How and to what extent have artistic ‘impressions’ and ‘reconstructions’ been utilised by archaeologists to communicate interpretations of Offa’s Dyke to academics, students and the wider public?

My answer will be straightforward: to date there have been few attempts and no consistent strategy to deploy artistic reconstructions at all. I contend this is a significant lacunae and a missed opportunity for the public understanding of Britain’s longest ancient monument.

This neglect is especially striking when we take into account that artistic reconstructions have become so widely integral to the 21st-century experience of learning about and visiting other Welsh and English ancient monuments, from prehistoric tombs to Iron Age hillforts, from Roman forts to medieval castles, abbeys and priories (e.g. Ambrus and Aston 2001; Redknap 2002; Ambrus 2006).

Given their difficulty to date, their length and magnitude, the varied character of their survival (especially given many elements of superstructure and associated structures and sites are archaeologically invisible having been made in timber), as well as the various pseudoarchaeologies wrapped around them, linear earthworks are particularly challenging to engage with audiences today.

Inspired by his agenda-setting journal article promoting the power of comics to engage diverse audiences in linear earthworks and borderlands heritage (Swogger 2019a), I have spent a great deal of time, energy and consideration over the last two years working with John G. Swogger to produce a What’s Wat’s Dyke? heritage comic – commissioning a series of new comic images to visualise Wat’s Dyke in and around Wrexham. Our focus was not only to envision the monument itself when built, but also its biography from the early medieval period to the present, and its various landscape contexts.

The What’s Wat’s Dyke? Wrexham Comic Heritage Trail, now available online in English and Cymraeg, provides the inspiration for this post to consider how we approach Wat’s Dyke’s larger neighbour in new and innovative fashions in terms of visualisation.

Evaluating and drawing upon past attempts, this post will begin with traditions of representing Britain’s second and third-longest linear monuments – Hadrian’s Wall and Wat’s Dyke – before reviewing publications, guides and heritage interpretation for Offa’s Dyke. I close by making some suggestions of how we proceed, especially drawing off the precedent of David Hill’s sketches, the comics of John G. Swogger, the initiatives of the Offa’s Dyke Association upon key waymarker posts.

Rebuilding Hadrian’s Wall

My first point: can you imagine no one having ever reconstructed and visualised Hadrian’s Wall beyond its extant ruinous form? Hard to believe isn’t it? Today, almost every popular book and guide, as well as every heritage interpretation panel will contain some effort to visualise a reconstruction of the entirety of Hadrian’s Wall’s many components, or at least key elements.

Hingley’s (2012) survey via a chorography, tackled the history of the Wall from its creation to the present, explores how it has been forgotten, remembered, investigated, interpreted, reconstructed, managed and became a stage for heritage narratives and performances. In doing so, one learns how pivotal artist’s representations of the wall have been to popular understandings of the monument. These artistic impressions focus especially on the Wall (and associated turrets, milecastles, forts and settlements) while being built but also when in use and as ruins.

Some recent popular surveys of the monument make this point clear. Breeze and Dobson’s popular survey of the monument (2000) includes photographs, maps and photographs of models of a milecastle (Breeze and Dobson 2000: 36, plate 3) and Benwell fort (Breeze and Dobson 2000: 166, plate 22).

Breeze (2011) contains reconstruction images of a range of frontier installations across the Roman Empire, including (by Michael J. Moore) a fort, fortlet and tower (Breeze 2011: 42, figs 7 & 8, 43, fig 9) as well as an artist’s impression of a tower on the Odenwald sector of the German frontier (Breeze 2011: 60, fig. 13) and a fortified landing place on the Rhine (Breeze 2011: 99, fig. 27). For linear monuments, as well as a stretches of Hadrian’s Wall (Breeze 2011: 69, fig. 17) and the Antonine Wall (Breeze 2011: 75, fig. 20), there are artist’s reconstructions of stretches of the frontier in Raetia and Upper Germany (Breeze 2011: 79).

Having said that, in another recent survey of Hadrian’s Wall, Breeze (2019) produces perhaps the most effective visual guide to the Wall and yet does so without any models or reconstructions at all, so they are clearly not essential in the eyes of modern scholars.

