Curse of the Cursus : 2007-2011
A collaboration between Artists & Archaeology and the Stonehenge Riverside Project.
As a resident artist on this excavation I chose to work with archaeologists on the enigmatic Stonehenge Cursus Monument.
This huge Neolithic rectangular enclosure lies between Stonehenge and Woodhenge and measures appx 3km x 100m. It is largely empty except for some sheep, cattle and crows and no one really knows what it was used for.
Curse of the Cursus is the ongoing project that has arisen from this collaboration, it uses drawing to create a primitive tribal iconography for the monument and employs the playing-out of various roles, encompassing both the indigenous protector and the obsessive and cursed academic.
The Stonehenge Cursus is a cigar-shaped ditch & bank monument which lies about 1km north of Stonehenge and stretches for appx.3kms from east to west. Although it is within eyeshot of Stonehenge it is obscured by grazing land.
Very little seems to be known about the Cursus except that it was dug by hand, possibly before Stonehenge was completed, and would have had the appearance of a giant chalk drawing.
For me, its appeal lies in its formal properties as a drawing or land-art and, its unknown status.
Spared from the intense limelight and cultural baggage of its famous Stonehenge neighbour, this enigmatic monument, bordered on two sides by military and tourist activity was the perfect place to start exploring ideas of territory and a new visual identity.
The act of digging by archaeologists could be seen as an agitation of territory, and this I took as provocation to begin the subversive counter-activity of ‘tagging’, i.e. marking territory with an identifying Cursus symbol.
By taking on the role of primitive outsider, I set about trying to create a drawn motif that would stand-in for the Cursus, based only upon my experience of being on it and walking its borders.
The drawing evolved into a distilled symbol, which was also a primitive map of the monument itself. This I tagged insistently onto border-features and objects in the landscape, around and along the full length of the Cursus. Posts, stones, Military signs and gates became the focus of increased tagging activity during the excavations in the summer of 2007, but particular significance was given to the dozen or so cattle-troughs that flank the 3.5 km of the Cursus borders. Surrounded by cows acting as ‘keepers of the dead,’ I started to think of the troughs as special containers or Sarcophagus for the symbolic transportation of the dead, supporting a thought that the Cursus could have been a site of excarnation.
The Cursus symbol, its natural and man-made features, the animals living on it and the ever present military helicopters and tanks, all became part of the overall narrative iconography: conflating past and present forms in one unifying visual language, its features culminating in the elaborate decoration of one particular trough. This empty trough stood alone, between the Cursus ditch and the nearby Barrows and as it fitted my body perfectly, seemed a suitable carriage for transportation to the afterlife.
The whole process led me to think about the notion of suggestibility when looking for evidence of past cultures and, as a final act of marking territory and planting material evidence, I made a 10m drawing of the Cursus in the base of Western-most trench, before backfilling.
In the following months away from the Cursus, the narrative started to expand and my role shifted again. I became the obsessive seeker and maker of a mythology or back-story now known as “Curse of the Cursus”. So far It includes stories, drawings, paperback-titles, film-posters, artefacts, photos and a lecture, all evidence to the existence of a Cultural history of the Cursus, pursued by a new character willing it into existence.
In 2008 I returned to the Stonehenge Cursus, no longer an innocent or outsider but a participant. Having previously established a visual culture, a history and a sense of tribal identity, my role would now be to consolidate territory, acting as guardian, sentry and ‘bounds-beater’ for the archaeologists that were digging there.
On revisiting the sites of the previous years’ tagging activity, I found traces of drawings and evidence of the Cursus culture.
Instead of merely repeating the process of tagging, I began to make a series of primitive drawn flags using extant Cursus symbols from last year, but incorporating new elements that seemed to have some symbolic significance to this years experience. So the crow, the bulls-head and flint arrowhead became additions to the iconography.
Compelled by a sense of paranoia, I confined myself to strategic positions around the Cursus borders, looking-out for potential attackers from the surrounding landscape and recorded these ‘danger zones’ as pen & wash studies. Then as a ritual act of protection and a mark of tribal presence, I staked flags around each Archaeological trench and paraded the Standard flag around the Cursus borders, photographing this act as evidence and memorial of ‘territory possessed’.
On my leaving the Cursus, the flags remained to protect the ongoing excavation and, as a final act, a fragment of brass, (which I had marked with the sign of the Cursus) was buried by Archaeologists in the Eastern-most trench before back-filling.
The project continues…
As Artist in Residence at the University of Manchester I’ll be working in close collaboration with Professor Julian Thomas and the School of Arts, Histories and Cultures to create a visual culture for the enigmatic Stonehenge Cursus Monument.
The Stonehenge Cursus is a relatively unknown monument. It is significantly older than its iconic stone circle neighbour, and its form, although colossal at over a mile in length, is discreetly concealed within the Wiltshire landscape.
Its original purpose is a mystery.
The ‘unknown’ status of the Monument, both in terms of its historical purpose and contemporary perception is the key theme of the residency. The aim of the project is to invent and establish an identifying visual language for the Cursus that takes into account both the physical and aesthetic character of the monument and the human activity associated with it.
This will provide the starting point for an interpretive engagement, and for the construction of new forms of visual representation. My remit, quite distinct from archeological practice, is to posit ideas in a purely visual form.
During the time-frame of the residency I will make regular visits to the Stonehenge Cursus monument and the University, acting as mediator in a dialogue between the two sites.
I will study the monument’s linear properties and topography, observe its wildlife, seasonal changes and the manifestations of the disparate cultural factions that use and border it; i.e. English Heritage, National Trust, MOD, tourists, archaeologists and farmers.
This will involve repeated walking of the linear boundary and its internal areas, making observational drawings, creating interventions, and collecting visual data.
My intention is to use this data in its distilled form to develop motifs for a Cursus iconography and, in more representational forms, to create extended narratives.
I intend to explore some of the visual styles that have been apparent throughout the 4500 year history of the Cursus, from the geometric imagery of the Neolithic, through Medieval Doom painting narratives and heraldry, studies of the Romantic period to 20th century retro-futuristic Poster Art and contemporary Graffitti.
As the Cursus iconography and its motifs of representation become more developed, they will be introduced gradually onto the University campus site as subliminal images and more conspicuous forms.
It is hoped that by beginning the process of creating a strong visual culture for the Cursus Monument, it may, in time become recognised as having its own identity, distinct from its more celebrated neighbour, Stonehenge.
Mark Anstee makes temporary monumental drawings in public museums and on historically significant sites in the landscape.