On Friday, I went to the Greenfield Valley, Flintshire, where I met with Ray Bailey for a nice walk around the post-industrial landscape of ruins, ponds and woodlands. We wanted to specifically explore a surviving stretch of the early medieval linear earthwork: Wat’s Dyke.

Ray is a Historic Gardens Volunteer, Co-ordinator and volunteer for the Rails And Steam Museum, and Trustee of the Greenfield Valley Trust. Ray is also a long-term member of the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory and coordinator of the northern group ‘the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory North’ where he has encouraged discussions and field visits to identify potential sections of Offa’s Dyke in Flintshire.

Ray and I share mutual interests and enthusiasm for telling the story of Wat’s Dyke. This stretch of Wat’s Dyke is particularly important given it is the northernmost section and until recently has had limited information about it. Check out my previous post about this stretch HERE. Last summer, Ray led guided walks through the Greenfield Valley as part of the CBA’s Festival of Archaeology.

Given all that has happened recently, including a busy teaching term, I hadn’t been able to sort out an opportunity to meet Ray since. So, I was delighted to be able to meet Ray to visit Wat’s Dyke in this location and especally to see the brand-new heritage interpretation panel with him. Installed beside Wat’s Dyke near Strand Coed, the panel is positioned to explain Wat’s Dyke following recent excavations there by Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust.

According to the logos, the sign was funded by Flintshire County Council, the Heritage Fund, Cadw and the Welsh Government. As is usual, there is no indication of authorship, so I’m afraid I cannot discuss with those who produced it regarding my concerns.

Sadly, the board has already been subject to graffiti by pen, but otherwise it is in good shape still as it faces its first winter, accessible to locals and visitors alike and informing them that they are walking the line of an early medieval linear earthwork.

Background

For context, I published a chapter ‘Wat’s Dyke in the 21st Century’ in the book Public Archaeologies of Frontiers and Borderlands in which I reviewed the various challenges we face in promoting and interpreting Wat’s Dyke to the public. I reviewed heritage interpretation panels alongside digital media and other markers. I concluded that Wat’s Dyke:

‘…remains poorly appreciated and understood, both by the public and by heritage organisations and professionals. Wat’s Dyke is woefully under-represented and/or misrepresented in print and online maps, guides and other repositories and resources and it is omitted or poorly represented at heritage destinations via an eclectic set of out-dated on-site interpretation panels and other signs. Notably, the visual representations on these panels perpetuate ethno-nationalist discourses by presenting Wat’s Dyke as the ‘border ‘ between ‘England’ and Wales’.

In particular, both the online and physical settings of the Greenfield Valley stretch of Wat’s Dyke are limited and inaccurate. Notably, signs at the car parks only give a hint regard where it is, and say nothing about what it is.

Set against this background, I was delighted to see this new installation, located beside Wat’s Dyke on the Strand Walk. I love the metal frame promoting the industrial context of the Greenfield Valley and I like the mix of illustration, profile and location map, all bilingual. The colour scheme and design work very well too.

Having some kind of heritage interpretation panel in the Greenfield Valley about Wat’s Dyke is therefore an important ‘first’! Put together, this is a small but significant moment in the heritage interpretation of Wat’s Dyke and I wish to first and foremost celebrate this achievement by all the heritage professionals and governmental bodies who funded this sign.

I would also like to note that the sign rightly promotes the long distance path, the Wat’s Dyke Way. Indeed, this seems to have been re-christened the ‘Wat’s Dyke Heritage Trail’ – a title that I haven’t seen before although it is known as the ‘Wat’s Dyke Way Heritage Trail’. Is that a mistake?

Still, I noticed quite a number of issues with the panel’s text, map, profile plan and image and I want to share because they introduce confusions and ambiguities.

The location map

The location map is a heavily simplified representation of the course of Wat’s Dyke. It works very well in general terms, showing Wat’s Dyke running from Basingwerk Abbey close by on the Dee Estuary south to Maesbury.

However, I do wonder why a gap is left in the line where the monument following the Dee. Certainly, there is no physical trace surviving between Wynnstay and Henlle, yet the accepted assumption is that the earthwork had been near-continuous. If the map wanted to be passionately accurate at only recording where the earthwork survived, similar gaps should have been represented along the Nant-y-Fflint and Alyn and elsewhere too. Wat’s Dyke probably did run along the tops of the valleys overlooking the Dee and Ceiriog to their confluence, then along the Morlas Brook.