Most recently, Matthew Symonds’s 2021 book incorporates maps, plans, sections and both ground-level and aerial photographs of the stone wall and other features of the surviving monument, reconstruction images are clearly essential to convey Symonds’s arguments. An uncredited digital artist’s image is reproduced showing the berm obstacles in front of the wall (Symonds 2021: 12, fig 4). Furthermore, a particularly instructive image shows three different possible reconstructions for the Wall turrets by Michael J. Moore, giving alternative arrangements (Symonds 2021: 61, figure 23). Illustrating the relationship between turrets and milecastles, a further image by Michael J. Moore looks from the south-side of the Wall (Symonds 2021: 62, figure 24). A further image shows at least one possible interpretation of the post-Roman ‘afterlife’ of Birdoswald (Symonds 2021: 129, figure 45), thus hinting at the importance (see below) of showing how these linear monuments were used and reused over time. Like Hingley (above), Symonds also notes the power of images of the wall in 18th and 19th century imaginings of the Roman empire, from Goeree’s 1707 engraving (Symonds 2021: 158, figure 55) and William Bell Scott’s Building of Hadrians Wall (Symonds 2021: 159, figure 56) through to Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill (Symonds 2021: 161, figure 57).

Examples of mid-2000s English Heritage interpretation panels on Hadrian’s Wall showing the integral use of artist’s impressions

While I have not had a recent chance to survey all the latest guide books and heritage panels along Hadrian’s Wall itself (note: since writing this I have revisited Hadrian’s Wall and can confirm I’m on track here with my evaluation [31/07/22]), David Breeze’s English Heritage guide contains an image by Peter Connolly of The Wall, a turret and milecastle (Breeze 2003: 2) as well as a scene from within Housesteads’ civil settlement by Alan and Richard Sorrell (Breeze 2003: 12), aerial reconstruction perspectives of Benwell (Breeze 2003: 24), Corbridge (Breeze 2003: 26), and Chesters (Breeze 2003: 31), the fort and individual buildings at Housesteads (Breeze 2003: 37, 40), and Birdoswald (Breeze 2003: 47), as well as among other artist’s impressions of the Roman army and life.

Tony Wilmott’s guide to Birdoswald contains an artist’s rendering of the modern ruins from above, but also a double-page reconstruction of the 3rd-century fort from an aerial perspective. The narrative in the guide book is supported by four further artist’s reconstructions: of the main west gate (Wilmott 2005: 8), the fort’s granaries (Wilmott 2005: 10), the 5th-century replacement to the granary (Wilmott 2005: 12) and the drill hall (Wilmott 2005: 14).

Jim Crow’s English Heritage guide to Housesteads likewise contains not only Allan Sorrell’s vista of the wall, fort and civil settlement (Crow 1989: 40-41) but reconstruction drawings of the latrines and east gate (Crow 1989: 7, 10), Alan and Richard Sorrell’s view through the civil settlement to the south gate (Crow 1989: 46) and reconstructions of the hospital courtyard by Frank Gardiner (Crow 1989: 23) and commandant’s house by Peter Connolly (Crow 1989: 28).

This brief review suggests that artist’s impressions are near-ubiquitous and often integral elements of heritage interpretation for Hadrian’s Wall via publications and along the Wall itself. Indeed, Collins (2012: 183-184) includes an appendix rationale to the aims and process in which they have been created. Furthermore, as an extant monument and as a ruin, Hadrian’s Wall is very well-known from multiple films and television shows, and now also video games (Collins 2022).

Having said that, they are most effectively deployed to bolster an impression of the stone elements of the frontier work – wall, forts and associated settlements. Notably, the stone-built sections of Hadrian’s Wall throw into sharp relief the relative neglect of visualisation of the earth and timber sections of the Roman frontier works – both the Antonine frontier and the ‘Turf Wall’ of Hadrian’s Wall. Still, the Antonine Frontier has received a wide range of artistic installations as well as artist’s impressions (reviewed by Jones 2020; Williams 2021). Given how artist’s impressions have indeed been widely utilised to visualise prehistoric earth and timber architectures too, the relative neglect of attempts to visualise early medieval linear monuments is thrown into sharp relief.

Wat’s Dyke – Offa’s Dyke’s neighbour

Of the early medieval linear earthworks of western Britain, including the two largest and longest: Wat’s Dyke and Offa’s Dyke, Wat’s Dyke has received most recent consideration in regards to art and heritage interpretation: more than any other early medieval linear monument I’m aware of in the UK.

In my 2020 review of Wat’s Dyke’s public archaeology and heritage interpretation, I identified how the monument is manifest and interpreted in the landscape via waymarkers, place-names as well as maps, publications and digital resources. However, at the time of writing, of the eclectic and few heritage interpretation panels, only 3 attempt to envision how the monument once may have looked (Williams 2020a). These are:

Since I published that chapter, a further two artist’s reconstructions have been placed on heritage interpretation panels:

Mile Oak, Oswestry

Of these five, Mile Oak is a digital model of the bank and ditch with no other features: just the form of the monument. This helps in some regards to convey to visitors what was found during excavations close to this spot, but is minimalist and unimaginative. It is difficult for modern viewers to appreciate how this arrangement might have been a significance and formidable impedance and monument.

