Ancient earthworks – whether they are burial mounds, hillforts or dykes – while subject to natural and human intervention over the long term, are today encountered in relatively stable historic environments where legislation and management protect them from radical changes in their treatment and environment. For this very reason, only when things go terribly wrong do we see them in a state of rapid change: when animals, farm machinery, quad biking, mountain bikes and other dramatic interventions cause rapid transformations in their form and appearance. Of course, ancient monuments exists under very different agricultural and management regimes, from woodland, scrub, pasture or more carefully managed mown grass with heritage spaces. Yet while I’m not claiming these monuments are ‘free’ from threats to their long-term survival, and indeed vegetation can cause significant long-term damage, at least they are relatively ‘stable’. In other words, change will be slow and incremental and management adapted where possible to respond to new threats and challenges.
In the vast majority of instances, it is therefore certainly a good thing that we don’t get to see such dramatic damage to ancient monuments. Certainly few would want to see listed buildings and scheduled ancient monuments summarily destroyed against the wishes of local communities in the dead of night! Still, in regards to interpreting how they were built and used, this relatively stable situation can be profoundly deceptive for not only identifying the long-term threats to their survival, but also to archaeological interpretation and public engagement with how they once appeared and functioned.
A case in point is that while archaeologists are long aware we are merely seeing the ‘skeleton’ of past earthworks, envisioning the ‘flesh’ – the organic dimensions required to clear, earth-and-stone move, and create these earthworks – let alone how these elements are augmented, repaired, changed or removed – is often very difficult indeed.
This problem affects all monument types, but it is certainly the case for linear earthworks for which only parts and sections might have been constructed by earth-moving, whilst other locations and elements were created from less durable, organic components. For example, in a series of blog-posts, Keith Ray addresses the work required to build a monument like Offa’s Dyke:
What remains unclear is how much vegetation clearance – woodland, scrub, turf – was involved: a phenomenal task in itself to clear land for earth moving but also to clear viewsheds to dominate the landscape to the west and ensure communication vistas north, south and east. Moreover, it is uncertain how many organic (wooden) components there were to this linear earthwork. For a linear monument, this not only applies to the counterscarp bank, ditch, bank and quarry ditches that comprise its key surviving components. For these, organic dimensions of earthworks long since vanished over time might include revetments and palisades, fences, stakes and even deliberately grown and managed vegetation such as thorn bushes in the ditch and the front slope of the bank. Yet this also applies to attendant features we might surmise were integral to its creation and use, such as tracks, watchtowers, beacons gateways. If Offa’s Dyke was to operate as it is supposed to have, these features required planning, labour and maintenance too. We also have to entertain deliberately cultivated vegetal barriers of thorn bushes to add to the fortifications of the monument.
Considering these questions is important. And while this applies to hillforts, enclosures and other fortified structures and ceremonial monuments different date-ranges, functions and significances from prehistory and early history, for linear earthworks it is certainly a key issue. In short, inferring the function and significance of Offa’s Dyke, Wat’s Dyke and numerous ‘short dykes’ of mid-Wales based on their ‘skeletons’ alone is profoundly misleading without informed inferences about their lost organic ‘flesh’.
In this regard, I want to reflect on the scale and character of machine-cleared scrub and woodland adjacent to Offa’s Dyke south of Oswestry Old Racecourse. While I concede this work is not directly comparable to pre-modern woodland management and clearance, I feel it crudely articulates the massive labour required to clear vegetation when Offa’s Dyke was built through woodland. Moreover, it reveals that even unworked wood from such cleared land could have been a formidable barrier in itself if carefully arranged, utilised upon or in front of the earthwork itself, and readily cut to form stakes, fences and palisades as part of the dyke itself, as well as other installations and features as mentioned above. Add to this the possibility of deliberate plantings to create barriers, it reminds us of how much we have lost regarding how the earthwork would have originally been appointed. Considering the transformation of vistas and as a resource for construction, such acts of clearance (or burning) and the volume of organic material they created can surely help us in considering the ‘organic’ dimensions of creating and maintaining linear earthworks like Offa’s Dyke.