Investigating a Neolithic cursus on the Isle of Arran

A new project aims to conduct an in-depth analysis of the prehistoric landscape near Drumadoon on the west side of the Isle of Arran, including the investigation of a large Neolithic cursus monument, or rectangular enclosure, which was first discovered five years ago during a LiDAR survey carried out by Historic Environment Scotland (HES).

The project is led by an interdisciplinary team from the Universities of Glasgow (Kenny Brophy and Nicki Whitehouse), Birkbeck (Lesley McFadyen), Bournemouth (Emma Jenkins), and Reading (Darko Maričević), along with Archaeology Scotland (Gavin MacGregor), working in collaboration with the Universities of Coventry (Michelle Farrell), Birmingham (Henry Chapman), and Southampton (Tony Brown, Sam Hudson, and Ben Pears). This team are implementing a range of cutting-edge techniques to determine how this landscape was used over time. The project was spurred by the discovery of the cursus, which adds to the large number of prehistoric monuments already known on the island, including the stone circles and their earlier timber iterations at Machrie Moor, just to the north.

Photo: Kenny Brophy

While many cursus monuments survive only as cropmarks, the Drumadoon example is still upstanding, measuring 1.1km long and 50m wide. Excavations of the bank of the cursus (above) have been ongoing annually since 2021, along the south-eastern side of the monument. Comprising stone, earth, and turf, the bank is an impressive 8m wide and, with excavators having reached the bottom of the bank during the most recent season, is now known to have been 1m high. Its positioning is intriguing, located near a ridge overlooking the standing stones at Machrie Moor, at a point roughly halfway between them and the bay-side settlement of Blackwaterfoot. Kenny Brophy, who co-directed the cursus excavations, noted that it seems as if the cursus was placed to guide journeys through the landscape.

With lots of scrub and other features blocking many stretches of the bank, only about 1% of the cursus has been excavated so far, but already some unusual features have been revealed. For one, it appears that the turf and soil were taken directly from the site, rather than quarried from an adjacent ditch as is common at other cursus monuments, and that this was then piled on top of a stone platform, cut directly into the soil, to give it stability. The interior of the bank was then lined with rhyolite stone, which may have been specifically chosen for its larger mineral crystals. A number of flint tools, dating from the early Neolithic or earlier, were also found in the soil used to build up the bank, including Arran pitchstone as well as some that appear to have been imported from Antrim, across the Irish Sea. This suggests that the site saw extensive activity before the cursus was built, and highlighs the fact that during this time Arran was not a remote island, but part of a wider maritime landscape. Geophysical survey of some of the monument has revealed a few enigmatic structures, too, which may indicate multiple phases of use. It is hoped that further work on the site will reveal more.

The excavation and surveying of the cursus are running in parallel with another aspect of the project, which is seeking better to understand the surrounding prehistoric environment as a living landscape. Layers of soil samples, representing the original land surfaces, were taken from both the cursus layers and from adjacent prehistoric field-systems, offering a unique view into how the people who built the monuments on Arran were using the landscape. While the samples are still being analysed using a host of techniques – including pollen and phytolith analysis, sedimentary DNA, micromorphology, and OSL dating – already it appears that sometime during prehistory, probably during the early Neolithic, the woodland that had defined this area was cleared, something which would have been a significant task given the size of the cursus and adjacent field-systems.

A final, but no less important, aspect of the project was the community engagement which, led by Archaeology Scotland, saw a children’s day, an open day, talks with the local community, and lots of volunteer participation. Watch this space as work on the project progresses, and more exciting results come to light.

This article was written following an interview with Kenny Brophy, Emma Jenkins, and Lesley McFadyen.