and processional routes are, even in modern times, part and parcel of
religious festivals and events. Tom Condit describes how cursus monuments,
formally laid-out ritual routeways controlling direction and views of
the surrounding visual landscape, indicate that such processions also
took place in the Late Neolithic period in Brú na Bóinne.
'Cursus' is the name applied to monuments, frequently identified as part of prehistoric
ritual complexes, which consist of a pair of parallel banks and ditches
defining a path or a routeway. The ends of cursus monuments are generally
defined by rectilinear or U-shaped terminals Although it is one of the
least visible monuments in the Brú na Bóinne complex the
Newgrange cursus is one of the most exciting remnants of prehistoric
Brú na Bóinne was not just a place for the interment of
the dead is amply demonstrated by the presence of monuments dating to
the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age, such as the henge monuments, the
timber circles and, in particular, the Newgrange cursus. Such monuments
tell us, from their shape and design, that they were used for gatherings.
In many instances archaeological evidence for the nature of the ceremonies
that took place within the sites does not survive. However, the inward-looking
amphitheatre effect of the earthen henges and the circularity of the
timber circles suggest that gatherings and religious events took place
in the interior of these sites.
The cursus is slightly different in
that it marks the route of a ritual procession through the landscape,
revealing discrete sections of the landscape itself and highlighting
monuments and other ritual sites. It would appear that such routes were
designed with all the visual contrivances employed in modern architecture
Newgrange cursus, located c. l00m east of the great passage tomb on
a north-south axis, consists of two parallel banks 20m apart, the southern
end closed off by a U-shaped terminal.
Around l00m of the cursus survives
- perhaps only a fragment of its original extent. There is no doubt
that in its original state it would have been considerably longer. Its
former extent may be fossilised in the orientation of modern field fences
and boundaries on the north.
Where it survives, the cursus is sited
on land sloping upwards on the Newgrange ridge. It would appear that
considerable prehistoric activity took place at this location.
cursus emanates from a now-dried-up pond formed by a small stream which
runs east-west to the north of the Newgrange ridge. It seems likely
that the cursus would originally have traversed the pond. The use of
water in streams and ponds is likely to have had religious significance
in the Late Neolithic period.
As one walks along the cursus, the horizon
of the ridge dominates the view, with the profile of the Newgrange passage
tomb clearly visible to the west. About halfway up the slope the horizon
formed by the summit of the ridge is clearly visible.
The View Across the Boyne
the approach to the summit the southern bank of the River Boyne is revealed
to the east. Then the grass-covered escarpment south of the river is
revealed. The terminal of the cursus is located slightly south of the
summit of the ridge and it is from here that the floodplain of the river
can be seen, with the water of the river glistening in the background.
A sensation of anticipation is created by the changing horizon as progress
is made along the course of the cursus.
this point also the most prominent ritual monuments on the river floodplain
can be seen, for directly south of the cursus terminal is a small mound,
presumed to be a passage tomb, located at the centre of a now-ploughed-down
henge monument referred to as Site A.
Beyond this to the east is another
larger mound, Site B, sited on the floodplain beside the river, while
to the west is another henge, Site P, again ploughed down and barely
visible, located on the river bank beside the ford at Roughgrange.
mounds would not be significantly lower than they were in antiquity,
but the henges are now only shadows of their former selves, having been
ploughed down through centuries of cultivation.
To date none of these
sites have been excavated, but it is interesting to speculate that they
were laid out deliberately to provide the view to be created from the
terminal of the cursus. It is interesting to note that the distance
from the cursus terminal to the mound at Site A, c. 470m, is roughly
the same as that from Site A to Sites B and P respectively.
unusual arrangement of monuments, when seen from the cursus, would appear
as a henge to the right, a mound to the left, and a combination of mound
and henge directly ahead at the centre. In the mind's eye the archaeologist
visualises the appearance of this view when the monuments were in their
original condition, subtracting the modern roads and field fences.
vista must have been very impressive, indicating that by the Late Neolithic
religious ceremonies and processions were taking place across the landscape
of Brú na Bóinne, with their organisers using the river
valley to create their own theatre of ritual.
Newgrange cursus and the theatre of ritual by Tom Condit, reproduced
from The Brú na Bóinne supplement to vol. 11 no. 3 of