Exploring the material culture of the heritage industry and its impact on the landscape is an important part of any research into the relationship between archaeology and landscape today. Rather than a critical heritage perspective, I regard this as contemporary archaeology. Footpaths attracts material culture as part of their establishment and maintenance, and in many cases become integral elements of the biography of monuments. The Bryn Celli Ddu MOW sign post is one example, as is the sign and railings associated with the Pillar of Eliseg.
Here I want to discuss footpaths from this perspective. Footpaths are a form of heritage and they possess many components, from additional fences, gates and stiles, through to the wear caused by walkers and efforts to consolidate and arrest this erosion. Like any footpath, signs also guide the way and prevent accidental trespass onto private land.
For the Offa’s Dyke Path, they have a special status and distinctive role in marking and commemorating a National Trail. Hence, walkers encounter modest and monumental markers of contrasting designs and characters along the length of Offa’s Dyke.
Indeed, my recent discussion of Offa’s Dyke at Craignant and the commemoration of Offa’s Dyke’s southern end, are examples of present-day commemoration affecting a footpath associated with Britain’s longest ancient monument.
Every step of this path is about experiencing the past as well as the present through the late 8th-century dyke constructed by the Mercian king Offa, even if it traverses landscapes far removed from the early medieval linear earthwork.
On a recent walk near Selattyn, I encountered a host of signs. Some are historic-styled road signs, and footpath signs of all sizes and shapes from stand-alone posts to smaller signs appended to stiles, gates and fences. The materials vary too: plastic and wood dominate. There is even a ‘pop up’ sign revealed by pulling a rope, explaining the multi-period significance of Selattyn Hill.
Together, they mark the ‘Shropshire Way’ where it coincides with the ‘Offa’s Dyke Path’, denoted not only by texts but also by their symbols: the flying buzzard and the acorn respectively. On occasions, the signs appear to ‘compete’ with each other, marking the same directions with multiple trails. There are also biographies to some signs, as posts are used and reused, and augmented.
Even though we are on the Anglo-Welsh border here, most signs are monolingual, although there a few bilingual signs where the dyke marks the border. So we get a glimpse here of the politics of linguistics too.
What is also interesting to me is how many are far more elaborate that utility demands. Moreover, despite their variability, they are ultimately familiar and effective in a range of situations to guide walkers, whether located beside or upon stiles and gates, marking paths, tracks and roads.
There is even the presence of national newspapers, sponsoring the warning about ‘take the lead’.
Elsewhere I’ve discussed signs warning of hazards but the contemporary archaeology of footpaths is in dire need of further work, especially as many of these signs have a restricted life-history, and they fossilise shifting institutions, heritage initiatives and sources of funding for heritage conservation as well as affecting the embodied experience of walkers.
And when beside roadsides, they display the interaction between walkers, cyclists and other road-users regarding the position and status of the national trails.