While they are all places I’ve posted about before individually, yesterday I took my level 5 students on the brand-new module Empire and Aftermath – exploring the archaeology of the first millennium AD in Britain and beyond – to see a range of early medieval sites in North East Wales.
We started by heading out from Chester and into the Vale of Llangollen to visit the wonderful Pillar of Eliseg.
At the site, in wind and spots of rain, we discussed the monument’s early medieval significance as a statement of power and defiance by the rulers of Powys, including its Latin text and its reuse of an Early Bronze Age burial mound. We then considered the monument’s ‘afterlife’ through the Middle Ages as a cross and into the modern era as a cross, then a fragment, and then restored as a pillar. I then rambled and ranted about its present-day heritage interpretation.
Back over the muddy field, next, we explored the ruins of the Cistercian monstery of Valle Crucis, and its 18th-century summer house. While dating to far later than the module’s focus, this allows us to put the Pillar’s biography in context.
Back on the coach, we then went eastwards back down the Vale of Llangollen to explore the linear monuments built by the Mercian kings to combat the dynasty of Powys inscribed on the Pillar of Eliseg. By now it was raining persistently. At Ruabon, we walked along a strikingly well-preserved, but threatened by modern development, section of the late 8th century linear earthwork: Offa’s Dyke. The students provided a wonderful set of mobile scales with which to capture the magnitude of the bank and ditch.
It was now raining heavily, it was cold, windy and then it started to snow. The only option was Morrisons in Wrexham for a lunch break. For me, this involved consuming a sustaining small all-day breakfast.
After lunch, we went to the National Trust property at Erddig to investigate a series of stretches of the early 9th-century linear earthwork: Wat’s Dyke. If Offa’s Dyke was built at the time of Eliseg, Wat’s Dyke seems to be contemporary with the Pillar built in his memory. We explored where it was cut by the 11th-century motte-and-bailey castle in the woods to the north of Erddig Hall, as well as sections of the dyke in the woods.
We then descended to see the cup-and-saucer hydraulic ram before noting the destruction of the dyke in the vicinity of the hall.
Through visiting both Offa’s and Wat’s Dykes, the students gained an impression of the scale, design and landscape placement of these monuments, as well as their complex afterlives. As with the Pillar of Eliseg, we addressed the challenges of heritage conservation, management and interpretation for these enormous but still poorly understood monuments.
In summary, a cold but fun field visit by University of Chester students to unsurpassably awesome monuments, with a luxury coach supplied by Pat’s Coaches and a friendly professorial tour-guide with microphone!