The New Brighton interpretation panel with a small visualisation of how the monument may have once looked topped by a palisade and a ridiculously small ditch!

New Brighton is a section of the bank and ditch, but this time assuming a high palisade marked the rampart. While I have been very critical of the rest of the panel (Williams 2020), this simply section view at least proposes one scenario for how the monument was originally constructed. The ditch, however, is ridiculously under-sized compared to the bank and palisade.

At Gobowen, a modest fence line marks the top of the bank and two groups of warriors face off against each other. Adapted from a Cambridgeshire heritage interpretation panel, this at least shows the dyke in use in a military context. Furthermore, this visual narrative is balanced by the text which explains that it wasn’t exclusively, or even primarily, military.

The Greenfield Valley image by Anne Robinson

The Greenfield Valley board (now vandalised and removed) showed a sketch of the excavation of the monument by a group of early medieval people aided by a wheelbarrow, rather than attempting to represent its final appearance. To my eye, it is unclear precisely what this earthwork originally looked like and how its v-shaped ditch would have operated as a prominent monument in the early medieval landscape.

Peter Lorimer’s reconstruction of Wat’s Dyke at Sychdyn, Flintshire

Only upon the brand-new Sychdyn board (for which I was consulted), is any attempt made to show the bank topped with palisade, together with a large ditch that matches its likely original proportions. The presence of a track on the ‘Welsh’ side is interesting too if not evidenced and a figure on horseback affords scale. In many ways this is the best representation of how Wat’s Dyke might have originally looked too date in a hyper-realistic format, but of course no other installations or landscape features are shown in relation to the monument.

Detail by John Swogger from the Oswestry Heritage Comics

‘Oswestry’s Other Border’ published by John G. Swogger in his The Oswestry Heritage Comics takes a 4-panel comic to tell the story of Wat’s Dyke, showing it as it is today, during construction, and in some unspecified military function, but not showing precisely how it was made and how it may have looked.

It is against this relatively impoverished heritage interpretation – with only the Gobowen and Sychdyn panels showing clearly how the monument may have looked and been used in the landscape, that I have collaborated with John G. Swogger on the What’s Wat’s Dyke? Wrexham Comic Heritage Trail.

Inspired by my 2019 blog on this site, we proposed a provisional plan of action (Swogger and Williams 2020). We subsequently developed a heritage trail through Wrexham by selecting ten points/locales where one can learn about Wat’s Dyke. Five panels show Wat’s Dyke in today’s landscape, three in later historical periods (Norman, Georgian and Victorian). This left two panels, 1 and 6, attempting to present the Dyke as it might have been like in the late 8th or early 9th century. In doing so, we were keen to rectify the dearth of previous reconstructions and afford a different perspective. We also aspired to be optimistic about how little we know about its original form and immediate environments. So, with panel 1 showing a monument with palisade and watch towers set back from the bank, with multiple installations and associations, including beacons and tracks, as well as reusing a prehistoric hillfort. Meanwhile, panel 6 addressed how Wat’s Dyke may have been used to intercept travellers and traders rather than simply to defend against military expeditions (see Swogger and Williams 2021; Williams and Swogger 2021). This was inspired by an earlier reconstruction of Offa’s Dyke by Swogger (see below). The decision was made not to show the monument being built since this has become something of a cliche for Offa’s Dyke and other linear monuments and an ‘easy out’ of attempting informed estimations of its construction and appearance.

The cover image of the Welsh-language version of ‘What’s Wat’s Dyke?’ comic featuring panel 6

Wat’s Dyke, therefore, while lagging behind Hadrian’s Wall in authentic heritage discourse visualisations, is now matched, if not surpassed, in terms of innovative approaches to visualising linear monuments. This situation owes specific thanks to the work of Peter Lorimer and John G. Swogger for their academic and artistic insights and creations.

Offa’s Dyke

Academic representations

Now we turn to Offa’s Dyke. I regard early medieval historians and archaeologists as being consistently inattentive to the importance and potential of visualising the monument. Not only is Offa’s Dyke marginalised in inverse proportion to its physical magnitude and political significance in narratives about early medieval Britain in all regards, only exceptionally has its interpretation involved any creative visual input across media.

For many academic books on early medieval Britain, it is lucky if Offa’s Dyke gets a passing mention, let alone envisioned. When represented, usually in books focused on early medieval Britain, Anglo-Saxon England and Mercia, it is usually as a line on an island-wide map, usually just a single photograph taken at ground-level, perhaps an aerial photographs (e.g. Wormald 1982; Higham and Ryan 2013; Naismith 2021). The same applies to regional and county surveys (Ray 2015: 216-217).

