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A Google Earth image showing the Fornham All Saints Cursus in East Anglia, England
Mariam Ghaemi, writing for EADT24, reports that –
Prominent archaeologists and historians have called for a “major excavation” of a development site which sits in a landscape of potentially “international significance”.
These specialists have signed an open letter which is published in the EADT today concerning land on the edge of Bury St Edmunds, near Fornham All Saints, where building work for about 900 homes could begin in May. Concerns are over the proximity of the site to the Fornham All Saints cursus – a Neolithic processional way 1.2 miles long and a Scheduled Ancient Monument which has been dubbed as potentially “significant as Stonehenge”. The open letter says the cursus sits amid a landscape of high-level archaeological activity, “potentially of international significance”. It raises questions over the archaeological investigations at the development site, which Dr Tom Licence, director of the Centre of East Anglian Studies at the University of East Anglia, said the cursus may actually extend into.
A guest feature by Littlestone.
William Stukeley’s 1758 plan of Caesaromagus (present day Chelmsford) in the Bodleian Library, Oxford
After twelve years in Lancashire, eight in Wiltshire and thirteen in Japan, I finally ended up in the old English market town of Chelmsford (Essex, south-east England). That was thirty two years ago next month. Chelmsford is some forty miles from London and so was well within commuting distance of my new job in the capital. Houses in the town were affordable, schools for the kids looked good and that, basically, was all I knew about the place – other than the welcome signs as you entered the town which proudly (though somewhat inaccurately) claimed Chelmsford as ‘The Birthplace of Radio’ (the Marconi connection). All, that is, until I heard of an archaeological excavation undertaken by the British Museum back in the early 80s. The excavation was of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Springfield Lyons on a derelict piece of land just down the road from where I then lived. Sadly, after the BM’s excavation, the site was again abandoned and is now rapidly disappearing under a new business park.
The derelict site of the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Springfield Lyons, Chelmsford before being developed into a business park
Little by little though I learnt that Chelmsford had a bit more of a history to it than just an Anglo-Saxon cemetery. The area had been occupied from Neolithic times and once boasted an impressive prehistoric cursus (the Springfield, or Chelmer, Cursus ) with a wooden circle at one end (now both sadly buried under a supermarket and modern housing development).
But here’s the interesting bit; two thousand years ago Chelmsford was (and still is) situated midway between Colchester and London – both important Roman towns. Perhaps that’s why it somehow earned the distinguished Roman place-name of Caesaromagus (Caesar’s Marketplace). Why it should have been called Caesaromagus is something of a mystery as it was, “…a great honour for a town to have the imperial prefix incorporated in its name, and no other town in Britain was so honoured…”* Although Caesaromagus is mentioned on a 3rd century Roman map (the Antonine Itinerary) its exact location puzzled scholars for centuries. It wasn’t until 1758 when William Stukeley (of Avebury and Stonehenge fame) correctly identified Chelmsford as the Roman town of Caesaromagus. Stukeley even drew a plan (top) of what he thought the town looked like; although the plan is purely fictions and Stukeley has incorrectly placed it on the north side of Chelmsford’s River Can and not on the south side where excavations show it was actually sited.
Artist’s impression of Caesaromagus’ 4th century octagonal Romano-Celtic temple Chelmsford Archaeological Trust
Sometime around 325ce however an impressive, octagonal stone temple (above) was constructed in Caesaromagus for the worship of a Romano-Celtic deity (or deities). The temple stood on what is now the Baddow Road roundabout, close to where the Roman town was then situated. Similar temples, of the same date and plan, have been found in London and on the continent; perhaps the most famous of which is Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel at Aachen in Germany. The Aachen Cathedral, which now envelopes the octagonal Palatine Chapel, is the oldest cathedral in northern Europe. Constructed by Charlemagne around 796 it has seen the coronations of thirty German kings and twelve queens.
What is interesting, and what has recently been reported by Christopher Howse in the Daily Telegraph, is that Caesaromagus’ octagonal stone temple, “…was behind the design of the third most influential ecclesiastical structure in the history of the Latin Church, after St Peter’s Rome and the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. In third place came Charlemagne’s palace church at Aachen. The Roman tradition that it was built in is represented by a temple from AD 325 unearthed in Chelmsford in 1970.” Howse goes on to say, “As an exemplar of the Roman tradition embraced by Charlemagne, Chelmsford is invoked by Professor Eric Fernie, the former director of the Courtauld, in his splendid new volume Romanesque Architecture, an addition to the Pelican History of Art published by Yale.”
