Transforming the Trent Valley archaeology: COSMIC+ Investigation at Catholme Neolithic site

January 26, 2023 by Mark Knight

Balancing the requirements between food production and looking after a scheduled monument is a difficult one for any landowner but when your site is of national significance and there’s nothing visible on the ground, it takes something of a leap of faith.

Near to Alrewas, along the very busy A38 trunk road, lying quietly between the road, the railway, quarry and modern warehouse, is one of Britain’s most remarkable Neolithic sites, the Catholme Ceremonial Complex.  Discovered from aerial photography in the 1960s and only first excavated in the early 2000s, this site is an enigma: a series of ritual monuments spanning nearly two millennia of use.  This began with a cursus, which was created some 5,500 years ago. Cursuses are very rare and little understood, and the remains are usually just a set of parallel ditches, ranging in length from 50m to more than 3km.  The spoil from the ditches was banked on the outside of the ditch (therefore not defensive in nature) and created a separate space within which ritual or ceremonial activities could take place.  The Catholme cursus is 45m wide and runs for approximately 100m before being lost under modern farm buildings. Their function is unknown although they always have a specific alignment (often east-west) and the ones in the Trent valley are associated with the river, perhaps as a buffer zone between the secular world and sacred sites.  They are connected with ritual and sacred purposes, probably ceremonial, processional and certainly connected with the rivers.

Next came the Sunburst Monument, a series of radiating pits with a central near-circular ditch and bank. This is the only known feature of this type and its purpose is unknown.  A later funereal interment of a beaker period inhumation and pottery vessel was discovered in the centre of the monument during the investigation in 2004.  The final phase of Neolithic activity was the erection of a massive ‘Woodhenge’ style monument to the east of the Sunburst, and offset from both it and the cursus. Solar alignments with a range of hills to the south for the winter solstice have been suggested. This monument has a series of radiating post holes which would have held huge tree trunks, with a central circular space.

Individually these monuments represent something very special but taken together it would be hard to overstate the importance of this site, despite there being nothing at all to see on the ground now.

TTTV, Historic England and our archaeological specialists have undertaken an investigation of the Sunburst and ‘Woodhenge’ monuments using the COSMIC+ method (Conservation of Scheduled Monuments in Cultivation) to assess the current state of the archaeology of these nationally important monuments. This will also help and support farmers in preserving our precious heritage.

We’ll be able to provide a further update once the report is back from our specialists.


Dr Mark Knight

Cultural Heritage Officer

Transforming The Trent Valley Partnership