I would also note that the Ceiriog and the Dee are switched on the map – where the Ceiriog is marked is actually the Dee and the Ceiriog itself is unmarked. Wat’s Dyke would have followed the SW-facing scarp overlooking the Dee valley, then the NW-facing scarp overlooking the Ceiriog, and then the NW-facing scarp overlooking the Morlas. The Morlas isn’t marked at all as a river or a name.

Moreover, the stylised map leaves out a critical link to water courses for understanding why it ran to where it did! Wat’s Dyke would have run to the Morda and thus connected to the Vyrnwy and the Severn. Sadly, none of this is represented.

There is a further striking error with the map, namely that the label ‘Cymru/Wales’ is in the wrong place, in what has historically Shropshire and therefore the wrong side of Wat’s Dyke! While I’ve previously expressed concerns about Wat’s Dyke being regarded as a ‘borderline’ between Wales and Mercia, here, both Mercia and Wales are on the eastern side of the Dyke!!!

Meanwhile, the dark green shared area seems to imply that ‘Mersia/Mercia’ is restricted to the area of west Cheshire, Flintshire and Wrexham borough, not a powerful Midland English kingdom which, at its height, had authority and hegemony stretching over Kent, Wessex, East Anglia and all of what is now the Midlands up to the Mersey and Humber.

In summary, I’m not sure this map is fully accurate or comprehensible to the public.

The drawing

The image by Anne Robinson usefully gives a flavour of a very small early medieval workforce including men and at least one woman and just possibly a juvenile individual participating in excavation works to build a bank and ditch, but I wonder if this image is fully helpful.

It does not give a sense of the scale of workforce required to complete such a large undertaking.

Second, the image doesn’t give a clear sense of the depth, shape or prominence of the ditch – which might have been up to 3m if not more in places. This is the principle feature one cannot see in the Greenfield Valley due to erosion, so it is a shame that an image couldn’t be selected to show that Wat’s Dyke was originally comprised of a bank of 2-3m high and a ditch at least of similar depth.

Also, I’m not at all sure we have evidence for early medieval wheelbarrows!

I’m not sure the image explains who and why the dyke was excavated, what it looked like, and it certainly doesn’t show how it may have once looked once completed, something John Swogger and I have recently attempted in our What’s Wat’s Dyke? comic. Such endeavours necessitate much speculation, and Robinson’s image certainly avoids such challenges by showing the monument under construction – an approach already adopted for Offa’s Dyke’s signage by the Offa’s Dyke Association. Yet the result of this is that visitors never get so much as a hint at what archaeologists think a newly fashioned linear earthwork looked like. Of course we are not completely sure, but we have many analogies and insights from other monuments across Britain, Ireland and NW Europe with which to propose one or more options to the public.

The profile

The profile does effectively explain that the monument as seen today is denuded compared to its original scale – deeper ditch and taller bank. But I fear viewers will be rather confused about this image for a number of reasons.

The profile below does give a sense of proportions of the monument, but sadly does not articulate the steep valley-side situation of Wat’s Dyke in the Greenfield Valley. As the text explains, this is key to understanding the placement of the monument;

Why is there so much soil built up on the western side of the ditch above the original line of the monument, almost to the height of the bank? What’s the cause of that? This completely contrasts with the monument one sees, even in a denuded state, to the north of the location of the heritage board.

Why is Aquaman in the ditch?

Unhelpfully, the profile incorporates a translation error. ‘Clawdd/Ditch’ should say ‘Clawdd/Bank’ or ‘Clawdd/Rampart’. At present, the English claims that both the ditch and the bank are both ditches. I suspect this error was introduced because the Welsh translator insisted on using ‘clawdd’ for both the entire monument’s name and for the bank, and somehow the English got confused as a result;

I would point out that by placing the text ‘Mersia/Mercia’ under the bank itself on the profile, it might perhaps confuse viewers into thinking that the monument was equivalent to a modern borderline between territories, something most scholars would question as anachronistic and misleading. This has been a problem with almost all previous heritage panels as I outline in Williams 2020.

Text

Regarding the text itself, it correctly points out the scale and character of the monument and that it runs c. 40 miles. It explains that it would have been a major project.

The text describes the proportions of the monument and that it is now much reduced in scale due to erosion. No attempt is made to explain how the monument originally looked and what it was intended to do. Who built it, when and why?

Only tangentially and in relation to the map does one get a sense that the monument might have been built by the kings of Mercia.

