On my most recent visit to Wiltshire, I explored some of the monuments and environs of Stonehenge and Avebury, but the principal interest was to revisit (after almost 15 years) the early medieval earthwork known as ‘East Wansdyke’ at Morgan’s Hill and Shepherds’ Shore.
Early Medieval Neglect?
Now I’m a firm believer that there is a fundamental and long-term disparity in the quality and quantity of attention and appreciation of early medieval archaeology and its sites and monuments compared with other periods in the UK. Whether defined as ‘Anglo-Saxon’, ‘Pictish’, ‘British’, ‘Celtic’, ‘Viking’ or anything else (and I accept the terminology is part of the immense problem) early medieval monuments are grossly neglected by researchers and by the public compared with prehistoric and Roman and later medieval (post-Norman Conquest) remains.
There are many dimensions to this neglect of the ‘Dark Ages’: less research, less heritage management, less popular interpretation and engagement. There are complex reasons for this situation, including the ‘special’/’problematic’/’disputed’ place of the Early Middle Ages in understanding the origins of modern Britain and its constituent elements – nations and counties. It is a problem that dogs my research on the ninth-century stone cross fragments known as the Pillar of Eliseg (for example).
My visit to Wiltshire threw this disparity into sharp relief in the heritage experience of the county’s monuments. The vast car parks, visitor centres, shops, modern museums publications and trails associated with the preened heritage management of the Neolithic monuments of Avebury and Stonehenge stand in stark contrast with the minimal heritage interpretation let alone publications relating to a far larger and more impressive monument: East Wansdyke.
And linear earthworks are particular victims of this disparity. Indeed, they are frequently omitted or given cursory attention in both popular and scholarly archaeological and historical narratives of the period. Even if the only early medieval sites you’ve heard of are classics like Lindisfarne, Jorvik and Sutton Hoo, and you might have heard of Offa’s Dyke, you won’t find many places where you can read in detail about early medieval dykes in general including East Wansdyke.
Whether you agree with this crude appraisal or not, it is a palpable fact that research on East Wansdyke in terms of academic publications can be counted on the fingers of two hands for over a century. This compares with many dozens of books and many hundreds of research articles on the henges at Avebury and Stonehenge and their immediate environs.
What is East Wansdyke?
Put simply, East Wansdyke is one of Britain’s largest and most important martial monuments. Undated, the dyke is demonstrably post-Roman since it cuts the Roman road west of Morgan’s Hill. It is recorded in a land charter of the 9th century as ‘Woden’s Ditch’ and so cannot be later than that century.
When precisely was it built and by whom? We don’t know. To me, it is unlikely to be a 5th/6th-century work given the scale of the endeavour and the fragmented nature of societies at this time. Following the recent work of Andrew Reynolds, Alex Langlands, Stuart Brookes, John Baker, Bruce Eagles and Mike Allen, it is generally thought to be a late 7th-8th century frontier work built by the West Saxons against their northern formidable neighbours: the Mercians.
Admittedly, West Wansdyke may have had a prehistoric origin, but the West and East sections probably came to operate together. They were connected by the W-E line of Roman road from Cunetio to Aqua Sulis which could have been retained as an early medieval boundary. It is most likely became a coherent frontier earthwork in the middle Anglo-Saxon period.
The description of it as a ‘ditch’ is more appropriate than some other early medieval monuments. It does have a bank, but the primary feature is the massive ditch which as a counterscarp. The monument faces north towards potential raiders and invaders traversing one of many routes from north Wiltshire. As such, it is
Having become familiar in recent years with the late 8th-century Offa’s Dyke and early 9th-century Wat’s Dyke, I was keen to reacquaint myself with a bank-and-ditch of truly monumental scale that may well have been the predecessor to the monuments Mercia was herself to raise to protect and dominate her western borders with the Welsh kingdoms.
Characteristics of East Wansdyke
There are a range of points one could make about its scale and topographical situation on and around Morgan’s Hill.
Relationship to prehistoric monuments
I noted an example of where the monument ‘respected’ the location of pre-existing Early Bronze Age-type round barrows on and to the east of Morgan’s Hill. There are other examples along the route, including the long barrow at Roughridge Hill.
For much of its length, East Wansdyke enjoys long-distant views in the direction it faces to the north. However, when crossing Morgan’s Hill it is content to take a direct path between Furze Knoll and Morgan’s Hill, with the latter creating a blindspot from the dyke. This is not fully explicable in crude defensive terms. I suspect the earthwork is but one part of the defensive arrangement and cannot be understood in isolation from watch towers to its south and north.
A distinctive feature of East Wansdyke is its changes in alignment at what might be postulated to be key routes of movement then and now. This is clearest in the western stretch at Shepherds’ Shore – the line of the modern A361, and at Baltic Farm on the eastern edge of Furze Knoll. At its eastern end, a more pronounced sharp-turn can be identified in Daffy Copse before it descends to Clatford Park Farm. Like Offa’s Dyke, it presents itself to those approaching it.
So what’s in a name?
So why Woden’s dyke? The simple explanation can be found in the genealogies of the West Saxon royal house, who charted their descent from Woden as a legendary ancestor rather than as a pagan deity. There is a broader literature on this point I cannot summarise here, but in short, to build a dyke of this fashion is not to claim its antiquity, but to root it in an invented tradition and assert its martial and magical prowess as a defence. Was this really a ‘mythologised’ landscape, as much as one recognised as populated with death and the dead through its many ancient mounds, one of which (Adam’s Grave long barrow) was known as ‘Woden’s barrow’?
So here we come to the heritage interpretation and this is what I found on the Morgan’s Hill section of East Wansdyke. It is not that it is in part ineligible and restricted, but how big a contrast can you have with the care and attention given to the heritage boards for anywhere in the Avebury or Stonehenge landscapes.
I confess I’m a little rusty on the East Wansdyke literature and I need to think further about its date, character and significance in relation to recent publications. Still, my visit reignited my interest and made me reflect on the overall neglect of linear earthworks/dykes of early medieval date compared with monuments of earlier and later time periods. Woden’s Ditch holds many secrets still, but even the research to date shows it to be one of Britain’s most important and most neglected monuments.