carried out by accessing aerial images from various state and institutional collections (see Lambrick, 2008). Access to these collections was not always widely available. Arguably, the net effect was that such views of the Irish landscape were the sole preserve of professionals, academics and ardent amateurs. The situation changed dramatically in 2005 when both Google Earth and Bing Maps were released as free applications. Coupled with vastly improved internet connections, access to high quality aerial imagery was now widely, and instantly available and it could be accessed from the comfort of the viewer’s own home. Interested amateurs and professionals alike could now patrol vast areas and detect archaeology – much of which had not been recorded. Irish aerial archaeology is in a particularly rich position in this regard. If a likely site is detected, it can be compared in a moment with the existing online database hosted by the National Monuments Service. Their outstanding GIS (Geographical Information System) service is unparalleled in these islands. Not only does the system record the precise location of each and every known monument, it also allows the user to toggle between views of aerial photography and historic mapping. With a little time and practice, users can become quite proficient in the use of both the National Monuments and Ordnance Survey GIS services and by using these as tools to cross reference potential finds, new sites can be identified or eliminated. However, the resolution falls somewhat short of that on offer from the more recent sources: see plates 1 and 2 for comparison.

The range, quality and depth of information available to the Irish landscape archaeologist is now simply staggering. And quite a few enthusiastic amateurs have taken to using the resources with a fair degree of success (see The image shown in Plate 1 was mentioned in the forum, briefly discussed and largely forgotten about until that is, Christiaan Corlett asked if this writer would be interested in visiting the site.

The journey to Keadeen should have taken no more than half an hour or so, but this part of the world plays strange tricks on the natural compass. Some one and a half hours late, I arrived at the agreed meeting place.

Plate 3. Christiaan Corlett recording the drystone shelter. Photo by Ivor Kenny.

Up and over the southern flank of Keadeen and halfway down again to visit a curious built stone structure (Plate 3). This turned out to be a probable shepherd’s hut, of unknown date though possibly modern. It is just about large enough to hold one grown man. Protection from the elements is scarce on this mountainside and no doubt constructing this shelter would have repaid the effort many times over.

This was very definitely a mission. A few snaps of the shepherd’s hut, a little scout around and we were off again – straight up the mountain. We rounded the summit into the teeth of a blistering gale – the value of the shelter immediately became obvious. When my eyes stopped watering, the unfolding panorama took my breath away.

Laid out below Keadeen is an intriguing prehistoric landscape. To the west and a little to the north, are the hillfort complexes of Spinan’s hill (RMP/SMR no. W1027 – 078002) and Brusselstown  (W1027 – 018). South of the hillforts, is the site known locally as the Griddle Stones or Boleycarrigeen stone circle (SMR W1027 – 039). On the summit itself, a well preserved cairn almost certainly contains at least one passage grave (Herity, 1974. SMR W1027 – 044). Immediately below, is a large enclosure containing hut sites and a standing stone (Corlett, 2004. W1027 – 043007).

Between the uppermost structure (the cairn) and the enclosure, we have an enigmatic and perhaps misunderstood class of prehistoric monument – the cursus. The first thing to strike the observer standing on the verge of the upper section of the cursus, is that this is constructed on very steep ground with an estimated run/rise ratio of 1:4 or 45º. There is little that encourages the visitor to descend between the banks but this is the only apparent pointer to a directed descent/ascent; there are no obvious zig-zag paths to soften either the approach. The area defined by the two banks is just under 300m long, 35m wide and runs in an east-northeast/west-southwesterly direction. The banks are now covered in heather and turf but were almost certainly constructed with loose stone gathered from the slopes of the mountainside.

Plate 4. The view to the west from the cairn. Brusselstown ring in the centre and Spinan’s hill beyond. Photo by Ivor Kenny.
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Plate 5. An arbitrary way of looking at the monumental landscape and an equally arbitrary selection of the monuments.
Image taken from the National Monuments website

With a little artistic license, the cursus and the cairn can be seen to form a vertex of an equilateral triangle transposed onto the major monuments (Plate 5.). This tells us little about the function of the cursus of course, but it may assist perception of possible relationships in the landscape below.  Which brings us to the question of the relationship of the upper monuments with the landscape below.