Offa’s Dyke doesn’t get a mention, which I respect and understand at one level, but perhaps reference to it might help readers to explain that Wat’s Dyke relates to it in some as-yet-unclear fashion.

The text calls Wat’s Dyke ‘a bank’, so as with the image the importance of the ditch is not adequately explained.

I would note that the text confuses the reader by suggesting that the Dyke ‘crosses the footpath’, when it really should say ‘the footpath crosses the Dyke’: the footpath is modern, the Dyke is early medieval. This may seem pedantic, but would you say ‘the Iron Age hillfort was built over the Roman road’?

There is a further oddity to this sign board: it provides scientific dating results ahead of any other venue! It is a real-world media exclusive not backed up by any publications! I suspect time-pressures linked to the funding of the project created this problem, but I’m not sure why the decision was made to publish the exact dates of the yet unpublished archaeological research by CPAT on the sign, indicating a date of ‘400 to 600 AD’ (and note it should be ‘AD 400-600’, not ‘400 to 600 AD’). These dates might well prove to be correct, and I understand they are based on the Opitically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dates acquired in 2020 during excavations by CPAT of their Trench 1. However, these dates are not publicly available or verified at the time of writing. So, we have the odd situation where a heritage interpretation board contains as-yet unpublished dates without any context or qualification afforded to them.

But this is only part of the problem. I fear presenting both a ‘late 8th to 9th-century AD’ (the dates obtained by work at Gobowen, Shropshire) and ‘400 to 600 AD’ dates – seemingly contradictory without explanation or qualification for each, introduces confusion to visitors who will be left uncertain regarding when and why the monument was built. This is exacerbated by the use of different dating formulas. Why didn’t those writing the panel simply decide to call it ‘early medieval’ and likely associated with the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, and side-step this issue? It would have been honest and clear and would not confuse the visitor.

In summary, I’m uncertain about what is being presented, so I expect the public will too! This is not simply an issue of clarity, but it opens up the potential for Arthurian pseudo-history, ethno-nationalist fantasies and perhaps other pseudoarchaeologies, to build off this apparent uncertainty. I propose in future, until dates are confirmed and clear, we call Wat’s Dyke an ‘early medieval linear earthwork, different sections dated variously between the 5th and early 9th centuries AD, likely built and used over one or more phases as a frontier work. It was likely used to observe and control movement through the landscape in times of both peace and war’. Suitably vague, but enough to indicate its potential roles in curtailing and controlling raiding, trading and communications more broadly.

Location

Finally, regarding the positioning of the sign. Situated looking roughly west across the valley beside the footpath, it will be surely challenging to anyone who isn’t an archaeologist to work out how the north-facing view afforded by the profile relates to the landscape in which they are situated in, looking at a board facing west. Moreover, looking west from this location, one is presented with two paths and two banks – will visitors know which is the bank of the early medieval monument? If one navigates the sign successfully, can they readily look up annd see where this earthwork is in the landscape around them? I’m not sure the orientation and placement readily allow this for those without archaeological training and detailed maps of their own.

Reflections

It’s easy to criticise heritage boards and I wish no disrespect to those who put time, money and energy into its design and installation. After all, whatever is produced will annoy or confuse someone among the public and/or irk the specialist. Furthermore, I concede that typographical errors are everywhere (including in this blog!). We simply must be forgiving of occasional errors, whether on heritage panels or in academic writing!

Furthermore, given the eclectic and confusing signs currently existing in various places along the line of Wat’s Dyke, reviewed in my 2020 chapter, I didn’t have high expectations. Thus, I repeat my point that it is great that there is something rather than nothing to explain to visitors that they have one of Britain’s longest linear earthworks running through this historic landscape primarily known for its later medieval and industrial archaeology. Even if only some people are encouraged to think and learn about this early medieval monument, the panel’s job is done! I’m glad other pitfalls were avoided, including the choice to avoid mentioning loaded terms like ‘Welsh’, ‘Wales’, ‘English’, ‘England’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ with their various loaded and problematic connotations and in-built anachronisms (but see my concern about the misplacing of ‘Wales’ on the map).

However, given the range of pictorial and textual errors and ambiguities including the odd situation where OSL dates for Wat’s Dyke excavations in the Greenfield Valley have been publicly shared prior to their appearance in any available archaeological report, I truly wish this sign had been more carefully considered. In its current state, I fear it will cause visitors confusion which will endure at least as long as the panel remains in place, and perhaps far longer.