Today I was in Welshpool to attend day 1 of the Early Medieval Wales Archaeology Research Group symposium. The conference was organised by Marion Shiner of Dyfed Archaeological Trust and Professor Nancy Edwards of Bangor University.
The late morning comprised of three papers all about the early medieval linear earthworks of the Welsh/English borderlands: Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke.
First up was Tim Malim of SLR Consulting who was talking about previous work on Wat’s Dyke. He reviewed previous research, including the significant contribution by Fox and by Hill and Worthington, culminating in discussing his fieldwork. Key here is that his fieldwork has resulted in the first-ever and only dating of the monument. Drawing on this work done over many decades and interventions made at multiple locations, as well as based on the excavations at Gobowen reported on in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, he argued that Wat’s Dyke’s consistent form and strategic location meant that it was a Mercian construction of the early 9th century, possibly the work of Offa’s successor Coenwulf. This is important research, since while it was published in 2008, it is surprising how many recent studies haven’t incorporated the implications of the work by Malim and his colleagues into narratives regarding early medieval Wales and Mercia.
Second, we had a talk by Keith Ray of Nexus Heritage who, together with Ian Bapty, is on the cusp of publishing a major book-length study of Offa’s Dyke. Ray gave a summary of some of the key dimensions of his book’s arguments regarding the nature of the earthwork and its significance as a military and ideological tool in the landscape. The book is out in time for New Year!
Third, CPAT director Paul Belford presented a far-ranging discussion of work and perceptions on Offa’s Dyke in the past and present. This was inspired by the CPAT excavations of a damaged section of Offa’s Dyke near Chirk. He highlighted the changing attitudes and engagements with Offa’s Dyke and its relative neglect, disregard and partition in regards the monument’s heritage conservation, management and interpretation. This is, in part, because the monument straddles different local, regional and national agendas and generates antipathy as much as affinity.
After this triad of dyke papers we headed out to see some dykes in the landscape!
The first of these was the Aberbechan Dyke which Silvester and Hankinson describe as a boundary earthwork. It is striking in that it comprises of a double ditch and bank for at least 150m. This dyke runs up from the Bechan Brook heading north-east giving views over, and dominating, anyone approaching from the east-south-east from the River Severn. In this regard, it is tempting to see this as an east-facing defensive earthwork, managing movement from the Severn Valley up into the Welsh hills to the west.
Notably, it is not demonstrable that the earthwork is mirrored on the steeper southern hillside opposite: it only protects the south-facing northern slopes of the valley. Therefore it might be regarded as incomplete, subsequent to later destruction, or perhaps the intention was to provide defensive surveillance and a parallel earthwork to the south was not required intended to restrict movement and funnel it beside the river. Sadly, this particular earthwork is undated and so any precise scenario for its function is pure speculative.
We had lots of animal fun during our visit, with dogs, sheep and (in particular) turkeys coming to say hello.
Offa’s Dyke at Dudston in Chirbury
Our second dyke was Offa’s: a fine stretch just east of Montgomery and the ruins of the castle clearly visible on the horizon. Here we were hassled by biting horses rather than the Aberbechan turkeys and Dr Ray expounded at length on the significance of subtle shifts in the orientation of the dyke and the debate following survey of the surrounding ridge-and-furrow by Paul Everson in the journal Landscape History.
Keith made clear his argument, to be outlined in greater detail in his forthcoming book, that the dyke was carefully arranged not only for defence and surveillance, but to ‘face’ the striking outcrop upon which Montgomery Castle sits. His argument as I understand it, is that the dyke might constitute a carefully surveyed presence to guard against, and intimidate, Welsh centres to its west.