In a previous post, I shared my reflections on a field visit to East Wansdyke. I finally got to explore a large section of the monument on foot, building on earlier visits to smaller sections. Here I review its heritage interpretation witnessed during my summer 2022 walk.
The context of this post is my interest in how linear earthworks struggle to be marked let alone interpreted as heritage destinations for the modern visitor and local communities in the British landscape. Notably, this post can be read in relation to my review of aspects of the heritage interpretation and visualisation of Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke.
For Offa’s Dyke, I’ve addressed the installations and waymarkers along its course from Gloucestershire in the south to Flintshire in the north, as most recently here between Llanymynech and Llynclys, and the incidental installations along Offa’s Dyke on Llanfair Hill. For its entire length I’ve considered artist’s reconstructions depicted on heritage interpretation panels as part of a broader review of envisioning Offa’s Dyke.
For Wat’s Dyke, my evaluations reached print in the 2020 book The Public Archaeology of Frontiers and Borderlands where I’ve reviewed how Wat’s Dyke has been interpreted on heritage interpretation panels, waymarkers, other landscape installations as well as guidebooks and online resources (Swogger and Williams 2020; Williams 2020a).
For both monuments, I’ve also published a research article reviewing how place-names – including those for habitations (houses and farms) and streets – have become an integral part of the civic and social remembrance of the monuments in the borderlands landscape (Williams 2020b).
Having provided this context, how does East Wansdyke compare? Qualifications are required first. I did not explore West Wansdyke and not every stretch of East Wansdyke, so there might be interpretation panels I’ve missed. Also, I haven’t situated this with a consideration of county and local museum and heritage sites beyond one museum visit (see below). Equally, I have not reviewed online resources or publications/leaflets/maps issued at tourist offices. Still, my field visit provided sufficient information for an impression which contrasts with the situations pertaining to Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke more strikingly than I had anticipated.
I encountered two principal sources of heritage interpretation in the landscape: waymarkers and heritage interpretation panels (part of which I would also consider are those focused on nature conservation. Let’s take each in turn and conclude with the Wiltshire Museum interpretation panel.
Waymarkers on East Wansdyke
The Wansdyke Path does afford a logo and thus connectivity to the monument from Marlborough to Morgans Hill. There are three further immediate observations to be made regarding the Wansdyke Path waymarkers.
First, all are plastic discs of equal size appended to footpath gates along the monument: none have further information of any kind about the dyke’s age or function.
Second, the myriad of contiguous paths – the White Horse Trail, the Mid Wilts Way, the Pewsey Vale Circular, as well as more generic Wiltshire County Council bridelway signs, are appended to posts and gates alongside The Wansdyke Path. This means that there is less of a prominence to the Wansdyke Path waymarkers in relation to the dyke. It therefore does not enjoy a prioritised identity for the monument in relation to the Wat’s Dyke Way and the Offa’s Dyke Path.
Third, the popular equation is made between Wansdyke and the possible origins of its place-name as ‘Woden’s ditch’, with a kingly figure with one eye depicted. This image is legendary rather than mythical, inspired by manuscript representations of later Anglo-Saxon kings (and more specifically Woden as ancestor of the royal family of Wessex adapted from the 12th-century Cotton Caligula A.viii.f29r illustration. The waymarker icon adapts this image to be more explicitly Woden in the popular imagination: affording him a one-eyed characteristic is inspired by the description of cognate ON deity Odin. In short, the walking route logo evokes an early medieval association with the kings of Wessex and their imagined ancestry. Of course, this would only work for those who can decode the significance of this small image and I doubt many do. However, beyond this vague allusion to West Saxon legendary royal genealogy, the image does not communicate clearly in historical terms a date or significance for the linear earthwork itself.
These three points combined render the waymarkers obscure and ineffective in communicating the story of East Wansdyke where it survives between the Marlborough Downs and the Vale of Pewsey. This stands in contrast to the powerful connecting role of waymarkers for Offa’s Dyke along its line and even compared with Wat’s Dyke the East Wansdyke signs have a modest impact.
During my summer 2022 investigations, I encountered Nature Reserve signs and details on livestock grazing set up by Natural England but most of the Wansdyke is not accompanied by any heritage interpretation.
I did encounter a single heritage interpretation panel discussing Wansdyke: at Walker’s Hill. This is not upon the monument itself, but at a car park close to Adam’s Grave long barrow. It states of the linear earthwork:
The trees on the skyline to the north mark the Wansdyke (or Woden’s Dyke) an earthwork stretching some 35 miles from Wiltshire to Somerset. Its origins and purpose are uncertain but it dates back to around 500AD. Walkers Hill itself was seen as a site of strategic significance owing to its position on the Ridgeway, the most important north-south route across the Downs. During the Anglo-Saxon period battles were fought at Adam’s Grave, then called Wodensbeorg, in both 592 and 715.
Away from the dyke itself, at ‘The Long Barrow’ (a modern funerary monument inspired by Neolithic architecture) at All Cannings , there is information about the archaeology and history of the Vale of Pewsey more generally. Here, under its ‘medieval’ section , the linear earthwork is discussed in relation to outdated pseudo-historical narratives for the sub-Roman period. It states that its purpose is ‘uncertain’ but that:
…. was possibly built as a defensive structure made redundant by the victory at Mons Badonicus over the West Saxons (associated in legend with King Arthur) in 490. The wave of Germanic invaders from across the North Sea arriving in the 7th century named the wall after Woden, confirming that it had by then lost any local significance. These Anglo-Saxons settled in England and became the dominant cultural and political influence.All Cannings long barrow heritage interpretation panel
Now, this narrative makes no clear sense to the reader since it doesn’t suggest who built it, and how it related to a battle against the West Saxons. Moreover, if the West Saxons were defeated in 490, how did this render the Wansdyke redundant? And how were the West Saxons there in 490, when they areonly subsequentlystated to have arrived across the North Sea in the 7th century?!
