Complete Neolithic cursus discovered on Isle of Arran

06 September 2023
Excavations through the cursus bank at Drumadoon
A leading team of researchers have discovered what is believed to be a complete Neolithic cursus set within a rich prehistoric landscape. 

This monument type is amongst the first that was built by farmers in Neolithic Britain and is huge - measuring 1.1km long and 50 metres wide. 

A cursus is a Neolithic structure made up of vast rectangular enclosures. The cursus on Arran is defined by a large stone, earth and turf bank running around the entire perimeter of the enclosure. Constructing this monument would have involved staggering amounts of labour, transforming the entire local landscape.

A rare find

This monument type could date to perhaps as early as 3500 BC, researchers say. It is the most complete example of this site type found in Britain and the opportunity to investigate a cursus bank is very rare. 

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Prehistoric field boundaries, clearance cairns and round houses, at least some of which may be contemporary with the monument, have also found in the same landscape, all preserved within peatland, sealing the archaeological layers. Ancient soils representing the original Neolithic land surface, together with cultivated soils from the Bronze age period, provide an unparalleled opportunity to understand how contemporary farming practice and settlement interacted with the cursus monument and how early farmers transformed this place. 

Dr Sam Hudson, University of Southampton, taking sedaDNA samples. Photo: Nicki Whitehouse

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The combination of investigating all these elements together is highly usual. The inter-disciplinary team from the Universities of Glasgow, Birkbeck, Bournemouth, Reading, Coventry, Birmingham, and Southampton as well as archaeologists from Archaeology Scotland and Historic Environment of Scotland, are using archaeological prospection, excavation and geoarchaeology, coupled with cutting-edge environmental scientific techniques, including ancient DNA, to understand how this unique landscape was constructed and used. 

This research will provide invaluable information about landscape history and past ecosystems that will feed into the Rewilding strategy currently being put together by landowner David Bennett and the Northwoods Rewilding Network and wider work by Arran Geopark. The team also supported participation by members of the local community in the research process and are exploring future learning and creative opportunities responding to the investigations. Artists from the region were supported by North Ayrshire Council and Arran Theatre and Arts Trust to explore the excavation.

Early Neolithic research possibilities

Dr Kenny Brophy, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Glasgow, who co-directed excavations at the cursus said: “I have been fortunate to be involved in the excavations of several cursus monuments over the last 30 years, but this is by far the most significant. The survival of the monument means that the potential it has for shedding light on early Neolithic farming and social organisation is incredibly exciting. These sites are almost all ploughed flat so to be able to stand on near intact cursus bank is very rare.”

Professor Nicki Whitehouse, Professor of Archaeological Science, University of Glasgow, who led the landscape prospection, geoarchaeology and environmental science work said: “The initial discoveries reveal a highly unusual combination of a ceremonial monument within a prehistoric farming landscape. It is part of a continuum that likely linked to the ritual site at Machrie Moor, probably forming part of something much more extensive. The science work will allow us to understand about the animals and plants people farmed, how people impacted the landscape and its ecosystems and transformed their soils for cultivation – and what we may learn from this today.”

Geoarchaeology being undertaken at Drumadoon

Dr Gavin MacGregor, Director of Archaeology Scotland, added: “There has been huge interest on Isle of Arran about the recent exciting discoveries, local volunteers helped on the dig and artists joined us who were all really inspired by the stories of this ancient site and its changing landscape which the scientific work is beginning to reveal. There is great potential for supporting more archaeological learning and storytelling with the community in future investigations.” 

(Report courtesy University of Glasgow)