18th-century antiquarians borrowed this Latin term, meaning a ‘racecourse’, to describe a particular type of Neolithic (qv) monument, exemplified by the Dorset Cursus, the largest and best-preserved of them. This consists of a very elongated enclosure that is 10km (6¼ miles) long but only 82m wide, marked by parallel earthen banks with external ditches. However most cursuses are now only visible as cropmarks, their banks having been flattened long ago. Through aerial photography over 150 have now been recorded, the majority occupying low-lying positions beside rivers and streams. In eastern England, Cambridgeshire has 5 or 6, Suffolk has 3, and Essex and Norfolk have one each. The Suffolk examples are beside the River Lark at Fornham All Saints (1.9km or 1.2 miles long x 25-40m wide), and two beside the River Stour, one at Stratford St Mary (290m long x 68m wide) and a smaller one at Bures St Mary (190m+ long x 24m wide).
The characteristic straight sides of these monuments suggest that they were laid out in areas already cleared of forest to give an open countryside that allowed clear viewpoints. Their purpose is not fully understood, but a ceremonial or ritual use is most likely, and this could have included races or processions. Many have concentrations of cropmark rings around their terminals, which are either flattened burials mounds or other ritual monuments. Excavations on the cursus at Springfield in Essex revealed a circular setting of posts, 26m in diameter, at one end and small pits nearby contained sooty deposits and cremated animal bones. In general, these monuments date from c.3,500-3,000 BC and the example at Fornham appears to overlie an earlier Neolithic ritual monument in the form of a causewayed enclosure.