So, from what I thought was little more than a convenient place to commute from, Chelmsford turned out to be a place of unassuming mystery, not to mention one with a long and intricate history. A timeline that begins in the Neolithic with a cursus and wooden circle, through the Roman period giving rise to a well-organised little town boasting an octagonal temple of impressive stone construction. Then on through the medieval to the more recent past and the ‘Birthplace of Radio’. And, lest it be forgotten, Chelmsford was the first place anywhere in the world to employ electric street lighting 🙂 Oh, and I almost forgot, it was from Chelmsford that the Quaker, William Penn, left England in 1682 to establish the Province of Pennsylvania in North America, and it was from Penn’s endeavours that the city of Philadelphia was later planned and developed.
No small accomplishment for a little marketplace on the fringes of the once great Roman Empire. That’s not quite the end of the story though. I mentioned at the beginning of this feature that I’d lived for thirteen years in Japan. A lot of my spare time was spent visiting Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Japan boasts what is probably the oldest wooden building in the world – the Hōryū-ji (法隆寺) temple built in 607ce in Nara Prefecture, western Japan. Within the Hōryū-ji compound there’s a small wooden hall known as the Yumedono (Hall of Dreams). The Yumedono was built in 739ce to assuage the spirit of Prince Shōtoku (the prince was an Alfred the Great sort of figure who promoted Buddhism in Japan). The Yumedono stands on the site of a slightly earlier building commissioned by Prince Shōtoku himself. There is also, still in existence, a similar but slightly later building at the Eizanji-temple not far from the Yumedono in Nara Prefecture.
The octagonal hall at Eizan-ji temple in Nara Prefecture is thought to date from before 764ce
There are two things about Prince Shōtoku and the Yumedono. The first is that both the Yumedono and the Eizan-ji buildings are octagonal halls. The second is that legend has it that the Prince was born in a stable. The Hall of Dreams was built 414 years after the Romano-Celtic temple in Chelmsford so there would have been plenty of time for the idea for this style of building to reach Japan from the West, along with other goods and ideas via the Silk Road. Indeed, other aspects of temple building in Japan were influence by Greco-Roman styles of architecture and there are countless artefacts of Persian, Greek, Roman and Egyptian origin in the early 8th century Shōsō-in (正倉院) Imperial Repository in Nara (see also the Trust’s feature on Roman jewellery found in 5th century Japanese tomb). It would be fascinating indeed if the inspiration for Prince Shōtoku’s Hall of Dreams had its origins in Roman octagonal temples – perhaps even the one here in Chelmsford.
* Caesaromagus: A History and Description of Roman Chelmsford by Nick Wickenden, Keeper of Archaeology, Chelmsford Museums Service. A Chelmsford Museums Service Publication, 1991.
Full Telegraph article here. And for a light-hearted glimpse into the life and times of Chelmsford during the Roman period see Channel 4’s Chelmsford 123 situation comedy produced by Hat Trick Productions in 1988 and 1990.
The Springfield Cursus
Watercolour by Frank Gardiner
Essex County Council
The 2001 edition of Essex Archaeology and History (published by the Society at the Museum in Colchester Castle) contains over fifteen articles, including one on the Prehistoric settlement and burials at Elms Farm, Heybridge by M Atkinson and S Preston, and the Bronze Age enclosure at Springfield Lyons in its landscape context by Nigel Brown. Brown writes in the latter that –
Another major monument, the Springfield Cursus (Buckley, Hedges and Brown forthcoming) was constructed in the valley below Springfield Lyons. The cursus as revealed by air photographs and extensive excavations prior to development, was a rectilinear enclosure 670m long and 40m wide with squared terminals and apparently aligned on the cropmark large mortuary enclosure. Together these two monuments cut off the neck of a spur of ground just above the Chelmer floodplain and marked by the 20m contour line within a broad loop of the river. The break in slope is not great but may have been significant. Despite the canalisation of the Chelmer in the 18th century and more recent drainage works, the river still floods each winter to the east of Chelmsford in the vicinity of the Cursus. The Springfield Lyons causewayed enclosure would have provided a panoramic view of the monument in the valley below. Today (or rather 20 years ago since the valley is now obscured by housing) the view from Springfield Lyons can often be dramatic in midwinter when the rising sun is reflected from the often frozen floodwater in the valley below. Such a view may have been more spectacular when the Cursus and oval barrow/mortuary enclosure were standing monuments. It seems likely that winter flooding in the Neolithic would have been even more extensive than it is today in which case, in midwinter, the cursus and mortuary enclosure/barrow would have formed a line of monumental earthworks cutting off an area of land surrounded on three sides by water.
The late Bronze Age causewayed enclosure at Springfield Lyons as it appears today
The above photograph shows the late Bronze Age causewayed enclosure at Springfield Lyons as it appears today; the line of sight is towards where the Springfield Cursus was situated some half a mile away. Although the view is now obscured by trees, and the causeway is now surrounded by houses and a retail park, the place still exudes a sense of history and a glimpse into what the area may have looked like, and what it may have meant, to the generations of people who once lived there.