Equally, even the most detailed surveys and accounts do not indulge in attempts at reconstruction. Fox’s (1955) systematic mid-20th-century survey focused on annotated maps and photographs; he made no published attempt to go beyond the surviving earthwork to consider the possible appearance and the associations of other features with the monument (see also Ray 2021) . The same applies to its subsequent treatment in academic literature, as illustrated for example) by the publications of Noble (1983), Hill (1991), Gelling (1992) and Feryok (2001). The aforementioned studies by Hill and Feryok are heavily visual chapters but include no schematics or reconstructions. Major detailed surveys of linear earthworks more broadly struggle with the same focus (Bell 2012; Spring 2015; Grigg 2018). For Offa’s Dyke specifically, even the most recent evaluations rely heavily upon photographs of how the monument looks today (Ray and Bapty 2016; Belford 2017). While heavily visual also in terms of maps, plans and sections, they do no better in terms of proffering artist’s reconstructions.

Such artist’s impressions/reconstructions require an artist’s skill (as well as labour and fees). Unlike pay-to-enter stewarded sites now run by Cadw and English Heritage in the Welsh Marches, there won’t be the money or capability to install and maintain images upon the monument itself.

The knock-on effect is that, if these are not being produced for public consumption in the landscape itself, then there is no resource from which they can be reproduced in academic books and articles. In any case, such reproductions would require the securing of fees and permissions.

Yet, I sense that a host of decisions ‘beyond’ our surviving evidence have influenced the dearth of visualisations. I wonder if these images are regarded as precarious to time: readily proved wrong or easily becoming misleading. Perhaps there is something seen as dirty and cheap about attempting to visualise how Offa’s Dyke may have looked (on the one hand), as well as a valorisation of the bank-and-ditch as a dilapidated earthwork (on the other). It is a monument of today’s landscape, visualised in our world via photographs, and by which only cartographic representation can tell its story. In other words, my impression is that, rather than helping envisage how it may have looked, there is an inherent snobbishness to artistic reconstructions at play over the long term and a valorisation of its form as an eroded relic.

Set against this disappointing background, the only exception I am aware of is Hill and Worthington’s (2003) Offa’s Dyke: History and Guide. Through a series of simple but very effective sketches by the late David Hill, Offa’s Dyke is brought to life in a fashion that captures the authors’ understanding and appreciation of the monument beyond sections, plans, photographs and maps. Alongside the aforementioned sections, maps and photographs, these sketches present:

  • the relationship between the Dyke and topography (Hill and Worthington 2003: 52, figure 19;
  • water courses when crossing valleys (Hill and Worthington 2003: 119, figure 33),
  • negotiating hills (Hill and Worthington 2003: 120, fig. 34),
  • setting out alignments, surveying and woodland clearance (Hill and Worthington 2003: 121, figures 35-37),
  • marking out the Dyke (Hill and Worthington 2003: 122, figure 38),
  • stripping the turf and digging the ditch (Hill and Worthington 2003: 123, figs 40-41),
  • the modern profile and how it might have originally looked (postulated without a pallisade) (Hill and Worthington 2003: 124, figs 42-43),
  • Fox’s envisioning of an ‘agreed frontier’ with ditches on either side of a bank for the Whitford Dyke (Hill and Worthington 2003, 125, fig. 44);
  • three options for how the Dyke might have been originally composed (Hill and Worthington 2003, 125, fig. 45).
Hill and Worthington’s sketch of the landscape context of Offa’s Dyke, postulating villages and beacons behind, and cleared land in front of a monument perceived as a bank topped with palisade and a western ditch

Perhaps most influential at all is an image illustrating how Offa’s Dyke might have operated within a complex system of landscape organisation (Hill and Worthington 2003: 127, fig. 46). Together these images might be misleading in a host of fashions regarding how the monument was built, used and perceived. For all there imitations and issues, the images do have a significance role in the study and in broader appreciations of Offa’s Dyke within and beyond the academy. They operate to convey archaeological inferences in a popular synthesis, and while they go beyond our evidence, they are reasoned, informed and in some instances provide space for multiple scenarios regarding the monument’s form and significance.

Guides and art

I do not possess many guides to Offa’s Dyke, but of those that I do own, none of them put any effort into visually explaining why, where, when, what and how the monument was built and how it may have originally appeared in the early medieval landscape. Instead, the focus on the trail and the countryside along its route only occasionally (actually quite rarely) features the monument itself, and then only via photographs along its line (Noble 1981; Kay et al. 2007; Dunn 2016). I imagine the walking fraternity are content with this situation: their focus is upon the trail and the experience of the human-made and natural dimensions of the countryside surrounding them, not so much the monument itself. The monument follows the trail, the trail doesn’t follow the Dyke, from this perspective. Indeed, when considered, the monument’s power is in its dilapidation: a relic in our landscape. Its antiquity, not its history, is its power: it is an aesthetic and kinetic earthwork to be gazed along and navigated. This is encapsulated in a beautiful and inspiring way via the new art commissioned by the Offa’s Dyke Association in 2020 by Richard O’Neill and used on the front cover of the Offa’s Dyke Journal volume 2.

