THE ASTON CURSUS AS A LEY - Chris Fletcher
In Lines on the Landscape Paul Devereux had cogently shown that many cursuses - Neolithic earthen avenues - show a linear linking, usually straight, of ancient sites. He achieved this by geographically extending the axes of 25 cursuses, of which some 16 (64 percent) showed extended axial relationships with other prehistoric monuments, ecclesiastical sites, or both. An impressive figure when you consider that most cursuses occur near river and gravel soils where a combination of gravel extraction pits and buildings have destroyed many additional (perhaps related ) sites.
One of the cursuses in Devereux's study which has no obersveable extended axial characteristics, Aston upon Trent (SK 424296), was in my own locality and warranted further study, for as Devereux had maintained, his initial survey had been a preliminary one with limited resources. Firstly I wanted to know more about cursuses from orthodox archaeology; this proved difficult as unlike henges 2 - a type of monument often associated with cursuses - there was no definitive work on the subject. However, rather fortuitously, I was put in contact with Roy Loveday of Leicester University who had not only completed a doctoral thesis on cursuses, but had also written a paper on the Aston Cursus3. He kindly sent me a copy of his Aston paper and a brief view of cursuses in which he maintained that because of their size and layout the sites must be considered "ritual".
The Aston cursus lies on the gravels of the Trent Valley, one km NW of the present course of the river and some 8 km SE of Derby (Fig. 1) It funs for 1.56km from the east of the village of Aston, crossing the parish boundary into Weston-on-Trent. Like most cursuses, it shows up only as crop marking on aerial photography, which reveals a SW terminal to the site. Though its east terminal is unlocated, it is likely to have lain in the area of a modern gravel quarry near to a ring ditch and hengiform site destroyed by gravel extraction.
Looking at the site diagram (Fig.2) one can see that a number of ring ditches within the cursus appear to be aligned. Indeed, archaeologist Gibson and Loveday make the observation that "the cursus monument's concomitant ring ditches were most unusually contained almost exclusively within its interior in a spatially deliberate manner".3. Here we have it; six aligned ring ditches within a cursus - a seven-point ley! Moreover, the cursus ditch appears to be aligned upon and intersect a ring ditch and to continue towards the cursus terminal in a wider, more ragged form. It was this apparent "respect" for the ring ditch indicated by the "horizontal stratigraphy" (a nice euphemism for geomancy) that brought in a team from Leicester University's Department of Archaeology for a small scale excavation in September, 1986. Their primary objective being to record "stratigraphical" relationship between the two monuments, the cursus and the ring ditch, at their point of intersection.
The subsequent excavation confirmed the alignment and intersection, and is best summarised with a probable phased history of the site which, to precis Gibson and Loveday runs:
Phase 1: The ring ditch was indeed the primary feature. It is possible that the ring ditch was moundless, but in view of the later alignment of the cursus it is likely that there was a slight mound in the interior of the area well removed from the ditch edge.
Phase 2: Represents the silting of the ring ditch without recut.Phase3: This saw the alignment of the northern ditch of the cursus over an established distance of 1550 metres on and around the outer chord of the ring ditch. As no socket for a major sighting device was observed it seems reasonable to suppose that the determinant was the low slope of a mound which obscured the area further west. It seems that this internal feature was being respected and perhaps refurbished.
Phase4: The destruction of the putative barrrow probably did not occur until the medieval period. (It is interesting to note that adjacent field boundaries of Iron Age or Romano-British date appear to show a geomantic respect for the ring ditch and cursus.)
Now for a spot of speculation. Could the punative mound of the ring ditch to which the cursus was aligned have had a burial structure on it? There are examples of burial platforms of Neolithic round barrows in Yorkshire which possessed no earthfast timers. As a mortuary site this would fit in with Devereux's "spirit way" hypothesis (Chapter 6, Lines on the Landscape).
Visiting the Aston site one is reminded of Nigel Pennick's phrase, "the desacrilised cosmos" as one looks over to Castle Donnington power station nearby. It is hard to picture that this was a monument of some importance. For bringing it to the archaeologists' attention we have to thank aerial archaeological photography which has uncovered a rich heritage of "ritual focus" sites which also provides the Earth Mysteries researcher with a key to open the door of hidden geomancy.
1. LINES ON THE LANDSCAPE Leys and other linear enigmas, Nigel Pennick and Paul Devereux; Hale, 1989
2. HENGE MONUMENTS Ceremony and society in pre-historic Britain, G. Wainwright; Thames & Hudson, 1989
3. MIDLANDS PREHISTORY Some recent and current researches into the prehistory of central England, Alec Gibson (ED.); BAR British Series 204 1989, ISBN 086054 611 X.
At 52 53 11.42N 01 20 40.75W,
across a loop in R. Derwent near to Church Wilne, there is a line visible in the satellite image which aligns with the Aston Cursus.
Added 29/04/2014. E.Sargeant