The most intuitive way to relate one monument or prehistoric feature to another, is probably through an analysis of their alignment. The Keadeen cursus is oriented on an east northeast – west southwest axis. The tallest stones of Boleycarrigeen stone circle stand at the north-northeastern sector of the circle. A sightline from the possible entrance through the tallest stones, results in a wild miss (Plate 6.). Tentatively, we can say the stone circle does not appear to relate to the cursus or cairn. The large enclosure below holds a standing stone (W1027-043002) and this appears to be approximately in line with the axis of the cursus. Indeed the cursus may well ‘aim’ at the northern half of the enclosure. Is this enough to say that the enclosure relates to the cursus? Perhaps, perhaps not.

All we can say at this point, is that there does not appear to be good grounds for the cursus relating to known monuments below, in terms of physical alignment alone. Contemporary builders were perfectly capable of constructing monuments dedicated to celestial events, so we should expect that these builders were perfectly capable of aligning relatively close earthworks with each other. The cursus certainly seems not to relate to the tallest stones in Boleycarrigeen, so we can reasonably assume that the cursus does not align with nearby monuments.

It is possible that the cursus aligns with some celestial event, independently of the landscape at its feet. Perhaps this earthwork was constructed to point to some not yet known event but it is a certainty that the sun did not feature. Here we enter the hazy realm of ritual and procession. We need to consider the cursus from the point of view of a punishing procession: perhaps a more severe form of pilgrimage than today’s Lough Derg or Croagh Patrick. One feature of the cursus casts significant doubt on the ritualistic theory. The lowest end or terminus, is a cul-de-sac. A rough scree barrier effectively blocks passage between the two banks. Clearly, who or whatever was meant to move between these banks was meant to stop at the lowest end, or start. They were not meant to pass through. That would be a peculiar sort of pilgrimage.

One of the more striking features to note is the relationship of the cairn to the banks of the cursus. Two observations are worth mentioning: firstly, the cairn is not centred on the open (upper) end of the cursus and secondly, the height and width of the banks diminishes on approach to the cairn. It might be reasonable to conclude that the cursus predates the cairn and that the latter may have borrowed stone from the banks for its construction. Indeed the process continues with a recent isolated dry stone wall across the cairn. We cannot as yet, say with any certainty that the upper end was not enclosed and close scrutiny of plate 2 hints that there may have been an upper terminus. If the earthwork was constructed with the upper end left open, we can reasonably assume that this was the entrance.

Plate 6. View towards the cursus. A bearing taken through the largest stones points toward a dip on the mountain’s shoulder rather than the cursus. Photo by Ivor Kenny.
Plate 7. Telephoto view of the cursus. The terminal wall is difficult to discern from this angle. Photo by Ivor Kenny.

Which brings us on to the question of an alternative purpose.

If we discard the ritual option for a moment, we need to start thinking about a practical function.

If, and this is as yet uncertain, the cursus was not constructed for ritualistic purposes; what other purpose might it have had? To answer this we need to see the mountain as a provider of resources. Constructing this massive earthwork must have taken a significant amount of organisation and commitment. This flank of the mountain slopes at least to forty degrees, maybe more. It is covered in ankle twisting scree and hidden cavities. and rises to a height of 635m. Just getting to the summit is hard work, working there all day in all weathers must have been tough. There needs to have been a substantial reward to justify the work.

And what sort of mighty ritual would have justified this work? Or was ritual its purpose at all?

Resources are scant on any mountain top. Heather, a light covering of turf, broken stone, grouse (if the heather is managed) little else – except visiting deer and the occasional hare. Deer are probably the only resource which would repay such a significant expenditure of energy.