Richard O’Neill’s visualisation of the idyllic walking experience along Offa’s Dyke mashing up an idealised vision of the earthwork and the Hawthorn Hill milestone

The top Google searches don’t suggest there are readily available artist’s reconstructions in use to guide visitors, students or scholars. The National Trails website has an image of Craig Arthur – a section of the Offa’s Dyke Path far detached from Offa’s Dyke. The friend’s group for Offa’s Dyke – the Offa’s Dyke Association – has a page on the history of the Dyke and uses photographs unrelated to the Dyke itself. Likewise, English Heritage represent the monument through a single photograph only and not even a map. The Wikipedia site for the monument has atrocious visual support including a truly dismal schematic section.

Likewise, a recent project, Walking with Offa, brings together paintings and poetry inspired by Offa’s Dyke, but contains no impression of the monument itself in any medium (Hall et al. 2021).

Heritage interpretations in the landscape

Sculpture is a further component that – as with for the Antonine frontier (Jones 2020), is an eclectic but increasingly important dimension to the landscape of Offa’s Dyke, but while it serves to evoke the story and presence of Offa’s Dyke, rarely affords a sense of the monument’s character, composition and landscape context.

Heritage boards have a limited lifespan in the landscape itself. When I first became interested in Offa’s Dyke, I blogged about the boards around Ruabon which are now almost illegible. Had there been an artist’s impression of either Wats’ Dyke or Offa’s Dyke upon these, they are long gone.

While I may have missed some, I feel I’ve visited all major sections of Offa’s Dyke and I’m now in an informed position to discussion how it is visualised. In this regard, I’m aware of only a handful of boards that attempt show Offa’s Dyke: most avoid artist’s impressions completely.

The Offa’s Dyke Centre

The Offa’s Dyke Centre’s old display was very good indeed, and it contains a central profile bank-and-ditch of the monument to afford a sense of its composition and character as a monument – bearing in mind this level of survival isn’t visible for long stretches of its line. However, the monument envisaged is one without any timber superstructures at all, and no other barriers or features.

Julian Ravest and Keith Ray view the recently opened exhibition at the Offa’s Dyke Centre – photograph-rich but there are no artist’s impressions

The brand-new Offa’s Dyke Centre exhibition is rich in maps, photographs and text, but again, it contains no artist’s reconstruction. As for much of the line of the monument, one is rarely afforded images to reconstruct how it may have looked. To my knowledge there are only four exceptions, one of which is reproduced in at least four different locations.

Tidenham – English Heritage Car Park

At Tidenham, the dramatic aerial perspective of the Wye Valley affords a striking sense of how the monument used the natural topography to dominate a settled and enclosed (largely hypothetical) landscape, dividing people east from west. The striking scarp-mode of construction with its prominent ditch and cleared slope gives the monument an almost cyclopean magnitude, and all of this conveys important information about the monument’s monumental and visual dynamics. However, again, no timber superstructure or other features are postulated: the Dyke sits alone. Sadly, this panel is beside the car park some distance from the monument itself – upon the Dyke there is no visual presentation of this kind.

The Tidenham car park artist’s impression of Offa’s Dyke overlooking the Wye Valley

Highbury Woods

Also on the Gloucestershire sections of Offa’s Dyke, in 2017 I encountered a damaged and broken interpretation panel at Highbury Woods. As one element, it contains a small-sized black-and-white sketch of the bank-and-ditch, the bank topped by a low wooden fence and in the process of being constructed/repaired with figures affording a scale. This is a modest but significance instance of any attempt to reconstruct an impression of the monument as it might have been in the late 8th century AD.

The Highbury Woods reconstruction image

Ruabon – an invisible impression

Upon Offa’s Dyke at Ruabon there is an interpretation panel which may have originally included an artist’s impression of the monument, but it is completely worn away.

The washed out reconstruction of Offa’s Dyke at Ruabon

Offa building the dyke – multiple locations

I’ve seen this at multiple locations: Hawthorn Hill (Powys), Llanfair Hill (Shropshire), on Edenhope Hill above the Unk (Shropshire), and adapted for a valley-crossing location at Froncysyllte on the Llangollen Canal (Wrexham). The Dyke is shown under construction behind while a male figure in power – perhaps Offa himself – stands in the foreground looking towards the viewer. This stylised and adaptable image is effective in some regards: giving a sense of the landscape context and labour of construction under royal authority, but opts out of explaining how it may have originally looked.

