I have visited East Wansdyke on multiple occasions over the years, and I have used it on this blog to visually accompany my discussions, but not to evaluate it directly. Here, I present some musings on its placement and design.
Most recently (although now about 6 years ago), I explored the section on Morgan’s Hill from Smallgrain Plantation (SU 018 672) to near Baltic Farm (SU 040 665) at its western end. This summer, I went back to walk much of the remainder of the monument where it survives. From west to east, I explored from Shepherds’ Shore (SU 044 662) east to Red Shore (SU 117 648) and then once more from Shaw Copse (SU 139 653) to Daffy Copse in West Woods (SU 161 664). There remain sections I have yet to walk, but together these recent investigations afford me with a much-improved sense of how the monument survives in, and interacts with, the landscape. Furthermore, it helps me connect up the published literature with the monument in the landscape.
Here are images of the more denuded form of East Wansdyke in West Woods and Shaw Copse:
In terms of existing literature on this monument, I defer to the detailed revaluation by Reynolds and Langlands (2006) with recent further discussions by Langlands (2019) and Reynolds (2020). This work posits a convincing if not conclusive argument that the monument might have been a short-lived but expansive articulation of a military and political frontier for the West Saxon kingdom (and not necessarily one that out-lived a century) facing the power of the Mercian kingdom in the 8th century from the River Severn and Avon Valley in the west to the Savernake Forest and the River Kennet in the east.
From this view, Wansdyke can be seen as a response to, an inspiration for (or in aspects perhaps both) to the Mercian works of western Britain: Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke. It is convincing to postulate that these three are certainly broadly contemporaneous, dating to the 8th and early 9th centuries AD. Reynolds and Langlands (2006) thus propose a ‘maximal’ view of the monument, with the disconnected West Wansdyke and East Wansdyke being sections of a more expansive frontier from the Severn to Savernake, connected by the re-purposing of the Mildenhall-Bath Roman road and lost sections for the west and east of the respective surviving dykes.
In this research, the name of Wansdyke (‘Woden’s ditch’) is considered less as a ‘pagan survival’ or ‘folk superstition’: it instead articulates the identity of a frontier zone and its association with the mythical ancestor of the West Saxon royal dynasty to articulate, communicate and legitimise territorial claims. Perhaps this can be seen as one element of a far broader phenomenon of mythologising the middle and late Anglo-Saxon landscape by royalty, aristocrats and the church, in which the naming and reactivation of monuments was a critical component.
Here are images of my walk across Tan Hill and beyond towards Shepherd’s Shore:
Yet, especially after this latest revisit, I feel there is more to be said about Wansdyke. Many of the studies to date lack detail in linking the mapping of the monument to arguments regarding its date, function and significance. Even careful considerations of the monument’s alignments and arrangements by Fox & Fox (1958) and Fowler (2021) are sketchy in their observations and evaluations. Indeed, often discussions default to military and territorial arguments for the monument only afford brief evaluations of how the monument is placed and operates in the landscape (Wansdyke features in a range of studies, notably see Bell 2012; Eagles 2018; Grigg 2018; Malim 2020).
Unsurprisingly given the context of my work in researching and blogging as well as the multiple events organised by the Offa’s Dyke Collaboratory, I have found inspiration not only in the works on Wansdyke itself, but also in the discussions of Ray and Bapty (2016), Belford (2017), Delaney (2021), Humphreys (2021) and Ray (2022) for Offa’s Dyke, as well as the work of Malim and Hayes (2008), Malim (2007) and my own writings about Wat’s Dyke (Murrieta-Flores 2017; Williams 2021). Together, this work prompts me to think about these monuments’ scale and articulation in relation to local topography. Indeed, I think there is a case for a more careful comparative analyses of the three biggest linear earthworks of postulated early medieval date: Offa’s Dyke, Wat’s Dyke and Wansdyke (cf. Malim 2007; 2020).
Both of these aspects link to my evaluation of Wat’s Dyke (Williams 2021). Since East Wansdyke relates to, but largely avoids interaction with, substantial water courses, contrasting especially with Offa’s Dyke. Fox and Fox describe the approach to water courses of Wansdyke as ‘direct’, since on West Wansdyke at the crossing of the Chew and Newton brook and crossing the dry valley near Shaw farm, West Overton (Fox and Fox 1958: 9). However, due to its careful positioning, East Wansdyke very clearly avoids water courses.
East Wansdyke’s placement: reviewing Fox and Fox (1958)
Despite being composed over half a century ago, Fox and Fox (1958: 6) have provided the last detailed discussion of the alignments and design of East Wansdyke. Reviewing their observations is instructive in relation to my recent field observations.
