Yesterday, in windy and wet weather, I took out my second-year students taking my course ‘The Archaeology of Medieval Britain’ to see the two largest linear earthworks of western Britain: Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke. See my previous posts on them here, here and here.
I selected to take them to see two prominent and accessible stretches of the earthworks near Ruabon, locations I have selected previously because of the earthworks’ varied preservation and varied interactions with modern farming and housing mean that I can discuss issues of heritage conservation, management and presentation, as well as issues relating to the early medieval earthworks and their landscape contexts. In both fashions, less than a mile apart, we hop from one earthwork to another, comparing and contrasting how they ‘worked’ in the past and how they are situated today.
On previous trips, I have combined this visit with one to look at the Pillar of Eliseg, where my work on Project Eliseg has been focused. However, I’m leaving that for a future trip with the students, to show them a monument raised by the enemies of Offa and Coenwulf.
We currently think Offa’s Dyke was built in large part or wholly by King Offa of Mercia in the late 8th century. Wat’s Dyke is now dated to the early 9th century, perhaps a construction of one of Offa’s successors, maybe Coenwulf. Both were frontier dykes built by rulers of Mercia to surveill, communicate and thus control the landscape on both sides. I have posted some of my ideas about them previously here. Keith Ray and Ian Bapty’s brand new book on Offa’s Dyke is due out imminently.
The section of Wat’s Dyke that we walked served my purpose in many fashions. There were sections of well-surviving bank and ditch, and the section demonstrated how it navigated pre-existing steep ravines as well as how the monument adapted the crest of slope, allowing surveillance and communication in both directions along its length.
In terms of conservation, this section showed many different kinds of survival, very much the result of where precisely post-medieval field boundaries and gateways have become positioned. In some places, bank and ditch survive, then we moved into a section where the ditch survived but the bank was gone and finally to a section where the bank survived but the ditch was gone!
The students also encountered a ‘dying’ heritage signboard. I’ve watched it become illegible over the years and now, moribund in the information it contains, it is now almost completely swallowed by brambles. A said demise but a necessary one. Someone needs to replace it! It is a sad fact that Wat’s Dyke is a crucial feature of the border landscape and yet remains under-appreciated and neglected at many levels.
We then returned to the minibus and headed westwards, past St Mary’s church in Ruabon, to the west side of Ruabon where we encountered a long and relatively well-preserved (for the Ruabon area) section of Offa’s Dyke.
The scalar difference between the dykes was clear and evident, as well as both similarities and differences in their positioning in the landscape. Offa’s Dyke was earlier, further west, and more confident in its positioning, and was not afraid to possess, for some stretches, quite restricted views, in order to gain the advantage of long distance vistas blocking major valleys leading out from the Welsh uplands. Both did similar things too, which made us wonder just how long Offa’s Dyke was operable and why it was so rapidly (in archaeological and historical terms) supplanted by Wat’s Dyke. Were both used together for a time, or are they fully and purely successive frontier monuments?
We talked about how intense industry and housing at Ruabon had destroyed much of the dyke in this area and we discussed how it is now unsignposted and we wonder whether many people simply do not appreciate what it is. Also, we discussed how housing as embellished the dyke with various back-fences and gates and how this is happening for houses that cannot be older than the 1970s. We then reflected on the large-scale damage done to Offa’s Dyke near Chirk eflected on how both dykes should be protected and managed far better and how these important monuments are shamefully overlooked at national and regional levels compared with the World Heritage Site status of Hadrian’s Wall.
The students seemed to enjoy themselves and we headed back to Chester for them to attend other classes. I also reflected on the fact that, for once, my field trip did not incorporate a cemetery or mortuary monument! Maybe there is hope for me yet and I am not fully death-obsessed in my archaeological interests? Maybe I need to create a new Archaeodyke blog to complement this one….