Llanfair Hill
Hawthorn Hill
Llangollen Canal

The Saxons & Vikings

There are various images of the Dyke circulating online, but it is very difficult to pin down their source and context of creation. Most appear to be independent artists. While most, like the recent Walking with Offa artistic programme, focus on the landscape around the monument, rather than the monument itself, some do attempt to represent Offa’s Dyke as it may have been. Most involve Offa pointing or standing in a position of power and authority, presiding over the construction process of the monument.

John G. Swogger has made me aware of one published example, in Brenda Williams’s The Saxons & Vikings 406 to 1066 published for children by Hamlyn (Williams 1994: 18-19). In a section called ‘border battles, a thegn on horseback is pointing at the huge rock-cut earthwork with a flat-bottomed ditch and another four warriors stand in the ditch, guarding/controlling the workforce. The workers are hauling cut timbers up a c. 12-15m-high ‘bank’ to line the top with a palisade. The baskets and ropes for earth-moving are plausible and the costumes are viable for the 8th century, but the profile is completely inaccurate in relation to even information available when this was produced and certainly in relation to new evidence. The scale of the monument is massively overblown, by contrast, even the most optimistic estimates would put the height of Offa’s Dyke from bottom of ditch to top of bank at no more than 7m. In short, while this is a welcome image given the wider dearth of representations, it is rather misleading in regards to the character of the monument.

The Saxons & Vikings

Swogger perspectives

Now we come to fresh and distinctive perspectives via comics. In 2018, Swogger produced a striking comic that attempted to show the relationship between the monument today and three stages in its construction – survey, clearing and digging. The aerial perspective and the juxtaposition of ancient monument and modern landscape would very much inspire ‘What’s Wat’s Dyke?’ panels 3 and 4.

Offa’s Dyke past and present by John G. Swogger

We again return to The Oswestry Heritage Comics (Swogger 2019a and b). Here, we find two manifestations of Offa’s Dyke. Through the comic medium, details aren’t needed but a sense of striking earthwork is present in each providing the backdrop to early medieval characters (Swogger 2019a: 150, 151; Swogger 2019b 33, 42: ). In the former: ‘A Borderlands Town’, a mail shirted and helmet-holding thegn stands upon a freshly composed bank. In the second: ‘Researching Offa’s Dyke’, very much the prototype for What’s Wat’s Dyke? panel 6, a farmer with his cattle negotiates passage across the earthwork talking to a warrior and a thegn. The monument is here represented as a fully established structure topped by a palisade and possibly a fortlet. A red dashed line helps to emphasise the bank and ditch so viewers can connect this representation to the surviving earthwork in the field.

Detail by John Swogger from the Oswestry Heritage Comics


We might cite multiple reasons for this visual deficit for Offa’s Dyke’s heritage interpretation until the recent attempts by John G. Swogger:

  1. Artist’s reconstructions for earthworks are incredibly difficult given the challenging evidential base: we can chart the line of, and discern the magnitude of the monument for many stretches, but we simply don’t know the precise scale and character of timber superstructures. Unlike Roman frontier works we still possess a slim understanding of Offa’s Dyke’s possible relationships with topography including vegetation, field systems, settlements, tracks, forts and fortlets, watch towers and beacons, let alone details of how the ditch and its western counterscarp bank, bank and eastern quarry ditches, were adapted and consolidated, augmented and thus defended.
  2. In addition, there are funding challenges to acquire artists to engage in the monument, and unlike Hadrian’s Wall’s UNESCO World Heritage Site status, and unlike other guardianship monuments in England and Wales, Offa’s Dyke relies on much more limited funding regimes. Offa’s Dyke doesn’t operate like a pay-to-visit heritage site where interpretation panels and guidebooks can furnish the visitor with clear explanations regarding what they can see and how it may have once appeared.
  3. These factors feed into a wariness regarding reconstructions which might readily become dated and misleading as information evolves, or present overly speculative material that produces or perpetuates misinformation.
  4. Added to these justifiable circumstances, I would contend that the evidence presented above suggests there is not only a challenge of interpretation, funding and management, but also an intellectual romanticism at play here that wallows in celebrating Offa’s Dyke as part of a long-distance walking trail and a monumental subject of photography and landscape survey, both of which prefer to see it as a ‘romantic ruin’; a denuded trace of former times rather than a monument in history;
  5. When tackled visually, most circumvent the appearance and function through art by showing the act of construction and fixating on that;
  6. there is thus a tendency to render the early medieval monument in minimalist terms, without landscape context even when the topography is represented, and without superstructures or associated installations and features.
  7. In terms of the narrative of the art, the focus is upon the single-minded hegemonic authority of King Offa to transform and divide the landscape: valorising his agency over all others. Offa’s Dyke is more of a single ‘deed’ than a monument in these stylised readings

Unsurprisingly, the only published piece of work addressing the visualisation of Offa’s Dyke focuses on celebrating the recording efforts of Cyril Fox and does not tackle the dearth of artistic reconstructions and impressions (Ray 2021).