Fox and Fox (1958) identify long-distance (major) alignments for East Wansdyke as conditioned by topography, with three modes of construction proposed for more localised (minor) alignments – ‘straight, sinuous and irregular’.
For ‘straight’, they give the examples of Shepherds’ Shore, Brown’s Barn to the foot of Tan Hill, noting how they are thus comparable to the straight East Anglian dykes.
For ‘sinuous’ sections, Fox and Fox refer to the sections where the dyke navigates the north sides of hills at Milk Hill and Tan Hill via ‘bold curves’, and upon steep east side of Morgan’s Hill (Fox and Fox 1958: 24).
The third alignment type are ‘irregular’, referring to short lengths of dyke in variegating orientations constructed ‘due to human weakness in the face of physical difficulties’, especially on steep slopes. By way of examples, they refer to the west side of Tan Hilll and Morgan’s Hill. Fox and Fox further speculate that perhaps heavy woodland impeded its construction in more orderly ways. Yet, for Fox and Fox, the irregularity between Bishop Cannings Down and Easton Down cannot be explained; they not how it is sandwiched between straight alignments. They postulate that maybe it was built in such short lengths by different labour gangs, not all of the same competence. Similar to the Mercian dykes, Fox and Fox link the labour force to land ownership.
These three descriptors inform their approach to each section of East Wansdyke. So, they describe its course from Morgan’s Hill to Old Shepherds’ Shore as ‘sinuous’ (Fox and Fox 1958: 10). The description of its ascent of Tan Hill is ‘irregular’ but then it is ‘sinuous’ as it negotiates from Tan Hill to Milk Hill and to Red Shore (Fox & Fox 1958: 12).
In terms of ‘major’/long-distance planning and placement, Fox and Fox (1958: 6) contrast the line of the dyke as ‘following the contours’ strategy of the early medieval linear earthwork with the angles and ‘zig-zag method’ of the Roman road, citing both Old Shepherd’s Shore and Tan Hill as examples. Repeatedly they refer to the ‘military disadvantage’ of utilising reverse slopes in three distinct locations (Morgan’s Hill, Bishop Cannings Down and Easton Down). For Morgan’s Hill this is rationalised as to avoid a ‘long and useless salient’ and to shorten the distance of the constructed earthwork to ‘sacrifice’ a field of view and command of country’ (Fox and Fox 1958: 10). Later, they note that the similar reverse slope ‘lacking a field of view’ on Bishop Cannings Down 300 yards south-west of the hill-crest’ is a further perceived limitation, mitigated in part by a counterscarp bank with a discrete northern ditch (Fox and Fox 1958: 12).
Fox and Fox thus pursue an explicitly territorial and militaristic approach which is articulated in discussions of the fields of view which would allow sight of ‘approaching armies’ up to 5 or 6 miles away and the ‘steep-sided combes would prevent rapid lateral movement by attacks and tend to canalise possible lines of assault (Fox & Fox 1958: 12). This military and functionalist approach is taken to explaining variations in scale as relating to the ‘natural strength or weakness of its position’ (Fox & Fox 1958: 22), Wansdyke is largest where it is on a reverse slope of Morgan’s Hill or Bishop Cannings Down and Easton Down, whereas the bank is relatively small on Tan Hill and Milk Hill. Moreover, they note that it is built on a reduced scale east of Shaw House; this change is sudden, reflecting a shift in surface soil from upper chalk to the clay-with-flints and its shift into a wooded landscape. Overall, Wansdyke, including East Wansdyke, is perceived as a ‘military barrier’ (Fox & Fox 1958: 23).
My observations on the ground broadly agree that the monument has long straight alignments which adapt to the topography in careful and clearly deliberate ways. And yes, the monument is constructed to observe the landscape and block/manipulate movement as argued by others which must at least in part be seen as military in function (see Grigg 2018; Malim 2020). However, I would disagree with the ‘minor alignments’ as discrete ‘build-types’ as postulated by Fox and Fox.
First, granted, there are straighter sections than others, and sections where the earthwork carefully adjusts itself to the topography, but nowhere does East Wansdyke simply ‘follow the contours’. Moreover, Fox and Fox are unable to explain precise lines of the monument where it departs from contours, as with the sharp turn at Daffy Copse in West Woods to head down to Clatform Bottom. For this location, Fox and Fox have to postulate a ‘respect for an existing land division or clearing (Fox & Fox 1958: 16). This is but one instance where they cannot rationalise the placing of the dyke. Other dramatic realignment points are not mentioned, as where there is dramatic overlook to the north-east of Gore Copse and north of Wernham Farm.
