A large area appears to have been excavated
What a trashed early medieval monument looks like – image courtesy of the BBC website.

This is a brief archaeorant in response to a breaking news story about Offa’s Dyke.

As I posted about before here, and as many of you will know, one of Britain’s most icon landmarks, the early medieval earthworks collectively known as ‘Offa’s Dyke’ and conventionally attributed to the eighth-century Mercian king Offa, is a threatened resource. It is eaten away bit by bit by erosion, plants and animal action, visitors and landowners and has done for centuries.

We shouldn’t be too precious about this, this is a common experience of scheduled ancient monuments across the land. There is rarely anything done about damage and hardly ever (i.e. never) are prosecutions pursued.

Still, we all thought things might be different this time because of the blatant nature and scale of damage done recently to this nationally and internationally renowned monument. In one of the most gross heritage crimes against a scheduled ancient monument in recent UK history, last year a large section of Offa’s Dyke near Chirk, Wrexham, North Wales, was dug away by persons unknown, presumably with the aid of a mechanical digger.

This illegal act was quickly noticed and locals were ashamed, horrified and angry at this important heritage site and tourist attraction was grossly violated in such a brazen act of vandalism. There was some unfortunate race-hate stoked up by the Daily Mail regarding the ethnicity of those responsible, but that is not at all relevant here. Cadw informed the police and a criminal investigation began.

Yet from this wilful act of destruction, some important results have been derived. Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust conducted excavations on the site and revealed in a press release in April 2014 that this section of the dyke might not be eighth century, but have an older date in the sixth century. This is important, since while this might only apply to a section of the dyke, it might hint that Offa’s Dyke has a longer history than conventionally supposed as I discussed here.

Today, the BBC website posted the following news: that North Wales police found insufficient evidence to prosecute over this crime. I appreciate that criminal investigations into heritage crime are not my forte, and I am not privy to the complex issues the authorities must have faced in coming to this decision not to prosecute. Still, I cannot express enough how dismayed I am about this verdict.

Even someone like me, used to hearing such stories, was staggered by what this means. Someone can get in their digger, charge it into an earthwork, levelling a large section of it, and face no prosecution, and hence no penalty! As an archaeologist, this act is comparable in mindlessness and destructive to someone setting dynamite to a bit of Hadrian’s Wall at Walltown Crags, or daubing grafitti over Stonehenge or setting fire to the Mappa Mundi and then just walking away laughing. It is certainly far more serious than swinging from flags from the cenotaph or pitching a tent outside St Paul’s cathedral, acts that created little or no damage to sites of national significance and yet have caused all manner of public uproar.

Where does this leave Offa’s Dyke and where does it leave our ancient monuments more generally? In many ways, it leaves them just as they are: prone and waiting for the next idiot in a digger to take a free slice.

And why stop there? If prosecution is so difficult to bring against individuals taking huge chunks out of prehistoric and early historic earthworks, why am I as a professional archaeologist waiting on scheduled monument consent before I rifle the sites that interest me? There are plenty of earthworks I would like to ‘have a go at’. As long as I don’t video myself doing it and post it on Youtube (a heritage-crime version of One Direction or Justin Bieber), it seems I would be safe from prosecution. I could simply do what metal-detectors have the privilege of doing, I won’t name the precise source of my finds and publish all my discoveries as from ‘a hillfort in Radnorshire’ and ‘a burial mound near Mold’ and there is nothing the police would seemingly be able to do about it.

Of course, I jest dear readers, I am not going AWOL to trash Britain’s ancient sites, just making a crude point about the terrible precedent this inability to prosecute leaves for our ancient past and the British public’s sense of its protection.

The whole thing makes me very sad indeed and if you live or care about the past in the United Kingdom, it should make you sad too.

Archaeorant over dear readers. On balance, the exciting results from CPAT’s excavations far outweigh the damage done. But that doesn’t overcome the horrible sick feeling one gets to see the damage and know that no-one can be held accountable.

As they used to say on Crime Watch, don’t have nightmares….