Supporting my talk at the Chester Heritage Festival on 27 June 2022 called ‘After Rome: Chester and the Dark Ages‘, here’s my video launching the Chester Dark Age Tube Map – a new way to navigate the early medieval archaeology of Chester and its environs.
Digging into the Dark Ages
Building on my 2020 co-edited book Digging into the Dark Ages which espoused new ways of engaging communities and various different publics in the stories of the Early Middle Ages through material cultures, monuments, built environments and landscapes via a range of mechanisms and media, I’ve been developing new ideas for how to communicate the story of the Welsh Marches in the early medieval period.
In my podcast of last summer with English Heritage, for example, I identified the ongoing challenge that very few English and Welsh heritage sites are exclusively or primarily ‘early medieval’, even though many more multi-phase sites have important early medieval phases, and many of our cities, towns, villages and countryside cannot be readily understood without a recognition and awareness of their early medieval successors, predecessors, dimensions and characteristics. This is a particular challenge given the contested nature of the period and the many mythologies and fantasies surrounding it:
More than an issue of nomenclature, how we narrate the story of the Early Middle Ages in what was to become England is a fraught subject linked to nationalist and racial discourses, and the legacies of colonialism and imperialism. The term ‘Dark Ages’ is only part of the challenge we face.
In particular, I’ve repeatedly advocated that our public archaeology for the Early Middle Ages should not rest primarily on ‘myth-busting’ for a host of reasons, not least because it can set up new fictions about the era supposedly to counter old ones. Also, fact-checking approaches to the early medieval pasts enshrines existing modes of academic exclusory and gate-keeping behaviours wrapped in the veil of claims towards revisionism.
One new strategy I’ve pioneered with the guidance, skills, insights and support of artist and archaeologist John G. Swogger is to tell the story of the early medieval linear earthwork Wat’s Dyke where it runs through Wrexham via a comic heritage trail. Combining images and maps, it provides a rich, versatile medium of engagement with non-specialist audiences and academics alike. Check it out here.
Another suggestion I’ve made, again for the challenge of interpreting early medieval linear earthworks to the public, is the idea of creating a Tube Map for the northern stretches of Offa’s Dyke and for the entirety of Wat’s Dyke – identifying key locations where you can see the monuments in different states of preservation and different topographical settings. This allows people to navigate across territorial and topographical boundaries, following linear earthworks along a notional route that no longer can be traversed physically. Check out the Wat’s Dyke and Offa’s Dyke Tube Map.
Inspired by this last idea, I present another adaption of the iconic London Underground Tube Map to help visitors navigate the largely intangible story of early medieval Chester and its environs in west Cheshire and North-East Wales.
Introducing the Tube Maps
I decided to go for two maps, one for Chester itself, one for the broader region, each offering multiple ‘lines’ – heritage trails – along which one can visit locales associated with early medieval finds and activities, a few with visible above-ground traces, most with no tangible traces to be seen on the ground.
The first map flags up the fact that the entire Roman city was a ruined artefact throughout the early medieval period and beyond. Navigating it we have the ‘Burh and Cross Line’ as one of two heritage trails. It incorporates the Northgate which likely remained an active thoroughfare into the ruined Roman city. It also includes the shrine of St Werburgh, whose relics were translated from Hanbury. I identify the likely early medieval origin of St Peter’s and the High Cross, and point out locations which have produce evidence of early medieval occupation – Abbey Green, Hamilton Place and Hunter Street.
Heading out of the ruins of the legionary fortress, Lower Bridge Street is part of the trail where early medieval settlement was uncovered. The likely extension of the Roman walls down to the Dee following the founding of the burh in AD907 links to three sites associated with the postulated extramural early medieval settlement, perhaps dating from the late 7th through to the 10th/11th centuries: the Roman Amphitheatre which might have been fortified or occupied there, St John’s Priory with its collection of early medieval carved stone crosses, and the ongoing excavations at the Grosvenor Park which have produced early medieval features.
The ‘Dee Line’ follows the river: linking the probable early medieval church site at Eccleston to the ‘Battle of Chester’ fortifications and human remains at Heronbridge, the 19th-century legendary associations with King Edgar being rowed on the Dee at Edgar’s Field, the evidence of 10th/11th-century settlement at Lower Bridge Street, the Castle Esplanade Viking silver hoard, and the Roodee Cross: site of a possible early medieval cross.
While I was at it, however, it made sense to create a regional Tube Map that incorporates key locations along the two great linear earthworks most likely dating to the late 8th/early 9th centuries AD – Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke.
The third line – the Dark Age Line – follows the Dee upstream from Chester south, and up the Wirral peninsula to the north.
I include a host of key sites with early medieval finds and associations, from Huxley where an early 10th-century Viking silver hoard was uncovered to Caergwrle – an early medieval hillfort far before it was a later medieval castle. Likewise, although an Iron Age hillfort and 13th-century castle, I propose Castell Dinas Bran as another likely early medieval fortified residence.
I’ve included the long-running trading site of Meols, settlement evidence from Irby and buildings and stone crosses from Hilbre Island. The Viking furnished inhumation grave from Talacre is included, as are the early medieval stone crosses at the Pillar of Eliseg and Maen Achwyfan and collections of early medieval stone sculpture at Bromborough, West Kirby, Neston as well as significant single pieces from Overchurch and Tarvin. Later Cistercian houses at Basingwerk and Valle Crucis might overlie early medieval predecessors. The likely early medieval ecclesiastical sites of Farndon, Bangor-on-Dee and Rubaon are also included as well as the holy wells of St Plegmund, Plemstall, and St Winefride’s, Holywell.
These remain provisional experiments, and so all feedback is welcome on the sites selected and those excluded for brevity’s sake. Many sites could be added and subtracted, and different lines used to link them up in different chronological or thematic fashions. Certainly, they could be readily adapted in different formats for different purposes. Oh yes and here is my introductory video about these maps:
Remember: these maps are my creative work and please only use with permission.
For many, Chester is a ‘Roman’ city in heritage terms, yet hopefully this Tube Map will help put Chester’s less tangible early medieval archaeology on the map!
Here is my talk on 27 June 2022 in which I include revised versions of the Tube Maps following feedback:
And below are my revised versions of the Tube Maps. In due course, I will create details of what to see and what was found at each of the ‘stops’!
Great graphic representations of associated early medieval sites in the region! I wonder whether you’ve considered transforming these into the framework for a virtual ‘tour’ through time and (both virtual and actual) space, perhaps along the lines of (or, better still, in association with) Clare Downham’s ‘The Viking Age in the North-west’ application?
I confess I haven’t any funds to take this further at present, but the What’s Wat’s Dyke comic has an interactive map allowing you to browse between locations.
Can’t really express how much I love these mapping projects. Something about the resulting graphics really draws you in.
I can just see the little Dark Age people, shuffling on and off the tube, carrying their chickens and tomatoes, trying to get to each market town on time. Don’t forget to post the tube map on TikTok. 😉