Second, we cannot dismiss ‘irregular’ areas as due to incompetence on the part of the surveyors and diggers. Instead, all of the ‘straight’, ‘sinuous’ and ‘irregular’ sections share a common modular design in accordance with the ‘adjusted-segmented’ design perceived by Ray and Bapty (2016) on Offa’s Dyke. In these regards, all lengths of the monument I have walked are explicitly ‘irregular’ akin to Ray and Bapty’s (2016: 192-206) consideration of Offa’s Dyke at Dudston Fields (Powys); Yew Tree Farm, Discoed (Powys); Spoad Farm (Shropshire) and Bronygarth (Shropshire/Wrexham) as well as other locations along the line of the monument including Vron Farm (Wrexham) and Rushock to Herrock Hill (Powys). Ray and Bapty (2016: 204) describe this as a ‘series of segments positioned parallel to one another, but continually off-set, segment by segment’, comprising a ‘thoroughly designed manipulation of the Dyke featuring the adjusted-segmented practice’. They propose this might be akin to a ‘complex kit of straight-length builds that produced a king of chain-link draping of the Dyke across the landscape that it crossed’ (Ray and Bapty 2016: 208). They employ the analogy of the pattern-welded early Anglo-Saxon sword: this method of construction may have created a ‘particular aesthetic’ and enhanced its prominence ‘in striking ways’ (Ray and Bapty 2016: 209) which was part of how the monument ‘deliberated presented itself’ (Ray and Bapty 2016: 209) when viewed from the west as opposed to a more ‘practical’ effect (Ray and Bapty 2016: 213).
Further work is required on Offa’s Dyke to evaluate these construction techniques, not least because, as Ray and Bapty (2016: 194) observe, there is only ‘one location anywhere so far where the intricacies of Dyke lengths have been recorded in a detailed measured archaeological survey plan’ (Ray anad Bapty 2016: 194). We certainly need more detailed analysis to see if the 20m sections (and multiples thereof) apply to East Wansdyke. Yet, my observations are sufficient to reveal that not only does East Wansdyke differ in key locations from what Fox and Fox claim is a contour-following course to make specific interactions with the topography, as they themselves concede for West Woods and Shepherd Shore. Moreover, in the supposed ‘straight’ alignments we can perceive just as commonly as the ‘irregular’ and ‘sinuous’ sections the same adjusted-segmented planning of East Wansdyke.
There are further aspects to the design and placement of East Wansdyke that require more careful evaluation, not only the scale and form, but also the long-running discussion of putative ‘gateways’ through the monument.
Another aspect is where Fox and Fox only address partially the relationship with existing monuments. Notably, they identify the interaction of East Wansdyke with a Romano-British enclosure: the dyke covered it partly to the west of Brown’s Barn where Pitt-Rivers had found the counterscarp bank of Wansdyke had heaped over the east bank of the enclosure (Fox and Fox 1958: 12). However, the relationship with prehistoric monuments is not considered at all, even though they are proximal to them in multiple situations along its line – both burial mounds and hillforts (a point picked up by Reynolds and Langlands 2006). Furthermore, the association with the Roman road at the west end of Morgan’s Hill is perceived as serving to ‘decommission it’ (Fox & Fox 1958: 5) when it fact it might have been a strategy to incorporate it into the longer line of the frontier work (Reynolds and Langlands 2006). The assumption that East Wansdyke’s eastern end was marked by a ‘wooded landscape of the Savernake Forest’ might also be questioned, even though the dyke was cut into contrasting soils here and has survived to a far lesser scale (Fox & Fox 1958: 16; see Reynolds and Langlands 2006).
The scale, placement and design of East Wansdyke is far more striking than either Offa’s Dyke or Wat’s Dyke, and a key difference lies in the fact that East Wansdyke does not cross any major water course, and in only a few locations does it negotiate crossing minor streams. Yet, its careful placing in relation to dry valleys and combes is comparable with many of the placement strategies of the Welsh Marches monuments. Also, there are similarities in the explicit ‘adjusted-segmented’ design as described by Ray and Bapty (2016) for Offa’s Dyke applying to ‘straight’ as well as ‘sinuous’ and ‘irregular’ sections. Therefore, despite differences in scale and positioning, my impression from field observation is that East Wansdyke is placed and organised in a fashion more comparable to Wat’s Dyke and Offa’s Dyke than hitherto considered. This needn’t imply the same or similar chronology and intended function, but it might well suggest a similar vision and organisation shared between these monuments by rival middle Anglo-Saxon polities. Certainly, I feel these monuments were built ‘in conversation’ with each other in serving to block and control mobility in the early medieval landscape.
Thanks to Mike Robinson (NT Avebury) for sharing images of Wansdyke with me that inspired me to visit and further explore its ‘adjusted segmentation.
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