In summary, these heritage interpretations for the monument are obscure and inadequate on any critiera.
The interpretation of the linear earthwork in the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes is brief and overshadowed by the rest of the exhibition’s striking artefacts, but it does have a place as part of a narrative for the ‘Birth of England’. Here, the earthwork escapes the 5th/early 6th-century ‘sub-Roman’ interpretation, clearly influenced to the Reynolds and Langlands’ (2006) interpretation of Wansdyke as possibly being a 8th/early 9th-century West Saxon frontier work opposing the Mercians to the north. However, the panel is suitably vague and I suspect readers will not tie this clearly to the rest of the exhibition which focuses on 5th-7th-century cemetery finds:
The heartland of the Kingdom of Wessex was marked by the Wansdyke, a defensive bank and ditch, snaking along the ridge of the North Wessex Downs and beyond for 30 miles. To the north lay a buffer zone stretching to the border of Mercia, across the other side of the Thames.North Wiltshire Museum, Devizes.
I wish I had taken a closer photographer of the artist’s reconstruction of a work gang building a ‘Saxon dyke’!
This brief and undoubtedly partial review of the East Wansdyke monument’s heritage interpretation is sufficient for us to reach some preliminary conclusions.
Despite the dearth of clear and consistent heritage interpretation for Offa’s Dyke, its Knighton Offa’s Dyke Centre, heritage interpretation panels and waymarkers, as well as local place-names, afford it some prominence far exceeding other linear earthworks found across Britain. This is tied to the mixed blessing of its popular associations and confusions with both the Offa’s Dyke Path and the modern Welsh/English border (Williams 2020c). Wat’s Dyke is far more neglected and obscure still, and in some places neglected even at points of political and cultural contestation (McMillan-Sloan and Williams 2020). Yet in comparison with the shorter and yet sizeable, long and monumental Wiltshire and Somerset monument of Wansdyke, the two great linear earthworks of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands are far better served! Contrasting with the various heritage interpretation panels and long distance paths of the Welsh Marches, East Wansdyke floats free in the Wiltshire landscape, inadequately marked and explained for locals and visitors alike. Beyond the vague allusions of the Wansdyke Path, which at least affords a logo to connect the walker to the monument along its course, in broader terms Wansdyke is not tied to any coherent narrative for the origins and development of Wessex and its wider landscape context from prehistory to recent times.
This prompts recommendations for the future. In this regard, the initiatives established and proposed for Wat’s Dyke and Offa’s Dyke might be evoked, as I explore on this blog and in my 2020 publications (McMillan-Sloan and Williams 2020; Williams 2020a). I refer to recommendations for heritage interpretation and envisioning of the monuments on the ground along its course and at neighbouring heritage sites but also in digital environments. Again, the potential of the comic medium as proposed by John G. Swogger finds considerable potential in the North Wiltshire landscape (Swogger and Williams 2021a & b; Williams and Swogger 2021)
Before saying more, we should also look for inspiration to the Roman frontiers of central and northern Britain: Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall. In a future blog-post I will therefore attempt to summarise my impressions of the heritage interpretation of Britain’s Roman linear monuments, focusing on my summer 2022 exploration of Hadrian’s Wall.
McMillan-Sloan, R. and Williams, H. 2020. The biography of borderlands: Old Oswestry hillfort and modern heritage debates, in K. Gleave, H. Williams and P. Clarke (eds) Public Archaeologies of Frontiers and Borderlands. Oxford: Archaeopress. 147–156.
Reynolds, A. and Langlands, A. 2006. Social identities on the macro scale: a maximum view of Wansdyke, in W. Davies, G. Halsall, and A. Reynolds (eds) People and Space in the Middle Ages 300–1300, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 15, Turnhout: Brepols, pp. 13–44.
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. 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, 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. 157–193.
Williams, H. 2020b. Living after Offa: place-names and social memory in the Welsh Marches. Offa’s Dyke Journal 2: 103–140.
Williams, H. 2020c. Collaboratory, coronavirus and the colonial countryside. Offa’s Dyke Journal 2: 1–28.
Williams, H. and Swogger, J. 2021a. What’s Wat’s Dyke? Wrexham Comic Heritage Trail. Offa’s Dyke Journal 3: 183-210.
Williams, H. and Swogger, J. 2021b. What’s Wat’s Dyke? Wrexham Comic Heritage Trail. Chester & Knighton: University of Chester and the Offa’s Dyke Association.
In your photograph of the reconstructions, it is interesting to note that even the extremely experienced Peter Dunn appears to struggle to visually communicate multiple aspects of the dyke and its context – it’s size, structural details, construction methods, purpose and meaning – all in one illustration (maybe two, if the work gang one at the bottom is his also). Further evidence, perhaps, that a focused exploration of both old and new approaches to visually representing such elements might prove useful not just for Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke, but for linear earthworks and frontier monuments in general?