So, having identified the problem: what do we do about it?

Here are a set of brief recommendations. These are inspired by the attempts to represent Offa’s dyke created by John G. Swogger discussed above, They are also informed particularly by the visualisations for Wat’s Dyke, including the work of Peter Lorimer and my collaboration with John Swogger on the What’s Wat’s Dyke? project. In addition, I would cite my thinking regarding the ‘Tube Maps’ I’ve created for Chester & its environs (including the dykes) and for both Wat’s and Offa’s Dykes: while these don’t involve visualisation of the monument itself, they provide a fresh way of thinking about the heritage destinations and connections along the lines of each monument in relation to each other.

My preliminary recommendations are views:

  • We simply need more artist’s reconstruction images of Offa’s Dyke that attempt to visualise how it may have looked in a range of styles and details, and crucially, different stories!
  • More than that, we need to experiment in new media and new fashions and there is a particular need to get away from the stereotype of Offa standing watching/commanding and diggers digging;
  • I would like to see images representing the monument during construction in different fashions and to highlight fresh perspectives on its form, placement and the possible functions and significance of the monument, but also when newly completed, and in states of decay and disuse too;
  • For its original appearance, there is scope for representing multiple alternatives to foreground ongoing debates regarding the monument’s date, form and function including the presence/absence of vegetation (thorns) and stakes in the ditch, and the presence/absence of a fence or palisade, and the presence/absence of watch towers, beacons and other installations connected to the frontier work;
  • Indeed, I would love to see images that merge multiple phases of its life-history;
  • It is important we draw on the precedent of David Hill but also John Swogger and place it within historical and modern landscapes (as per What’s Wat’s Dyke?), to allow visitors to appreciate the biography of the monument as it endured through the Middle Ages and into the modern era;
  • Also relating to landscape, more varied localities should be represented, particularly to get away from the idealised Llanfair Hill hillside vista default – options might include showing Offa’s Dyke crossing small watercourses, larger valleys, and adapting its course in response to the topography to emphasise how the linear earthwork operated in relation to other installations and in wider landscape contexts (again, as per What’s Wat’s Dyke?);
  • again, pertaining to the placement and context of Offa’s Dyke, different perspectives should be attempted from ground level, low-level aerial, and higher-level aerial, to afford contrasting understandings of the components and installations as well as the landscape context;
  • Following Swogger’s inspiration, we must also try to place local people into the scenario, not use images to valorise the vision and agency of King Offa as the historical personage still regarded widely as commissioner of the monument;
  • There is also considerable potential, following the precedent of What’s Wat’s Dyke? of showing how the monument interactions with the historic landscape through the medieval and modern eras and in today’s world, foregrounding issues of urban and rural life in the Anglo-Welsh borderlands, its geology, natural history, and conservation issues today.
  • The relationship between Offa’s Dyke as monument and Offa’s Dyke as long-distance walking trail, and Offa’s Dyke’s conceptual merging with the post-medieval and contemporary Welsh/English political border, could be visually challenged and revised using innovative reconstructions (Williams 2020b; Williams 2021).
  • Challenging ethno-linguistic and racialised narratives about the Early Middle Ages, and borderlands and frontiers in particular through the medium of art, reconstructions might further build on Swogger’s (2019: 151-153) articulation not only regarding what the monument was like and how it was intended to function, but how communities and individuals living in its shadow negotiated it.

Having made these preliminary recommendations, I’m happy to revise and augment them in response to feedback. So please get in touch by leaving a comment on the blog!


Ambrus, V. and Aston, M. 2001. Recreating the Past. Stroud: Tempus.

Ambrus, V. 2006. Drawing on Archaoelogy: Bringing History to Life. Stroud: Tempus.

Bell, M. 2012. The Archaeology of the Dykes: From the Roman to Offa’s Dyke. Stroud: Amberley.

Belford, P. 2017. Offa’s Dyke: a line in the landscape, in T. Jenkins and R. Abbiss (eds) Fortress Salopia. Solihull: Helion: 60–81.

Breeze, D. 2011. The Frontiers of Imperial Rome. Stroud: Pen & Sword.

Breeze, D. 2019. Hadrian’s Wall: A Study in Archaeological Exploration and Interpretation. London: Archaeopress.

