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Wat’s Dyke near Ruabon

On Friday 10th April, I presented a public lecture at the Riverside Innovation Centre at the University of Chester, serving as keynote for the subsequent day’s conference on Contest and Collaboration: Chester Conference on the March of Wales co-organised by Dr Sara Elin Roberts and Rachel Swallow. I really enjoyed the subsequent day in which there were papers dealing with a wide range of topics from Chris Lewis discussing English place-names west of Offa’s Dyke through to Rachel Swallow providing a new interpretation of Aldford and Farndon’s signficance in the late Anglo-Saxon period in relation to Chester. Here I want to outline the key points I made in my keynote.

As part of my work on the Past in its Place project, extending from my work on Project Eliseg, I am reading and thinking as well as conducting some new fieldwork and landscape analyses with my Chester colleague Dr Patricia Murrieta Flores. As well as looking at the Vale of Llangollen, we are also focusing on the early medieval linear earthworks of the Welsh border. To better understand the Pillar of the Eliseg and the significance of the Vale of Llangollen in mnemonic, political and socio-economic terms in early medieval period and after, addressing the dykes is crucial.

I began my talk by crediting the range of work already done on the dykes. Based on antiquarian accounts, sustained research by Sir Cyril Fox, the long-term work of David Hill and Margaret Worthington, and a series of more recent excavations by Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust and commercial archaeologists ahead of development, we now have an enriched understanding of these monuments.

However, debates and misunderstandings abound. I noted that many accounts of early medieval archaeology and history still pay superficial attention to these monuments, and even major new studies only briefly describe them. Much of the work that has been done has not entered into historical and archaeological syntheses and older views are tenacious, even in the most scholarly of new studies. Furthermore, I argued, the research agendas for linear earthworks have shifted elsewhere and we need to rethink how we approach the monuments on the Welsh border. I noted three dimensions which provide the basis for new approaches:

  1. overland and maritime military defenses of the first millennium AD from Scandinavian and Continental provide a host of new insights of relevance to the early medieval Welsh border.
  2. research by scholars from Winchester, Nottingham and UCL on West and East Wansdyke and West Saxon civil defence provides a new framework for thinking about the military and ideological significance of linear earthworks of early medieval date.
  3. Work over the last two decades, culminating in Sarah Semple’s recent book, means we need to pay far greater attention to the importance of the material and mythological past in the interpreting the naming, design, route use and reuse of linear earthworks.

We seem to have the following monuments to consider on the Welsh border:

  • Offa’s Dyke, which runs for over 60 miles from Rushock Hill, Herefordshire to near Treuddyn, Flintshire. There are also stretches in Gloucestershire which are possibly associated with an Offan frontier. On current evidence this monument is dated to the late eighth century and regarded as the work of the Mercian king Offa but might incorporate stretches of older earthwork constructed in prehistory or during the sixth and seventh centuries. While not demonstrably running from ‘sea to sea’ as Asser suggested in the ninth century, this was a stupendous piece of military engineering.
  • Wat’s Dyke, which is now dated to the early ninth century and the work of one or more Mercian kings: Coenwulf, Ceolwulf, Wiglaf and/or Beohrtwulf built between 796 and 850. Again, this monument might incorporate some stretches of earlier earthworks in places, but seems to be a coherent and continuous monument in its final form.
  • a series of short dykes across mid- and north-east Wales, some of which are demonstrably early medieval. One of these is the Whitford Dyke (or Dykes) which have yet to be dated, used to be seen as an extension of Offa’s Dyke but which may relate to other strategies of defense and monument-building.

As the keynote lecture, I explored dimensions of these monument’s military and ideological significance. I focused on their design, relationship with the wider landscape and how they served less as frontier lines but defining frontier zones. My focus was upon considering these linear earthworks as elements of broader zones of control and imposition; strategies for choreographing and managing movement. In so doing, I also emphasised their significance in imposing not only the military strategies, but also the memories of those who commissioned them and their mythological and legendary pasts.

As my first outing considering early medieval linear earthworks, I was delighted by the range of positive and constructive comments I received. I was very grateful also to Sara and Rachel for supporting and encouraging me in presenting at the conference. This encourages me to move forward and write up these ideas for publication, although I also direct readers to the imminently forthcoming study of Offa’s Dyke by Ian Bapty and Keith Ray.

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