In Scotland today, deer are hunted with high powered rifles capable of killing a stag instantaneously at ranges of three to five hundred metres. Even at those distances, hunters need stealth and guile and their position for the shot is always determined by the wind. In antiquity, we might be looking at an effective killing range of eight to ten metres, probably less. It would take a great deal of luck and skill to achieve this sort of killing range in a landscape devoid of cover. When a deer is hunted, the kill needs to be certain.  If the animal is wounded, it will run and continue running until it dies. Recovery of the carcass if at all possible, might not be worth the risk or expenditure of energy. So our prehistoric deer hunters needed to get very close indeed and to achieve this on a barren landscape, they needed to be clever.

Might the cursus have been the solution to deer hunting on such a vast expanse of open ground? It is conceivable that an annual hunt might have taken place in these highlands. Perhaps to feed the inhabitants of the hillforts below. Scores of people would have been involved.  There needed to be outlying runners to chase the animals towards the mountain top and scores more to direct them towards the killing ground. Finally, the animals would have been forced down the sheer slopes within the cursus, running in a blind panic over the wicked rocks. Many undoubtedly shattered and twisted their legs before reaching the terminus, where all sorts of weapons were assembled for the final act. Perhaps the banks of the cursus too were lined with people armed to despatch stragglers.

The question of alignment revisited.

The evaluation of the alignment possibilities between the stone circle at Boleycarrigeen and the cursus was not given the attention it deserved. Both myself and Christiaan had an inkling that there probably was some connection between the two but it was at the end of a long day, we were hungry and tired and probably not as sharp as we could have been.

The extent of our informal evaluation was a brief aim through the taller stones of the circle  towards Keadeen’s summit and that was a wholly inadequate way of looking at the question of an interrelationship between the stone circle and the cursus.

It was, however, perfectly clear that such a sightline could not relate to a solar event. So what of a lunar event? Could a lunar event have been visible from the stone circle and might that event have been framed by the mountain and defined by the cursus?

The line drawn on the image below shows projected moonrise on Keadeen on the 21st of December 2013 – the winter solstice, and how it will be visible from the stone circle. While the projection does not parallel the axis of the cursus exactly, the proximity to the highest point of the structure is striking.

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Plate 8. Data provided by The Photographer’s superimposed on an image from Bing. (Click for a larger image)

So, summing up the question of lunar alignment between Boleycarrigeen stone circle and the cursus we can state this much: a sightline taken through the tallest stones of the stone circle towards moonrise on the winter solstice projects a line that is at roughly the same angle as the cursus. Perhaps more importantly, the point at which the moon will rise during the 2013 winter solstice is almost exactly at the highest point of the cursus.

Are these observations enough to state that the cursus was constructed to etch the path of a significant event onto the flanks of Keadeen? Were the lengthening days celebrated when the moon rose above the cursus?

Perhaps, perhaps not. Keadeen is a tall mountain and its bulk would have obscured the moment the moon lifted above the horizon. This raises further questions.

Entertaining the idea that the cursus did indeed mark this important moonrise, the moon itself would not be visible until it rose above Keadeen. It would have emerged further south – how much further, we’ll leave to the astronomers. We’ll need to look at other possible alignments too to test the hypothesis that the place where the moon became visible was somehow noted.

If it could be confirmed that the builders of these monuments knew where the moon would rise without visible confirmation, that would be rich food for the imagination. We would have to imagine a gathering in darkness with the significant moment being a celebration of darkness.

References and links

Corlett, C., 2004.  A prehistoric enclosure at Keadeen, Co. Wicklow. Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries Ireland. Vol. 134. pp. 80 –

Herity, M., 1974.  Irish Passage Graves: Neolithic tomb builders in Ireland and Britain 2500 B.C., Dublin, Irish University Press.

Lambrick, G., 2008.  Air and Earth, Aerial Archaeology in Ireland – A Review for the Heritage Council. Dublin, The Heritage Council.


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