Breeze, D. and Dobson, B. 2000. Hadrian’s Wall (4th Edition), London: Penguin.

Collins, R. 2012. Hadrian’s Wall and the End of Empire: The Roman Frontier in the 4th and 5th Centuries. London: Routledge.

Colllins, R. 2022. Hadrian’s Wall in Assassin’s Creed, Valhalla,

Dunn, M. 2016. Walking Offa’s Dyke Path. Milnthorpe: Cicerone.

Feryok, M. 2001. Offa’s Dyke, in S. Zaluckyj (ed.) Mercia: The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Central England. Woonton, Almeley: Logaston, pp. 163-192.

Gelling, M. 1992. The West Midlands in the Early Middle Ages. Leicester: Leicester University Press.

Grigg, E. 2018. Warfare, Raiding and Defence in Early Medieval Britain. Ramsbury: Robert Hale.

Hall, D.L., Pillman, C., Gower, J., Charles, E.N., Clarke, G., Coles, G.M., Dafydd, S.M. Elfyn, M., ap Glyn, I., Jones, G., Lomax, O.J., Minhinnick, R., Potter, C.E., Sheers, O., Wainwright, L. 2021.  Walking with Offa/ Ceredded gydag Offa.

Higham, N. and Ryan, M. 2013. The Anglo-Saxon World. Yale: Yale University Press.

Hill, D. 1991. Offa and Wat’s Dykes, in J. Manley, S. Grenter and F. Gale (eds) The Archaeology of Clwyd. Clwyd Archaeological Service, Denbigh: Clwyd County Council: 142–156.

Hill, D. and Worthington, M. 2003. Offa’s Dyke: History and Guide. Stroud: Tempus.

Jones, R. Foreword, in K. Gleave, H. Williams and P. Clarke (eds) Public Archaeologies of Frontiers and Borderlands. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. vi-xi.

Kay, E, Kay, K. and Richards, M. 2004. Offa’s Dyke Path South: Chepstow to Knighton. London Aurum.

Noble, F. 1983. Offa’s Dyke Reviewed. British Archaeological Reports British Series, 114.

Noble, F. 1981. The ODA Book of Offa’s Dyke Path.

Ray, K. 2015. The Archaeology of Herefordshire: An Exploration. Woonton Almeley: Logaston.

Ray, K. and Bapty, I. 2016. Offa’s Dyke: Landscape and Hegemony in Eighth-Century Britain. Oxford: Windgather Press.

Ray, K. 2021. Offa’s Dyke and Cyril Fox, in H. James and T. Driver (eds) Illustrating the Past in Wales: A Celebration of 175 Years of Archaeological Cambrensis 1846-2021. Cambrian Archaeological Association. Llandysul: Gomer Press.

Redknap, M. 2002. Re-Creations: Visualizing Our Past. Cardiff: Cadw.

Spring, P. 2015. Great Walls and Linear Barriers. Stroud: Pen and Sword.

Symonds, M. 2021. Hadrian’s Wall: Creating Division. London: Bloomsbury.

Swogger, J. 2019a. The Oswestry Heritage Comics. Oswestry: Qube/Oswestry Community Action.

Swogger, J. 2019b. Making earthworks visible: the example of Oswestry Heritage Comics Project, Offa’s Dyke Journal 1: 137-156.

Swogger, J. and Williams, H. 2020. Envisioning Wat’s Dyke, in K. Gleave, H. Williams and P. Clarke (eds) Public Archaeologies of Frontiers and Borderlands. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 193–210.

Swogger, J. and Williams, H. 2021. Drawing the line: What’s Wat’s Dyke? Practice and Process. Offa’s Dyke Journal 3: 211-242.

Williams, B. 1994. The Saxons & Vikings. London: Hamlyn.

Williams, H. 2020a. Interpreting Wat’s Dyke in the 21st century, in K. Gleave, H. Williams and P. Clarke (eds) Public Archaeologies of Frontiers and Borderlands. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 157–193.

Williams, H. 2020b. Collaboratory, Coronavirus and the colonial countryside. Offa’s Dyke Journal 2: 1-28.

Williams, H. 2021. Collaboratory through crises: researching linear monuments in 2021. Offa’s Dyke Journal 3: 1-16.

Williams, H. and Swogger, J. 2021. What’s Wat’s Dyke? Wrexham Comic Heritage Trail. Offa’s Dyke Journal 3: 183-210.

Willmott, T. 2005. Birdoswald Roman Fort. London: English Heritage.

Wormald, P. 1982. Offa’s Dyke, in J. Campbell (ed.) The Anglo-Saxons. London: Penguin. pp. 120-121.